Scottish schools will get the London look

13th February 2015 at 00:00
But critics fear cutbacks may hamstring pound;100m attainment drive

The news that Scotland is to embark on a pound;100 million attainment drive inspired by a radical initiative in London has attracted widespread praise - but experts have warned that it may be hamstrung by education cuts and recruitment crises.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon this week announced the Scottish Attainment Challenge, committing to four years of funding, including an initial pound;20 million to help pupils in the country's most deprived communities.

The approach will apply lessons learned from the London Challenge, which over eight years helped the city's schools move from the lowest-performing in England to the best. The scheme will mean bespoke solutions for each school or cluster of schools, including extra staff and resources and an agreement to gather data to measure the impact of interventions.

There are no plans, however, to introduce some of the more controversial measures applied in London, such as the academies programme, which removes schools from local authority control, or the Teach First scheme, which fast-tracks talented graduates into classrooms.

"It is important we learn not just from good practice here in Scotland but also from elsewhere in the UK and overseas, to find ways of working that have the greatest impact," Ms Sturgeon said. "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."

But Chris Chapman, director of the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, said the plan was not a "silver bullet" and that the "demanding" approach of the London Challenge - which ran between 2003 and 2011 - had led to varying degrees of success when applied around England.

"That said, such an area-based approach would be a significant step forward for the Scottish education system," he added. "If we can develop a Scottish model that fits the Scottish context and is underpinned by Scottish values, we have a significant chance to transform the life chances of many of our children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds."

The London approach relied on advisers who worked closely with headteachers and were given "absolute freedom" over the methods they used, said Professor Chapman, who is also co-director of the What Works Scotland initiative to improve public services.

Primary school leaders' body AHDS welcomed the move, but general secretary Greg Dempster feared that ring-fencing the new funding would mean that "other resources will disappear out a back door".

"Similarly, questions will be asked about this injection of funding when budgets are in decline across the board," he said. "Also, the announcement specifically mentions employing additional staff. Clearly this is welcome, but as we have heard in recent weeks, many local authorities are struggling to fill existing vacancies or supply posts, let alone find extra staff."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said the pound;100 million fund was a "significant step" forward.

Mr Flanagan said he was pleased that Scotland would not repeat "damaging changes" to education imposed elsewhere in the UK, adding: "There is no meaningful support in Scotland for ill-conceived initiatives such as academies, free schools or the deployment of unqualified staff in teaching roles."

Professor Sue Ellis, co-director of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Education and Social Policy, said the plan was welcome but warned that the attainment gap was an issue in more than the least-affluent communities.

"Most kids living in poverty don't go to school in the most deprived areas," she said, adding that children who lived in poverty in better-off areas could fall under the radar.

Peter Reid, headteacher of Broxburn Academy, West Lothian, said he was "delighted" that there was a renewed focus on closing the attainment gap. "[But] sometimes there are barriers that they have not been able to overcome in primary school," he added. "If we could address them further upstream we would be able to do more in secondary schools."

Ms Sturgeon's announcement came after Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy announced his own pound;25 million attainment plan, with a focus on Scotland's 20 most "disadvantaged" secondary schools and their associated primaries. The proposals include doubling the number of classroom assistants in selected primary schools.

"It's safe to say that if we knew how to close the attainment gap in Scotland, we would have been doing it already, as this is the greatest shame in our system," said Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. "So we have to swallow our pride and perceived superiority [in Scotland] to learn from others."

`There are knock-on effects'

Broxburn Academy in West Lothian is in a former mining town that hit the headlines in 2013 when the Halls meat processing factory closed, with the loss of 1,700 jobs.

Headteacher Peter Reid, pictured, says that about 20 per cent of his school's pupils stand to benefit directly from the interventions proposed by the government.

"But you're benefiting all the kids," he says. "There are knock-on effects, less lower-level disruption. If the ones who mask their inability to learn with poor behaviour feel more able to participate, everyone gains."

Tailored support to improve literacy before children arrive at secondary school could have a far-reaching impact, Mr Reid adds.

"If kids have literacy difficulties - which is not the fault of primary schools but may be down to a lack of support at home - that prevents them accessing the wider school curriculum. If the basics can be dealt with early, then they're going to be much more engaged right through their school career."

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