A Social Strategy for the 2020s

This article was first published in Times Educational Supplement on 31 May 2019


In recent weeks we delighted in TES, the mainstream press and social media coverage of success in closing the poverty related attainment gap.  The nine Attainment Challenge Authorities were inspected by Education Scotland between December 2017 and Spring 2019.  All reports have been positive and evidence gathered demonstrates a closing of the poverty related attainment gap.  We rightly applaud these improvements, and in particular the work reported as ‘excellent’ in both Glasgow and Renfrewshire. Making significant differences to children and young people’s lives especially those living in the most deprived areas is worthy of commendation.

However, no sooner had we celebrated this success than we had to react to the publication of exam league tables which are flawed and destructive to all that is positive in our schools. 

This has become an annual struggle and presents a real dichotomy in education in Scotland.  However, this article wants to focus on a different contradiction which needs airing, concerning the poverty related attainment gap.

The Scottish Government is clear in its intentions to achieve equity in education by ensuring every child has the same opportunity to succeed, by minimising the impact of poverty on attainment and has therefore created a Scottish Attainment Fund of £750m to be invested over this Scottish parliamentary term (2016-21). 

There is overwhelming evidence of a strong correlation between a pupil’s socio-economic status and their educational attainment. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have a higher chance of not succeeding in school. For example, the percentage of school leavers from SIMD 1 and 2 leaving school with at least 1 higher is 42.7% while those young people from the top two deciles the figure is over 80%.[1]

During the first two years of the fund, £52 million was distributed to the nine Challenge Authorities plus 74 additional schools with the highest levels of deprivation as indicated by the Scottish Index of multiple deprivation.[2] Pupil Equity Funding is allocated to schools using free meal entitlement data and given directly to schools to spend at the discretion of headteachers working in partnership with each other and their local authority. In 2017/18, £120,099,600 was allocated to schools across the country[3].  Unfortunately, it would appear that the Scottish Attainment Fund is not ‘new’ funding. 

While £170m from the fund has been allocated to schools and SAC programmes, the Revenue budgets to Councils has fallen by over £500m.  Local Authorities, who remain the statutory bodies for the delivery of education services have faced a reduction in funding since 2013. In May 2018, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) states that in real terms, between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the local government Revenue settlement decreased at a much faster rate (-7.1% or -£744.7m) than the Scottish Government Revenue budget (-1.8% or -£547.3m)[4]

This is corroborated by the Accounts Commission in its 2018 and 2019 reports which show that between 2010-11 and 2018-19, Council Revenue funding from the Scottish Government fell by 9.6% in real terms. Furthermore, revenue funding to support specific Scottish Government policies has increased from 6.6 per cent of total revenue funding in 2018/19, to 12.1 per cent in 2019/20. Scottish Government funding that must be spent on specific policy initiatives, such as the Pupil Equity Fund, now makes up an increasing proportion of total revenue funding and means there are limitations on where councils can make savings.  The Accounts Commission table below shows the reduction in funding to local authorities in Scotland[5].  


COSLA commented that having so much of the budget directed to Scottish government policy priorities “prevents local government responding to local need” and warned that resources available for existing services have decreased and therefore the impact on jobs and services could be “significant” [1]

On balancing budgets, local authorities have made savings and changes to service delivery. This has had an impact on other areas of policy and practice and therefore on children, young people, families who live in their communities.  Figures show a total of 28,142 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs have been axed by councils since 2010. 

Job losses are only part of the story.  There is evidence of council workers choosing to work fewer hours to ‘save’ their own or indeed their colleagues job.

This brings us to the dilemma – to the contradiction in realising the ambition.

The aim of the Scottish Attainment Fund is laudable but it does not get to the root of the problem – poverty itself.  In fact, as the above budget settlement shows, the creation and disbursement of the Fund could be working at odds and actually adding to poverty. We are on the horns of a dilemma - on the one hand the government are allocating additional funds while core controllable budgets to local councils are cut.

Councils are often left with few options and therefore cut hours and jobs.  The losses include: cleaners, dinner ladies, janitors and support staff. Who are these workers?  Evidence suggests that they are mostly local women who often have various low paid contracts.  It is not unusual to find these women cleaning the school in the morning and then moving on to a community centre pm.  Sometimes they are the only working adult in the family.  More significantly they are the mothers and grandmothers of the children in schools.   By cutting these jobs the system is driving children and families further into poverty.  Research shows that a major factor determining a child's chance of success lies in the experiences of their mothers and maternal grandmothers.

To close the poverty related attainment gap, we need to focus on raising attainment and on reducing poverty.  A report published in March 2019 shows that one in five are living in relative poverty in Scotland.  1.03 million people are existing below the poverty line with 240, 000 of these children [2].

There have been calls for the Scottish Government to use the powers they have to alleviate poverty.  Douglas Hamilton, Chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, said it was time for action.   He said: "If the Scottish Government is serious about addressing this, it should be making full use of their powers to reduce housing costs, improve earnings and enhance social security. "


Recent inspection and Scottish Government Evaluation reports show that education authorities and challenge schools are using SAC funding effectively to improve the educational attainment of children living in SIMD 1 and 2.  Our headteachers and schools are using PEF in a variety of ways to mitigate the impact of poverty on their children. 

The system is built on individual schools deciding what works best for their children in their context which has been universally welcomed. Most PEF plans include a planned spend for additional teachers and support posts.  However, the reality of the situation is that fewer and fewer of these are available and this may in part contribute to the underspends evident in the 2017/18 published figures (Appendix 2).  The shortage of teachers, educational psychologists, and other specialists could be impeding overall success.  To date there is little collated data on the specifics of or impact of spend by individual schools or by local authority area. However, anecdotally we know from schools that towards the end of the financial year they are searching for other things to spend their PEF on to use their allocation.  This cannot be the best use of public funds.  

Schools have an important role in closing the poverty related attainment gap, however, what they contribute should only be one aspect of a coherent social policy.  Education cannot “compensate for society” and if we make high demands of teachers and schools we must have “scrupulous respect for the evidence of socio-economic inequality and the changing nature of family and community life”.[3]

In a recent thought piece, Professor Walter Humes, University of Stirling, accused current leaders of having “a poor sense of the nation’s educational history”. He suggests that they “suffer from ‘the parochialism of the present’, a condition that focuses on current preoccupations alone and fails to consider what might be learned from past experience”[4]  He directed his thoughts to Curriculum for Excellence but it could equally apply here to closing the gap.

We have a rich history of evaluation and critique of social policy.  In the 1970s, Strathclyde Region broke new political ground by placing multiple deprivation at the heart of its priorities.  A series of strategy documents and policies were enacted during the 1980s and 1990s.  The founding principles for the strategy were the need for flexibility, joined up thinking and “the will and systems to effect change”[5] 

The Strathclyde Social Strategy did not focus on a single issue but took account of the fact that people live in communities, in groups, in families and interact with each other and should not be separated.

The lessons from Strathclyde are that a social policy to tackle “social exclusion” needs to

  • Be resourced with mainline money – programmes that are short term or characterised by uncertainty make success less likely;

  • upskill staff and communities to make the strategy successful;

  • have clear targets and continual monitoring of the effectiveness of action taken in relation to these and

  • be realistic about the time required. 

There are no quick fixes or silver bullets - the changes in skills and behaviour - and in organisational forms - cannot be achieved in less than 20-30 years.

Could we apply these lessons for a new social strategy to reduce poverty?  We need to do something different.  Douglas Robertson, University of Stirling, suggests that looking back over 80 years of regeneration in Scotland is akin to ‘Groundhog Day’, as many communities involved in initiatives and additional funding packages have changed little. He notes that deprived places, identified in the latest SIMD are similar to those identified in previous Index editions (2009, 2006, 2004). Of the 976 datazones found in the 15% most deprived in SIMD 2012, about three quarters (77%) were also in the 15% most deprived in all the previous editions.[6]  Yet the government is using SIMD to allocate funding from the Attainment Fund while we know the instrument is too blunt to get to the heart of the matter.

Scotland at this time has a degree of cohesion and consensus around the problems facing us and the ambitions for our people.  In June 2018, the Scottish Government and COSLA launched their revised National Performance Framework (NPF).   All councils signed up to the priorities and vision for Scotland it sets out. There is a strong focus on increased wellbeing, improving outcomes, and economic growth that is sustainable and benefits all sections of society. 

The vision statements set out in Scottish Government and Councils have more commonality than difference: they each echo in their own words a Smarter, Healthier, Wealthier and Fairer Scotland. 


There are many successes to date highlighted in various evaluation and inspection reports that some children and young people are benefiting from SAC and PEF initiatives.  However, these are not universal and it is not enough to reduce the impact of poverty.

The best political and civic leaders, headteachers and teachers in Scotland do not use poverty as an excuse for underachievement.  But we do spend too much time posturing rather than colluding to find solutions.

Scottish Government and Local Authorities are clear on their ambitions of realising the full potential of all. There is agreement about the challenges we face so let us harness a collective approach to resolving these.  It is too important to leave to individual schools and/or local authority area. 

The ducks are in a row and the building blocks in place.  If we work together, if we find ‘the will and systems to effect change’, we could yet make Scotland the best place to live, to work and to grow up in.




[1] http://www.parliament.scot/S5_Local_Gov/Inquiries/20171113_Budget_COSLA.pdf

[2]Scottish Government: Statistics on Poverty in Scotland (published March 2019)

[3] J MacBeath and P Mortimore Improving School Effectiveness 2000

[4] The parochialism of the present: February 15, 2019 Walter Humes http://sceptical.scot/2019/02/the-parochialism-of-the-present/

[5] Young, R (1999) From Multiple Deprivation to Social Exclusion: A case study in organisational learning and political amnesia.

[6] Regeneration and poverty in Scotland: Evidence and policy review Douglas Robertson 2014 (JRF)


[1] Scottish Government Summary statistics for attainment, leaver destinations and healthy living, No.7: 2017

[2] Equality Impact Assessment Results – The Scottish Attainment Challenge. Scottish Government. May 2018

[3] https://www.gov.scot/publications/pupil-equity-funding-school-level-spend-2017-to-2018/


[5] Accounts Commission Local government in Scotland Challenges and performance 2019 March 2019