The sheer scale of the challenge and the sustained effort required if the Scottish government wants to close the "poverty-related attainment gap" has been highlighted as a barrier to progress by Scottish local authorities.
The Scottish government has invested £500 million in its bid to close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils and first minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly made it clear that she wants to be judged on her education record.
However, a survey, published by the Scottish government, exploring local authority perspectives on the £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund shows that councils are worried about the enormity of the task ahead.
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The report states: “There were a number of broader considerations also raised, including the scale of the challenge in terms of closing the poverty-related attainment gap... and a recognition of the length of duration required and continuation of support required to address the scale of the challenge.”
The councils that took part in the survey – 28 out of the 32 in Scotland – were also concerned about what will happen to the focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils when funding dries up, according to the report.
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Eight councils (of the 24 that answered the question) said the focus would be sustainable to a “great extent”; a further 11 said it would be sustainable to “some extent”; and five said to a “limited extent”.
There were no responses that indicated such a focus would not be sustainable at all beyond the years of the fund.
Seven of the nine Challenge Authorities – the councils that receive extra funding because of high levels of deprivation – responded to this question: three said the focus would be sustainable beyond the years of the fund to a "great extent" and four to "some extent".
The report, published yesterday, states: “Local authorities were also invited to suggest factors which will impact on the sustainability of focus of the approach. Staffing and budget were predominantly mentioned, with concerns related to sustainability following withdrawal of funding.
"However, responses also indicated that collaboration, ‘pooling’ of resources, sharing of good practice, building capacity and focusing on staff professional development would be sustainable to some extent.”
The authorities also expressed concern about a two-tier system emerging both in terms of the difference in the funding available to councils as a result of the Attainment Challenge but also in terms of the difference in resources available to schools.
There was a “perceived funding inequity across schools” and “some perception, particularly amongst non-Challenge Authorities, of the development of a ‘two-tier’ system”.
Concerns were expressed by councils that rural poverty was poorly understood and not well captured using existing measures.
However, the research also highlights the positive impact of the additional investment.
The report talks about the greater focus on, and understanding of, the impact of poverty, as well as the increased collaboration at different levels that the funding had encouraged, across councils and schools.
The attainment adviser role is “viewed very positively overall”, according to the report.
There is also evidence, it adds, that councils are now beginning to focus on strategies proven to work and that “increasingly rich data environments” are emerging, with data and evidence featuring strongly in local authority decision-making.
However, the report also points out that there “remains considerable variability in terms of the use of data and evidence” and that "the volume of data was potentially overwhelming for some authorities”.
Education secretary John Swinney said the feedback from councils highlighted the fact that government action was having “a tangible positive effect”
He said: “This positive and constructive feedback from local authorities shows a clear majority feel our Attainment Scotland Fund is successfully supporting progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
“I welcome the views expressed on increased collaboration between schools and with partners, and that attainment funding has driven this. I am also especially pleased to see data and evidence featuring strongly in local decision-making and that the role of attainment advisers within local authorities is highlighted as a positive."
Mr Swinney added: “Improving the education and life chances of all our children and young people – irrespective of their background – is one of the defining missions of this government. That’s why we are investing £750 million during this Parliament to ensure every child has an equal chance to succeed.
“We know that closing the attainment gap will take time but the feedback outlined in this report highlights that what we are doing is having a tangible positive effect.”