As the school summer holidays start across Scotland, I’ve had countless conversations with Barnardo’s staff concerned about the children, young people and families we support through our schools-based partnerships. Many people we journey alongside are full of anxiety and fear about how they will cope over the summer months without the structure and routine the school day offers them.
We know children who will be living on a very limited diet, parents who will be going without food so their children can eat, families who won’t engage in any activities, and many others who feel overwhelmed by the crushing stress of persistent financial hardship. For too many families holiday periods can be the toughest time of the year.
Our recent Barnardo’s Scotland report, Closing the poverty-related attainment gap; early learning from our partnership work with schools and communities across Scotland, welcomed the national focus on the attainment gap. But it also identified areas for improvement: we know that a child’s experience of education can have a profound impact on their future opportunities and we also know that those in poverty often face the greatest barriers to reaching their full academic potential.
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However, our collective anxiety at the start of the long summer break illustrates the simple truth that no matter how effective an individual school is, they cannot bring about or sustain the kind of radical change needed to transform communities blighted by the impact of inequality on their own.
The Scottish government’s investment through the Attainment Scotland Fund has enabled many educational settings to develop innovative, bespoke solutions to problems within school communities. For example, this has meant an extension to much-needed family support and family learning, offering compassionate, practical and emotional support which can prevent or mitigate against the adverse effects of living in a low-income household. These services continue to be delivered over holiday periods, ensuring access to fun activities and respectful food provision for families. All of this contributes to closing the attainment gap.
However, we have a real issue with consistency. The lack of alignment of school level investment to wider planning processes and the long established "Girfec" (getting it right for every child) framework means we are missing out on the opportunity to make strategic decisions that take account of the spectrum of – often complex – factors which have an impact on a child or young person’s relationship with education, which are located in their wider world. This can include dealing with poverty, funding shortages, and teacher recruitment and retention crises.
Frankly, whatever extra money goes towards education, without simultaneously strengthening the capacity of local authority provision more widely, progress to reduce the attainment gap will be undermined and impossible to sustain in the longer term.
We also need to be honest about the time and resources it takes to achieve positive, sustainable change for families: in our experience effective, high-quality support delivered by skilled staff is what makes the biggest difference, but it cannot be delivered quickly or cheaply. This sort of work takes time and the current system of insecure, short-term funding critically undermines our ability to create stable, consistent, predictable services and relationships for the communities we support. Our children and families need a secure base – but this is difficult to deliver in a system in a constant state of flux.
If we are to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap we need a holistic and coherent approach that takes account of lives lived before and beyond the school gate. A failure to widen our lens will compromise our efforts to ensure that children, young people and families all reach their full potential.
Maureen McAteer is assistant director of attainment for the charity Barnardo’s Scotland