Going up: Improving Scotland’s Attainment Levels

by Jackie Brock

Confession time. I believe fervently in the importance of attainment and achievement. I detest the way our education system marches our young people through an increasingly narrow range of options to the extent that on results day their learning journey – and its success – is judged by their grades at national and higher levels.

As a mum, my rhetorical views, have been challenged by this year’s Results Day and my child’s “disappointing” grades.

My rose-tinted assumption of a smooth journey to university was overturned. My annoyance that his school could have been more challenging and supportive clouded all the great achievements of the previous years.

Then, of course, we got moving. We explored all the options, identified a college course and life again feels full of possibilities.

But I don’t want to lose sight of how quickly my fundamental beliefs were challenged and, if I am not alone, how much we have to do to get behind the Scottish Government’s ambition to improve excellence and equity in our schools, early years settings, colleges and universities.

I have no doubt, now more than ever, that we need changes to be made in Scotland’s education system and changes in how we value and reward success among children and young people.

For me the question is who is our education system for? If it is for every child then how are we valuing the achievements and attainment of every child? Saying things like “university isn’t for everyone” or “there are some very good colleges”, is incredibly patronising and in no way demonstrates value. Beware: every young person and parent has antennae that can pick up tokenism instantly.

A critical starting point is the engagement of parents.

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting to volunteers who had been working in schools over the last year. One of those present was also the Chair of his child’s school’s parent council who said how pleased he was with his own child’s learning and the way in which teachers were monitoring and supporting progress.

I later outed myself as once being a civil servant who had been involved in the implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). I told him that I had rarely heard a parent talk so positively and knowledgably and it was a great sign that progress is being made.

We always knew that once we reached a tipping point with parents buying-in to the benefits of CfE, we would have succeeded. While it’s great to have international recognition that our system is innovative – for me, nothing beats a child, young person or parent speaking passionately about the benefits of CfE for their learning.

The Scottish Government is right to focus on priority curriculum areas, such as those highlighted last year by the OECD – literacy, numeracy and the uptake of mathematics. The equity gap between most and least disadvantaged, as well as between girls and boys is also critical to address, which is why we need to retain our efforts to improve wellbeing. As well as all the other benefits, these are real, tangible improvements which parents can buy into and feel increasingly that Scotland’s education is doing right by their child.

Before the summer, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney published the government’s plan to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education. Many of these ideas are reinforced in his formal Education Delivery plan. The extension of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is also underway.

Announcing the Programme for Government to Scottish Parliament yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also reminded of her promises around nursery provision, and school reforms. These include the provision of a qualified teacher or childcare graduate in nurseries in deprived communities as well as plans to consult on a new funding formula for schools in 2017.

These are all welcome developments but it is crucial that we take the action needed that will take forward the practical support required to support families and schools in areas of deprivation.

In early years we need to focus on reinforcing the opportunities for our toddlers to learn through play. We need to extinguish the notion that time spent playing is time wasted. It has very real and evidenced social and developmental benefits. We need to recognise this and enhance the opportunities available for some of our youngest learners. 

We need to support parents to support their children. Helping develop parents’ confidence will enable them to better support their children’s learning. Equally, secondary schools need to work closely with parents to make sure they know about their achievements as well as their attainment and make sure that parents can feel confident in how they can support their children around their choices and, particularly on results day, play their part in responding constructively and supporting options, if the results are unexpected.

School leaders must have the very best access to evidence for improving literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. We need to emphasise whole-school approaches and share more widely what’s working on a practical level, and what’s getting the best results.

We need to build on the best of the support currently provided, such as the brilliant work and support on offer from the Scottish Book Trust and the Paired Reading programmes provided through Scottish Business in the Community.

Finally, we need to reduce the bureaucracy which can inhibit school leaders working with the third sector. There are a number of wonderful resources available through the third sector but increased bureaucracy often means partnerships can be too difficult, cumbersome or simply too time-consuming for school leaders to negotiate.

By bringing together the coalition of partners who want to support schools, communities and families, and reducing bureaucracy in education, we can start to plan practical action that will help deliver in areas of deprivation and where the attainment gap is most evident.

These should in turn improve overall attainment levels for pupils in Scotland and increase the opportunities available to them.

If we are all better at navigating the education system, valuing every stage of the learning journey and engaged meaningfully with parents, it might even bring stress levels on Results Day down a notch.

About the author

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.

Follow Children in Scotland on Twitter @cisweb, and Jackie @jackiejbrock

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