In March 2020, Scottish Ministers took the difficult decision to advise that school buildings across Scotland should close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to countries and authorities around the world, this decision was deemed necessary to suppress the spread of the virus and as part of a national lockdown.
The priority at that time – and throughout – has been to protect the health and wellbeing of our children, young people and staff, guided by the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and public health experts. The 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan reports the wider principles of the Scottish education system’s response as follows:
- Partnership and collaboration – as exemplified by the quick, local response to setting up childcare hubs, and the ongoing work of the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group
- Data and evidence led – including drawing on the multi-disciplinary advice of the Scientific Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues
- Agility and flexibility – being quick to respond to rapidly-changing circumstances and evolving evidence
- A priority on equity – including via the initial childcare hubs, investment in digital devices, and ongoing provision of free school meals
In parallel, we were clear at the outset that, although school buildings and early learning and childcare settings would close for children and young people, the teaching, learning and support would continue – albeit in different ways for different groups of children. For the majority, this was through remote learning and online learning. Given recent developments, new Remote Learning advice has 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 shared commitment to equity that is writ large across the Scottish education system, and broader public society, proved to be a critical component of the response. The immediate priority was ensuring support was provided to the most vulnerable children and families, many of whom relied on schools to provide a safe, nurturing, and supportive environment. Local authorities established critical childcare hubs for the most vulnerable young people, and helped facilitate the wider response to the pandemic by enabling provision for children of key workers. These hubs provided care and support for those who would benefit from in-school support, including those with complex additional support needs.
Despite this focus, it remained likely that the closure of school buildings and the wider lockdown restrictions would still impact upon children and young people. Further, there were early indications that this impact could be felt disproportionately by those children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Outline of the Equity Audit
As a result of the impact of COVID-19, Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland: the 2020-21 Programme for Government confirmed its commitment to undertake an equity audit:
“A longer term strategy will be required to help address the impact the pandemic has had on some of the most vulnerable children and families. The implementation of an Equity Audit will deepen our understanding of the impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and set clear areas of focus for accelerating recovery.”
This understanding is particularly important in the absence of the 2019/20 Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Level (ACEL) data, which could not be collected during the period of school closures.
The equity audit focused particularly on the impact of the school building closures from 20 March 2020 to the early stages of re-opening of schools on 11 August 2020. It also examined evidence of actions to re-open schools to all pupils in August, and to keep them safe, open and welcoming with a focus on health, wellbeing and intensified support for learning.
The audit was undertaken through two complementary phases; an evidence review and a detailed analysis based on a sample of schools. The remainder of this report is structured as follows:
Section 2 provides details of the first phase of the work – i.e. 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.
Section 3 covers the second phase – i.e. a deep dive based on a sample of 54 schools across all 32 local authorities in Scotland and engagement with partner organisations. Throughout November, Education Scotland Attainment Advisors gathered evidence from headteachers and focus groups of staff, parents and carers, partners and children and young people. A stakeholder reference group, including local government education leads and professional associations, was convened to support the process.
Section 4 draws together a selection of the key themes and areas of focus that the evidence review and detailed analysis identified as being relevant to educational experiences and attainment. Alongside these themes, the report highlights a selection of the national and local mitigations put in place to date.
Finally, Section 5 provides some concluding observations. It highlights that this suite of evidence will help inform all parts of the education system as work continues as part of the ongoing process to intensify and accelerate support for learning.