The Scottish government is pumping millions into education in a bid to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It has now published a report on the impact of this increased spending.
The findings prompted education secretary John Swinney to say that it was “heartening” to see progress was being made. Here, we take a closer look at the research – and ask whether he is right to be optimistic.
So, did the report show that the attainment gap was closing?
The 171-page report focuses on the first two years of the £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund (2015-16 and 2016-17) and therefore does not include analysis of the most high-profile aspect of the programme, Pupil Equity Funding (PEF), which started this school year (see bit.ly/ASFundReport).
The report says that there is a lack of data on how well pupils are performing, so it is impossible to say if the gap is closing, particularly in primary schools.
As the report puts it: “Ultimately, without more evidence, at this stage we are unable to conclude the level of impact the fund may have had in raising attainment and closing the poverty-related gap.”
Why did John Swinney say that progress was being made, then?
The government conducted surveys of headteachers at the end of year one (when 181 heads responded) and year two (when 315 heads responded).
In the first year, 77 per cent of heads stated that they had seen an improvement in closing the poverty-related gap in literacy, numeracy or health and wellbeing in their school. In the second year, 78 per cent of heads said they had seen improvement. However, teachers interviewed in a separate piece of research were more cautious. They “cautioned that it was too early to comment on long-term progress but many were hopeful”.
Was there any other evidence?
The attainment data that was considered includes “teacher judgement” figures on whether pupils were achieving the expected level for their age and stage in P1, P4, P7 and S3, as well as data on exam results from secondary school pupils.
The data on achieving the expected level is not considered reliable – it is branded “data under development”. In terms of the data on qualifications, it is doubtful that the money would have started to impact on these qualifications, given that the research looks at only the first two years of the Attainment Scotland Fund and money had only gone into secondaries in the second year.
However, the reading of P4 and P7 pupils was assessed when the Attainment Challenge was launched using the New Group Reading Test (NGRT). Across nine “challenge authorities”, there was no statistically significant narrowing of the gap in P4 and P7 pupils’ reading scores between 2016 and 2017.
However, Swinney highlights that, according to these tests, the attainment gap was narrowing in Dundee in terms of reading both in P4 and in P7. On the other hand, in North Ayrshire, according to this measure, the attainment gap was wider in both P4 and P7.
What were councils and schools spending the cash on?
The initiatives launched by schools and authorities tended to focus on literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing – as was the intention – but “progress around numeracy was less evident”, says the report.
The report also reveals that “funding appeared to be mainly used to support recruitment and staffing issues”. However, the report makes it clear that there were not enough teachers to go round. It calls staff recruitment “a significant challenge” and says this led to “frustration and underspend”.
How significant was the underspend?
Around £15 million. There was £52 million available in the first two years of the scheme but just £37.3 million was spent. This revelation prompted the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to say in First Minister’s Questions last week: “Money that should be spent on cutting the attainment gap now is instead lying in the government’s bank account because they can’t find the teachers to spend it on.”
First minister Nicola Sturgeon stressed that the Attainment Scotland Fund – which drives the Scottish Attainment Challenge that she launched in 2015 – was a programme running over the entirety of the parliamentary term from 2016 to 2021, adding: “Any money not spent in one year will roll forward to the next year – and every single penny, of course, will be spent on measures to reduce that attainment gap.”
Are there any other reasons for the underspend?
Timescales have been blamed. Because it took so long to get initiatives approved, schools complained of not having enough time to put them into practice and spend resources.
Was there any information about what was working well?
The report says there was “a clear belief” across all stakeholders that the fund had provided leadership opportunities and improved teaching skills. It adds that views on progress on parental engagement were “more mixed” and says this continues to be a “work in progress”. The report also finds that 97 per cent of heads expect to see improvements over the next five years as a result of the Attainment Scotland Fund.