Closing the poverty-related attainment gap: progress report 2016 to 2021

This report presents the evidence of progress towards achieving this defining mission over the period of the parliament 2016-2021. In doing so it also acknowledges the disruptive and detrimental impact of COVID-19.

8. Conclusion

8.1 The gap is closing

It is clear from the above that significant progress is being made. This can be seen across short-, medium- and long-term outcomes, and is supported by strong evidence of a system-wide endeavour to establish the platform for the next phase of improvement. However, while the gap is closing, this remains a complex and long-term endeavour.

Further, while there are positive indications of progress, there are also variations in the pace of progress across the country. In addition, we know that the impact of COVID-19 is likely to have placed further pressure on the gap.

The report draws attention to a number of powerful findings:

1. Over the 5 year time period a number of key elements have been put in place that provide strong foundations for on-going progress. These strengths of the Scottish approach are:

  • There is a systemic change in terms of culture, ethos and leadership with a focus on equity becoming more embedded and sustained in schools, communities and local authorities. A greater awareness and understanding of the barriers facing children and young people adversely affected by socio-economic disadvantage has emerged. This has led to a wide range of approaches and interventions being implemented to meet the needs of children and young people.
  • The role of local authorities has been instrumental in driving forward a strategic vision for equity at local level, ensuring this is a central component in school and local authority improvement plans. There has also been a shift towards many local authorities using core resources, including core education funding, to improve outcomes for learners experiencing socio-economic disadvantage.
  • Clear leadership, direction and accountability by senior leaders in national government, local government and in schools, supported by effective strategic planning on equity, is helping to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, young people and families.
  • The most recent evidence from the International Council of Education Advisers ( ICEA ) acknowledged the progress that is being made in Scottish education to close the attainment gap through the SAC and wider education policies:

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.”

2. There are improved ways of working to deliver equity

Enhanced learning and teaching and using data for improvement
  • Investment in high quality professional learning and development opportunities has resulted in higher quality learning, teaching and assessment focusing on achieving equity.
  • Literacy and Numeracy interventions are imbedded in most schools and integral to improved learning and teaching approaches with a focus on equity.
  • Schools are increasingly confident in using data, and are seeing the benefit from doing so.
  • Local authority strategies have been developed to reflect a number of broad priorities, based on attainment gap data, previously successful approaches and engagement with headteachers and other partners or services.
Focus on health and wellbeing
  • Improving health and wellbeing is a priority for schools in closing the attainment gap, with many examples of innovative and collaborative practice. The most successful interventions have resulted in fewer exclusions from school better punctuality; improvements in behaviour at school, healthy family eating, increased pupil motivation and engagement and increased resilience among pupils.
  • The majority of local authorities have seen improvements in children and young people’s health and wellbeing supported by ASF funded approaches.
Collaborative working
  • There has been an increase in collaboration at local authority and school level to support equity. This has included collaboration across schools and local authorities as well as between education and other partners, including parents and the third sector.
  • Strong partnerships with universities are helping to improve pedagogy as well as the use and analysis of data to measure the impact of initiatives and interventions.
Working with families and communities
  • Schools are more consistently and effectively working with families on a range of issues that seek to mitigate the impact of poverty on family life and learning.
  • Family workers, funded through the ASF, are a specific example of an initiative that has been key in developing increased engagement of parents and carers with children and young people's learning in over half of the local authorities.
  • Working in partnership around family engagement initiatives is leading to improvements in parenting skills, parental ambition and employability.

3. There is demonstrable progress on a number of long-term measures to close the poverty-related attainment gap

Headteacher perspectives
  • Headteachers are positive about the impact of the SAC in their school, have a clear understanding of what is working and are optimistic about improvements being embedded and continuing over the next five years.
Attainment measures
  • Progress in closing the attainment gap has been made on a number of measures, although the level of such progress is varied depending on the measure under consideration. For the majority of measures, attainment of those from the most deprived areas has increased, although in some cases not at the same rate as those in least deprived areas.
  • The greater rate of progress that can be seen at primary school level aligns with the pace at which the SAC was implemented, which initially focused support towards improvement activity within primary schools. The same rate of progress would, therefore, not be expected in secondary schools as a result of the SAC at this stage in the programme.
Wider Data
  • A range of wider data sources may provide insight into the longer term benefits of the Challenge for young people. Across a range of data sources, an increasing proportion of young people from the most deprived areas are in education, employment or training; are in a positive initial and follow up destination after school and are attending Higher/Further Education. The gap between young people from the most and least deprived areas has narrowed across all these measures.

4. The SAC and ASF are playing an important role in empowering schools and local authorities to deliver on closing the poverty-related attainment gap

  • One of the key features of the SAC is the flexibility and opportunity it offers to schools and local authorities to select, develop and create interventions that best work for children and young people in the local context. As a result, the SAC has seen a huge number of different interventions and approaches develop in different settings
  • The autonomy and flexibility provided by PEF has enabled schools to tailor approaches to their specific needs.
  • Evidence demonstrates that the Challenge Authorities have made significant progress towards achieving the medium-term outcomes of the programme as a result of the longer-term investment.

(More detail on each Challenge Authority can be found in Appendix 2 )

8.2 This remains a long-term endeavour

Reflecting on this progress to date provides an opportunity to consider further cross-cutting themes. These will be useful as we look to accelerate and deepen progress across all outcomes. Such themes include:

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.

Maintaining a holistic and integrated approach

The holistic approach of SAChas 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 the importance of 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 alongside 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.

Consider 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 a continued long term 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.



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