3. Strengths of Scotland's approach to closing the poverty-related attainment gap
The most recent report (2020) from the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) tells us that "Scottish education exhibits many strengths. It values equity as well as excellence. It has an excellent standing internationally. It is investing effort and resources to narrow attainment gaps, working with and strengthening the teaching profession."
There is growing evidence that Scotland's targeted approach is leading to positive progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap. The Scottish Attainment Challenge has played an important role in driving forward this relentless focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap, with many of the short and medium-term outcomes of the programme having been achieved. These provide the foundations for on-going, long-term progress and include:
A widespread and systemic focus on equity
A greater awareness and understanding of the barriers facing children and young people adversely affected by socio-economic disadvantage has emerged. Headteachers understand the needs of their children and families and feel confident about choosing the right approach to closing the attainment gap in their school.
Local authorities have been very important in driving forward a strategic vision for equity at local level. Education Scotland's inspection of the 9 Challenge Authorities identified that the authorities making the greatest progress are building on a very strong and aspirational vison for their children and young people. They have articulated and communicated their vision successfully and achieved strong buy-in from staff at all levels, key partners and stakeholders.
Enhanced learning and teaching and using data for improvement
There is now higher quality learning, teaching and assessment focusing on achieving equity. Evidence shows that outstanding professional learning, informed by high quality data, has resulted in high aspirations, greater understanding of pedagogy and improved leadership of learning in the teacher, schools and authorities making greatest progress.
For example, the impact of professional learning in one of the Challenge Authorities has been found to be outstanding, with a wide range of sector-leading interventions impacting positively on families and communities. These outcomes were based on sound evidence-informed strategies which empower staff, along with strong self-evaluation which challenges staff to continue to improve. The approach taken to professional learning places a strong emphasis on building practitioner capacity and creating an empowered system.
Another strength has been the increased collaboration at local authority and at school level to support equity. This has included collaboration across schools and local authorities as well as between education and other community partners including parents, to improve the outcomes of children and young people affected by poverty.
In one Challenge Authority, community learning and development is a highly-effective partner for schools, working to improve the life chances of children and young people and their families. Community learning and development-led learning sessions are delivered to families in primary schools and direct support is currently being provided for over 150 young people in secondary schools. A range of courses, including those focused on personal development, have supported a number of parents to successfully move onto college, university and employment.
Amongst the most impactful collaborations were those where partnerships with universities were helping strengthen teachers skills and pedagogy, building capacity in the leadership and supporting evaluation of impact.
The challenges of COVID-19 has led to a strengthening of existing collaborations and the creation of new partnerships. Collaborative working has led to improved outcomes for children, young people and their families by addressing very practical poverty-related barriers.
Working with families and communities
There is increasing evidence of schools working with families and communities to improve the outcomes of children and young people. Schools are more consistently and effectively supporting families with a range of issues that seek to mitigate the impact of poverty on family life and learning.
For example, the employment of family workers, funded through the ASF, has been identified by some schools as key in developing increased engagement of parents and carers with children's and young people's learning. The addition of this role within one school team allowed them to strengthen relationships with all families and directly support families to build their own capacity to understand their child's needs, communicate in a confident way and positively change the dynamics of relationships within their homes.
A further example is in a Challenge Authority where there is a wide range of very well-planned and targeted interventions to engage parents and then to develop how families learn and become active members of the community. Many of the interventions result in accreditation for parents and an increasing number are leading to employment, sometimes for the first time. This is building confidence in individuals and supporting families to have a better future and there is strong evidence that parents are becoming increasingly engaged in supporting their children's learning, in learning themselves and in becoming more active in the community.
Across the majority of local authorities there is a range of holiday activity and food programmes, with local authorities seeing families having improved access to food, clothing and benefits as a result of collaborative policies and plans.
Focus on health and wellbeing
A focus on approaches to support children and young people's readiness to learn through targeted health and wellbeing approaches has been another important feature of the system. Many teachers have reported that good health and wellbeing was critical in that it provided the foundation for learning and improved attainment. This included addressing social and emotional needs, to ensure that children were able to attend school, enjoy school and be ready to learn. This has become an increasingly important focus of many SAC plans, particularly as schools work to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 and focus on the recovery phase of education.
In one local authority, a partnership approach with Barnado's has achieved positive emotional and mental health outcomes for parents, children and young people. 211 children and young people have or are presently participating in 1 to 1 interventions with Family Support Workers who address mental health and wellbeing. 93% of families engaging or who have engaged in a bespoke package of support this year are showing improved mental health and wellbeing. 95% of families across the year have benefited from brief financial interventions such as vouchers for family activities, cinema, food share, food bank, funding grants, clothing vouchers etc.
The successes identified above have helped to achieve the short and medium-term outcomes of the SAC and put in place strong foundations to help us achieve our long-term ambition of closing the poverty-related attainment gap.