On 20 March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across Europe, the Scottish Government made the difficult decision to advise that Scotland’s school buildings should close, and worked with stakeholders across all sectors of Scottish education to find new and innovative ways to continue learning and teaching and supporting the health and wellbeing of our children and young people.
This period of school building closures and wider national lockdown had an impact on all children and young people. However, it is widely acknowledged that it is likely to have been a particularly difficult experience for children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. As highlighted by the International Council of Education Advisers, (2020), “The pandemic reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time.”
As a response to this concern, the Scottish Government confirmed in Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland: the 2020-21 Programme for Government, its commitment to undertake an equity audit.
“The implementation of an Equity Audit will deepen our understanding of the impact of [the pandemic] on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and set clear areas of focus for accelerating recovery.”
The Equity Audit was implemented in two complementary phases from September to November 2020:
- Phase 1: an evidence review of local, national and international literature. This shows emerging themes, with a particular focus on those pieces of evidence that have greatest relevance to Scotland. These themes influenced the framing of the second phase.
- Phase 2: a deep dive based on a representative sample of 54 schools across all 32 local authorities and engagement with partner organisations.
A number of key themes emerged from the evidence review and from the school-based case studies. These themes - or key factors behind educational experiences and attainment during this period – are as follows:
I. Health and wellbeing support
In common with the published evidence, most Scottish stakeholders, identified that both the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children and young people may have been negatively impacted during school building closures. Children and young people reported missing the social aspect of school and the daily interactions with friends and teachers.
II. Digital infrastructure and connectivity
Evidence pointed to the importance of access to technology (devices and connectivity) for children and young people. Where there were gaps in such access – with socio-economically disadvantaged children and young people potentially being most negatively affected – this had a direct impact on the remote learning experience and the engagement of children and young people.
III. Support to parents and families
The report identified that remote learning can be effective at times given the right conditions. Effective communication was key to the ongoing support. Collaboration across partners, including the public and third sector, proved essential to enable schools to better identify vulnerable families and put in place tailored support. Many new community partnerships formed quickly, strengthening the links between school and home.
IV. Teaching provision and the quality of learning
International evidence generally shows that school building closures are likely to have had a negative effect on pupil progress and attainment, and socio-economically deprived children and young people are amongst those who may have been most negatively affected. Moving to models of remote learning required schools to adapt teaching and learning practices. The evidence highlights emerging differences in terms of the teaching provision experienced by children and young people from higher and lower income backgrounds. Children in the early years of primary or those starting secondary were most likely to see a negative impact on their progress.
V. Support for teachers and the wider workforce
Additional training for staff, parents and pupils increased user confidence and knowledge and this remains an important ongoing focus. For staff, digital skills and training remains a focus for continued professional learning.
Intensifying support for reducing inequity
Governments around the world have had to respond to the pandemic in real-time. This has been no different in Scotland, where all parts of the education sector have worked collaboratively to adapt policy and practice in order to offset and minimise the potential for negative impacts.
The 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan sets out clearly our overarching ambitions and priorities:
“Since the onset of COVID-19, the Scottish Government has placed protecting the interests of children and young people at the heart of our response. Schools remaining safe, open and welcoming – with a focus on health, wellbeing and intensified support for reducing inequity and enabling the highest quality of learning and teaching – has been a critical component of that priority.”
The strength of this priority has been a critical factor in mitigating many of the potential impacts of the pandemic. In addition, a wide range of measures have been put in place by schools, local authorities and partners since school buildings closed, including:
- Local authorities quickly established critical childcare hubs to support the most vulnerable children and young people.
- £80 million additional investment to support the recruitment of over 1,400 additional teachers and 200 support staff in 2020/21.
- A £25 million investment for school aged-learners through the Connecting Scotland Programme has delivered over 58,000 devices and connectivity to people suffering from digital exclusion.
- Flexibility to redirect £182 million of Attainment Scotland Funding to help mitigate impacts on the most socio-economically disadvantaged families.
- Provision of free school meals during school building closures and school holidays – with over £37 million in additional funding to support local authorities.
- Increased support for families to engage with learning at home, including via Glow.
- Ensuring access to counsellors in every secondary school in Scotland.
- A £3 million Youth Work for Education Recovery Fund.
- Guidance for school staff on supporting mental health and wellbeing in schools.
- Continuity in Learning Guidance, which offered advice to local authorities as to how to address the impact of interrupted learning and disconnection from school.
- A range of materials to help parents, carers and practitioners support learning at home.
- The £100 million Winter Support Plan to support families on low incomes.
- £1.5 million to help school staff manage additional pressures as a result of the pandemic.
Given recent developments, new Remote Learning advice has also been prepared by Education Scotland, in partnership with the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group, to support practitioners in leading remote learning in the coming weeks.
The findings of this audit reiterate the importance of an ongoing, long-term and system-wide focus on closing the poverty related attainment gap. They also 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. For example, there will possibly be longer-term impacts on the economy and the labour market – exacerbated by EU Exit - which risk deepening existing inequalities and the financial strain on families.
The Scottish Government will continue its pursuit of achieving excellence and equity for all. In doing that we will draw on a range of evidence, including that presented by this Equity Audit, the recently published 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan, the report from the International Council of Education Advisors, and the forthcoming five-year impact report regarding the Scottish Attainment Challenge. We will also use this evidence to inform engagement with partners as we continue to consider together the best approach to intensifying and deepening support for learning and reducing inequity. This process will be critical to as we consider models for the future evolution of the Scottish Attainment Challenge.