`Poverty does not impair ability or potential'
A local authority that has defied some of the country's highest rates of poverty to record outstanding attainment levels has revealed the secrets of its success.
The End Child Poverty campaign published figures last year showing that a quarter of children in West Dunbartonshire live in poverty - yet they leave school with better qualifications than almost all other Scottish pupils in similar circumstances.
Some 17.8 per cent of pupils in West Dunbartonshire's poorest areas took away five Highers or more in 2013-14, bettered only by two authorities where far fewer children live in poverty.
According to education director Terry Lanagan, several factors have contributed to the area's success, which was highlighted recently at an attainment conference organised by local authorities body Cosla.
He named one of these factors as the way in which West Dunbartonshire council carried out a detailed analysis of Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results, drilling down to individual schools and teachers. In addition, he said, secondary headteachers inspected each other's exam results and ideas for improvement.
Onwards and upwards
The move in some schools towards teaching S4-6 pupils together was leading to S4s "raising their game", Mr Lanagan suggested. Specialist "raising attainment teachers", introduced to the council's five secondary schools in 2011 to support staff and pupils, were also making a difference, he said.
Each secondary school reports to the council's education committee every two months on what it is doing to raise attainment, and all run Saturday-morning study sessions at various points in the year. This year, Clydebank High School also ran 88 two-hour Easter sessions supported by nearly 30 staff.
Mr Lanagan said: "Schools noticed that the youngsters staying on for supported study after school were mainly girls so they asked why. They discovered that boys had other things to do after school but said they would come on a Saturday morning.
"I was sceptical but most schools are finding that equal numbers of boys and girls turn up, and in some schools boys are in the majority."
However, concentrating on the oldest pupils in isolation did not work, he said. "For some pupils, if you haven't done work earlier on it's too late by secondary, never mind S4."
West Dunbartonshire is one of seven authorities being targeted in the first phase of the Scottish government's four-year pound;100 million Scottish Attainment Challenge, which will focus on primary schools. Last week the authority found out that its bid for a pound;4 million share of the cash had been successful.
That money will fund 20 extra teachers in primary schools and four new education projects, one of which will be a focus on preparing children to make the transition to secondary school through initiatives such as numeracy summer schools.
Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) "hubs" will also be created in three primaries, drawing on expertise from the Glasgow Science Centre.
It will become clear whether West Dunbartonshire's success last year was more than a fluke when the SQA publishes new results next month. Schools were predicting good results, Mr Lanagan said.
Poverty expert Dr John McKendrick, of Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "Poverty and deprivation impact adversely on children's educational outcomes in ways that are all too obvious to teachers and others working in the classroom. However, poverty does not impair ability or potential. When we focus on tackling the problems that poverty presents, then better-than-expected outcomes will be achieved."
Meanwhile, Mr Lanagan defended plans to save pound;600,000 by removing four secondary depute headteacher posts and replacing principal teachers with faculty heads.
He said: "The changes are as a result of financial challenges but when we benchmarked against four other councils - Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, Dundee and North Lanarkshire - we found that we were very top-heavy in terms of our management structure."
Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said that in a recent meeting with education secretary Angela Constance he had highlighted cuts to additional support needs and a reduction in guidance teachers around the country as being likely to cause "a lot of problems".
It was also crucial to get the right teachers in to improve attainment, he said. "We need the best trained teachers in some of the most deprived areas - if that means paying a bit more money to them, that's what we need to do."