Attainment & Achievement of School Aged Children Experiencing Poverty

Created on: 24 Apr 2018 | Last modified: 26 Jul 2023

The EIS has been a long-standing campaigner on the issue of poverty and its detrimental impact on the lives and educational outcomes of Scotland’s children and young people.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s largest teacher trade union, representing more than 50,000 members at all levels in the career
structure and in all sectors of school education, has been a long-standing campaigner on the issue of poverty and its detrimental impact on the lives and educational outcomes of Scotland’s children and young people.

EIS position on child poverty

The stark injustice that a young person’s ability to thrive, to learn, to benefit from the myriad of opportunities that education has to offer, is stunted as a consequence of socio-economic deprivation, has never been acceptable to the EIS. For this reason, we welcome the opportunity to provide evidence to this Enquiry to inform what we hope will be more effective, strongly evidence-based policy and resource responses that reach all of the 260,0001 children and young people across Scotland who are living in poverty, regardless of postcode.

The EIS is clear that the key levers for reducing inequality of educational outcome lie within other policy domains than education- most importantly, social security and tax credits, employment and fair work, and taxation and housing, since these are the factors that determine the income levels of the families of Scottish school children and young people. Familial income, is, of course, the most influential factor in children’s in-school attainment and wider achievement; therefore, closing the poverty-related attainment gap requires an honest commitment to addressing the structural inequalities that emerge from policy decisions in those areas that are beyond the locus of the education system but which must be equally and fully aligned to social justice principles.

While factors external to education are of essential importance, the EIS is clear that all parts of the education system must be enabled to mitigate as far as possible, the impact of poverty on children’s and young people’s daily experiences of school and on their outcomes at each stage in their education. This can only be achieved by greater investment of financial, including human, resource in the education system, to enhance the quality of children’s and young people’s learning experiences since attainment and achievement are, in terms of in-school factors, a by-product of these.

Current context: more policy; less resource 

This Enquiry is seeking views on the effectiveness of current policy and resource interventions towards closing the attainment and achievement gap caused by poverty. In providing evidence, the EIS would wish to underline for the Committee, the condition of the system. While the design intentions of the current policy and legislative frameworks are designed to support the realisation of more equitable outcomes from the education system for Scotland’s children and young people, the levels of investment in education since the onset of austerity politics, and arguably even before, have fallen far short of ensuring this.

Simultaneous to the development of progressive education policy and the passing of associated legislation, both of which require more, not less, resourcing, teacher numbers have fallen overall by more than 4000 since 2007; the numbers of qualified teachers in Nursery have been decimated- at least a 39% reduction in the past decade; class sizes have risen; additional support needs provision has become ever-more sparse; the case-loads of Pupil Support Teachers have burgeoned; teacher salaries have eroded and workload generally is at an all-time high with the consequence that we now face significant recruitment and retention challenges. It is imperative that all who have an interest in the policy measures that are being and may be applied in the future, are fully aware of and honest about, this contextual reality.

Early years education

A principal element of education policy intended to reduce the impact of poverty in recent years, has been commitment to investment in the early years of children’s lives. Resources have been channelled into offering 600 hours of free childcare for all 3, 4 and vulnerable 2-year olds, with entitlement soon to be doubled. This is impressive and welcome as the importance of high quality preschool care and education has never been better understood.

Within the pre-5 service, however, it is crucial that the role of education is given adequate attention. The EIS believes that the quality of nursery education is being compromised by the scaling back of trained teachers in these settings, thus ignoring the wealth of research evidence that extols the impact of fully trained teachers, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.5

While the Scottish Government has committed to ensuring ‘access to a teacher’, some local authorities, with legal impunity, have been removing teachers from Nursery classrooms to reduce costs. The EIS concurs with the view of the wider education community that efforts to close the achievement gap must begin before formal schooling begins when the gaps in the development of children from poorer and more affluent families are already significant.

Further, in line with international and Education Scotland’s own evidence, the EIS is of the view that the pedagogical input of qualified degree-educated teacher professionals, as part of a pre-5 workforce, is an essential ingredient to the CfE 3-18 curriculum if it is to lead to more equitable outcomes as intended. In October 2015, the Scottish Government, seemingly persuaded that quality of early years provision is as important as quantity, announced its intention to provide additional qualified teachers or degree educated childcare workers for nurseries in the most deprived areas6.

Though welcome, the pledge reveals a misunderstanding of the roles of teachers and childcare workers, a lack of awareness of the value of qualified teachers in the early years of education as evidenced in recent research by the Child’s Curriculum Group7, and in terms of increasing ‘access to a teacher’, can only be a starting point. Without universally extending the commitment to a guaranteed minimum (and adequate) access to a nursery teacher, for all Scotland’s early learners, it will fall short of that required to meet the needs of the thousands of nursery-aged children living in poverty in homes whose postcodes lie outwith the SIMD zones targeted by the current policy.

GIRFEC and Named Person

Within the GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child) framework, inclusion is defined as children and young people ‘having help to overcome social,
educational, physical and economic inequalities’. GIRFEC, having been implemented to varying degrees across local authorities in the past decade, is
now enshrined in statute within the Children and Young People Act (CYP), with education authorities now bound to consider the effect of socio-economic disadvantage on wellbeing. The extent to which education authorities can act to mitigate the adverse impact of poverty on wellbeing, for example, through funding nurture groups, pupil counselling services, providing access to extracurricular activities, is, however, resource dependent.

The EIS has been clear from the outset and has repeatedly stressed that the Named Person (NP) service will not succeed in the delivery of its functions through the passing of legislation by national government alone. The introduction of such legislation, should the existing legal hurdles be overcome, cannot be cost-free, it having significant resource implications in those hundreds of thousands of cases in which a school is expected to be the provider of the NP.

The workload of teachers in Scotland is currently at a record high. In Secondary schools, Pupil Support Teachers are struggling with large, often unmanageable, caseloads; while in Primary, the workload of Headteachers, and where schools are fortunate enough to have them, Depute Head Teachers, is unsustainably demanding. It is therefore unacceptable to place additional workload burden generated by the associated administration of NP on the staff who will be acting in the capacity of Named Persons. It is the firm view of the EIS, therefore, that schools will need additional administrative staff to manage the increased recordkeeping and inter-agency liaison demanded by NP.

Furthermore, the level of support to children, young people and their families that Named Persons will be expected to provide, is not yet universally clear. The system therefore requires to be resourced such that Named Persons have time to consider information sharing in the interests of children’s wellbeing, to share it when judged to be appropriate, to meet existing needs, and to be responsive to changing and unforeseen needs arising from alterations to children’s and young people’s family circumstances or emerging emotional needs linked to their experiences of living in poverty, for example.This has implications for the numbers of teaching staff employed within schools.

For example, a Physics teacher in a Secondary school who is also a Pupil Support teacher and who has been identified as the Named Person for 250 children in the school, is likely to have less time available for the teaching of Physics than prior to the introduction of the NP service. Considering information, the wellbeing implications of sharing it, the wider legal landscape, and then, where judged appropriate, actively sharing the information with others, will take Named Persons away from the classroom or from other duties such as in the case of Primary Headteachers. In the case of the Secondary example, the gap would require to be filled with additional teaching staff whose specialism is Physics; in the Primary example, the requisite additional management time would have to be resourced with additional staffing. If the GIRFEC approach in schools is to be effective in addressing the wellbeing needs of children experiencing poverty, additional staffing resource, both teaching and administrative, is essential.

Additional support needs provision

The Additional Support for Learning Act (2009) has the potential to be a strong lever in tackling the effects of poverty on children’s learning and achievement since a disproportionate number of learners with additional support needs are from deprived socio-economic backgrounds.

In 2016, 170,329 pupils8 (24.9% of all pupils), were identified as having additional support needs and 95% spent at least some of their time in mainstream classes. In 2011, the overall number was 98,523. The increase over those five years is 73%. Against a backdrop of increasing numbers of children being identified as having additional support needs, and increasing numbers of children presenting with complex social, emotional, behavioural and mental health issues, and rising numbers of children in poverty, there have been reductions in the numbers of essential specialist staff.

Between 20129 and 201610 (per teacher census data) there were only five more staff categorised as ‘Additional support needs auxiliary or care assistant’ in Primary schools. In the same period, the number of Behaviour Support staff in Primaries declined from 45 to 19, a decline of 58%. In Secondary schools, the figures also show decline – 20% fewer ASN assistants and 4% fewer Behaviour Support staff.

Overall, the number of teachers with Additional Support for Learning as theirmain subject fell by 166 between 2007 and 2016, a fall of 5.4%. The reduction since 2009, when the number of such teachers peaked, is starker – a fall of 14.8%, with ASN teacher numbers falling in 16 out of Scotland's 32 local authorities over the period 2007 to 2016. Cuts to English as an Additional Language services are also of concern. As one might expect, this issue is particularly acute in areas of the country where there have been significantly high levels of migration of families for whom English is an additional language. Similarly alarming is the reduction in Educational Psychological services. The number of Educational Psychologists practising in Scotland fell by 10% in the three years from 2012 to 2015. There were 370 trained educational psychologists practising in Scottish local authorities in 2015 -10% fewer than the 411 in 2012. These staff provide valuable support to
children with additional needs and can be of assistance to teachers in meeting children’s diverse needs. Reduced funding training of EPs is undoubtedly a factor in this erosion.

What is now required is a review of the resourcing of additional support needs provision in Scotland. There must be genuine endeavour to ensure that what is promised in the ASL legislation is deliverable for the quarter of Scotland’s children and young people, a large proportion of whom live in poverty, and who require extra, often specialist support; and that the commitment to include all young people in mainstream education as far as possible, is fully honoured.

Class sizes

The EIS has campaigned for some time towards class size reduction, not least because of the positive effect that being taught within smaller classes has on the outcomes of children and young people from poorer backgrounds and those who have additional support needs. Notably, Finland, which measures high in international comparisons of excellence and equity, staffs its schools to ensure that children and young people are taught in classes whose sizes are favourable to producing such strong and equitable outcomes. The average class size is 1911.

Compare that figure with Scotland’s where in Primary 23.5 is the average, with a maxima of 33 other than in P1 which is set at 25. Secondary BGE, non-practical classes, frequently have 33 pupils in them- more than a third more students than in the Finnish equivalent; in the senior phase as students undertake National Qualifications, non-practical class sizes extend to 30.

The Finnish approach is underpinned by a consistent, undisputed commitment to equity as a fundamental aim of the education system. Regardless of the political administration, this remains a constant. The Finns mean it and they invest in ensuring it. They act on the evidence which shows that smaller classes have a positive impact on the attainment of children from more deprived backgrounds. Smaller classes enable each individual pupil to spend more time with their teacher, building relationships with their teachers and their peers, all of which can provide a major boost for their learning and attainment. This is one of the reasons why some parents in Scotland pay for private education- instinct and perhaps their own past experience tells them that smaller classes offer a more favourable learning environment for their children.

As Scottish education works hard to mitigate against the impact poverty on education – a situation that has grown worse in recent years and which is forecast to worsen still – reducing class sizes in our schools must remain high on the political agenda. All of our pupils, and particularly those who are disadvantaged by poverty, deserve the improved opportunities that smaller class sizes will afford them.

Progressive Pedagogy

Linked to smaller classes is progressive pedagogy. Having fewer pupils and students in a class opens up the space- both in terms of the physical space and classroom dynamics- in ways that are most conducive to learning and teaching approaches that encourage collaboration and creativity among pupils and students, and which are tailored more closely to the needs of individuals and small groups of learners. Curriculum for Excellence in its design was intended to encourage such approaches. 

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