Scotland's attainment gap programme faces overhaul

Leaked document includes plan to scrap ‘challenge schools’ scheme from next year and do away with 'challenge authorities'

Emma Seith

Government to overhaul drive to close attainment gap

A leaked document shows that the Scottish government is planning to overhaul its flagship programme to close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, as well as cutting its funding.

The document sets out plans for a “refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge” and shows that the Scottish government will commit £190 million to the scheme from 2022-23, a reduction of £25.2 million on 2021-22 when a total of £215.2 million was invested in the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC). 

The report – a paper by council umbrella group Cosla – came to light before an update this afternoon in the Scottish Parliament on the future of the SAC.

Background: Progress on closing the attainment gap ‘limited’

News: Huge challenge of closing attainment gap is laid bare

Short read: Closing the gap? Scotland lacks the data to know

Currently, the SAC consists of the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF), which goes directly to schools based on the number of children claiming free school meals.

It also targets funding at the nine Scottish council areas with the highest levels of deprivation – known as the "challenge authorities" – and the 73 primaries and secondaries facing the biggest challenges in terms of poverty outside these council areas, the so-called "challenge schools programme".

On top of this, the SAC includes a fund to improve the outcomes for care experienced children and young people and a "national programme" that funds things such as targeted support from third sector organisations to raise attainment. 

The leaked plans show that the challenge schools programme will cease to exist from next year onwards – and the £7 million invested in it will be cut.

The SAC will also no longer be focused on the nine "challenge authorities" with the highest levels of deprivation: Clackmannanshire, Dundee, East Ayrshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire.

Instead, the £43 million these councils received in 2021-22 is to be shared among all 32 Scottish councils from next year onwards, “on a needs-based distribution agreed with [local authorities body] Cosla”.

According to the plans, the PEF – which allocates money to schools based on the number of pupils claiming free meals – will continue to exist.

In 2021-22 PEF funding totalled £147 million, but this included a one-off £20 million boost to support education recovery during the pandemic. In 2022-23 it is projected that this will drop back down to around £130 million.

The plans state: “PEF will continue to be distributed to schools based on a national allocation. The Scottish government have indicated that they continue to monitor the available data sources to best distribute PEF to schools [but] for 2022-23, free school meal (FSM) data will continue to be used.”

It is unclear from the document if the "national programme" – which last year attracted funding of £6.6 million – will continue to run next year. But £11.5 million is allocated in 2022-23 to the care experienced children and young people fund, down from £11.6m in 2021-22.

The document says the refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge contains three major areas of change from the programme to date: “mission, funding and governance/accountability”.

The document says there will be “a revised accountability framework for tackling the poverty-related attainment gap” and “greater national line of sight of how PEF is used and the impact it is making...without creating additional structures and bureaucracy”.

The document also says the SAC could become “a multi-year commitment from 2022-23”.

It states: “In light of the changes to the structure of SAC funding, the Scottish government have indicated their intention to strengthen the governance of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, including a review of reporting requirements, greater clarity on setting ambitions for progress at every level and creating an accountability framework.”

Earlier this year, a report from Scotland’s auditor general found that progress on closing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils was “limited” and “falls short of the Scottish government’s aims”.

The Audit Scotland report, published in March, said improvement needed to happen more quickly and that there needed to be greater consistency across the country.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched by the Scottish government in 2015. It has invested over £700 million to date.

This afternoon, Scottish education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said: "Closing the attainment gap remains our key long-term ambition. We are increasing our investment to £1 billion over this parliamentary term to support education recovery and improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty.

"We are determined to increase the pace of this crucial work and to ensure children and young people across different parts of Scotland reach their full potential. Our headteachers and teachers know their pupils best, and they have our full trust to help achieve this backed by £200 million for the year ahead. Schools can’t do this alone and we have fully aligned our work on closing the attainment gap with wider work to tackle child poverty."

In the Scottish Parliament this afternoon, Tory shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said the government did not have a "credible plan to restore standards in our education system", and was instead "throwing money around" and showing that it intended to "double down on the same failed strategies".

Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said the government was guilty of "betrayal" by pursuing "callous cuts" that would damage the education of the country's poorest children.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Willie Rennie said that, in the attempt to close the attainment gap significantly, "fiddling around with the challenge fund is hardly the bold action we need".

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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