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Closing The Attainment Gap In Scotland

At our most recent Scottish College for Educational Leadership Fellowship programme meeting we had the privilege of listening to, and speaking with, Sue Ellis from Strathclde University. Sue and Edward Sosu had recently co-authored a report 'Closing The attainment Gap In Scottish Education' for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Sue started by telling us that attainment is still too closely linked to parental wealth in Scotland and noting how all in the system had a responsibility to address this. If we didn't we were letting down the children who were blighted by the continuation of this situation and ultimately the country, as these very same children were going to help shape our country in the future. The gap in attainment for those children from the poorest households in society compared to those from the most wealthy, starts before children enter the education system, grows as they move through primary education, and becomes even greater in their secondary education careers. Whilst acknowledging that schools could not address this on their own, Sue stated that lots of data showed that schools were the places where we could do most to address these inequalities in our system.

She recognised that this posed a challenge to all schools and all levels within the system. It would be a challenging for schools, their leaders and all teachers. One of the first things that needed to happen was a change of thinking and mindsets in many schools and teachers. She presented us with some very interesting data to support her argument. Did you know that 59% of children who are living in poverty in Scotland, do not live in identifiable 'poor' areas? This means that children who risk disadvantage because of poverty in their households cannot be reliably identified by post-codes and some traditional deprivation indexes. Poverty is more nuanced than that, and what this means is that an approach that targets deprivation funding according to identification of most deprived, or poorest areas, is probably missing almost 60% of the pupils and families it aims to support.

She said that when they talked to teachers about what deprivation was and what it looked like, they would often characterise this as being in families where no-one worked and where parents had low-aspirations for themselves and their children. However, now the data is showing that in many of the poorest families one or more adults were working, but that they may be working in jobs with zero hours contracts, part-time and with minimum wages or less. When researchers spoke to a lot of parents who were in poverty, they found they still had high aspirations for their children. What they didn't have was the knowledge and tools to be able to support them to be successful in their education, especially in literacy, which we all know is key for all areas of the curriculum. It's facts and data like this that demonstrates why we need to change some of the mindsets, and organisational approaches and structures, that exist within the current system. Perhaps a bigger issue is the low aspirations of many teachers and school leaders have for these children.

Sue went on to demand that schools, teachers and their leaders, needed to own and understand the data that exists around pupils and poverty, so that they could use this to inform structures and practices, and to target interventions, to better meet the needs of all learners. Schools and education are the route out of poverty, and it is not acceptable that some schools were more equitable than others. Schools have a duty to ensure all can succeed and they system needs attention at macro, meso and micro levels to ensure this happens.

So what strategies need to be in place, and which ones have been proven to work? 

The three key strategies Sue identified were:

Knowing who your target group are. It seems obvious, but we really do need to identify who the children and families who are most at risk, so that we can target our resources and strategies to make a difference. We need to know who they are so that can collect data and monitor to show if interventions are working and being successful.

Next we need to focus on outcomes not the activities. Sue used the example of Homework clubs, which some headteachers and directors feel do not work, often citing that when they run them it is the middle-class kids who turn up and use them. The clubs can then fall by the wayside or become the preserve of those who are most advantaged anyway. But Homework clubs can work if the target group of children are focused on and strategies put in place to encourage and facilitate their engagement. So it is not the Homework club, the activity, that should be the focus, but the desired outcome of supporting those most at risk of missing out.

Finally we need to really focus on the quality of our interventions and their implementation. We need to be persistent, resilient and sustained in our efforts. So, we need high quality interventions, based on informed data, and we need to be determined to keep going with these, despite the obstacles and challenges we will face, as this is the only way we will achieve our desired outcomes. Knowledge-driven interventions are crucial, and schools need to understand which interventions have the greatest impact on attainment. It is not acceptable just to try different things out, but we should do this in an informed way, and in ways that have been proven to have impact. Getting parents to listen to their children read at home has a limited positive impact. But, if you show parents how to use a strategy like 'Pause, Prompt, Praise' this has very large positive impacts. So we need to work with parents so that they are better able to support their children at home, to, produce the greatest effects for the learners.

Sue has identified a range of structural and pedagogical changes that can make a real difference to those children most at risk. It comes as no surprise to me and others that excellent learning and teaching practices can lead to massive improvements for all learners, including those most at risk of missing out due to poverty and deprivation. If all teachers keep relentlessly developing and improving their practice and understanding, they will bring about improvements for all learners. But, structural changes, partnership working and collaboration are vital as well to support the work of teachers and their leaders. I agree with her that policies, such as 'Getting It Right For Every Child' (GIRFEC), can't deliver the changes and improvements that are necessary, only teachers and their leaders can do this, but they can support what we all need to do.

I really loved Sue's final message for us all. This was that 'we all have the duty and the privilege to make education equally rewarding for all'. A sentiment with which I fully concur. What we do with our children shapes our world in the future. I hope, that like me, we are all determined to to make a difference to the lives of all our learners, whatever challenges they face. It starts with me, and it starts with you.

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