6. Next steps
Building on the strengths of the SAC
The evolution of the Challenge and its associated investment saw the number of Challenge Authorities rise from seven to nine, whilst the schools programme and universal offer evolved, and support for care experienced children and young people and PEF were introduced. This gradual development saw the programme grow from a very targeted approach to closing the attainment gap to a system-wide improvement strategy to promote educational equity.
In looking ahead to continued efforts to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, it is clear that there is progress to build on by focusing on the key areas of strength identified in the report. These include culture and ethos; strengthened learning and teaching and leadership, underpinned by effective use of data and enquiry; effective collaboration and supporting networks; close engagement with families and communities; a focus on health and wellbeing; and the support and challenge provided by Attainment Advisors.
Holistic and integrated approach
The holistic approach of SAC has been a factor in embedding the culture and ethos of equity in the system, engendering a collective ownership of change. Supported by PEF, efforts to empower the system to make decisions closer to the classroom have created the conditions for decision-making more tailored to the needs of specific groups, families, children or young people. This has been generally welcomed by headteachers, highlighting the benefits of this system-wide approach to achieving equity in education.
There is evidence, however, that this autonomy has been particularly valued alongside co-ordinated local authority-wide approaches, highlighting the benefits of a blend of both school-led and strategic local authority-led approaches to achieving equity in education.
A strength of the programme from the outset has been the commitment not to reduce the SAC to a narrow focus on attainment, whereby success is only measured against a narrow set of measures such as test scores. Rather the SAC has taken a broader, more holistic and integrated approach that has included a range of approaches to promote health and wellbeing and recognise wider achievement. This has seen LAs and schools implement a wide range of approaches that include activities such as the daily mile and a range of nurture programmes. In line with the aims of the CfE, that recognition of wider achievement on top of attainment is a strength to take forward in supporting children and young people to achieve their full potential.
The experiences of the pandemic have brought the importance of continuing and improving this holistic and integrated approach to tackling the poverty related attainment gap into sharper focus than ever. The nature of this holistic and integrated approach needs to be strategic, adaptive to emerging need, and accurately targeted to support those who need it most, whilst maintaining its long term vision of equity and excellence.
Targeting to accelerate recovery and progress
We have also learned that the intensity of approaches and levels of investment required to sustain improvements in settings with the highest concentrations of deprivation can be quite different to those required in other settings with lower levels of deprivation or with different challenges and barriers to learning.
Therefore, alongside considering the most impactful blend of authority-led strategic approaches and school-led local approaches, we can consider also more finely grained approaches focusing on school clusters or neighbourhoods within local authorities. An approach that relies on local knowledge of deprivation and its associated issues within specific local communities could allow for precise, targeted and co-ordinated interventions within Scotland's holistic and integrated approach, looking to support the collective impact of service provision across phases and sectors.
A renewed focus and continued commitment
COVID-19 and the impact of school building closures has had a detrimental impact on the progress being made. This disruption to the system and to the lives of Scotland's children and young people reinforces the continued need to focus on equity and excellence, with the Equity Audit highlighting the need for a continued focus on health and wellbeing. A range of action is already underway in response to COVID-19 to support education recovery and help close the poverty-related attainment gap via the recruitment of additional teachers, provision of digital devices and connectivity, targeted youth work programmes, wider provision of free school meals and increased support for families to engage with learning at home.
In addition to these, in 2021/22 the Scottish Government has increased its investment in the SAC to over £200 million by introducing a one-year £20 million PEF Covid-19 Premium. This increases the investment in PEF from almost £128 million to almost £148 million and builds on the £750 million invested over the course of this Parliament and over £375 million in education recovery to date. This action will ensure headteachers across 97% of schools will have further additional funding to support the children and young people who need it most.
The work to close the poverty-related attainment gap remains a long-term goal. To deliver this, a renewed focus is required. This report demonstrates that whilst the attainment data indicates variation in the pace of progress across the country, good progress has been made in a number of foundational strengths that the system can build on. The opportunity ahead is to build on these foundations and accelerate.
This must remain a collective, system-wide endeavour that builds on the progress to date and one where the voices of children and young people are key to its continued development.
As children's rights become embedded in all aspects of society, there is increasing urgency and scope for the voices of our children and young people to influence the interventions that will improve their life chances.
The voices of children and young people are evident in a range of local approaches to tackling the poverty related attainment gap, for example where one local authority implemented the Social Justice Ambassadors Programme, which used the voice of young people to tackle poverty-related challenges in schools. The children and young people involved gave their views on a range of motions regarding community issues in their areas to lead staff from across the LA including Elected Members, third sector and Community Partnerships feeding into collaboration between young people and school staff to identify approaches to investing PEF.
We want to build on this. A children's rights approach has been embedded into the Scottish Government's response to COVID-19 and its approach to recovery and renewal and will be embedded in its continued efforts to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
In addition, the Government is convening an Advisory Group which includes some of the best minds in the system and will include education leaders and practitioners, third sector organisations and education and social justice experts to support the development of approaches to continue and build on progress beyond 2021/22.
Input from both the Advisory Group and children and young people, alongside the evidence in this report, the Equity Audit and consultation with a range of partners and stakeholders, including the ICEA, will be key to refining our approach going forward.
This refined approach developed in consultation with system experts, leaders, partners and children and young people will build on the strong foundations identified in this report and take forward a whole-system approach whilst further targeting approaches to accelerate recovery and progress and ensure all children and young people, regardless of their backgrounds, have the opportunity to succeed.