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.

2. Policy context and background

A holistic approach to delivering excellence and equity

The vision and priorities for Scottish education are shared annually in the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan 2021 (NIF). The NIF is supported by the ongoing implementation of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC), and Developing the Young Workforce (DYW).

The shared vision of excellence and equity is defined as:

  • Excellence through raising attainment: ensuring that every child achieves the highest standards in literacy and numeracy, as well as the knowledge and skills necessary to shape their future as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors;
  • Equity through ensuring every child has the same opportunity to succeed, with a particular focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

The focus on equity in education is supported and complemented by a wide range of national policy initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people. These deal with issues both within and beyond the school and provide the holistic support that is necessary for children and families. These include:

  • Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan
  • Our transformative expansion of early learning and childcare
  • Children’s rights
  • The Promise, and
  • The Young Persons Guarantee

A Scottish education system rooted in empowerment and collaboration

In delivering this vision, schools leaders and practitioners are empowered, while working collaboratively with stakeholders, to make the decisions that most affect their children and young people’s outcomes. It is our firm belief that an empowered and collaborative system, where everyone’s contribution is heard and valued, is a necessary component in improving children and young people’s outcomes.

To support this, in 2018 we established 6 regional improvement collaboratives to ensure the provision of educational improvement support to school leaders and practitioners through dedicated teams of professionals, drawing on support from Education Scotland, local authorities and others and delivering a relentless focus on improvement.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge

Central to the focus on delivering equity in education was the establishment of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, launched in February 2015.

The strategic aim of the SAC has been to ‘close the poverty-related attainment gap between children and young people from the least and most disadvantaged communities’.

In order to deliver on the strategic aim, a number of short, medium and long-term outcomes were established to provide clear indicators of progress. The intention was to build strong and sustainable foundations within the education system recognising that improvements were likely to be gradual and incremental over time.

Prioritising improvements in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing of those children adversely affected by socio-economic disadvantage, the SAC aims to empower schools to develop focused and innovative approaches to improving outcomes for children and young people. This is to be done at classroom, school and local authority level by undertaking approaches or interventions within three key organisers: teaching and learning; leadership; and families and communities.

The Attainment Scotland Fund provided an investment of £750 million over this parliamentary term, distributed across a number of programmes as outlined below.

Attainment Scotland Fund - Chart showing how ASF is distributed across funding streams

Since 2015, the programme has been developed and extended to include more schools and local authorities. As investment increased the number of challenge authorities rose from seven to nine, the schools programme and universal offer evolved, and support for care experienced children and young people and PEF (Pupil Equity Funding) were introduced. In doing so, the programme expanded from a narrow approach to close the attainment gap within a very specific locale, to a broader system-wide improvement strategy to promote educational equity.

Initially focusing on improvement activity in primary schools, the reach of the Challenge is now far wider, with targeted activity being delivered across both primary and secondary sectors and beyond. Today the SAC has five main strands with almost £190 million being invested in 2020/21:

  • The Challenge Authority Programme provides additional resource to the nine local authorities in Scotland with the highest concentrations of deprivation (as defined by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). The 'Challenge Authorities' (seven in 2015, rising to nine 2016/17) are Clackmannanshire, Dundee, East Ayrshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire. Profiles on these Challenge Authorities are provided in the appendix 2.
  • The Schools Programme provides targeted support to an additional 73 individual primary and secondary schools in Scotland out with the nine Challenge Authorities who have the highest concentrations of pupils living in SIMD 1 and 2.
  • Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) was introduced in 2017/18 and provides over £120 million directly to 97% of schools in Scotland based on the number of P1-S3 pupils registered for free school meals, used as a proxy measure for socio-economic disadvantage.
  • The Care Experienced Children and Young People Funding was introduced in 2018/19 with funding allocated to all local authorities based on the number of looked after children they have in their care or schools aged between 5-15, but with the funding available to be invested to support all care experienced children and young people aged between 0-26.
  • Additionally a number of National Programmes, including a number of third sector organisations, have been supported for targeted work to raise attainment and improve equity.

The SAC approach drew from the lessons of the City Challenges in England (London and Manchester) and Challenge Cymru in Wales and introduced a team of Attainment Advisors (AAs) - centrally managed but locally based advisors, who provide a new and disruptive challenge and support function within the system. Scotland has 32 such AAs within Education Scotland’s regional improvement teams, and each Local Authority has direct access to a named AA.

The principal role of AAs is to ensure a relentless focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Their remit is to support local authorities and schools by providing advice and guidance, leading improvement and building capacity, and contributing to robust evaluation of impact. Their work is to drive a cultural shift in understanding poverty and the impact it can have on children’s and young people’s ability to learn and achieve. As systems leaders, AAs have an important role in ensuring social justice is at the heart of decision-making at national and local levels.

Support is also provided by The Children and Young People Improvement Collaborative (CYPIC). It encourages and supports the systematic application of quality improvement (QI) thinking and methods to improve outcomes for children and young people across children’s services.

Consistent with this approach, local authorities and schools have been key partners in the delivery of the SAC. The SAC has enabled schools and Challenge Authorities to develop targeted, creative and bespoke approaches to improving outcomes for children and young people adversely affected by socio-economic disadvantage, tailored to meet their local needs and circumstances. The significant investment provided through the ASF is considered by schools and local authorities to be vital in achieving the outcomes of the SAC.

Funding has been used by schools and Challenge Authorities to implement a wide variety of approaches designed to drive up improvements in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. The variety of approaches implemented by schools and Challenge Authorities reflects their diverse contexts and circumstances on which they have based their decisions. Challenge Authorities, which have collectively had a total of £212 million made available to them through the ASF since 2015, have used funding to develop strategic approaches at local authority level. Schools have used the flexibility of PEF, and in some cases additional funding received through the Schools Programme, to develop a range of different approaches tailored to their specific needs. This proved particularly important during the pandemic, where greater flexibility in the use of PEF funding allowed schools to rapidly adjust approaches to continue to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people.

Impact of COVID-19

It is widely accepted that the impact of COVID-19, and the period of school building closures, is likely to have made education inequality worse and more complex to tackle. These are impacts that are being experienced simultaneously in countries across the world. As highlighted by the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA), (2020), “The pandemic reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time.”

Cognisant of this, our Equity Audit (published in January 2021) helps to deepen our understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to outline the actions already taken to meet this challenge, and to set clear areas of focus for accelerating recovery.

The findings of the audit highlight the scale and potential depth of the impacts of the pandemic, and recognise that the full extent of those may not become fully visible for some time. They are fully integrated into this report.



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