8. Concluding remarks
8.1. This report has presented findings from a recent survey of headteachers of schools in receipt of support from the Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF). The ASF supports the Scottish Attainment Challenge focus on improving literacy, numeracy, health and well-being of children adversely affected by poverty, and incorporates a number of specific strands to support schools to close the poverty-related gap in attainment and wellbeing.
8.2. As the fifth survey of headteachers, a 25% response rate remains positive in the context of survey fieldwork being undertaken during a period of continuing pressure on schools, including during school building closures. Most importantly, the volume of responses is sufficient to produce robust results, and survey weighting has minimised the impact of any response bias.
8.3. Findings continue to demonstrate positive impacts being delivered with ASF support. For example, most respondents feel that ASF support has helped to develop data and evaluation skills, have seen an increase in collaborative working across their school as a result of ASF support, and feel that PEF has provided additional resource needed to address the poverty-related attainment gap.
8.4. A large majority of respondents also reported seeing an improvement in closing the poverty-related gap during 2020/21 as a result of ASF supported approaches. While this is a positive finding, it is notable that views expressed through the survey are not wholly consistent with published attainment data. For example, the latest Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Level data shows a reduction in the proportion of primary school pupils achieving expected CfE levels in literacy and numeracy over the COVID-19 pandemic period (between 2018/19 and 2020/21). This is discussed further in the ASF evaluation year 6 report.
8.5. Written comments from several survey respondents noted that their school did not yet have clear evidence on how the pandemic had impacted their attainment gap, while others referred to ASF-supported approaches as having minimised the adverse impact of the pandemic (and in this way, having a positive impact). However, the survey does not provide clear data on the reason(s) for any disconnect between the perceived impact on the poverty-related attainment gap, and published attainment data.
8.6. Development of the survey evidence base over time also shows several positive trends. For example, the 94% who expect further improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap in the next few years represents a 6-point improvement on 2020. Similarly, the 65% who expect the focus on equity to be sustainable represents a 17-point improvement on 2019.
8.7. However, survey findings also make clear that schools have faced significant challenges during 2020/21. This is reflected in the 95% of survey respondents indicating that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap – and 54% had seen a ‘significant impact’. This is consistent with the range of challenges highlighted by respondents this year, including during school building closures. These challenges included a lack of face-to-face contact with pupils (primarily during school building closures, but also reflecting ongoing increases in pupil absence), staffing capacity in light of increased absences and difficulties securing cover, challenges supporting pupil and family wellbeing, and the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ and families’ mental health.
8.8. Concerns were also expressed around the sustainability of progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. While more than half expected progress to be sustainable to some extent, there remained concerns regarding potential loss of staff resources without ASF funding and uncertainty around the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the poverty-related attainment gap.
8.9. A number of key themes emerged across survey findings, which appear to have a particularly important bearing on schools’ experience of closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and have been reflected in their response to challenges during 2020/21.
8.10. These themes include specific factors that appear linked to progress achieved to date in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Survey findings indicate that the headteachers most likely to report improvement were those:
- who had tailored their use of ASF support based on their understanding of local needs;
- who had embedded approaches to equity across the school;
- who felt their use of data and evidence was strong; and
- who had engaged effectively with families and communities as part of their wider approach to achieving equity – although it is notable that survey results show a small decrease in the proportion of schools using family and community engagement.
8.11. Survey findings also show some change in the factors linked to progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Use of ASF support to meet local needs was a new question for 2021, while use of data was identified as significant for the first time. The relative importance of engagement with families and communities also increased from the previous survey.
8.12. Several wider themes were also evident across the survey, which had emerged in the specific context of ongoing challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and school building closures. Again, these appear to have influenced schools’ experience of ASF and their work to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
8.13. Supporting pupil and family wellbeing has been especially important in response to increasing numbers of pupils, families and staff with mental health and wellbeing needs. In this context, headteachers reported increasing numbers of families looking to schools for support, in some cases requiring staff to provide more specialist support that would be beyond the usual remit of their role. The importance of pupil and family wellbeing is also reflected in comments highlighting wellbeing as a potential barrier to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, with some schools indicating that an initial focus on supporting wellbeing had been necessary to enable pupils to full engage with recovering their learning.
8.14. 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.
8.15. Better understanding of the challenges affecting pupils and families has continued to develop through schools building closer relationships with families and the community. While there has been a fall in the number of schools reporting increased collaboration with families and communities, a large majority of respondents reported a continuing focus on pupil and family engagement as part of their approach to equity. This engagement has supported a wider focus on pupil and family wellbeing for some schools, and for others has contributed to a better understanding of pupil and family needs to support work to rebuild resilience across the school community.
8.16. 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 rebuild their shared ethos through effective communication and engagement with pupils and families.
8.17. These themes were highlighted by headteachers in the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic and school building closures. However, survey responses indicate that they will continue to inform work to close the poverty-related attainment gap, with written comments providing examples of schools continuing to work towards recovery from COVID-19.
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