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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2022


Scottish Attainment Challenge (Local Authority Stretch Aims)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the Scottish attainment challenge—local authority stretch aims for recovery and accelerating progress in 2022-23. 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 to update it on the setting of local stretch aims for raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

At the outset, I thank all local authorities for approaching the new requirement as part of the Scottish attainment challenge with commitment and rigour.

The Government is absolutely committed to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Since its launch in 2015, the Scottish attainment challenge has been a key part of our strategy to do that. We know that it has had a positive impact on children and young people. Our evaluation shows that almost nine out of 10 headteachers who responded reported improvements in closing the poverty-related gap in attainment and/or health and wellbeing as a result of Scottish attainment challenge-funded approaches.

To build on the progress that has been made to date and in response to the impact that the pandemic has had on children and young people—particularly those impacted by poverty—I have taken the opportunity to make some fundamental changes to the Scottish attainment challenge. Key among those changes is a new mission for the Scottish attainment challenge that focuses squarely on outcomes for children and young people: to use education to improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty, with a focus on tackling the poverty-related attainment gap.

I do not expect teachers to achieve that on their own. Schools and education services must collaborate across services and local partners to make progress.

That approach recognises that every local authority has a part to play. From the £1 billion investment in the Scottish attainment challenge over the course of this parliamentary session, we are now distributing strategic equity funding to all 32 local authorities. I know that that was welcomed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. That comes alongside continued investment of more than £130 million per year in pupil equity funding, which goes directly to schools, and continued funding to support the educational outcomes of care-experienced children and young people.

Alongside that significant investment, Education Scotland continues to provide local authorities and schools with a range of support. That includes a new approach that involves working with local authorities to agree a model of universal, targeted and intensive support. In addition, Education Scotland’s range of published resources includes the new “Scotland’s Equity Toolkit: supporting recovery and accelerating progress”, which draws together in one place the range of resources, research and learning from the Scottish attainment challenge.

Earlier this year, we published the framework for recovery and accelerating progress, which made clear the respective roles and responsibilities, and introduced local stretch aims, for closing the poverty-related attainment gap. I will now focus on those local stretch aims.

We know that a from-the-ground-up approach works best in embedding improvement. Therefore, the stretch aims have been developed by local authorities using local knowledge, data and expertise, and they express each local authority’s ambitions for learning and its learners. Local authorities operate in a range of different contexts and have different starting points for that work. At the same time, I am committed to the importance of ensuring that every child and young person has the same opportunities through their education, wherever they live in Scotland.

Through the range of analyses of the Scottish attainment challenge, we know that we are making progress, but we need to progress more quickly. A key element of the progress that has been made to date is a change in the culture and ethos across the education system, which has raised the profile of equity in education. Through the refreshed mission of the Scottish attainment challenge and the introduction of local stretch aims, we have shifted our focus towards outcomes for our children and young people who are impacted by poverty. Key to improving those outcomes is the work done in local systems with schools, third sector organisations and other local services.

Further, by introducing a requirement for local stretch aims, we also seek to ensure clear local ownership of progress towards the overall mission of the Scottish attainment challenge; drive a greater transparency around data for improvement, creating opportunities for learning and partnership working; and help to address unwarranted variation between local authorities in attainment and progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

With consistency and flexibility in mind, the requirements for stretch aims involve a core plus model. The core aims are a sub-set of the existing 11 national improvement framework measures of the poverty-related attainment gap. They include aims for literacy and numeracy in the broad general education phase and in the senior phase at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 5 and 6; sustained positive destinations through the annual participation measure; and a locally identified measure for health and wellbeing.

Alongside those core aims, for which all local authorities must set stretch aims, the “plus” element of the model enables local authorities to set aims for their own local improvement priorities. To be clear, the stretch aims are locally identified and determined by councils. Councils have undertaken rigorous local processes to set them and will work with schools to meet them, keeping in mind the local context, the continuing impact of Covid and the increasing impact of the cost of living crisis.

Collectively, the core stretch aims set by local authorities show a great deal of ambition for recovery and accelerating progress. Aggregated, they represent local ambitions for improvement on 2020-21, which was the last year of published data when the requirement was introduced, and 2018-19, which is the last year of pre-pandemic data. I welcome that level of ambition. However, I also know that, ultimately, what matters is the implementation of the plans, supported through strategic equity funding, that underpin the stretch aims and the progress made locally throughout the academic year.

For overall attainment and for closing the poverty-related attainment gap in literacy and numeracy in primary schools, the collective stretch aims of local authorities amount to working towards achieving the biggest two-year improvement recorded since the introduction of the challenge. If the stretch aims for literacy and numeracy are achieved in full and that rate of progress continues, we will be on track to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in primary schools, which is where the Scottish attainment challenge started. Given the effect of Covid-19 on children and young peoples’ achievement of curriculum for excellence levels in 2020-21, the aims represent significant local ambition for recovery back to and beyond the national position pre-pandemic.

For the senior phase, we asked local authorities to set stretch aims for SCQF levels 5 and 6. In contrast to the dip in achievement of curriculum for excellence levels—ACEL—attainment as a result of the pandemic, the changes to approaches to certification played a part in record levels of attainment in the senior phase in 2020-21. Therefore, I welcome local authorities’ aims to sustain or exceed the levels of attainment that were achieved in 2020-21.

In terms of the annual participation measure, which helps us to understand outcomes for young people, local authorities have set aims to improve on the already high 92.2 per cent in 2020-21 to 93.4 per cent in 2022-23, and to narrow the poverty-related gap by 1.2 percentage points. In terms of the range of health and wellbeing aims and the plus aims, which reflect local authorities’ various local priorities, there is a wide range of different aims for progress this year.

Those include aims for improved attendance and participation; aims that break down the component parts of some specific core aims—for example, focusing on the elements of reading, writing, listening and talking—aims for care-experienced children and young people; and aims that span the full learner journey. There are aims for early years and some that capture the full range of achievements of children and young people in the senior phase, including foundation apprenticeships and a focus on learner pathways.

What matters now is local progress towards those stretch aims.

Detailed questions on the ambitions of individual local authorities for their children and young people are for local authorities themselves to address. The impact of the pandemic—and now the impact of the current cost crisis—means the moral imperative to support our children and young people who have been most impacted by poverty to achieve to their full potential is stronger than ever. In that difficult context, we remain absolutely focused on our children and young people.

That is why, alongside the £1 billion investment in the Scottish attainment challenge, the Government is supporting children and young people in numerous ways. We are tackling the cost of the school day through the expansion of free school meals and continued investment in the school clothing grant. Teacher numbers are currently the highest that they have been since 2008, with the number of primary teachers the highest since 1980; and we have delivered the highest education spend among the United Kingdom nations, and more teachers per pupil than any other UK nation, while also protecting free tuition in higher education.

We are also listening to children and young people, parents, carers and professionals through the national discussion and our reform agenda, and we are delivering on the national mission to tackle child poverty through measures such as our increased Scottish child payment—a key benefit that is unavailable anywhere else in the UK and which is projected to lift 50,000 children out of poverty next year.

Taken together, those measures demonstrate the Government’s commitment to making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. We will continue to work together with our local government partners to deliver on our shared mission to improve outcomes for children and young people.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for that, after which we will need to move on to the next item of business.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance sight of her statement. There is a great deal in it and a great deal of information that lies behind it—we have also been sent spreadsheets—that deserves much more scrutiny. I hope that we will have lots of opportunities for that.

However, I welcome some aspects of the statement. One is the fact that the cabinet secretary acknowledges that it is not just down to teachers to achieve the reduction in the poverty-related attainment gap, and that there is much need for further collaborative work between agencies and services to support individuals and their families. I agree with the cabinet secretary that it is about implementation—we have been talking about that for a long time and it is not a new subject. Audit Scotland has made it clear that it has grave concerns about implementation and outcomes.

The cabinet secretary is also right to highlight the importance of attendance because, when I speak to teachers, they say that they have grave concerns about the regular attendance of pupils at school in general, particularly in the post-pandemic reality.

The statement makes some claims about narrowing the attainment gap. I think that those claims are highly debatable, because the facts do not always stack up with what Scottish National Party ministers like to claim in the chamber. However, many educational experts have said that, to restore Scottish education to the standards that we once had, we should be focusing on raising attainment overall rather than on closing the attainment gap, which could lead to an overall levelling down of Scotland’s educational attainment. I hope that we can all agree that we should be levelling up.

I need a question, Mr Kerr.

Stephen Kerr

I will come to my question now. Fewer pupils in primary 1, primary 4 and primary 7 are achieving the expected levels of literacy, reading, writing, listening, talking and numeracy. In relation to the statement, and the progress that is measurable, why does the cabinet secretary feel that so little progress—if we can agree that there has been progress at all—has been made so far in this work?

There was a lot in that question, and I would like to have spent some time on it, because there is a fair bit in it on which I agree with Mr Kerr, which does not always happen in debates. I welcome what he said.

We should strive for more of that.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We should certainly strive for more of that, and I will do my best.

Mr Kerr is correct to talk about attendance. I point out that attendance levels at the moment seem to be roughly the same as they were pre-pandemic, although I appreciate that there are concerns about why pupils are not attending, which might be for a variety of reasons. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and I have given attention to that issue and will continue to give it attention, and Mr Kerr is right to point it out.

I appreciate that there is a lot of information from each council on the matter but, when Mr Kerr looks at that information, he will see that, as well as information on the ambition to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, there is information on raising attainment overall, which is important and is something that councils, as well as the Scottish Government, are keen to do. I do not think that it is an either/or situation; it is about both, and I hope that Mr Kerr finds that in the material when he looks at it.

Pre-pandemic, year on year, there was a positive trend in the ACEL data, which has clearly been impacted by Covid, as Mr Kerr said. We need to wait for the new information on the results in the ACEL data for the most recent years.

On Mr Kerr’s first point on further scrutiny, I would welcome further scrutiny; indeed, I have written to the committee to invite it to do just that.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

We hear the statement from the cabinet secretary today, when schools are closed, kids are at home and striking members of teaching unions are outside this Parliament. The first action that the cabinet secretary must take is to solve this dispute as a matter of the utmost priority.

We must not forget that the policy refresh is being paid for by cuts for the poorest children in the poorest communities, which has been described in this Parliament by school leaders as an “immoral disgrace”.

The statement claims that

“If the stretch aims for literacy and numeracy are achieved in full and that rate of progress continues, we will be on track to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in primary schools”.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether that means by 2026? More cynical people than me will say that this exercise amounts to an attempt to pass on to local authorities the responsibility to meet the SNP’s pledge. No one will forget that it was Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge—her “defining mission”. This week, the SNP is asking teachers to do more. Is it right that, next week, this Government will be asking them to do more with much less?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I genuinely ask Mr Marra to approach this in the way that the Government, Education Scotland and local authorities have. It was a new process for local authorities, and I commend them for the way in which they have approached it.

When I talk about substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap, I mean by 2026. We recognise that there are different roles for everyone in the work. There is a role for the Scottish Government and a role for our national agencies, including Education Scotland and its attainment advisers, and the work that they do to provide support to local authorities. However, there is an important role for local authorities as well. They have a statutory duty in relation to the provision of education and the improvement of education services.

We are not trying to pass the buck; we are trying to genuinely work together to recognise our different roles, have some transparency on the data and deliver the improvement that we all want.

Mr Marra mentioned the current pay dispute with teachers. For the sake of time, I will briefly reiterate the Government’s position that the trade unions’ current ask of a 10 per cent flat rate is not affordable in a fixed budget. We are absolutely committed to resolving the dispute, but we need to find a way to do that that is fair and affordable within the fixed budget that we have.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

Clearly, it has to be a partnership endeavour, so how will the Scottish Government and its agencies support schools and local education authorities to achieve improved attainment and tackle the poverty-related attainment gap? I am thinking specifically about how the Government will ensure that the best practice that has been gleaned from all the work that has been done to this point is shared among councils and our schools, so that the delivery focus can be on approaches that have been proven to pay dividends.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Dey rightly points to the collaborative work that is required to solve the poverty-related attainment gap. The framework for recovery and accelerating progress that was published this year makes clear the importance of that collaboration right across the system to share best practice and close that gap. Education Scotland, for example, has a key role in professional advice and guidance, professional learning opportunities and subject networks, and through its range of published resources, including the publication highlighting effective practice in the use of pupil equity funding.

The launch of “Scotland’s Equity Toolkit: supporting recovery and accelerating progress”, which provides practitioners with access to a range of evidence and research, is also important. Again, it points to collaboration and to the way in which national Government, national agencies and local government are very much trying to work together to achieve the outcomes that we all want for children and young people.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

We can all agree that headteachers will play a critical role if we are ever to make progress in closing the attainment gap. The cabinet secretary’s statement claims that nine out of 10 headteachers have responded citing improvements in closing the poverty-related attainment gap and/or in health and wellbeing. To help people in the chamber and those who are watching, perhaps the cabinet secretary could expand on how that was measured, if we are now to focus on outcomes. Nine out of 10 sounds impressive, but how many headteachers responded out of the 2,129 headteachers in Scotland and how many of our local authorities are represented in that data?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I do not have the specific details about the number of headteachers who responded—the data was from the most recent headteachers survey—but I would be happy to provide that to Ms Webber. It is not a compulsory survey for headteachers to hand back to Government and its agencies. The figure was from that survey, and we will provide information on it in due course.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary set out what impact the cost of living crisis and the UK Government’s wholly inadequate response to it will have on our national mission to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and will she set out what action the Scottish Government is taking to support families through the crisis?

Is that relevant?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Conservatives are asking, “Is that relevant?” Yes, and let me be very blunt about why it is relevant. Although we can do everything within education to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, the easiest and simplest way to do so, if only we had the powers, would be to tackle poverty itself. That is absolutely why it is relevant and I am genuinely disappointed, but perhaps not surprised, that the Scottish Conservatives cannot see that link.

The Scottish Government analysis that was published in April highlights the devastating impact of successive UK Government welfare reforms that have been imposed since 2015, which have had a very detrimental impact on children and young people right across the country. Contrast that with the Scottish Government approach: in this financial year, we have invested £3 billion through a range of measures that will help to mitigate the impacts of the cost of living crisis, whether that is the Scottish child payment, the fuel insecurity fund or our new winter heating payment, which begins in 2023. I am determined, through the new stretch aims and the £1 billion increased investment in the Scottish attainment challenge programme, to support the work that is being done to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and to support those families who need it, but the lack of action that is being taken by the UK Government is disappointing and is certainly not helping.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary said:

“I do not expect teachers to achieve that on their own. Schools and education services must collaborate across services and local partners to make progress.”

However, with 1,784 fewer teachers since 2007, cuts to support staff over that time and cuts to staff at the centre, who in the schools and education services will do that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Teacher numbers are currently at their highest since 2008, with the number of primary teachers at its highest since 1980. There are now more than 2,000 teachers more than there were before the start of the pandemic, and the ratio of pupil to teacher is at its lowest since 2009. Through the Scottish attainment challenge, we have been trying to recognise and encourage the work that schools do collaboratively with other parts of the public sector and with third sector colleagues—that is one of the changes that we have made to widen our approach to the Scottish attainment challenge as part of the refresh.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement and the fact that all local authorities have set out their ambitions for tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. Can she give her view on the ambition that councils as a whole have demonstrated across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Again, I take the opportunity to thank councils for how they have approached this work. I am pleased to see that, when they are taken together, the stretch aims for progress point to real ambition, and build on the progress that was made, particularly pre-pandemic.

For literacy and numeracy in primary schools in particular, we are seeing ambitions to close the gap by more than 7 percentage points compared to 2021. If those aims are achieved, that will represent the biggest two-year improvement since the introduction of the challenge.

Councils have set important and ambitious aims, and the Government and Education Scotland look forward to supporting them in their work, taking close cognisance of the local context and difficulties that local authorities are experiencing in supporting children, young people and families during the cost of living crisis.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The statement is an admission that the poverty-related attainment gap will not be closed completely by 2026. At the current rate of progress, can the education secretary set out by when—what year—she expects that gap to be closed completely?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Forgive me if this is not correct, Presiding Officer, but I think that I mentioned that during my statement. For the avoidance of doubt—in case I did not mention it—I repeat that, if local authorities achieve their stretch aims for literacy and numeracy in full and that rate of progress is sustained, we will be on track to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in primary schools, which is where the Scottish attainment challenge started. If that was not clear enough in my statement, I add that we will do so by 2026.

What steps are being taken to improve outcomes for care-experienced pupils, and how are stretch aims used to drive improvement for care-experienced children and young people?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish attainment challenge has a very strong focus on assisting care-experienced young people. Funding continues to be given to all local authorities for that specific issue , and I commend them again for how they are approaching this work and learning from one another, with the assistance of Education Scotland, to ensure that we see an improvement in attainment for care-experienced young people across the country.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary mentioned in her statement that the Scottish Government has tackled the cost of the school day through the expansion of free school meals. We have all heard countless times about the positive impact that eating nutritious meals has on a child’s ability to learn. Why has the Scottish Government failed to deliver free school meals for primary 6 and 7 pupils in August, and when will free school meals be extended to secondary pupils? Does she accept that accelerating the provision of free school meals will have a positive impact on pupils’ attainment?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I agree that the provision of free school meals is an important policy, which is why the Scottish Government is committed to universal free school meals in primary schools. That is why the budget for this year included £30 million for capital improvements for local authorities, because facilities need to be improved to allow us to move forward with primary 6 and 7. That is exactly why we have had to look again at the timeline. For the benefit of Ms Gosal, I point out that the current system in Scotland is the most generous one in the UK.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary has set out the responsibility and approach of the Scottish Government and its agencies. However, provision of education in Scotland is clearly the responsibility of local authorities. Does she agree that it is crucial that every local authority, including North Lanarkshire Council, where I live, takes ownership of the national mission to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I do not mind repeating this: all local authorities have taken the development of stretch aims exceptionally seriously, which I commend them for, as it is a new approach that we have been taking.

As we have said on a number of occasions during this item of business, it is crucial that we recognise the different responsibilities in different parts of the education system. There is absolutely a role for the Scottish Government and, as I have mentioned previously, there is a statutory responsibility for improvement in councils, so it is important that we work together.

We support the work of councils with £43 million in strategic equity funding, which will assist them in setting the strategic direction for local approaches to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. The stretch aims that councils have set and we are publishing today underpin lots of detailed work, through a range of local approaches, that is already being undertaken to improve the situation in our schools and, therefore, to improve outcomes for learners.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

The first step to tackle the stubborn attainment gap has to be ensuring that our teachers are properly supported and resourced and that their health and wellbeing is properly invested in. What is the Scottish Government doing to reduce the increasing pressure that is causing so much anxiety in our overstretched teaching profession?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the ways—and it is just one of the ways—in which we would like to do that, and are committed to doing that, is a reduction in class contact time for teachers. That is a commitment that we have made, recognising the heavy workload of teachers. I completely appreciate and support the fact that national Government has a role in supporting our teachers. For the sake of brevity, I will leave it at that one example.