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School isn't the be-all and end-all of a fair education

It has been said many times, but needs repeating - the attainment gap cannot be closed by teachers alone, writes Jackie Brock

The Scottish government’s overarching goal of closing the attainment gap between our least and most disadvantaged children cannot be achieved solely through implementing the recommendations from its recent Education Governance Review. This is because they focus almost exclusively on the education system – which in isolation cannot possibly enable every child to fulfil their potential, however hard it tries.

Achieving the goal will be as complex and challenging as the issues that have given rise to the attainment gap in the first place. It’s the right goal and we welcome the ambition but success will rely on collaboration between the hugely diverse range of individuals, families, service providers and communities who together comprise the net that keeps each child safe, well and thriving, and which upholds their rights.

We think the government understands this. The 2014 Children and Young People (Scotland) Act supports this collaboration by placing duties on all of the children’s sector, including schools, to secure children’s overall wellbeing. Why then, is there no mention of it in the Education Governance Review’s recommendations?

Schools and their partners have worked so hard to integrate Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) into everyday practice, to create a “team around the child” and use the language of care, support and learning. Could these new recommendations mark a backward step towards an increasingly academic environment, where the pre-determinants of successful learning come second to preparing for standardised assessments – which have just started this school year, of course – and increasing scores?

Not necessarily. Scottish education has strong foundations based on GIRFEC and Curriculum for Excellence, and a teaching profession that values and promotes children’s wellbeing and upholds their rights – but schools and teachers are under pressure from some usual suspects in the media, and research that shows that we must improve literacy and numeracy.

So they need support and collaboration. This is why Children in Scotland has put forward a ten-point plan on behalf of the Children’s Sector Strategic Forum, which last month met with Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister John Swinney to discuss the next steps following the Education Governance Review.

This plan intends to support the aim of closing the attainment gap, and covers areas such as the importance of the 2014 act, mentioned above. The forum wants to do everything possible to contribute to this aim but our fundamental starting principle is that it must take into account the totality of children’s learning experiences – not just the 11 per cent of their childhood that they are in school.

Given the close correlation between poor attainment and children with additional support needs, which is exacerbated when those children also live in poverty, this should be a key focus for any future improvements – and there is a wealth of experience in schools and across the sector in how we achieve this. Given this evidence, it is inexplicable that the recommendations contain just a single reference to additional support needs in relation to managing placing requests.

We welcome the mention of engaging with community-based organisations and individuals to support schools’ improvement work. There are plenty of ways that this could be achieved, such as opening out of school hours or during holidays, or supporting the investment in more home-link workers to strengthen community links. There are huge opportunities to draw on the crucial contribution and resources of people and organisations from beyond the school gates – but it’s unrealistic to assume this can be done effectively by each of our 2,600-plus schools without any support.

Equally, we welcome the recommendation to give teachers greater autonomy and empower decision-making, which has generated so much debate of late. This should be extended to the whole team around the child and family, including volunteers, so that all relevant child-development issues can be addressed quickly. However, if this autonomy is not based explicitly within the GIRFEC framework, how will professional decision-making around individual children’s assessments, resource allocation, exclusions and non-attendance be delivered? What happens when other professionals disagree with the teacher’s or the school’s decision?

Finally, addressing the totality of children’s learning experiences relies on decisions being made close to the communities they affect. The proposed appointment by Scottish government of education directors to a new layer of “regional improvement collaboratives” threatens the exact opposite, with decisions being made by bodies and individuals who are not close to local communities and who are outwith the children’s services planning and accountability framework. Developing the current model of national partnerships, such as that of the Northern Alliance, and supporting them to further align with the existing system of children’s services, would be a far better investment of time and resources.

In short, it’s worth saying this again: the education system can do a lot to help close the attainment gap – but it cannot do it alone.

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Children in Scotland

This article first appeared in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 22 September 2017.

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