“There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils from the richest and poorest households in Scotland. This gap starts in preschool years and continues throughout primary and secondary school. In most cases, it widens as pupils progress through the school years. Most importantly, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school-leaver destinations and thus the potential to determine income levels in adulthood.” Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education, Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis (2014)

In February this year, the Scottish Government pledged £100 million over four years to support our most vulnerable children to reach their potential. Seeking to reduce the inequity their post code and family circumstance dictate.

The seven Local Authorities with the highest number of children living in the most deprived areas of Scotland will have submitted their plans to the Scottish Government on 8th May.

This is an important commitment to our children and young people and undoubtedly the eyes of the country will be upon those Local Authorities and Schools to see how this money equates to improvement. It will be the responsibility of all of us to ensure this is successful, in the context of a downward trend in literacy as identified recently in the SSLN. This is an opportunity for us to show that we really do know what makes a difference, that we are a professional group who use the latest high quality research to take forward local and directed initiatives designed for the community and driven by aspiration of that community not dictated from a distant Government department.

The reasons that this gap exists are complex and include many factors, it is clear that it is not a lack of aspiration for children or a lack of love. There is anecdotal evidence from many interventions being run by many services which show that when families do get engaged and feel empowered, the children’s outcomes improve.

What does make a real difference?

The report by Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis lists these interventions as key drivers that will bring improvement:

  •  effective parental involvement programmes that focus on helping parents to use appropriate strategies to support their children’s learning at home rather than simply seeking to raise aspirations for their children’s education;
  • carefully implemented nurture groups and programmes to increase social, emotional and behavioural competencies;
  • high-quality, full-day preschool education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • collaborative work in small groups if effective collaboration is thoroughly taught across the school and facilitated by teachers;
  • peer-tutoring, metacognitive training and one-to-one tutoring using qualified teachers, trained teaching assistants, or trained volunteers;
  • literacy instruction that has a responsive learning mix of decoding, fluency, comprehension, engagement and digital literacy research skills;
  • whole-school reforms, particularly those that are informed by research evidence and focus on improving attainment by using effective pedagogies, have a shared strategic plan that encompasses academic, social and emotional learning, are supported by significant staff development and are data-driven, multi-faceted and consistently monitor impact on attainment;
  • high-quality, evidence-informed, context-specific, intensive and long- term professional development;
  • mentoring schemes that adhere to particular characteristics associated with efficacy;
  • academically focused after-school activities such as study support;
  • targeted funding that avoids situations where budget increases in one
  • area are undermined by reduced budgets elsewhere.

These are clearly known to all of us, and the challenge that we all face will be to use highly effective evaluation and assessment of the children in our schools and to understand the context of our families’ lives, use research and then design interventions with our families to make effective intervention.

The seven local authorities will be able to develop this using money to secure staffing, for example, however every school could make use of this research and the report to focus on the children in their school who need help more than any other.

The key word to consider here is “equity”. Think of three children wanting to look over a fence. They are all very different heights. Giving all of the children the same chair to stand on will result in two children being excluded. Our job is to focus on the children who need a booster cushion or two and give it to them. The hard choice is that sometimes it is easier to give them the same chair and especially if the tallest child also has a really demanding parent!

It is absolutely clear that our parents need to be engaged with us. More and more of my colleagues are reporting how difficult it is to get parents to work with us. I hear story after story of evening workshops, information sessions and meetings very poorly attended, where often senior management teams and teachers have turned out and parents don’t. This is not an effective use of time and resources, so we need to find out how we can best involve our parents and how we can help them to come along and get to know us and help us to help their children achieve.

Think about the barriers that are in the way of parents coming to school? Lack of money, small children to look after, fear of feeling stupid if you are not literate, only a few of the reasons.

The challenge then is to break these down – focus on using the children to bring families in. Most parents will come into the class or come along to the performance. We need to make better use of the children to teach their parents.

Social media and the internet accessed by mobile phones provides a stream for us to inform and build a relationship with our parents and families. This is the brave new world and engaging parents needs to change and have a multi-faceted approach.

Use partners who can provide less “threatening” environments to engage with parents, local community groups and libraries will often support collaborative projects such as “bounce along” reading for parents to take toddlers into libraries to read and enjoy books together. Coaches employed by the library service are on hand to guide parents to the best books, and to help them with their own literacy if needed.

Economically, parents are facing the most difficult time. With welfare reforms still to be introduced it is unlikely that things will improve for them financially in the next few years. Have you considered the cost of the school day? What are you doing unwittingly, which is making school too expensive. Changing into soft shoes when you haven’t got enough money for shoes? Asking for £1 for Children in Need, when the family is already having to use a food bank? Get dressed up for World Book Day, when getting clean school clothes together every day is already almost impossible and there is no time, room or resources for making a homemade outfit/costume.

Engaging with parents and helping them improve their engagement and involvement with school and with learning is so hard. Yet, as we all know, that single improvement can make a huge difference to the children.

Like you I am challenged by this and sadly to my shame sometimes think , well I am trying really hard and they are not coming in! Not good enough. It is a key role for me to make my school not only welcoming but effective in supporting parents to help their own children if I am to make improvements for the children most at risk of missing out in life.

I am fortunate to be working in Glasgow where our response to this challenge has been outlined as structured, resourced, measured and localised initiatives. Maureen McKenna our Director has made it clear that the children deserve this work and that there are many initiatives already in place which are making a difference. This money, focus and the changes to systems and practice needs to make a difference to more children and families, needs to be sustained in best practice and needs most of all to be owned by everyone involved in learning, be at the core of their values and be promoted as the core business.

I have already shared some of this with my staff team and they are clear that we will need to make some changes to make this work. Their initial reactions are clearly those of a committed group of professionals who want that difference. Teachers will be focused on the learning and teaching, they will have time to research and discuss and share and implement the best practice . SMT will evolve the systems and programmes and policies from this work to sustain improvements and together we will remain an inclusive and nurturing centre of learning, hopefully gradually involving many more of our parents.

So, the School Improvement Plan is agreed, the plans are in place for the end of term events, like you we are praying for warm weather for our Sports Day, hoping that the children make the most of all the celebrations we have planned and that we survive until the end of June!!

It is going to be another busy year!