Scottish Attainment Challenge - local stretch aims: statement by Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Shirley-Anne Somerville's statement on the Scottish Attainment Challenge Local Stretch Aims given to Parliament on 8 December 2022.

Thank you very much Presiding Officer

I am pleased to provide this statement to Parliament today to update on the setting of local stretch aims for raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. At the outset I would like to thank all local authorities for approaching this new requirement as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge with commitment and with rigour.

This Government is absolutely committed to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Since its launch in 2015, the Scottish Attainment Challenge has been a key part of our strategy to do that.

We know that it has had a positive impact on children and young people.

Our evaluation shows that almost 9 out of 10 headteachers who responded reported improvement in closing the poverty-related gap in attainment and/or health and wellbeing as a result of Scottish Attainment Challenge funded approaches.

Building on the progress made to date and in response to the impact of the pandemic has had on children and young people – particularly those impacted by poverty – I took the opportunity to make some fundamental changes to the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

Key amongst these changes is a new mission for the Scottish Attainment Challenge, focussing squarely on outcomes for children and young people:

To use education to improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty, with a focus on tackling the poverty-related attainment gap.

I don’t expect teachers to achieve this on their own. Schools and education services must collaborate across services and with local partners to make progress.

And this approach recognises that every local authority has a part to play. From the £1 billion investment in the Scottish Attainment Challenge over the course of this Parliamentary term, we have now distributed Strategic Equity Funding to all 32 local authorities – something I know was welcomed by COSLA.  This comes alongside continued investment of over £130 million per year in Pupil Equity Funding going directly to schools and continued funding to support the educational outcomes of care experienced children and young people.

Alongside this significant investment, Education Scotland continues to provide local authorities and schools with a range of support. This includes a new approach, working with local authorities to agree a model of universal, targeted and intensive support. Additionally, its range of published resources includes Scotland’s new Equity Toolkit, which draws together in one place the range of resources, research and learning through the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

Earlier this year we published a Framework for Recovery and Accelerating Progress, which made clear the respective roles and responsibilities – and introduced local stretch aims – for closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

It is these local stretch aims that I will focus on now.

We know that a ground-up approach works best in embedding improvement. So the stretch aims have been developed by local authorities, using local knowledge, data and expertise, and they express each local authority’s own ambitions for learning and their learners.

Local authorities operate in a range of different contexts and have different starting points for this work.

At the same time, I am committed to the importance of ensuring that every child and young person has the same opportunities through their education, wherever they live in Scotland.

We know through the range of analyses of the Scottish Attainment Challenge that we are making progress, but we need to progress more quickly.

A key element of the progress made to date has been a change in the culture and ethos across the education system, which has raised the profile of equity in education.

Through the refreshed mission of the Scottish Attainment Challenge and the introduction of local stretch aims, we have shifted our focus towards outcomes for our children and young people impacted by poverty – and key to improving those outcomes is the work done in local systems with schools, third sector organisations and other local services.

Further, by introducing a requirement for local stretch aims, we also seek to:

  • ensure clear local ownership of progress towards the overall mission of the Scottish Attainment Challenge;
  • drive a greater transparency around data for improvement, creating opportunities for learning and partnership working; and
  • help address unwarranted variation in attainment and progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap between local authorities.

With both consistency and flexibility in mind, the requirements for stretch aims involve a “core plus” model. The core aims are a sub-set of the existing 11 National Improvement Framework measures of the poverty-related attainment gap.

They include aims for:

  • literacy and numeracy in the broad general education;
  • the senior phase at SCQF levels 5 and 6;
  • sustained positive destinations through the annual participation measure; and
  • a locally identified measure for health and wellbeing.

Alongside these core aims, for which all local authorities must set stretch aims, the “plus” element enables local authorities to set aims for their own local improvement priorities.

To be clear – these are locally identified stretch aims determined by Councils. They have undertaken rigorous local processes to set these stretching aims, and will work with schools to meet them – keeping in mind the very much local context, the continuing impact of COVID and the increasing impact of the cost of living crisis.

Collectively, the core stretch aims set by local authorities show a great deal of ambition for both recovery and accelerating progress.  

Aggregated, they represent local ambitions for improvement both on 2020/21 – the last year of published data when this requirement was introduced – and 2018/19 – the last year for pre-pandemic data.

I welcome this level of ambition.

However, I know that ultimately what matters is the implementation of the plans – supported through Strategic Equity Funding – that underpin the stretch aims and the actual progress made locally throughout the academic year.

For both overall attainment and in terms of closing the poverty-related attainment gap in literacy and numeracy in primary schools, the collective stretch aims of local authorities amount to working towards achieving the biggest two year improvement recorded since the introduction of the Challenge.

If these stretch aims for literacy and numeracy are achieved in full, and this rate of progress continues, we will be on track to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in primary schools – which is where the Scottish Attainment Challenge started.

Given the effect of Covid-19 on children and young peoples’ achievement of Curriculum for Excellence levels in 2020/21, these aims represent significant local ambition for recovery back to and beyond the national position pre-pandemic.

In terms of the senior phase, we asked local authorities to set stretch aims for SCQF levels 5 and 6.  Contrary to the dip in ACEL attainment as a result of the pandemic, the changes to approaches to certification played a part in seeing record levels of attainment in the senior phase in 2020/21.

Therefore, I very much welcome local authorities’ aims to sustain or exceed the levels of attainment seen in 2020/21.

In terms of the annual participation measure, which helps us to understand outcomes for young people, local authorities have set aims to improve from the already high 92.2% in 2020/21 to 93.4% in 2022/23, and to narrow the poverty-related gap by 1.2 percentage points.

In terms of the range of health and wellbeing aims and the plus aims, which reflect local authorities various local priorities, there is a wide range of different aims for progress this year.

This includes:

  • aims for improved attendance and participation;
  • aims which break down the component parts of some of the core aims, for example, focusing on the specific elements of reading, writing, listening and talking;
  • aims specifically for care experienced children and young people; and
  • aims that span the full learner journey, with aims for early years and aims that capture the full range of achievements of children and young people in the senior phase, including foundation apprenticeships and a focus on learner pathways.

What matters now is local progress towards these stretch aims – detailed questions on the ambitions of individual local authorities for their children and young people are for local authorities themselves to address.

The impact of the pandemic – and now the impact of the current cost crisis – means the moral imperative to support our children and young people most impacted by poverty to achieve to their full potential is as strong as ever.

And in this difficult context, we remain absolutely focused on our children and young people.

That is why alongside the £1 billion investment in the Scottish Attainment Challenge, this government is supporting children and young people in numerous ways:

  • we are tackling the cost of the school day through the expansion of free school meals and continued investment in the school clothing grant;
  • teacher numbers are currently the highest they have been since 2008, with the number of primary teachers the highest since 1980;
  • we have delivered the highest educational spend, and more teachers, per pupil than any other UK nation – while also protecting free tuition in higher education;
  • we are listening to children, young people, parents, carers and professionals through the national discussion and our reform agenda; and
  • we are delivering on the national mission to tackle child poverty through measures such as our increased Scottish Child Payment, a key benefit unavailable anywhere else in the UK and which is projected to lift 50,000 children out of poverty next year.

Taken together, these demonstrate this Government’s commitment to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up.

We will continue to work together with our local government partners to deliver on our shared mission to improve outcomes for children and young people.

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