John Swinney: closing the poverty-related attainment gap is this government’s defining mission
John Swinney on a visit to Ferryhill Primary School
As any new parent knows, the early years pass by in the blink of an eye, and my first two years in post as Cabinet Secretary for Education have felt incredibly similar.
In only two short years, Kirsty has undergone an immense transformation, developing and growing at a rapid pace – and so has the education system within Scotland.
We have introduced swift and radical reform designed to close the poverty-related attainment gap, introduced further steps to create an early learning and childcare (ELC) system that is accessible and affordable for all, and been focused relentlessly on preventing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which so often can have a negative impact on the lives of those affected.
In our efforts to create a world-class education system that delivers excellence and equity for all, closing the poverty-related attainment gap is this government’s defining mission.
It is front and centre of everything we do so that we can equip generations to come – Kirsty’s generation – with every possible opportunity to thrive.
Last year, in a similar article in Holyrood, the First Minister outlined the work already happening to prevent this gap from occurring in the first place.
This includes initiatives like the baby box, which is already making a difference to thousands of families.
It also includes longer-term plans, like the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 which sets Scotland apart as the only country of the UK with statutory targets to reduce the number of children experiencing the damaging effects of poverty by 2030.
Our first ‘Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan’ was published in March and is supported by a range of investments including a £50m Tackling Child Poverty Fund.
The delivery plan sets out actions to increase family incomes, reduce living costs, and improve life chances so young people can avoid poverty when they are parents themselves in later life.
These actions will help mitigate against UK Government cuts which continue to take money out of the pockets of low-income families like Kirsty’s, pushing them into crisis and debt, and forcing them to use emergency aid. Instead, we want to invest in everyone’s future.
One in four children like Kirsty lives in poverty in Scotland, meaning they are less likely to get qualifications, a job or go to university.
But in a country as prosperous as Scotland, no child should have their chances limited by poverty.
That is why we are taking action right now to improve the life chances of our children.
The Universal Health Visiting Pathway, introduced in 2015, means that Kirsty, and every baby born in Scotland, will have increased access to services as an additional 500 health visitors are recruited by 2018 to deliver the pathway’s objectives by 2020.
If Kirsty lives in one of the areas where the pathway is fully available, her health visitor will have been to her home already to see her and her family, at least eight times by now.
In a few months, Kirsty will get a full development review which will help to identify if there are any developmental matters that are of concern.
By 2020, all babies born in Scotland will also receive a review at the 13-15-month stage to help identify whether any additional support is required, as early as possible, so that any intervention can be made timeously to support their development fully.
Now that Kirsty is two, her family circumstances mean that she meets the eligibility criteria for a funded nursery place starting from August.
She will also receive a free meal if she attends her funded place over lunchtime.
The Best Start Grant, which will be implemented by summer 2019, also means Caley will receive a payment of £250 when Kirsty is old enough to take up a nursery place to help pay for essentials.
In addition, eligible parents will receive up to £1,100 during their child’s early years.
We know that high quality learning in the early years improves outcomes for all children but especially those who are more vulnerable or disadvantaged.
Funded ELC also helps to reduce any barriers that may be preventing her mum Caley from working or undertaking training or further study.
That is why by 2020, we will have almost doubled the number of hours children like Kirsty, and all three and four-year-olds in Scotland, will be able to access.
Our expansion to 1,140 hours of provision will save families a potential £4,500 and ensure all children are given an equal chance to thrive.
And because we have asked local authorities to prioritise expansion in areas where there are higher levels of deprivation, Kirsty could already be benefitting from these additional hours.
This year also marked the start of the journey to create a united approach across the whole of Scotland to ensure we are doing all we can to prevent ACEs and to respond to them in the most effective way when they do happen.
ACEs are stressful and traumatic events in childhood that can have significant impacts on children’s development and long-term outcomes into adulthood.
They include abuse, neglect, and household adversities such as parental alcohol and
drug problems, mental health difficulties, domestic violence, imprisonment, and parental separation.
Although ACEs can happen to anyone, children like Kirsty are not only at greater risk of experiencing ACEs, but also have less access to resources that help reduce their negative impact, such as, sports clubs, leisure activities, and good quality housing and neighbourhoods.
By making sure children and adults get the right support, at the right time, we can support their resilience and prevent a cycle of adversity being passed down from generation to generation.
By the time Kirsty starts school in August 2021, the education system in Scotland will have changed significantly since she was born five years earlier.
Pupil Equity Funding, being provided as part of the £750m Attainment Challenge, will have just completed its fourth year, although Kirsty may have already benefitted, depending on how her school chooses to use their allocation.
Delivered directly to 95 per cent of schools, the funding is targeted at closing the attainment gap, and can be spent on resources and initiatives to help improve outcomes for children affected by poverty, including making the transition from nursery to school easier.
Reforms will also see more freedom for headteachers to make choices about curriculum improvement and funding at a school level, strengthened engagement with young people and parents in schools, and regional improvement collaboratives will be well under way in delivering a relentless focus on improvement.
I am hopeful that collectively, these interventions will mean Kirsty is already being given an even better chance to succeed than the generations before her.
The circumstances you are born into should not have a negative impact on the person you grow up to be.
Until that ambition becomes a reality, my cabinet colleagues and I will continue to work tirelessly to deliver improved outcomes for all of our young people and ensure Scotland continues to flourish as the increasingly fair and forward-thinking nation we all know it can be.