1. Overview And Context
The health harms of COVID-19 are not over, and the Scottish Government will continue to ensure that our approach to restrictions in society and in education settings is necessary and proportionate, and informed by evidence and data. However, the significant reduction in serious illness, hospitalisation and deaths that we are seeing as a result of vaccination means that we have now reached a transition point in our approach to dealing with COVID-19.
Our revised strategic intent, which is "to suppress the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future", provides a timely opportunity to review the focus of our education activity, and to ensure that practitioners can increasingly get back to doing what they do best - helping our children and young people to enjoy their education, and to learn and develop to the best of their abilities.
This Scottish Government document outlines to all our partners – including children and young people themselves, families, communities, and those responsible for delivering a high-quality education system – our ongoing response to the impacts of the pandemic on education in Scotland, and sets out some key next steps we will take to address them.
It summarises how we plan to build on the innovation and strengths that have emerged during the pandemic, and incorporates key principles including diversity, equality and sustainability. Critically, we must address the harms caused by the pandemic, and champion a vision that supports children and young people to continue to progress their learning and achievement.
We know that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not be effective, nor would it be consistent with our Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) approach. Instead, the needs of the individual learner must be at the centre of our actions. Schools, teachers and early years practitioners will know best how to help individual children, including identifying those who need extra support with specific subjects or with their health and wellbeing, and what type of support is needed. That is why we will continue to maintain empowerment as a central tenet of our response.
Work to support children and young people has been a top priority since the very start of the pandemic, and over £450m of additional funding has already been committed during 2020/21 and 2021/22 as part of education recovery. £240m of that total has already been provided for the recruitment of extra staff to ensure resilience and to provide additional support for learning and teaching. In addition a further £145.5m is being added permanently to the local government settlement from April 2022. This will allow local authorities to offer sustained employment of additional teachers and support staff.
Further significant funding is being made available for a range of initiatives that are important to education recovery, including the provision of free school breakfasts and lunches all year round for all children in P1-7, digital devices for every child, abolition of fees for instrumental music tuition, removal of core curriculum charges, and the full rollout of 1,140 hours of high-quality Early Learning and Childcare (ELC).
This document, which focuses primarily on schools and Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) settings, sets out how that investment is delivering benefits for all our children and young people.
In all of this, the Scottish Government does not underestimate the challenges ahead. In its report published in March 2021, Audit Scotland recommended that the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and councils should "continue to ensure a coordinated policy response within and across government (for example with health and children and families services) when planning to improve longer-term outcomes for children and young people and delivering the education recovery response to the equality impacts of Covid-19" and that is what we intent to do.
We will continue to listen to, and work with, all parts of the education system and our communities in order to understand the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. Where the evidence tells us we need to amend plans or change course in order to ensure the best possible support for our children and young people, we will do so.
Our aims – a renewed focus on excellence and equity
The Scottish education system benefits from a strong and shared vision as set out in the National Improvement Framework. This remains true as we work to recover from the pandemic:
- 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;
- Achieving equity: ensuring every child has the same opportunity to succeed, with a particular focus on closing the poverty related attainment gap.
This vision is underpinned by four key priorities:
- Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
- Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people;
- Improvement in children and young people's health and wellbeing; and
- Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people.
While the global pandemic has forced us to reflect upon learning in new and unexpected ways, our fundamental ambition around these outcomes remains undiluted. As well as the moral imperative to support our current generation of children and young people, this is also an essential investment in the future of our society. We must all invest time, hope and attention in their social development and educational achievements, and we must ensure our work is underpinned by a rights-based approach, shaped by what children, young people and their families and carers tell us.
There is a well-established and ambitious programme of work in our education settings that will help us achieve these aims, involving partners across the system. This programme of work is flexible enough to be adapted and targeted towards addressing the impacts of the pandemic on children and young people, making use of the additional resources that have been, and will be, provided to local authorities to support this approach.
First and foremost, we will maintain a focus on the health and wellbeing of children and young people. This is a fundamental underpinning for effective learning. Alongside that, our partners will ensure that work in schools and early learning and childcare settings is appropriately tailored to address any identified impacts on individual children's learning, development and attainment. The education workforce has responded incredibly to the challenges of the last 18 months, and we know that ongoing support for them as professionals will be integral to these aims.
We remain mindful of the International Council of Education Advisors' (ICEA) statement that a "focus on capacity building at all levels within the teaching profession must continue to be the core of the Scottish improvement agenda and its desire to secure an enduring impact on the country's future prosperity." Many of the actions, funding commitments and next steps set out in this document are aimed at ensuring we have more high quality staff in schools, with the time and resources available to them to train and plan to help secure that enduring impact.
The 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan highlighted four key principles of our immediate response to COVID-19. As we progress from here, each of these remains equally valid:
- Partnership and collaboration – we are working with our partners to develop an empowered and collaborative system, where everyone's contribution is heard and valued and improving children and young people's outcomes is at the heart of everything we do.
- Data and evidence led – continuing to be driven by data and both qualitative and quantitative evidence (including lived experiences), recognising where we see opportunities for improvement and building on 'what works'.
- Agility and flexibility – our response to the pandemic has highlighted the importance of creating a more flexible and resilient system, which can operate just as well in a crisis as it does under more normal circumstances.
- A priority on equity – as the ICEA commented: "the pandemic reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time." The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the poorest individuals, families and communities in our society.
The actions we are taking with our partners to achieve excellence and equity in our education system as we emerge from the pandemic include a focus on achieving outcomes in the following key areas:
- Expanding high quality Early Learning and Childcare, in recognition of its contribution to improved development and educational outcomes for children
- The promotion of health and wellbeing, including mental health
- Supporting learning and attainment as part of our agenda for excellence, including by listening to the voices of learners and parents and supporting school communities to engage as restrictions are eased
- Achieving equity, so that every child and young person can thrive and have the best opportunity to succeed
- Additional Support for Learning, so that children and young people with additional support needs can learn, flourish and fulfil their potential
- National Qualifications, ensuring our Senior Phase awards and qualifications, and how they are assessed, meet young peoples' needs and equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to achieve their ambitions
- Supporting positive destinations for young people
- Support for the workforce, as we know that practitioners will need support for their own wellbeing as they continue to play a crucial role in supporting children and young people.
- Monitoring and reporting outcomes, to ensure we maintain transparency and openness on the progress that is being made, and to identify at the earliest stage where any additional work or change of course is required.
Further detail on the actions we are taking under these headings, and some key next steps, is set out in the rest of this document.
The scale and nature of the challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon educational delivery across the world; the impacts and experiences of children and young people in Scotland are common to those in many other countries.
During periods of lockdown, some learners will have had positive experiences, enjoying the extra time with family and developing their digital skills and independent learning. Research shows us, however, that COVID-19 has had adverse consequences on the health and wellbeing of some learners, as well as their attainment. The Advisory Subgroup on Education and Children's Issues ('the subgroup') reported:
- There is clear evidence that time out of school has a detrimental effect on children and young people's wellbeing, including impacts on development and mental health harms. The Sub-Group noted that evidence suggests the mental health of adolescents is particularly affected. These detrimental effects are particularly prevalent for children and young people who are vulnerable to poorer outcomes because of adverse circumstances they are experiencing;
- School closures put educational outcomes at risk, especially for vulnerable children and young people (this was a key factor in decision-making around the provision of emergency hubs and phased return to schools during and after lockdown); and
- COVID-19 increases educational and social inequities for children and young people.
- In Scotland, the report 'Lockdown Lowdown 3: What young people in Scotland think as lockdown begins to ease' which is delivered by partners Young Scot, Scottish Youth Parliament and YouthLink Scotland, and published in July 2021, provides a number of rich findings, including:
- Around three quarters of respondents in primary school were happy to be back to in-person learning.
- Around three quarters of respondents in secondary school had returned to school in person (76%). When asked if they were happy with the way they were being taught, the majority of respondents who were attending in person selected 'Yes' (85%). Respondents who were undertaking blended learning were also mostly happy (60%), whereas only 38% of those who were doing distance learning stated that they were happy with this method.
- Respondents were asked if they felt prepared for the assessments towards their qualifications. More respondents disagreed than agreed that they felt prepared, with 44% selecting 'Strongly disagree' or 'Disagree'. Around a fifth (22%) selected 'Strongly agree' or 'Agree'.
- When asked if there was anything that they would like changed about their educational arrangements, most respondents described difficulties with the assessment programme that had been put in place. Other key themes included a preference for learning in school as much as possible and difficulties learning in their home environment.
Further, as cited by the subgroup, we know that these impacts will not have been felt evenly by children and young people. For example, the Education Scotland and Scottish Government Equity Audit highlights that socio-economically disadvantaged children may have been impacted disproportionately, and suggests a number of key factors behind that outcome.
We also know that many children and young people experienced greater levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma during the pandemic (including abuse, bereavement, domestic abuse) and/or pre-existing experiences of trauma were exacerbated, for example, due to decreased access to supportive relationships and heightened anxiety and fear. For some children and young people, this will impact directly on their ability to learn and thrive at school, in some cases for the first time, and they will need additional help and support to overcome these challenges.
Partnership and collaboration
Audit Scotland recognised that "those involved in planning, delivering and supporting school education were working well together prior to the pandemic. This strong foundation helped them to collaborate to deliver a rapid response to COVID-19 in exceptionally challenging circumstances".
The overview of action to date and key next steps set out in this document has been developed through engagement with key partners, including the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG). This approach recognises that success depends on us continuing to work collectively and collaboratively. We will continue to work in partnership with the education sector to make sure that, collectively, we are supporting positive outcomes for all children and young people.
It is crucial that children and young people themselves are given the opportunity to have a say in the decisions that affect them. Children and young people organisations have told us that, at the beginning of the pandemic, the voices of children and young people were not captured and were not responded to in an effective way, as part of the decision-making process. We have sought to improve our approach during the course of the past 12 months. For example, in October 2020 we invited an MSYP to join the Covid Education Recovery Group (CERG), and between November 2020 and June 2021 we funded the Education Recovery Youth Panel, which has provided a number of reports to government. As we move forward, we will further strengthen this approach by appointing a Children and Young People's Education Council, and by giving that Council parity of esteem with the Scottish Education Council. In addition, we will continue to engage with children and young people organisations in order to seek their expert advice and challenge across all of our policy-making and decision-making processes.
This principle is even more important in the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which was unanimously passed by Parliament in March 2021. The Bill will deliver a fundamental shift in the way children's rights are respected, protected and fulfilled in Scotland; and will help to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. We will continue to work with public authorities, children, young people and their families and children's rights stakeholders to ensure this landmark Bill puts children's rights at the heart of public authority decision-making and service delivery.
The new Children and Young People's Education Council and the inclusion of young people as members of the Scottish Education Council, will be critical methods to facilitate this engagement, but we will take wider steps to integrate this approach right across our education policies and decision-making, outlined further in section 4.
A whole-system approach
As part of the Scottish Government's wider work on COVID recovery, led by the Deputy First Minister, work is underway to ensure that our approach to recovery maximises every possible benefit for all in Scotland. Through this work, we have a real opportunity to ensure a cohesive and cross-governmental strategic approach to COVID Recovery for Children and Young People, taking a holistic approach to supporting and getting it right for every child and young person so they can thrive.
This will span our work on, for example: Keeping the Promise to improve lives for care experienced children, young people and families; supporting children and young people's mental health and wellbeing; family support; early years investment; free school meals; attainment; positive destinations; and child poverty – all through a rights-based lens which supports Scotland's future workforce to make the most of their opportunities.
The actions on education recovery are nested within a wider set of important policy priorities that are being progressed in tandem. There are connections and interdependencies between all of these – for example, education can help lift children and young people out of poverty, and progress on child poverty can support improvements in attainment – and, together, they will help to develop a system that takes us to the next phase in our agenda for Scottish education.
Recovery, Reform and Improvement
The pandemic has created new challenges for Scotland's children and young people and brought existing challenges into even sharper relief. The recent report by the OECD ''Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future'
confirmed that Curriculum for Excellence remains the right foundation for education in Scotland. However, it also makes clear that it has not been implemented in such a way to reach its full potential, and that we need to increase the pace of improvement, tackle unwarranted variation in outcomes, and support and empower schools and teachers as the people who know their learners best.
To achieve this, now more than ever, the education system needs to be organised in the right way in order to do everything it can to provide the highest quality of support for children, schools and ELC settings.
The OECD review includes important recommendations around the clarity and coherence of the institutions that support our education system. Professor Ken Muir has been appointed as an independent advisor to advise on next steps in achieving this clarity and coherence, specifically in relation to the functions of Education Scotland and the SQA. We have already announced that the SQA will be replaced, that we will consider the creation of a new, specialist agency responsible for curriculum and assessment, that inspection will be removed from Education Scotland and that we will consider what further reform of Education Scotland is required. Professor Muir started work on this on 2 August 2021 and it is expected to take around six months to conclude. He will be supported by an Expert Panel and a Practitioner and Stakeholder Advisory Group. Further detail on this work is available here: Scottish Government Education Reform
In addition to this nationally focused work, we will also be considering what reforms need to be taken forward regionally and locally. The outcomes of research into the impact of Regional Improvement Collaboratives will be published in October, and we will continue implementing our manifesto commitment to further school empowerment by devolving more powers and financial control to schools.
Work is also well underway to refresh the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC) from 2022-23, drawing upon a range of evidence. We are working with stakeholders across the education sector, including seeking the views of children and young people to develop a new SAC framework to ensure a continued focus on using education to improve outcomes for children and young people most impacted by poverty. Taking account of evidence from the national Equity Audit and other sources which clearly highlight the particularly significant impact of Covid-19 on those living in poverty, the programme will remain focused on delivering additional targeted support to these learners. To support a greater focus on local approaches and address aspects of unacceptable variation we will introduce a more streamlined accountability framework across all local authorities, with clear links to the National Improvement Framework to support accelerated progress in closing the poverty related attainment gap. We aim to launch this new iteration of the SAC in Autumn 2021 to allow schools and local authorities to prepare for implementation from Spring 2022.
Further information on the work we are doing to reform and improve the education system in line with the recommendations of the OECD, Audit Scotland, and other expert bodies will be made available in due course.