Opening doors to young people? The Scottish Attainment Challenge


Image: Scottish Youth Parliament

Mark Stewart, MSYP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, blogs for us on the Scottish Attainment Challenge: what it means for local authorities – and whether it’s worked. 

It’s exam result time up and down the United Kingdom, with pupils opening envelopes to see the piece of paper that, they think, decides their future. Some will be ecstatic at their success, and others will believe they’ve ruined their lives when they haven’t.

But why is it that a larger number of those from deprived backgrounds fall into the latter category? Surely in a fully developed country, with strategies and plans to close the attainment gap, we shouldn’t be seeing statistics like 85% of pupils from the poorest backgrounds making it to a “positive destination” (work, training or further/higher education) after leaving school compared to 96.2% of those from the richest backgrounds?

What’s being done about this?

Back in 2015, the First Minister launched her ‘Scottish Attainment Challenge’ which is putting the issue of the Attainment Gap at the core of the Scottish Government’s work. It aims to raise the academic achievements of children living in deprived areas, and wishes to encourage every child to be the best they can be.

Now, what does this mean in practice?

It means certain local authorities (Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, etc.) will receive money from the Attainment Scotland Fund according to their needs. The central aspect of the programme is to tackle inequity (not inequality) meaning certain schools get a certain amount of money depending on how much they require to help address the attainment gap in their school.

Has this worked? The short answer is no.

It’s been just over two years on since the programme launched, and there’s been no difference. Now, less than half of Scotland’s 13- and 14-year-olds are performing well in writing (49% in 2016, compared to 55% in 2014). On the attainment gap, it has not been reduced in the slightest. In fact, for S2 the scores for reading in 2012 had a 16-point gap (between the richest and poorest pupils), which has now increased to 18 points. Further to this, for Primary 7 pupils in 2012 the gap was 13 points. This has now increased to 20 points.

Why has this happened? The answer is because the money being used in the Attainment Scotland Fund is not being put into the right places. Instead of trying to spend the money on materials, they should use the money for further training for teachers.

I see it in my school. Pupils who come from a poorer part of my constituency (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) tend to have little to no positive relationships with teachers. In fact, they are more likely to find themselves in trouble which further hurts their relationship with the school.

If we were to invest this money in trying to help the teachers understand the struggles that these pupils face (and there are those teachers who do!) I predict we will see a significant decrease in the attainment gap. Why wouldn’t we? If we make school a happier and more positive place where pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds feel understood and feel respected, they would be much more likely to stay on. They would be much more likely to attend out-of-school lessons, and they would be much more likely to try to give back to the school that gave them that happiness which they perhaps never received anywhere else.

We should be opening doors to young people, not closing them.

Mark Stewart, MSYP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth