Scotland Communities and society, Education and children's services

Primer – Overview of Education Services in Scotland



Education is devolved in Scotland and Local Authorities hold a crucial leadership and delivery role in provision of education services supporting schools, pupils and their families to undergo a positive experience and achieve the best outcomes. This primer is designed to assist councillors in navigating their way through the system and provides an introduction to the issues.

This document is structured in the following sections:

  1. Schools in Scotland, an overview of the current situation with data and commentary highlighting recent trends in attainment, the fight against child poverty, the major contemporary challenges.
  2. The legislative framework, a focus on the relevant legislations framing the work and duties of local authorities
  3. Devolved School Management Guidelines, a summary of the guidelines, principles, and responsibilities to consider in designing the Devolved School Management Scheme for local areas
  4. Post-pandemic, reporting on covid-19 effects, the education system response, and recovery plans

Education System

In Scotland, local authorities have the lead responsibility for Education finances and head teachers share the responsibility locally for managing and budgeting for these institutions they are responsible for. It is a key task that councillors, officers, and schools share together with communities to ensure that services are successfully delivered on budget and with the right opportunities on offer for each child.

The Scottish Education system is composed of over 5000 schools distributed across the territorial competence of the 32 elected local authorities, the vast majority of schools are early learning and primary schools. Teaching staff is composed of 53 thousand people responsible for the learning of over 700 thousand pupils. At the heart of education policy in Scotland, is special consideration and provision for specific needs of different learning communities. Headteachers hold the daily responsibility of managing schools and local authorities have the important role of budgeting for all schools in their area. It is key to the success of the service that officers, councillors and head teachers, and all staff in schools work together as a team, in which they must include space and consideration for pupils, families, and local stakeholders. As a councillor, you will need to take important decisions about schools that will inevitably affect children in their learning experience and the information in this document offers some support.

Councillors’ role and responsibilities

The primary role of elected councillors is to represent their wards communities and people in the running of local councils. Building strong relationships with the community is achieved by taking time to visit schools and meet the head teachers, staff, pupils, and their families. Councillors will of course hear people’s concerns that can be generally or specific cases, investigate and address them, as well as regularly communicate back council decisions that affect their wards. Important to establish strong connections with the local stakeholders third sector, businesses and interest groups whose views and needs might be considered when making decisions.

Every councillor also has a leadership role, they advocate for their wards and try to resolve conflicts between organisations to pursue their community’s best interests. Leadership is also expressed in scrutinising and monitoring the services provided making sure they maintain the quality standard expected.

Devolved School Management guidelines

The councillor’s roles and duties reflect the core principles that are at the heart of the Devolved School Management guidelines:

Subsidiarity and Empowerment, the structure of Scottish education system is based on subsidiarity, from central government; funds are allocated to local authorities who then are responsible for budgeting their schools by allocating resources to the headteachers. Headteachers are the freedom, support and financial space to organise and manage their schools. While designing the new Devolved School Management Scheme it is key to set clear responsibility for specific services allocating suitable funds to those which are delegated to schools or third parties.

Collaboration, councillors are required to work in partnership with all the stakeholders involved in the delivery of the services including service users. This should be done in a collegiate and collaborative way, respecting the local and governmental guidelines and objectives, while maintaining central the interests of children and young people.

Accountability and Responsibility, while local authorities are democratically elected and accountable for budgeting and delegating resources to schools and third parties, headteachers hold operational responsibility for leading the learning and teaching within their schools. As senior officers within the Local Authority Headteachers remain accountable to both their community and employer. Local authorities might review their DSM scheme every three years in cooperation with stakeholders by self-evaluating and updating their services by considering best practices from other Local Authorities.

Clarity and Equity, detailed information about priorities and allocation of funding should be made available to stakeholders at all local and regional levels. Equable budgeting should reflect the characteristics and needs of local areas, for example, whether the school is located in an urban or rural area will affect the allocation of resources. Equity should be the precept for all budget decisions aiming at ensuring every child and young person has equal opportunities.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence

Scottish education system is Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Designed in 2004 and implemented in 2010, CfE was intended to offer a coherent learning experience to all children aged 3 to 18. This structure was designed to substitute the more rigid testing-based 5-14 curriculum, deemed unsuitable for the challenges awaiting children in the 21st century. Committed to maintaining high education quality, CfE is built on the principle of equality achieved through non-selectiveness, with the aim of helping all children to become:

  • Successful learners.
  • Confident individuals.
  • Responsible citizens.
  • Effective contributors.

 Closing the Gap

It is a goal but what does “closing the attainment gap,” mean? And is the gap closing?

When talking about education, the “gap” usually refers to the attainment between groups of students, specifically between the richest and the poorest groups. It is reported that children as young as preschool age from low-income backgrounds achieve disproportionately lower outcomes than their peers from economically advantaged ones. A more alarming element is the fact that this gap widens as children progress through primary and secondary school, with potentially a significant impact on young peoples future. Moreover, it is important to recognise that not only the attainment gap is rooted in economic disadvantage, but it also has the potential to determine the pupil’s income and health in adult life. This is a cycle that tends to reinforce pre-existing inequity by influencing children’s future from the start of their life and injustice that Scottish Government is aiming to address.

The negative effects that the attainment gap has on the individuals inevitably impact on communities they live in. Schools in more deprived areas consistently report lower educational attainment than those in more affluent areas. However, this is not a problem that only affects the more deprived districts. Child poverty in Scotland has soared in all Local Authorities in the past 6 years, and as many 1 in 4 children live today in relative poverty. This has direct implications not only for the children’s attainment, but also for their cognitive development, and psychological wellbeing.

Local Authority officers and councillors are at the centre of plans to address the gap with dedicated policies and extra funds directed at supporting communities and individuals most affected.

Scottish attainment challenge

Scottish Government has implemented a series of policies under Scottish Attainment Challenge program (SAC), aiming to tackle inequity and offer the best chances of success to all children. In this program, local authorities are equipped with designed tools and the ability to design targeted initiatives to support the most deprived children, such as:

  • Challenge Authorities, consisting of extra funds for the most deprived areas.
  • School programmes, supporting selected schools under the Challenge Authorities competence providing them with the ability to create ad hoc programs for children and their families.
  • Pupil equity funding, this funding is assigned directly to 97% of all Scottish schools to support children from low-income families.

School closure

The pandemic had detrimental effects on most aspects of the life of children and young people.

Education Scotland Equity Audit findings describe how during the pandemic, the inevitable disruptions of the education services have worsened issues that Scottish Government and councils have been trying to tackle, such as the income-related attainment gap. It is recognised that school closure, cancellation of exams and uneven online learning patterns have had an adverse impact on the social, mental, and physical health of all the youth, however with significant differences. The effectiveness of remote learning varied greatly; based on the household environment it took place in, resulting in disproportionately worse results for the pupils living in low-income families and those from deprived areas who may lack digital connectivity.

Online learning was provided, based on school ability to deliver and utilise online platforms. Crucially, local authorities in collaboration with Connecting Scotland have provided funding and support to help equip economically disadvantaged families with devices and connectivity to facilitate online learning. In most schools, indigent households were also provided with food and toiletry.

Attainment has also been affected. Defining attainment is a complex matter, influenced by age, subject and level, and patterns of substantial setbacks have been reported on a national level. The absence of a supportive in-person school environment has hindered the progress of some children. Recent national data show a significant drop in exam pass rate in 2022, as well as the alarming widening of the attainment gap between the richer and the poorer pupils that has doubled from 2021.

Post pandemic

Severe challenges have been faced and met by the education system in the last two to three years and have highlighted even more the importance of schools in providing a safe and professional learning environment for children and young people. The quick response by the education institutions in providing high-quality learning and experience emphasies the crucial role of all the school staff that worked tirelessly to mitigate the effects of the covid-19 pandemic. These efforts were well welcomed by pupils and families who generally felt supported by the approaches put in place by the schools.

Equity and excellence for all remain at the heart of local governments role in recovery.

These aims can be pursued by providing schools with the resources necessary to provide high-quality training for staff, integrating extra curriculum learning activities involving children and their families and supporting the most disadvantaged, providing equal opportunities for success to all. However, as Scotland and UK public services more widely face unprecedented financial pressure and families face rising cost. Therefore, challenges of providing education services and tackling the attainment gap are becoming more and more difficult.

Cooperation between local authorities and education institutions will be required to monitor and evaluate the impact of the long-term effects of pandemic and inflation.