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Holyrood baby: Attainment gap at primary school is holding children back

Born on 12 May 2016, Kirsty is a fictional child from a deprived area of Scotland

Holyrood baby: Attainment gap at primary school is holding children back

Last week was Book Week and Kirsty the Holyrood baby got to dress up as her favourite character, Kitty from Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue, to go to school. Her mum Caley helped her make the costume and even though it was only thrown together using items in her and her mum’s wardrobe, plus a headband with cat ears, Kirsty thought she looked great.

Kirsty loves reading. She’s now six and a half, and Caley took her to get her own library card over the summer. The two of them often spend afternoons after school at the local library, which Caley has found invaluable for keeping Kirsty entertained for free, as well as reducing heating bills at home. She was relieved when the council reopened the library after the pandemic; there had been suggestions it would close permanently but locals campaigned to prevent this. Sadly, one in eight libraries across Scotland have shut for good over the last 12 years.

Born on 12 May 2016, the first day of the last parliament, Kirsty is a fictional child from a deprived area of Scotland. Holyrood has been following her journey as a way of measuring progress on making Scotland the best place to grow up.

She’s now in P2. The attainment gap is already apparent – the most recent figures show it has widened in the last few years. In literacy, the gap between children from the most and least deprived backgrounds is 20.7 percentage points, while in numeracy it is 21.4 percentage points.

Kirsty’s literacy levels are on track, thanks to her regular trips to the library, but her maths skills have fallen behind and Caley feels like she can’t help. She hated maths when she was a little girl. This type of scenario, explains Russell Gunson of The Robertson Trust, is common. Barriers such as time constraints due to work, ill health, or traumatic memories of their own school experience can prevent parental engagement, which is “a very important factor for how well their kid will do through school and beyond”.

“Support can be put in place to remove some of those barriers, whether that be financial support through the social security system, whether that be improving quality of work and security of work, or whether that be about trauma-informed interventions that help parents overcome some of the things that they’re going through that are brought up by having a child going through school,” Gunson says.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Child Payment (SCP) bridging payments have helped Caley keep food on the table. She is relieved she will soon start receiving £25 per week – the government fully rolled out SCP last week to all eligible under 16s – but with rising bills she is stressed about what the next year will bring.

John Dickie, director of CPAG Scotland, says this feeling will be shared by many families. The SCP will “make a very real difference to individual families,” he says, but adds: “What’s critical now is that that’s kept under review in terms of the value of it. At the very least we need to see next financial year that it holds its real terms value… That’ll mean uprating it in line with inflation from April, so it buys families next year what it’s buying them this year.”

But he says the investment is part of wider efforts across Scotland to end child poverty – including at school level. “There’s a lot of schools now looking really effectively at how financial barriers prevent children from fully participating in the school. If [Kirsty’s] at a school that’s going through that kind of poverty and cost awareness and is seeking to remove charges for school trips, any charges for resources or outdoor learning gear, if it’s a school that’s got a flexible, affordable, uniform policy, that’s making sure that fun events as part of the school day are free, and it has good regular communication with parents about the both the school-related and the wider financial support and entitlements, then a lot will be in place to reduce those barriers.”

However, he says the picture is “still patchy across Scotland” and support will vary by location.

Gunson says the same is true of support available outwith schools: “Some of the higher income areas have higher quality levels of wraparound support, and poorer areas sometimes have less and lower quality.”

And while families are feeling the pinch of rising bills, Gunson says those same pressures out mounting on the third sector too. He warns this will have an impact on their ability to support families like Kirsty’s.

“The organisations working in areas of deprivation are seeing their energy bills go through the roof,” he says. “They're staffed by volunteers and workers who’re also experiencing the cost-of-living emergency. They're on the back of a pandemic and, in actual fact, 15 years of hard economic times through austerity, through the financial crash. Organisations’ resilience to get through this winter and the next year or two is low.

“And so the very services that you would hope would be able step up as people are finding it harder, are also finding it harder and are staffed by people that are going through the same things… The cost-of-living emergency is absolutely impacting on what’s available to people and it's taking really heroic effort from across Scotland to keep those services going.”

Despite the tough economic picture, Dickie is optimistic that the Scottish Government is going in the right direction. He says: “The overall message is the supports available to Kirsty and families like Kirsty's have hugely improved over the last few years. The investment in best start payments, the investment in minimum school clothing grants, the investment in the Scottish Child Payment are all making a very real difference.

“The problem is that those families are also facing bigger challenges than ever before and we need to make sure we're responding to those increased challenges, those increased pressures that cost-of-living price rises are creating for those families and that we continue to make sure that the value of the package of support that's available is adequate to make sure that the government does meet its statutory child poverty targets.”

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