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Attainment Scotland Fund evaluation - Headteacher Survey: 2021 report

This report presents key findings from the sixth survey of headteachers of schools in receipt of Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF) support, covering the 2020 to 2021 academic year including the period of school building closures from January to March 2021.


7. Learning from COVID-19

7.1. Around 350 respondents (58%) provided comment on what they felt had been the main challenges to closing the poverty-related attainment gap as a result of COVID-19 during 2020/21. The main points raised by respondents are summarised at Table 13.

7.2. This shows some commonality with the 2020 survey in the issues raised by schools, including for example the focus on face-to-face contact, remote learning, and pupil/family wellbeing. However, responses also show some change since the 2020.

7.3. Most notably, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of schools referring to staffing capacity and absences (moving from the fifth most common issue in 2020, to the second this year), and to pupil attendance (from the least commonly mentioned issue in 2020, to the fourth this year). Other issues were less commonly mentioned by schools; for example, fewer schools referred to challenges with remote learning or digital connectivity this year. This is consistent with findings reported earlier (see Table 4), indicating that schools have refined their approach to remote learning, and there has been some improvement in digital skills and connectivity.

7.4. It is also notable that, while the survey asked about challenges across the year as a whole, some of the issues raised by schools are likely to have applied specifically to the period of school building closures. For example, comments around the lack of face-to-face contact with pupils were raised primarily in relation to school building closures, although some also referred to ongoing use of remote learning as a result of increased pupil absences.

Table 13: Main challenges as a result of COVID-19 and school building closures (n=349)
Lack of face-to-face contact, difficulties engaging pupils and families, especially the most vulnerable/disadvantaged 42%
Staffing capacity, inc absence/self-isolation, challenges securing cover 42%
Challenges for parents/families supporting pupils during remote learning and return to school buildings 38%
Pupil attendance, including COVID-19 anxiety from parents/families 26%
Pupil/family wellbeing and safety, resilience, mental health (including difficulty responding to the increasing volume of need) 23%
Difficulty adjusting to remote learning, adapting approaches 12%
Digital connectivity and literacy – for pupils, families, staff 11%
Staff morale, wellbeing and mental health, risk assessments 11%
Access to external support services 9%
Impact of poverty and deprivation (food, fuel, clothing, space to work, etc) 9%
Challenges for pupils returning to school building, lost skills/motivation 9%
Accessing resources, procurement 6%
Limited staff collaboration, difficulty delivering skills development/training 4%
Measuring impact and attainment 4%

7.5. The lack of face-to-face contact was amongst the most commonly cited challenge. This was typically raised specifically in relation to the period of school building closures (January to March 2021), although some also highlighted that increased pupil absence since the re-opening of school buildings had resulted in an increased number of pupils relying on remote learning. These schools suggested that limited in-person contact continued to have an adverse effect on engagement with pupils and families. This was highlighted as a particular issue for the most vulnerable families - including those in the most deprived areas and those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main challenge has undoubtedly been the remoteness of engagement. We have continued to find ways to build and strengthen partnerships, but it is not the same when you cannot engage face-to-face. The lack of face-to-face was also felt when it came to the children's learning. Families were fully supported to engage in learning at home, but the close support provided in school, often done so responsively, was not possible for periods of time. (Schools Programme school in rural area)

The most deprived learners suffered most as a result of lockdown. Not having daily in person contact with school meant that they have fallen further behind their more affluent peers who engaged much better with online learning. Being able to motivate those pupils and families remotely was challenging. Creating space and time for pupils to share their lockdown experiences and deal with any resultant stress or anxiety has been challenging. This will have a lasting impact on this cohort and we will be dealing with this for years. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

7.6. Staffing capacity was also cited by a substantial proportion of respondents as a key challenge linked to COVID-19 and school building closures. This reflected a view that teachers and other staff have been key in delivering effective support and targeted interventions during the pandemic (and especially during school building closures). Respondents referred to the role of staff in delivering these interventions, including for example development of digital resources to support absent pupils, delivery of targeted small group learning and support, and nurture-based and other approaches focused on pupil health and wellbeing. Some indicated that interventions had required teaching staff to deliver more specialist support to pupils and families.

Staffing challenges have a significant impact as planned interventions are not always able to take place when staff need to cover in other areas. We often have to support wellbeing as some of our young people experience challenges in this area. We obviously value the importance of this, but it can sometimes mean that interventions which had been planned to target aspects of literacy and numeracy need to have a different focus. (PEF-only school in rural area)

There has not been a day when we have not had to amend our staffing due to self-isolating, awaiting PCR results, impact of COVID-19 upon childcare and caring commitments. Accessing teaching supply has been a huge pressure and then adapting the day when supply has not been available. We have worked incredibly hard to ensure continuity of learning and relationship for our children - but this has been a tremendous cost to the wellbeing of staff in terms of lack of continuity, taking on additional needs and the uncertainty of what the following day may bring. (PEF-only school in a small town)

7.7. Challenges for parents and families supporting pupils were also highlighted by a substantial number of headteachers. This included particular difficulties for families with limited digital connectivity or literacy, and challenges for parents supporting multiple children at different stages of the curriculum. Some also noted the increasing number of families affected by poverty, and suggested that financial and other pressures on families could limit their capacity to support pupils in remote learning.

The second lockdown was difficult for parents - although we supported them really well, many children suffered due to the lack of parental support. This was due to digital challenges, parents having to work from home themselves and children not having the same routines as they would have had if they had been at school. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

Parental and pupil engagement during lockdown - it has been difficult to re-establish those good working relationships with all parents and carers. Feel as if we have a rebuilding job to do with this. (PEF-only school in a small town)

7.8. Pupil attendance and anxiety around return to school was cited as a major challenge for some schools. This included reference to the difficulties noted above in maintaining engagement in the curriculum with limited face-to-face contact, and to challenges in ensuring online learning can be supported by families at home. Headteachers also referred to anxiety around returning to school as contributing to pupil absence, and to a loss of resilience amongst pupils and families on return to school. These schools had to change the focus of interventions to re-build the resilience, positive attitudes and aspirations lost during the pandemic, to support pupil engagement in the curriculum. It is also notable that the theme of pupil engagement is evident across other challenges mentioned by schools, for example around engagement during remote learning.

Child (or parent) anxieties/reduced access to face-to-face teaching/support - setting lessons that challenged children academically whilst making tasks manageable for parents (re time, IT skills) has been a challenge. Pupil (and parent) resilience has been low on return to school. We have had to re-visit school values and to re-establish positive mindsets and to encourage a good work ethic. (PEF-only school in urban area)

7.9. Headteachers also referred to concerns for the wellbeing and safety of some pupils and families. This included reports of increases in need for support with mental health and/or emotional wellbeing, for pupils and families. Some schools had faced significant challenges in ensuring pupils and families had access to the full range of support they required, in the context of restrictions and pressures on partner agencies.

The main challenges have been, and will continue to be, sustaining wellbeing so that children have the emotional resilience and head space to learn. The escalation in distressed behaviours and levels of anxiety has been very clear. Mental health has been a real issue for a lot of our parents and children, as have anxiety around food poverty and the cost of the school day. All of this needs to be addressed before we have children feeling safe, and in a place where they can engage in learning. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

7.10. Around a quarter of respondents provided comment in relation to how they had responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and school building closures, and in particular any creative solutions they wished to share. The main points raised by respondents are summarised at Table 14.

Table 14: Creative responses to the challenges of COVID-19 and school building closures (n=137)
Specific wellbeing-focused approaches and tools (including addressing the socio-economic impact of the pandemic) 40%
Adapting approaches to teaching and learning in light of experience, including use of digital resources, outdoor learning 36%
Maintaining communication, building relationships, pastoral care to pupils/families – including use of specific tools/resources 28%
Additional staffing capacity, staff skills and development 19%
Staff commitment, collaborative working, etc. 18%
Targeting/ engaging with specific groups, most vulnerable pupils/families 17%
Strengthening the school community, including ensuring a shared ethos and commitment (to equity and education more widely) 16%
Work with external services and community groups to provide additional support 10%
Building pupil and family skills/capacity, including digital literacy 9%
Supporting return to school buildings 6%

7.11. Respondents referred to a range of approaches and tools with a focus on pupil and family wellbeing, including some noting the extent to which wellbeing and mental health needs can be a barrier to progress. Specific approaches identified as having been effective included shared reading, family quizzes and other activities, and regular challenge activities. Some also noted the value of these approaches in fostering a sense of community amongst families, for example through sharing of photographs and experiences.

A Change and Loss programme across the whole school was followed by identification of children who require further support with options for yoga, mindfulness sessions, massage in schools programme and drawing & talking therapy - before looking at counselling service, educational psychology and school nurse support. Children have the choice as to what suits them and what they find useful strategies when working in these smaller groups. (PEF-only school in small town)

7.12. A substantial number of schools also referred to having used their experience of the pandemic to adapt learning and teaching approaches. These schools referred to increasing use of specific digital resources to support remote learning and recovery, outdoor learning on return to school, and more widely to use of resources to support further development of staff skills and capacity.

We established a hub for vulnerable pupils and those with ASN during the second lockdown. The impact of small group work, consistency of staff and no movement from class to class had a positive impact on attendance, anxiety, incidents of pupils unable to cope, and family relationships. This evidence has changed our approaches to supporting pupils with ASD this session. (PEF-only school in urban area)

Our approach to outdoor learning in conjunction with our nurturing approaches and values has had a significant impact on pupils’ relationships, wellbeing, readiness to learn, resilience, risk taking, problem solving, conflict resolution etc. This in turn has impacted positively on their attainment and achievements. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

7.13. Approaches to maintain communication and build relationships with pupils and families were also commonly mentioned. This included reference to continued use of new technologies and tools introduced during the first period of school building closures.

We feel our communication with parents is better. We were more responsive to parent and pupil needs and adapted quickly - i.e. no-screen Wellness Wednesdays in response to parent/pupil feedback, with staff setting up a school grid of activities. We also built more trusting relationships with some of our FME[11] families through more communication and quality conversations. (PEF-only school in rural area)

7.14. Effective communication with pupils and families were also seen as crucial in maintaining a strong school ethos, even as school buildings remained closed. This included some who had seen a deterioration in the sense of school community during school building closures – these schools had included a specific focus on rebuilding their ethos on the return to school.

Our team have worked really hard to develop an inclusive ethos based around strong relationships with young people and families. We use nurturing practices and restorative approaches to ensure all young people are included and heard - this is really paying off in terms of engagement and wellbeing in the school. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

7.15. It was also suggested that regular communication with pupils and families, and the associated improved understanding of their circumstances and needs, had been crucial in maintaining pupil engagement. This included enabling schools to respond more effectively to pupils support needs, during school building closures and on return to school.

7.16. The role of pupil and family engagement as part of schools’ response to the pandemic was also evident across other points raised by headteachers. For example, pupil engagement was also a key element in schools’ use of wellbeing-focused approaches and tools, targeting of specific vulnerable groups, strengthening the school community, and building pupil and family capacity.

This time broke down so many previous barriers. Our understanding of each other, the community we are in and the needs of our pupils has strengthened. The level of empathy and nurture across our staff and within our children which was already very high has gone stellar in spite of how very tired everyone is. Our resilience, creativity and confidence in our abilities has grown. (PEF-only school in rural area)

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