Rising to the challenge of educational equity: How is Scotland doing?
Guest Blog from Professor Chris Chapman, Senior Academic Advisor, Scottish Attainment Challenge
Director, Policy Scotland, University of Glasgow
Breaking the steadfast link between poverty and educational attainment is a wicked issue that has arguably become the singularly most important issue for education systems around the world. In February 2015 The Times Educational Supplement Scotland reported Scotland’s response to this challenge, the launch of the £100 million Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC). This ambitious programme is designed to promote equity and excellence, and tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. The scope and scale of the project is impressive, with the funding being increased to over £750m and a commitment to extend SAC for the full term of this government and beyond.
Importantly, SAC has given primacy to factors that relate directly to the experience of young people: improving learning and teaching, building leadership capacity and working with families and communities. In so doing it has promoted new ways of working and collaborative relationships across schools and local authorities.
Much has changed in Scottish education since 2015, so what difference has SAC made? Early evidence suggests that it has:
• Focused hearts and minds of the profession on issues of equity and excellence;
• Built a stronger understanding about the types of approaches that can enhance literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing;
• Given primacy to improving learning and teaching, building leadership capacity and working with families and communities;
• Promoted ways of working and encouraging collaborative relationships across schools and local authorities, with collective responsibility for all young people’s success.
These are encouraging signs but what about the aim of closing the poverty-related attainment gap? Put simply, what difference has the SAC made to outcomes for children and young people?
Helpfully, SAC has recognised the need to go beyond narrow academic outcomes by also focusing on health and wellbeing, and creating the conditions whereby all children can achieve their full potential. It has therefore sought to support children and young people in different ways. For example, by providing access to targeted mentoring programmes, such as MCR Pathways, and to a diverse range of cultural and life experiences such as outdoor learning.
Early evidence from SAC suggested that teachers were becoming more focused on issues of educational equity and were adapting their teaching methods accordingly. More recently it seems that some of the fruits from this focus translate into improved academic outcomes.
Some encouraging indicators are also emerging. In December 2019 PISA reported that pupils’ social background has less influence on reading and maths attainment in Scotland than the OECD average and attainment between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people has narrowed on most indicators. For example, the gap between the most and least disadvantaged narrowed in the percentage of pupils achieving expected CfE level in literacy, and numeracy in primary schools. In secondary schools the gap between the most and least disadvantaged has narrowed in the percentage of pupils in S3 achieving CfE 3rd level or better in numeracy.
There is, however, still much work to be done to tackle variations in progress. What is needed next is to pause, reflect and develop more intensive effort to promote greater equity across the education system. This will mean constantly pushing the collaborative work of local authorities closer to classrooms and supporting improvement where it is most needed. It will mean being precise and focused on where the greatest inequities are, and responding with urgency and intensity in those cases. And it will mean providing more classroom-level support to stimulate new practices and help all teachers to enhance their pedagogical effectiveness.
Overall, then, five years on the system beginning to reap some of the rewards from this significant investment. However, as long as Scotland remembers that this is a long-term project designed to tackle substantial intergenerational issues and keeps focused on targeting efforts where they are most needed, we should be optimistic about the future for all of our children, irrespective of where they come from.