Scottish attainment gap won't be solved without wider measures on poverty

Published on
23 February 2022

The poverty related attainment gap won’t be solved while child poverty levels continue to rise in our communities and without further investment in support.  

This was a key theme from Barnardo’s Scotland earlier today (Wednesday 23 February), as Assistant Director, Maureen McAteer, gave evidence to MSPs at the Education, Children and Young People Committee, as it scrutinised the Scottish Attainment Challenge.    

Working with children and families

Maureen McAteer, Assistant Director for Barnardo’s Scotland said: “Through our direct work with families, we know that many parents are in desperate circumstances financially which destabilise the whole family as well as increasing the risk of low mood, isolation, anxiety and poor mental health. This situation has only deteriorated further over the last two years, with even greater challenges ahead as we prepare for the worst cost of living crisis in 30 years spreading and deepening the challenges in communities across Scotland.    

“Many schools do a phenomenal job of providing a safe, secure, nurturing environment for children and young people to learn and develop, but the poverty related attainment gap goes well beyond the school gates. We need to do more to reduce the levels of poverty and destitution, which erode children and young people’s capacity to engage in school and makes it much harder for them to make the most of the educational opportunities on offer.”   

Barnardo’s Scotland has a long history of working in partnership with families, schools and communities, but the introduction of the Scottish Attainment Challenge in 2015 has enabled Barnardo’s Scotland to extend its work to reach over 400 schools, which is 16% of the Scottish education estate.    

Specialist staff from Barnardo’s work within schools across Scotland, supporting children who may be experiencing issues or struggling to engage in education, as well as working with the whole family to help address underlying causes. The service remit is wide ranging, from helping children to manage anxiety and engage in classes, to supporting families with financial challenges, providing essentials including power and food parcels, as well as making referrals to other services where needed for ongoing support for parents/carers, such as mental health, or assisting with access to training.   

Speaking about the impact of family support and families’ rights to access this, Maureen said: “Feedback we’ve had from headteachers about the impact of this targeted family support work within schools is that it is ‘invaluable’, and that supporting wellbeing is the foundation for improving educational attainment. The benefits of this being embedded in schools also means much easier access to help for both children and families, allowing us to support families in some of their most challenging times, which in turn has improved those young people’s engagement with school.   

We believe that whilst existing funding has allowed much needed support to reach children and families, and prior to the pandemic some progress was evident, we are now seeing a significant increase in need. Securing long-term funding to scale up access to holistic supports for children and families is essential, so that people, irrespective of their presenting issue, can get the right support at the point in time they need it, for as long as they need it, no matter where they live across Scotland.   

The Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched in 2015, with a total of £750m spent in the five years to 2021 to tackle the poverty related attainment gap.    

Prior to the pandemic, Barnardo’s Scotland conducted research for a joint report with the NSPCC - Challenges from the Frontline Revisited – which found that an increasing number of families were experiencing destitution rather than poverty. This is where people lacked two or more of six essentials like shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing and footwear, and basic toiletries over the past month, because they cannot afford them. In the past two years, this situation has only worsened for more families.   

Maureen added: “The current system over-complicates how support is organised and funded. Issues are often compartmentalised thematically by talking about attainment, mental health, domestic abuse, poverty, substance use etc separately. However, in reality these are all interlinked elements of family support. And we know that access to the right type of support at the right time can make all the difference.”