This report presents key findings from the sixth survey of headteachers of schools in receipt of Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF) support, covering the 2020/21 academic year including the period of school building closures from January to March 2021.
Of headteachers who responded to the survey:
A large majority (87%) have seen improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap - and 94% expect further improvement over the next few years (a 6-point improvement on the 2020 survey).
More than half (54%) expect their progress to be sustainable, and 65% felt that the focus on equity would be sustainable (up 17 points on 2019).
The great majority (95%) felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had impacted their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Headteachers were most likely to have seen progress in closing the gap where they had tailored approaches to local needs, where the culture/ethos had changed, where use of data was strong, and where engagement with families/communities was part of the approach.
Headteachers have seen a range of new circumstances affecting families since school building closures, most commonly an increase in mental health and wellbeing needs, (78% reported this) and difficulty accessing services due to COVID-19 (65%).
Most schools (83%) changed their approach to equity from the previous school year, including a greater focus on mental health, more support for remote learning, and additional staffing skills and capacity.
The great majority of headteachers felt they had autonomy to plan for their school’s needs (93%), and that PEF provided additional resource (89%).
Schools saw a lack of in-person contact as a key challenge associated with COVID-19 and school building closures. Staffing capacity/absences and supporting pupils/families (including in response to increasing support needs) were also key challenges for schools – with responses showing a significant increase in references to challenges around staffing capacity.
Wellbeing-focused approaches and tools have been a key element of the response to challenges for many schools. Schools have also been able to adapt teaching and learning approaches in light of their experience of the previous school year. Engagement with pupils and families has also been key to schools’ response – maintaining communication to better understand needs, schools acting as a key source of support and signposting to other services, and ensuring a shared ethos and commitment to equity.
The survey was issued to all schools in receipt of Challenge Authority (CA), Schools Programme (SP), and Pupil Equity Funding (PEF). A total of 597 survey responses were received, a 25% response rate. This is similar to the 2020 survey, although the larger survey sample used this year means that the volume of responses is nearly 50% higher than in 2020. Survey data has been weighted to minimise the impact of any response bias.
Findings, based on headteachers who responded to the survey, are summarised below in relation to the main survey themes.
ASF and supported approaches
A great majority of respondents (96%) felt they understood the challenges faced by pupils affected by poverty, and a large majority (81%) felt that the approach to achieving equity was embedded within their school. Both findings are similar to 2020 and 2019 surveys.
Headteachers have seen a range of new circumstances affecting families since school building closures. The most common were increasing mental health and wellbeing needs (78% felt this had become much more common) and difficulty accessing services due to COVID-19 (65%). In response, a large majority of respondents have used ASF to support a greater focus on mental health, more support for remote learning and digital connectivity, and additional staffing skills and capacity.
A large majority (83%) had changed their approaches to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, similar to the 2020 survey but a 16-point increase since 2019. Most (73%) also made use of additional flexibility in use of ASF introduced in response to the pandemic, most commonly to secure additional staffing capacity, digital resources, and support those affected by poverty. Most (77%) have also drawn on their previous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic to inform changes during 2020/21.
Many survey respondents have found aspects of the 2020/21 school year more challenging than 2019/20. Engaging and supporting families, delivering remote learning, responding to increased mental health needs, and maintaining pupil engagement were the areas most commonly found more challenging. Some also highlighted aspects of 2020/21 which had been less challenging, including improved digital skills and refining the approach to remote learning and managing the return to school.
A large majority of survey respondents (82%) had engaged with families and communities as part of their approach to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, similar to the 2020 survey. These respondents were also asked to describe how their approach to engagement had developed during 2020/21. This was most commonly through ongoing communication with families (such as regular ‘check in’), improved understanding of families’ circumstances and needs, more use of digital resources/platforms, and more tailored engagement including use of multiple communication platforms and approaches, social events/activities, and engagement specifically focused on vulnerable pupils and families.
Use of data and evaluation
A large majority of survey respondents were positive about their use of data and evidence in developing approaches (87%), measuring impact (81%) and measuring progress (79%). Most (61%) also felt that ASF support has helped to develop staff skills and knowledge in using data and evaluation. These findings are very similar to the 2020 survey, although ratings of use of evidence to measure impact are below the 2019 survey.
A large majority (87%) of survey respondents have seen improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap as a result of ASF-supported approaches, similar to previous surveys. A larger number (94%) expected to see further improvement in closing the gap over the next few years, a 6-point increase on 2020, although this followed a 10- point fall from 2019. Headteachers were significantly more likely to expect further improvement in closing the gap if they had already seen ‘a lot’ of improvement to date.
The great majority (95%) felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap, with more than half having seen a ‘significant impact’. This is very similar to the 2020 survey. Findings also suggest that those with lower PEF allocations, in rural areas and PEF-only schools were most likely to feel that their progress had been affected.
Analysis indicates that headteachers are most likely to have seen progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap where they had been able to tailor use of ASF to local needs, where there had been a change of culture or ethos, where there was effective use of evidence, and where engaging families and communities is part of the approach to achieving equity. This range of factors is broadly similar to previous surveys, although tailoring use of ASF to local needs and use of evidence were newly identified as significant factors this year.
More than half (54%) of survey respondents felt that progress to date in closing the poverty-related attainment gap would be sustainable, a 21-point increase on the 2019 survey. In addition, nearly two thirds (65%) expected the focus on equity to be sustainable, a 17- point increase on 2019. Those who expected progress to be sustainable pointed to development of staff skills and capacity as being sustainable, even if the approaches themselves cannot continue in their current form.
Nearly two thirds (62%) had seen an increase in collaborative working as a result of ASF support. This is consistent with the 2020 survey but 15 points below the 2017 survey. Increased collaboration was most commonly with families/communities and schools in the same local authority. Some also reported new collaborations having emerged, most commonly with third sector and public sector agencies.
Pupil Equity Funding
The great majority (93%) of survey respondents felt they had the autonomy to develop PEF plans that responded to their local context – similar to the 2020 survey, but 12 points higher than 2017. Views were also highly positive on whether PEF had provided additional resource to address the poverty-related attainment gap (89%, similar to 2020), and on whether PEF had been used effectively to meet local needs (93%).
Most respondents in receipt of PEF alongside CA or SP support (80% of this group) had used at least some of their PEF allocation to support approaches that were distinct from CA/SP approaches. The great majority (94%) of this group also reported seeing improvement the poverty-related gap specifically as a result of their PEF funding – compared with 87% of all respondents who had seen improvement as a result of ASF support.
Learning from COVID-19
Headteachers were asked separately about the challenges they had faced during 2020/21 as a result of COVID-19, and their response to these.
In terms of challenges facing schools in 2020/21, a lack of face-to-face pupil contact was the most commonly cited. This was typically raised in relation to school building closures, but some referred to increased pupil absence continuing to limit in-person contact when school buildings were open, and saw this as an issue for vulnerable pupils and families in particular. Reduced staffing capacity through COVID-19 related absence and difficulties securing cover were also highlighted as significant issues – and more commonly so than in 2020. Supporting pupils and families was also a challenge for some respondents. This included support for remote learning, managing the return to school following the period of building closures, rebuilding pupil resilience lost during building closures, and responding to a perceived increase in mental health needs (with schools playing an important role while access to specialist services was limited).
Respondents highlighted varying aspects of their response to these challenges. Wellbeing-focused approaches, adaption of teaching and learning approaches, and communication with families/communities were the most commonly cited. This included examples of schools drawing on their experience of the pandemic in 2019/20 to refine these aspects of their approach to achieving equity. Schools also referred to having dedicated considerable resources to support wellbeing across the school community. The role of engagement with pupils and families for the focus on wellbeing was also noted by some. For example, ongoing regular communication with families has been crucial for schools improving their understanding of local needs, and has been a means of identifying and responding to the need for wellbeing support. Communication with pupils/families has also been key to schools’ work to recover deterioration in resilience across the school community, and to restore their shared ethos.
Several themes emerged across survey findings which appear to have an important bearing on schools’ work to close the poverty-related attainment gap. For example, respondents most likely to report improvement:
- had tailored use of ASF based on their understanding of local needs;
- had embedded approaches to equity across the school;
- felt their use of data and evidence was strong; and
- had engaged effectively with families and communities as part of their wider approach to achieving equity.
Several wider themes were also evident, which had emerged in the specific context of ongoing challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how schools have responded to these:
- Supporting pupil and family wellbeing has been especially important in response to increasing numbers of pupils and families with mental health and wellbeing needs. The importance of pupil and family wellbeing is also reflected in responses highlighting wellbeing as a potential barrier to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, with some indicating that an initial focus on supporting wellbeing had been necessary to enable pupils to fully re-engage with their learning.
- Refining approaches to equity in light of experience of the pandemic has been evident in the number of schools drawing on their experience of the first year of the pandemic, and in particular the first period of school building closures. This experience has been used most obviously in schools continuing to develop their remote learning approaches and resources, but has also helped schools in adapting approaches to support pupils’ return to school, and further development of staff skills and capacity.
- Better understanding of the challenges affecting pupils and families has continued to develop through closer relationships with families and the community. This has been reflected in the number of schools reporting a focus on continuing pupil and family engagement, as a means of the wider focus on pupil and family wellbeing. In response to an improved understanding of pupil and family needs, some schools have worked to rebuild resilience across the school community.
- Ensuring a shared ethos and values across the school community continues to be a key focus for schools as part of their work to recover from the impact of the pandemic. Some reported a deterioration in the sense of community during school building closures, and have worked to rebuilt their shared ethos through effective communication and engagement with pupils and families.
While these themes were highlighted in the unique context of COVID-19, responses indicate that they will continue to inform work to achieve equity.
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