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Attainment Challenge: pound;11m to close the gap

Seven Scottish councils received funds to improve the progress of their poorest primary pupils through the Scottish government's Attainment Challenge. Emma Seith takes a look at their plans

Seven Scottish councils received funds to improve the progress of their poorest primary pupils through the Scottish government's Attainment Challenge. Emma Seith takes a look at their plans

The local authorities in Scotland's Attainment Challenge were chosen because they have the biggest concentrations of households in deprived areas. Glasgow, however, faces poverty on a scale not seen in any other council.

Even compared with the other authorities taking part in the programme - Clackmannanshire, Dundee, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire - the educational challenge facing Glasgow is enormous.

The council has been handed more than pound;3 million to make a difference to the life chances of its most disadvantaged primary pupils in 2015-16, with the promise of funding for three more years. Like the other authorities, it is expected to improve literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing by - in the words of first minister Nicola Sturgeon - offering "the creative and innovative teaching that helps young people succeed".

Speaking engagement

Both deprivation statistics and local knowledge will influence how the money is distributed, according to Maureen McKenna, Glasgow's director of education. Without this approach, a cluster of four primary schools in Govanhill, where the majority of pupils do not speak English as their first language, would have failed to make the list of 119 primaries set to benefit from the cash injection.

She explains: "These schools don't necessarily have a high proportion of pupils living in the 20 per cent most deprived postcodes: Annette Street Primary has 25 to 30 per cent of pupils living in deciles one and two but more than 90 per cent of pupils at the school don't speak English as their first language."

As well as hiring 90 additional teachers, Glasgow City Council plans to employ 40 support-for-learning workers. In Govanhill, the primary schools are seeking someone who can speak either Romanian or Slovakian, so they can better engage with this growing community.

The schools also plan to extend a project running at Cuthbertson Primary in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh, in which Romanian families are encouraged to engage with the school through activities such as cake decorating. Once relationships have been established, parents are asked about the support they would like in developing their English language skills. At Cuthbertson, this has led to lessons that focus on the language needed in day-to-day life, such as the ability to make appointments.

McKenna says: "The influence from the home on what children achieve at school is huge. We need to have more parents supporting their children's learning but many have their own literacy challenges and it's difficult for them. We want to give them that confidence."

Engaging with families is a common theme of the Attainment Challenge. In North Ayrshire, the council hopes to recruit local people as volunteers. They will be trained to deliver parental workshops and will support individual parents in becoming more engaged with their children's learning.

In Glasgow, the council intends to expand its Families in Partnership programme. This involves schools organising activities such as museum visits and outdoor trips for families out of school hours, helping to improve relationships between parents and children as well as between parents and school. Families are also offered the chance to take part in the Triple P parenting programme.

Elsewhere, West Dunbartonshire has plans to improve parents' numeracy and North Lanarkshire has set aside about pound;450,000 every year to pay for family link workers.

Creating a nurturing ethos in schools, encouraging institutions to collaborate, increasing physical activity, improving leadership and becoming more data-driven are also common goals of the Attainment Challenge. Nevertheless, its emphasis remains improving learning and teaching, with a particular focus on literacy and numeracy.

Glasgow's 90 new teachers will be used to free staff in target schools to become "leaders of learning" - modelling best practice, delivering staff development, and working alongside other teachers as well as directly with children.

North Lanarkshire, meanwhile, will employ about 80 extra teachers to allow permanent staff to undertake professional development or take up other roles such as literacy or numeracy champions.

Reading the evidence

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report last year looking at ways to close the attainment gap in Scotland. The authorities' plans chime with the paper's recommendations, which include parental involvement, literacy teaching, nurture groups and professional development.

The report says: "Surveys from the Programme for International Student Assessment show that increasing reading engagement could mitigate 30 per cent of the attainment gap."

Professor Sue Ellis, co-director of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Education and Social Policy and one of the authors of the report, says: "Reading engagement closes the attainment gap between rich and poor students partly because of the practice effect - you enjoy reading so you read more and you become better at it - but it's also because when you read you acquire huge amounts of knowledge. Children know that rabbits eat radishes because they have read Peter Rabbit."

The report also stresses the importance of evidence-based practice, saying: "The Scottish education community needs a national evidence base of what works and professional development in how to use evidence. This will help practitioners to differentiate proven, promising and unproven approaches."

A number of authorities will be measuring their progress against the national improvement framework currently being developed by the Scottish government. Many, too, are looking to increase the expertise of their staff when it comes to gathering and analysing data.

Numbers game

In North Lanarkshire, schools will be supported "to embed systems for gathering, analysing and responding to data" and to implement "interventions underpinned by an evidential basis".

Isabelle Boyd, head of education, standards and inclusion, is leading the Attainment Challenge in the council. "We want good data to help plan learning and teaching, not to create league tables," she says. "This is about data making a difference."

At a classroom level, the council wants teachers to "make small tests of change", using the evidence they gather to inform their practice. Boyd adds: "It's about testing and checking as you go along to see if something is working. In some ways this is what good teachers do anyway."

The authority is recruiting a performance analyst to help, she adds. Meanwhile, Inverclyde has plans to hire a data officer and Glasgow is linking with the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change to ensure it has a clear idea of which strategies are working.

According to the Scottish government, the attainment advisers currently being recruited by Education Scotland to work with the Attainment Challenge authorities will in part be expected "to understand the effectiveness and impact of activity".

The government is in the "early stages of developing plans for evaluating the Attainment Challenge", according to a spokeswoman, who adds that "academics will continue to play a role".

The University of Strathclyde's Ellis says it is vital for the government and local authorities to get this evaluation right.

"If you are asking people to try innovative things, you cannot guarantee that they are going to work but you do need an honest admission of what works, for whom, in which circumstances and why," she says.

"That information will let you work out which projects you want to scale up and allows for the transfer of success."

Getting the London look: how a city's schools were transformed

The London Challenge is widely viewed as the catalyst for a remarkable improvement in educational standards in the city.

The Labour initiative, which ran from 2003 to 2011, had a fairly simple premise. It prompted collaboration between schools in similar circumstances, creating a network of school leaders undertaking deep data analysis and better London-wide leadership.

Notably, the scheme received a steady stream of funding for nearly a decade and was led by the respected educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse, who was generally left alone by politicians to get on with his work.

Other factors ascribed to London's success include the academies programme, which removes schools from local authority control, and Teach First, which fast-tracks talented graduates into classrooms. Immigration and an economic boom are also believed to have contributed.

The city's schools went from the lowest-performing in England to the best. Last year, Chris Husbands, director of the University of London's Institute of Education, described the London Challenge as the "international school success story of the past 10 years".

Little wonder, then, that first minister Nicola Sturgeon looked south when announcing her determination to bridge Scotland's stubborn attainment gap - although Teach First and academies will play no part in the Scottish approach.

"I have been particularly impressed with the results of the London Challenge in transforming school performance in that city and so, while not all of it will be appropriate to Scottish circumstances, we will draw heavily on it in developing our own Attainment Challenge," she said in February.

But Chris Chapman, director of the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, says the initiative shouldn't be seen as a "silver bullet". A crucial lesson from London, he says, is the need for carefully structured collaboration and networking.

As he wrote in TESS recently: "Even the most robust and inspirational strategy is doomed to failure unless all parties can work together under a shared vision." Henry Hepburn

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