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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 23, 2021


Scottish Attainment Challenge

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on closing the poverty-related attainment gap: the future of the Scottish attainment challenge. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I am pleased to provide this statement to Parliament on our plans for the next phase of the Scottish attainment challenge. I thank leaders in local government for their support in developing and agreeing the plans that I will now set out.

The Scottish Government is unwavering in its commitment to tackling the impact of poverty on children and young people’s lives. Since its launch in 2015, the attainment challenge has played a key role in our strategy to improve outcomes for young people. Building on that, and in the light of the pandemic, it is right that we take the opportunity to ensure that the challenge is designed to maximise progress.

Education continues to be absolutely central to how we can improve the life chances of our young people. That has not changed. We also recognise the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on the most disadvantaged in our society. Schools, teachers and those who work in partnership with them all play a vital role in the wellbeing and life chances of our children and young people.

As we continue to navigate the challenges that have been presented by the pandemic, we learn more about its impact on children and young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. In the primary school achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data that we will publish in December, I anticipate that we may see evidence of the impact of the pandemic on educational attainment. It is not for me to presume what that evidence will show, but given the evidence from our equity audit, we may well see the proportion of young people achieving the relevant level in numeracy and literacy reducing in comparison with previous years, as well as an impact on the poverty-related attainment gap.

I make it clear that we have a moral imperative to focus our resources on supporting the educational attainment and life chances of the children and young people who are most impacted by poverty. We are also determined to reduce the variability in the outcomes that children and young people achieve in different parts of the country. We are rising to that challenge by increasing our investment in the attainment Scotland fund from £750 million during the previous parliamentary session to £1 billion of targeted funding over the current session to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and support education recovery through the Scottish attainment challenge. Up to £200 million will be distributed in 2022-23. That has already begun through our delivery of our first 100 days target to issue the first instalment of that £1 billion commitment this year, alongside a £20 million pupil equity funding premium to further mitigate the impact of Covid-19.

Of course, children’s lives are hugely influenced by what they experience in school, but it is not only school that affects their wellbeing, readiness to learn and educational outcomes. From next year, the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge will have a new mission: to use education to improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty, with a focus on tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. That will embed SAC funding in our wider national mission to tackle child poverty.

We will of course maintain our focus on educational attainment. At the same time, taking account of the findings of the recent Audit Scotland and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports, we will look beyond those traditional metrics of success to take account of other skills and achievements.

I do not expect schools to do that alone. Indeed, teachers and education leaders have been clear with me that schools cannot do it alone. Schools and education services must reach out across services and sectors and into their communities to draw on the wealth of resources, assets and experience available across the country to achieve their aims and make their contribution to our targets to reduce child poverty. We know that many schools and authorities already do that well and support children and young people through, for example, family link workers. There is already lots of good practice to build on.

Although progress has been made in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, I am clear that the pace of progress must recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic and must increase. We are working with partners across education to develop a framework for recovery and accelerated progress, which we will publish in the new year. That will see greater support and challenge for all who contribute to the mission.

I have no desire to see teachers and headteachers tied up in bureaucracy when they should be doing what they do best—teaching. Indeed, I wish to work with headteachers to reduce the burden that is placed upon them. That is a key consideration as we work with colleagues to develop a framework for recovery and accelerated progress. Therefore, planning and reporting will be streamlined and will include the identification of local stretch aims for closing the gap, based on local knowledge and professional expertise. Those stretch aims will enable us to understand what schools and local authorities expect to achieve and by when. That approach is already being used effectively in some schools and local authorities. In Government, we will work with our local partners to develop the national picture in terms of pace of expected progress later in the year.

Alongside all that, Education Scotland will continue to provide a wealth of support to all local authorities via its senior regional advisers, attainment advisers, regional teams, national programmes of leadership and professional learning, and signposting of effective, evidence-based approaches to closing the gap via the national improvement hub and on-going development of the equity toolkit.

A key priority for Education Scotland will be sharing learning from what has worked in the Scottish attainment challenge to date, and working with schools and local authorities to accelerate progress. That work also remains a central theme within Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education inspection frameworks.

I am confident that our local authority partners, headteachers and teachers know their learners best. Since the introduction of pupil equity funding in 2017-18, we have invested more than £630 million, empowering headteachers to decide which approaches best support their pupils. I am delighted to announce that pupil equity funding will continue to be the central feature of the Scottish attainment challenge, providing headteachers directly with significant additional funding to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap in their school communities.

Building on existing good practice, we want to continue to encourage headteachers to extend their work with partner services to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap and increase support for children impacted by poverty. To enable that further, I will announce PEF allocations for the next four years, providing headteachers with the clarity that they need to plan their approaches and develop long-standing partnerships.

I will now set out some important changes to the funding distribution for local authorities. Following extensive consultation across the education system, I fully recognise the impact of the pandemic and poverty on pupils in every local authority area in Scotland—touching those impacted by poverty in urban and rural communities alike. Therefore, all local authority areas—not just the nine challenge authorities funded under the challenge to date—will have an enhanced leadership and support role to play.

All local authorities will share an investment of £43 million to help tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and support education recovery. Allocations will be set out for the next four years and we will write to directors of education shortly to confirm those. That will further enable local authorities to set a strategic direction for using education to improve outcomes for children and young people who are impacted by poverty; work collaboratively with their schools and school leaders to ensure that approaches across the system are evidence based and impactful; and draw in broader local authority and other services to contribute to that work. I will also continue to provide targeted funding to local authorities to support care-experienced children and young people and contribute to efforts across all services to keep the promise.

Finally, a number of national programmes that are funded through the £1 billion attainment Scotland fund will be enhanced in order to strengthen work with third sector organisations with a stronger focus on youth work, community learning and development and family learning services.

The evidence of our own analysis and Audit Scotland’s report earlier this year shows us that we have solid foundations to build on, but that we need to consolidate and accelerate the impact of the programme. Although we will build on those strengths through the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge, it will not be through that initiative alone that we make progress in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap and supporting education recovery.

The Scottish Government continues to demonstrate its commitment to excellence and equity in education through a raft of significant policy initiatives, which include investing almost £500 million in education recovery initiatives and investing in teachers. Ensuring that our schools have the highly skilled staff they need is a cornerstone of our recovery. That is why, over this parliamentary session, we will fund the recruitment of an additional 3,500 teachers and 500 classroom assistants and ensure that teachers have more time to plan high-quality learning and teaching by reducing their class contact by 1.5 hours per week.

We are also tackling the costs of the school day and ensuring that children have access to the same opportunities, including digital devices, school trips and school uniforms. We are making sure that no child is hungry in our classrooms by providing free breakfasts and lunches to every pupil in Scotland’s primary and state-funded special schools. We are providing 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare, which lays an excellent foundation for all children to progress in their school education, and we are committing to the young persons guarantee, to name but a few initiatives.

Let me be clear: nothing is more important than ensuring that every child and young person has the same opportunity to succeed in education, regardless of their background. We can and must deliver that for our children and young people, and the overall approach to the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge is designed to do just that. There will be a broader recognition of children and young people’s positive outcomes, continued empowerment of school leaders through pupil equity funding, a clearer role for all local authorities, continued targeted resource to support care-experienced children and young people and a clear framework that sets out our expectations for recovery and accelerating progress, which will enable greater support, challenge and collaboration throughout the system.

I am confident that, taken together, all that will help us to make significant and faster progress in delivering the Government’s vision of excellence and equity in education and closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 20 minutes for questions. Would members who wish to ask a question please press their request-to-speak buttons?

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Nothing that the Scottish National Party does to rehash the same failing initiatives can rewrite history. Nicola Sturgeon has broken her promise from the previous parliamentary session to close the attainment gap, and nothing that the SNP has set out shows any ambition to do so in this session.

Teachers, pupils, their parents and carers all know that simply throwing money around the system while ignoring the real challenges that our schools face will never work. What is missing is a credible plan to restore standards in our education system that ensures that pupils in every school get the education that they deserve. Only by refocusing our attention on teaching and learning can we hope to help those who start at a disadvantage, close the attainment gap and give them a fighting chance. Continuing to lower our aspirations and plug the gap with well-meaning initiatives alone cannot deliver the equality of opportunity and social mobility that we all want. Every wasted day lets down those who need our education system most.

After 14 years, how can anyone trust the SNP Government to get things sorted, when the only solutions that it offers are to double down on the same failed strategies?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I fundamentally disagree with the premise of Oliver Mundell’s question.

We have made progress in tackling the attainment gap. For example, across primary schools, the attainment gaps in literacy and numeracy were narrowing pre-pandemic. We have seen an improvement in positive destinations, and 90 per cent of headteachers have reported an improvement in closing the gap in respect of health and wellbeing.

I give as an example the discussions that I had with teachers this morning, when I visited the Citadel Youth Centre in Leith. They talked about the importance of pupil equity funding in allowing them to ensure that they are able, knowing what is right for their local community, to invest in it, and to work with children and their families to deliver results.

Of course we want the pace of the programme to increase and we want to ensure that we assist recovery from the pandemic. That is exactly why the money is increasing.

I am sorry that Oliver Mundell thinks that we are throwing money away when, actually, we are investing and empowering teachers. I am proud to be in a Government that is empowering teachers to use pupil equity funding in a way that results in better outcomes for children and young people. I hope and expect that that will pay dividends for our young people as they continue to go through a very difficult time, as we recover from the pandemic.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

That the SNP is choosing this moment to make callous cuts to the education of the poorest children in our poorest communities is grotesque and intolerable, and it almost defies belief. The policy decimates education funding for the poorest children in the nine poorest local authority areas in Scotland. Those children have suffered most in the pandemic; they have seen their life chances being weakened, as is the case again today.

I will get to my questions, because we are short of time. That means that I am also short of time to talk about the shameful and humiliating position on the issue from the SNP’s Green nationalist coalition partners.

I presume that the cabinet secretary is too ashamed to come to Parliament and set out the financial impact of the cuts. Will she tell us the funding allocations now, or is she too embarrassed to do so?

This morning, I spoke to one council leader of the nine challenge authorities who now has no money to pay for 120 front-line education staff from attainment challenge funding. What will the cabinet secretary have to say to the many hundreds of teaching and front-line education staff in the poorest communities whose posts she has just cut?

This is a betrayal of our most vulnerable children. The SNP said that closing the attainment gap was a “sacred mission”. It has just shown that nothing could be further from the truth.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I made clear at the beginning of my statement, we have worked very closely with local government on education issues, in particular. The change that we are making in relation to local authorities is supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, so I presume that all the criticism that Michael Marra has just directed towards me is also directed towards COSLA leaders.

I will, as an example, quote from a press release that came out today from COSLA’s spokesperson for children and young people. It says:

“Councils are on the frontline of efforts to support children and young people in poverty every day. That’s why we welcome the recognition that councils across Scotland will be pivotal in work to tackle the attainment gap”.

That is the response from COSLA on what has happened.

We absolutely recognise, as our colleagues in local government do, that poverty exists in every local authority area in Scotland. That is exactly why we have taken the decision that we have taken. We also know that poverty has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which is also present in every local authority area in Scotland. The redistribution of funding will be over four years to ensure that local authorities—in particular, the nine challenge local authorities—can work through the redistribution. That, too, has been agreed by COSLA. It is very important that we do that in order to ensure equitable shares of overall investment, and to ensure that we recognise where the concentration of poverty is in local authority areas. I stress that that, too, is a decision that has been agreed by COSLA.

As I said in my statement, we will write to local authorities in the next few weeks about the distribution, and pupil equity funding should come out in the new year, as it usually does.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I encourage back benchers and, indeed, front benchers to listen to the cabinet secretary’s responses. You might not necessarily agree with what she has to say, but you should have the courtesy to listen to the responses.

What progress has already been made in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap? What lessons have been learned from the first iteration of the Scottish attainment challenge?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Evidence shows that over the first five years of the Scottish attainment challenge almost all of our short-term and medium-term outcomes have been achieved. Across primary schools, the attainment gap in literacy and numeracy narrowed between 2016-17 and 2018-19. The number of university acceptances for people in the 20 per cent most-deprived areas in Scotland reached a record high, following the Scottish Qualifications Authority results day earlier this year. Importantly, 90 per cent of the headteachers who were surveyed in 2020 reported an improvement in closing the attainment gap and/or an improvement in health and wellbeing.

Kaukab Stewart is right that we need to learn lessons from what has worked and to know what we need to improve on. One thing that has worked is empowerment of headteachers through pupil equity funding, which remains a strong focus of what we are doing. We want to pick up the pace in tackling the attainment gap, which is why we are increasing support for teachers and local authorities to develop that work. That will ensure that we tackle the impacts of the pandemic, too.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests; I am a serving councillor in North Lanarkshire Council.

Recent reports have outlined that the Scottish Government’s pledge to revolutionise care of children in Scotland is under threat, as social work staff are struggling to deliver services because of understaffing, underfunding and a lack of resources. Although the cabinet secretary has reaffirmed the commitment

“to provide targeted funding to local authorities to support care-experienced children and young people”,

the Scottish Government must do more to achieve the promise. Therefore, will the Government commit to providing additional funding for local government to tackle such issues?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Meghan Gallacher will forgive me; it is not my place to announce local government settlements for future years. I am sure that Kate Forbes will do that in the upcoming budget. I am sure that she also looks forward to having a productive relationship with the Scottish Conservatives, if they make costed promises that they would deliver if they were working in partnership with the Scottish Government. We would be delighted to work in partnership.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments that planning and reporting will be streamlined, including the identification of local stretch aims for closing the poverty-related attainment gap. What reassurance can be provided that that will not add to workload and bureaucracy for our teachers?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is a very important issue, on which we are determined to work with schools, local authorities and teacher unions. Schools and local authorities already undertake improvement planning, and they use their local knowledge and expertise to help their ambitions.

The work that we are doing through the Scottish attainment challenge should not be an additional unnecessary burden. It needs to allow us to understand and accelerate improvement, which I am sure all headteachers wish to do. We are working with the system to learn from and build on the good practice that already exists. We are determined not to introduce new rafts of bureaucracy.

I take the health and wellbeing of our teachers exceptionally seriously. That is why, as we move forward with this part of the package, we will work with teachers to ensure that we are assisting them in supporting children and young people, rather than adding to workload and bureaucracy.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

In October, the Government shared with others the changes to the funding streams, which the paper that I am holding sets out. Those changes did not form part of today’s statement and have not been published. More important, when will teachers, parents and children find out how their school will be affected by the changes? I can tell Ms Gallacher, in answer to her question, that the care-experienced children and young people fund will be reduced by £0.1 million in 2022-23.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The member is picking one aspect of what is happening through the Scottish attainment challenge and what he said absolutely does not relate to Meghan Gallacher’s question, which was much wider and was about achieving the promise. We will certainly come back to the overall local government settlement, which is what I was asked about.

We have, of course, discussed our proposals in this area with local authorities for many months. Members on all sides of the chamber usually ask us—quite rightly—to work in partnership with our colleagues in local government. None of these decisions is easy, and there is no challenge on which we can simply move forward without working with our local government colleagues so that we make the best possible decisions. Those colleagues have supported the work that is going on and they have worked with us. I thank them for the collaborative and constructive approach that they have taken on the issue, which proves that national and local Government can work together for the benefit of our children and young people.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Pupil equity funding makes a substantial contribution to helping schools across Maryhill and Springburn to develop initiatives to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Will the multiyear funding that was announced today allow headteachers, together with local school communities, to now spend strategically to ensure that they can plan for the longer term, over a four-year period, rather than year to year, in order to best support young people in my constituency and across Scotland to reach their full potential?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That ties in very much with Kaukab Stewart’s question about the lessons learned. One of the lessons learned, which came across strongly from teachers and local authorities, involved their wish for a multiyear funding proposal so that they would know what to expect.

Last year, for the first time, we confirmed pupil equity funding allocations of more than £250 million for two years. However, knowing that schools know their learners best, and wishing to ensure that they have the ability to plan and make decisions in both the short term and the longer term, we want to develop that still further. The Government is responding to the consistent feedback from the system as part of its extensive stakeholder engagement, and I hope that the multiyear funding package will provide much reassurance to aid the development of the longer-term strategic plans that Bob Doris mentioned in his question.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The statement just paves the way for bad news to come on the already yawning poverty-related attainment gap. Years ago, the SNP Government promised to close the gap completely, but it is now set to get even wider. The SNP Government has lost its way in transforming Scotland’s education system, and fiddling around with the challenge fund is hardly the bold action that we need.

If the cabinet secretary believes that these measures will make a difference, can she tell me by which year the poverty-related attainment gap will be closed completely?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will not rehearse the figures that I have given in previous answers with regard to the improvements that have been made in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, in particular pre-pandemic, but we know that there is more to do. We know that we need to increase the pace of change and assist recovery from the pandemic, which is exactly why we have increased the investment from £750 million to £1 billion over the current session of Parliament.

As I said in my statement, we are working with schools and local authorities to enable them to deliver their stretch aims so that we can see the pace of change at which they think they can deliver. We expect that the pandemic will have had an impact on children and young people; we saw that in our previous analysis. Again, that is exactly why we are increasing funding, and we will work with schools and local authorities so that they can respond with their own stretch aims, and we will deliver the funding to support them in that.

We have always said that tackling the poverty-related attainment gap is a long-term challenge. That has been recognised by the OECD and by the International Council of Education Advisers, and we know that we have to pick up the pace of change on that. It will be a challenge, but we are certainly determined to deliver on it.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Unlike some other members, I welcome the recognition in the statement that there are children living in poverty in the 23 authorities that were not previously supported by the challenge fund, and that they are equally deserving of support. Has there been any survey work or consultation with teachers in schools, who have previously been supported by Education Scotland in how they deploy those funds, in order to ascertain whether that support and advice was in fact useful?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is something that I am very keen for Education Scotland to work on with teachers and school. We have made significant investment in Education Scotland with attainment advisers in every local authority and the regional teams that are there to assist them. However, we need to ensure that what Education Scotland is delivering is useful. In my statement, I spoke about some of the ways in which it is delivering support through the hub, with information about what teachers think has worked in the first phase of the Scottish attainment challenge. That is one example of what we are trying to do, but I am keen to hear directly from teachers to ensure that the support that they are getting from Education Scotland is what they need to deliver on the challenge that we all have with the poverty-related attainment gap. I am happy to hear from Mr Greer if he has any suggestions about how Education Scotland should improve its offer.

We have three questions and two and a half minutes.

In the development of the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge, what steps has the Scottish Government taken to tackle the poverty related-attainment gap in rural areas?

Emma Harper is leading by example.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Recognising that poverty exists in all parts of the country, including local authority areas that cover rural and remote areas, all local authorities will now receive funding for the first time. The distribution of that funding is based on the children in low-income families data, which directly measures household income and therefore provides a precise count of children who are impacted by poverty. That contrasts with the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, which does not always represent the needs of rural communities.

In addition, pupil equity funding continues to empower headteachers, with 97 per cent of schools receiving that funding this year. The programme will continue, so I hope that Emma Harper is reassured that we have adapted the policy to ensure that we are serving rural and remote Scotland well, through both the attainment funding and pupil equity funding.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

In West Dunbartonshire in my region, 4,189 children are living in poverty, which is an increase of 504 children since 2014-15. The attainment challenge fund has had six years to make an impact in tackling the attainment gap. Does the cabinet secretary agree that diverting the attainment challenge fund away from the most deprived areas takes away vital funds from those that need it most?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

In my response to Emma Harper, I read out how the funding is being distributed. It is based on children in low-income families data, which directly measures household income and therefore provides a precise count of children who are impacted by poverty. That is the distribution of funding that has been agreed with local government, and that is what we will be moving forward with, because we recognise that there are children in poverty in urban, rural and remote areas. We also recognise that the pandemic has had an impact right across Scotland and we therefore have to support children right across Scotland. It is unfortunate that it would appear that neither the Tories nor Labour think that we should be doing so.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned the cost of the school day. Does she agree that listening to parents and pupils has been at the heart of supporting families to deal with the cost of the school day at a time when Westminster welfare cuts have been hitting hardest?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important that we look not only at what happens in the classroom but at what is impacting poverty across society. That is why we have broadened out—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Mr Mundell is not interested in how we tackle poverty in Scotland.

I am.

Perhaps if he listened to what was going on, rather than hectoring from the side, he might be interested.

Cabinet secretary and Oliver Mundell, we are already over time.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As a Government, we are determined to tackle child poverty in the round, not just in education. That is why have been carrying out work to protect young people from the costs of the school day, which is one of the many ways in which we will protect children across Scotland from poverty.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It was remiss of me not to note that I am an elected councillor in Dundee, which is one of the council areas for which the cabinet secretary has just cut the budget.

That was not a point of order, but it is on the record. We will have a short break to allow those on the front benches to change over before the next item of business.