The attainment gap is the gap between the attainment of children and young people from the most deprived areas compared with those from the least deprived areas. In Scotland the attainment gap is significant. For example, in 2015/16 84.3% of school leavers from the least deprived areas achieved at least one Higher, compared with 40.5% from the most deprived areas. This is a key issue as levels of attainment at school can go on to affect future outcomes and job prospects. Reflecting this, in 2015/16 61.7% of school leavers from the least deprived areas went on to university, compared to 19.8% from the most deprived.
Recognising the importance of tackling the issue, in 2015 the Scottish Government launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge with the aim of closing the attainment gap. The policy includes the £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund, which is based around four strands of school/early years based activity aimed at tackling the attainment gap: the challenge authorities, the schools programme, the innovation fund and pupil equity funding.
The challenge authorities are nine local authorities whose schools have the highest concentrations of deprivation. These authorities will receive a proportionate share of funding over four years (from 2015/16 to 2018/19) for activities aimed at improving literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing amongst pupils from the most deprived areas. Initially activities were delivered within primary schools but this has now been extended to secondary schools.
Similar to the challenge authorities, the schools programme provides funding for activities in schools with a high proportion of deprived pupils that are outwith challenge authority areas. As with the challenge authorities funding strand, funding was initially targeted at primary schools and has now extended to secondary schools.
The innovation fund was offered in 2016/17 and was aimed at schools that were not already receiving challenge authority or schools programme funding and provided support for innovative approaches to closing the attainment gap.
To continue the wider offer of the attainment fund, Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) was established in 2017/18. PEF is allocated to schools based on the number of pupils receiving free school meals, with £1,200 being allocated for every pupil within P1-S3 who is eligible for free school meals. Funding is provided directly to head teachers who have discretion over how the money is spent.
Examples of activities that have been delivered through the Attainment Scotland Fund include the introduction of the Primary One Literacy Assessment and Action Resources methodology and toolkit in Inverclyde as part of challenge authority fund spending. This method focuses on identifying and supporting children who are most at risk of developing literacy difficulties through an observation model.
Further activity within Inverclyde has included work to better engage with parents and carers. Barnardo’s Family Support Workers have been appointed through the Attainment Scotland Fund to provide tailored, nurture based support packages to over 150 families. Development Workers have also been appointed within targeted schools to provide more generic and group based family and adult learning support. Their activities have included a walking bus to improve school attendance and classes such as parental leadership and family cookery.
In Dundee, activity delivered through the challenge authority fund has included the secondment of speech and language therapists to work within targeted nurseries delivering projects aimed at improving pre-literacy skills.
As well as the Attainment Scotland Fund, universal resources have also been made available as a result of the Scottish Attainment Challenge. These are attainment advisors, the national improvement virtual hub of expertise and resources and support for inter-authority improvement partnerships. Each local authority has direct access to an attainment advisor who works with staff on agreed attainment gap priorities.
Overall evaluations to date have shown signs of success as there has been a small reduction in the attainment gap across most of the challenge authorities. However it has been acknowledged that change will most likely take place over the long term, with early work having built strong foundations to support this.
Some potential weaknesses of the policy have also been noted. For example, some have argued that the data monitoring and bureaucracy required is overly onerous. There have also been wider criticisms, including the definition of deprivation being those living in SIMD deciles one and two, which is seen as being restrictive, and the idea that poverty as a social issue can be tackled through education alone.
From an economic development perspective tackling the attainment gap is a key issue for wider regeneration and economic growth. It will not only affect the personal achievements and outcomes of the most deprived pupils, it can also have a wider social impact on the expectations and achievements of current and future generations. This is key for developing strong, inclusive economic growth based around high-level skills in a knowledge intensive economy.
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