What can schools do to tackle child poverty?

27th April 2018 at 00:00
Closing the attainment gap is about quality teaching, parliamentary inquiry told

Child poverty is rising again, after many years of decline. But how much can schools do to stem the tide of social change?

Here, we look at the initial deliberations of a parliamentary inquiry into poverty and attainment, where the ability of schools to offset the impact of poverty was raised time and again.

What was the thrust of the inquiry’s first session last week?

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead got to the heart of what concerns many teachers.

The SNP politician said: “My fear about the debate around educational attainment is we just talk about schools and teachers – whereas it’s other factors that influence education attainment, it’s not just the school.”

What research was presented on the impact that teachers can have?

A crucial point made by Danielle Mason, head of research at the Education Endowment Foundation, was that while schools can do much to improve the experience of pupils affected by poverty, this will not necessarily improve their attainment.

For example, swipe cards for accessing free school meals may reduce the stigma that pupils face without having a big effect on attainment; and the same principle can be applied to breakfast clubs and parental engagement projects.

Improving the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in Scotland’s schools, Mason suggested, “really is about improving the quality of teaching and learning”.

How was this emphasis on teaching received by MSPs at the session?

Not with wholehearted enthusiasm. Labour’s Johann Lamont, who is herself a former teacher, said: “My concern is that we recognise there’s a systemic problem, but we then talk about individual solutions: ‘If there was only a Mr Chips in every school, everything would be fine.’”

What else might make an impact?

Mason pointed to high-quality early years provision as a way of pre-empting the attainment gap between rich and poor, “which we know opens really early.” She also called for “targeted, evidence-based interventions in the classroom for children who are really falling behind”, and bemoaned the use of systems such as “triple-impact marking” – or anything that has little impact despite taking up large amounts of teachers’ time.

What does the data say about what schools can do to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils?

John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, said that, when controlling for deprivation, big differences were seen around Scotland, suggesting that schools in some areas were having a significant impact. “It really does depend where you go to school in Scotland as to how, currently, your fortunes look in terms of attainment,” he said.

Similarly, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, when it analysed the number of students gaining five passes at National 5, found stark differences between areas with apparently similar challenges around poverty. Its associate director in Scotland, Dr Jim McCormick, said West Dunbartonshire, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire and North Lanarkshire were “really bucking the trend and beating the odds, at least in that one indicator, [so] they must be doing something which other authorities could be learning from”.

Do the experts feel that the Pupil Equity Fund is working?

Kevin Lowden, a researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, said it was “far too early” to tell and that there should be a national evaluation of PEF, which this year – its second – is distributing £120 million to schools in an attempt to inspire innovative ways of closing the attainment gap. Lowden added that its effectiveness depended largely on school leaders’ expertise, but said that there is “patchy distribution of skills and knowledge about how to use often dwindling resources to best effect”.

In a separate parliamentary session later the same day, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was a fundamental principle that schools should decide locally how to spend the money, even if some uses may “raise an eyebrow”.

What was said about the impact of cuts?

Lowden said that, while there is a lack of conclusive data, schools “say this is very much affecting their ability to tackle the attainment challenge”. McCormick said increasing costs and pressures are being applied to families, primarily because of cuts to financial support. Dickie said the achievement of poverty and attainment targets would have been “much easier” when child poverty was falling.

What did the experts say about what Scotland is doing to tackle child poverty at a national policy level?

Dickie said that the 2017 Child Poverty Act gives Scotland something not seen elsewhere in the UK: a clear set of targets to eradicate child poverty by 2030.

Did they consider what other countries’ education systems are doing?

Mason said that around 10 per cent of schools in England had average attainment levels for disadvantaged children that were higher than the national average for all children.

Common factors in these schools’ success included: high-quality feedback for pupils; “metacognition – understanding the process of learning” (see “Have we forgotten to teach pupils how to learn?”, pages 22-27); collaborative learning and peer-tutoring; and good use of teaching assistants to target individual needs, “rather than using them as general classroom help”.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about parental engagement. Was this considered?

Yes. Mason said that trials of interventions that involved bringing parents into schools or to sessions in other places to “improve engagement with their children’s learning or to teach specific parenting skills to do with learning” had tended “not to be particularly effective”.

She did, however, cite one “very low cost” trial that appeared to improve attainment and attendance: parents were texted with prompts to encourage them to help their children with homework and preparation for tests.

Lowden pointed to the success of the Families First project in Renfrewshire, where in one initiative experts on boosting family income were embedded into schools. This was helping parents “out of really serious situations that were affecting the whole family, as well as the education of their children”.

Were there any other simple measures schools were advised to take?

Yes: remove unfair additional charges. Dickie said that school is often not free and the charges applied in certain subjects – including home economics, technical, drama and art and design – often squeeze out pupils from poorer backgrounds.

School trips are also a problem, said Dickie – especially P7 residentials, which could cost well over £300. CPAG Scotland, in a survey of one local authority, found that, on average, three or four pupils in every P7 class were not participating in the residential.

Any other points of note?

Extra support such as after-school study only worked, said McCormick, if schools took account of factors that may stop some pupils from getting the most out of it. For example, pupils may need help in getting home, to be provided with a meal, or take part with a supportive network of friends.

“It’s not enough to provide opportunities – you have to make that opportunity genuinely accessible,” said McCormick.

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