A memo to John Swinney

26th May 2016

Tom Peters looks at Deputy First Minister of Scotland John Swinney’s move to Education Secretary, and suggests the steps he should take as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the attainment gap in Scotland and ensure the improvement of children’s life chances.

John Swinney’s move to Education Secretary may have come as a surprise to some, given his lengthy term as Finance Secretary. The change signals Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to make faster progress in reducing the attainment gap, the top priority of the returning government. At her speech in Holyrood yesterday, the First Minister made her belief in the central role that education plays in tackling poverty clear; saying that she hoped the government’s focus would bring "real and lasting progress towards true equality of opportunity".

But how wide is the gap that Mr Swinney will have to close to make good on the government’s promise? Our report with the University of Strathclyde suggested that, by age five, children from low-income households were up to 13 months behind their wealthier classmates, by age 14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely to do well in numeracy, and at 16 (S4) this significant gap continued between groups.

This government and its predecessors have implemented various policies and programmes in Scotland, but the gap remains. Our evidence suggests that Mr Swinney should implement the following steps to get the job done. These should form part of a comprehensive strategy to tackle poverty in Scotland, ensuring that the improvement of children’s life chances sits within a wider framework of interventions across the lifecourse.

Move to a single, supply-side funded childcare system: Numerous studies show that quality, pre-school education is effective. Under the current devolution arrangements, an array of entitlements is available from different governments. This hotchpotch offer should be rationalised into a comprehensive, supply-side funded system, with parental contributions capped at a proportion of earnings. Our research also suggests that quality (alongside quantity) is paramount for child development. Supporting improvement and progression within the early years workforce (with corresponding pay incentives) would be a good first step for the government to take while negotiating a path to a new devolved childcare settlement.

Effective literacy teaching: PISA surveys show that increasing reading engagement could mitigate 30 per cent of the attainment gap. Reading also has long-term effects on vocabulary and achievement in other curricular areas.

Build and share the evidence base: Across Scotland, the quality and quantity of attainment data for primary and early secondary school pupils vary widely. This makes data-driven project design and evaluation difficult. Clearer guidance should help practitioners to distinguish between proven, promising or unproven approaches to closing the gap, so that they can make the best choices for their children, based on local context. The Raising Attainment Collaborative offers a means of testing out small, practical improvements locally as well as adapting strong evidence from elsewhere.

Similarly, Education Scotland, Education Directors and local authorities all have a responsibility to ensure that projects which have been shown to work are spread around the education system. Whether it’s monitoring and sharing school level attainment data, requiring projects to include robust evaluations, or highlighting those that are proven to work and helping other schools to implement them, all parts of the education system have a role to play here.

Widen the focus of the Attainment Challenge Fund: While it does go some way to answering the question of resources - it is likely to invest £750m in reducing the attainment gap across the course of the new parliament – the Fund’s area-based targeting isn’t enough. Child poverty does remain highly clustered in some communities, but the majority of low-income families live outside the most deprived places. Our analysis highlights the need for every school to develop its own plan for reducing the attainment gap, to be supported to achieve it, and to be accountable for progress.