Publication: Encouraging progress on education data but still a long way to go

by Auditor General, Accounts Commission

Encouraging progress on education data but still a long way to go

Blog: By Antony Clark, Executive Director of Performance Audit and Best Value

Encouraging progress on education data but still a long way to go to understand variation and improve outcomes.

We know school education can have a huge impact on a young person’s life chances. Qualifications open doors to college, university, training or a job. And a good education and positive experience at school also builds the resilience and wellbeing young people need to step confidently into the adult world.

Improving young people’s outcomes, whether a school is in Inverclyde or Edinburgh, is a priority for the Scottish Government and councils. One of the barriers to achieving that aim has been gaps in the data. There’s good data on how pupils get on in exams, for example, but much less on other important outcomes like their health and wellbeing, confidence and resilience. Better data needs to be gathered to understand all outcomes, and to understand why outcomes vary so much across Scotland.

In March 2021 the Auditor General for Scotland (AGS) and the Accounts Commission published Improving outcomes for young people through school education. Using the available data, this showed wide variation in outcomes, like exam results, across councils. Our report also highlighted the large and persistent gap between how pupils from the most and least deprived areas get on (known as the poverty-related attainment gap), as the table below shows.

  Most deprived areas Least deprived areas Gap (percentage points)
Percentage of pupils who left school with five or more awards at level 5, 2018/19 46.5 82.7 36.2
Percentage of pupils who achieved the expected Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) level in literacy (P1, P4 and P7 combined), 2018/19 63.1 83.7 20.6
Percentage of 16-19 year olds participating in education, employment or training, 2019/20 86.6 96.5 9.9

Note: It’s difficult to compare the data in the table with what’s been published since then because of the impact of Covid-19, for example with exams in 2020 and 2021 replaced by teacher assessment.

Our report also found variation in the size of the poverty-related attainment gap between councils. That suggests that deprivation and poverty aren’t the only factors that affect variation in outcomes. Councils all face different additional pressures and challenges, like their geography, staffing levels, funding and local priorities. These factors need to be considered when you’re comparing performance across councils. Our report called for both better understanding of why there’s such wide variation in outcomes, and faster and more consistent improvements across Scotland. Understanding what’s causing variation should help identify the changes needed to improve outcomes.

What our report couldn’t do was comment as much on broader outcomes like young people’s health and wellbeing, confidence and resilience. That’s because that data wasn’t available at a national level, so we couldn't say if these outcomes were improving for children and young people.

Since we published our report, we’ve seen the OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence and the subsequent report by Professor Ken Muir on a future vision for Scottish education make similar points. Like our report, they both highlight the mismatch between Scotland’s education aims and the information that’s needed to understand and help improve performance.

What’s changed?

There’s now a lot of work happening across the Scottish Government and councils, and with Education Scotland, to address the issues the reports raised, including addressing data gaps.

For example, discussions are taking place about how to better measure variation and improvements in outcomes. That’s things like understanding the backgrounds of pupils and their needs, how the school works and how it works with other local services. It’s also about understanding the different approaches schools and councils are taking. And understanding what impact these approaches have on the range of important outcomes for pupils. It’s that kind of detail that could allow policymakers and people in education to better understand the factors that make the biggest difference to young people’s school experience.

Since our report, councils have worked with Education Scotland to look at their own performance and set out clearly the level of improvement they want to see in key outcomes over the next year (known as ‘local stretch aims’).

Lots of the Accounts Commission’s work highlights the importance of councils sharing good practice and learning from each other. There’s now a new approach to this in school education. Called Collaborative Improvement, peer reviews (where colleagues from different councils review each other) are being led by the Association of Directors of Education and Education Scotland. These reviews are helping councils focus on where they need to improve - things like their approach to closing the poverty-related attainment gap and improving pupils’ numeracy - and to learn from and support each other. All 32 councils are due to take part by October 2024, and over half have already completed their reviews.

The Scottish Government is planning to include new measures - such as attendance at school and health and wellbeing - in the National Improvement Framework from December 2023. It’s also thinking about how to better understand and give young people recognition for achievements that relate to other outcomes in the national curriculum, including confidence and being a responsible citizen. Including these will better reflect the range of outcomes that school education is expected to deliver for young people, as our report recommended.

We also highlighted that the Scottish Government’s key performance measures have less focus on children and young people who choose different pathways to their qualifications at school, such as an apprenticeship. The Scottish Government is planning to do more to raise the profile and highlight the value of these different pathways. For example, it plans to do this as part of taking forward the findings from the current independent review of qualifications and assessments, which the Scottish Government set up in late 2021. It also plans to expand one of the main data sets to include measures of wider attainment like this.

There’s still a long way to go, and it’s too early to tell what impact the work is having on outcomes for children and young people. We know it’s a complex job, but as my colleague Gemma Diamond said in her recent blog, “When public bodies get data right it can make difficult things easier”.

Data also has real implications for funding. The Scottish Government is continuing to allocate significant funding to reducing the poverty-related attainment gap. It has committed to investing £1 billion in the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC) over the course of the Parliament (2021 – 2026) to do this, and it spent £750 million over the previous five years. Over the five years, this is equivalent to around three per cent of total local government spending on education each year. However, our report raised concerns about how the Scottish Government allocated additional SAC funding across councils to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

These allocations were previously based on a council’s level of deprivation, using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). However, this does not fully reflect all families affected by poverty. We’re pleased that, following a recommendation in our report, there’s been a change. The Scottish Government now allocates funding based on the percentage of Children in Low Income Families Data, a broader measure of children affected by poverty across Scotland.

What happens next?

It’s encouraging to see the developments across the Scottish Government and councils to tackle the issues with data that we highlighted. We’ll want to follow up on these and see what difference the improvements ultimately make to outcomes for young people.

All these developments with data are happening against the backdrop of the current cost of living crisis and recovering from the impact of Covid-19, as well as the wider reform agenda for education in Scotland. This includes the National Discussion on priorities for the future of Scottish education, and restructuring and replacing some of the national bodies, including Education Scotland. There are risks with so much potentially changing at the same time.

We’ll continue to monitor developments and the AGS and Accounts Commission anticipate carrying out more work on school education at a time when it’s likely to be of most value.

Antony Clark, Executive Director of Performance Audit and Best Value