The General Teaching Council for Scotland

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Shetland’s Challenge

We explore what the Scottish Attainment Challenge looks like in a remote and rural part of Scotland

In a local authority with no children in SIMD Deciles 1, 2 or 3, only a few in Decile 4 and in which only 157 pupils are eligible for Pupil Equity Funding, you might be forgiven for wondering whether the Scottish Attainment Challenge is relevant. However, there are very hidden depths to the challenge in the Shetland context, as Attainment Advisor for Shetland, Suzanne Hargreaves, explains: “When you look at the data for Shetland, there’s very low unemployment, it does very well in terms of attainment, there’s a relatively high average wage, people live longer, there’s high levels of community involvement, there’s low benefit uptake, and it’s a very nice place to live. You would think then that there would be very few issues around attainment and poverty, but when you start to dig a little bit deeper inequalities become apparent.”

As large areas of Shetland are covered by one postcode, information on children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds is more difficult to gather. People suffering from deprivation tend to be more widely dispersed in rural areas and it can be difficult to determine how much deprivation there is, explains Suzanne. 

“If you don't have a geographical area of deprivation, as you might in a major city, then poverty tends to be hidden or individual. Living in a close community can discourage families from applying for free school meals, clothing grants and other entitlements because they don’t want others to know their business. For Shetland, we have therefore had to look at individual and household deprivation. “We examined what the poverty related attainment gap looked like in Shetland and ascertained the features and characteristics of individual and household deprivation in order to identify those who would benefit from targeted intervention.

“We asked teachers, ‘what are the kind of things that you notice about children who are not thriving in the same way as others,’ and from this we developed a checklist that would support teachers’ judgement in identifying children in need of targeted intervention.”

Specific to the Shetland context, and to other rural parts of Scotland, is what has been termed “poverty of opportunity”. In the Shetland context a person’s vulnerability depends more on the resources they have available, which includes their ability to become part of the community around them. For example, there can be higher consumption of fuel for heating and transport, and less accessibility to key services including healthcare, childcare and broadband. This can lead to isolation and poverty of opportunity to fully participate and enjoy the benefits of a community.

The Shetland pilot

Shetland has received Scottish Attainment Challenge funding through five Innovation Fund bids and a pilot programme was implemented in August 2016 using existing resources.

Shetland decided to follow the National Improvement Framework priority for Scotland, which is the expressive vocabulary of Primary 1 children, and launched a pilot involving 11 schools across the islands,” explains Suzanne.

The expressive vocabulary gap has been well researched with a recent study (Growing up in Scotland, 2015) finding that, across Scotland, at ages 3 and 5 children from high-income households significantly outperform those from low-income households. By age 5, this gap is equivalent to 13 months in expressive vocabulary.

Suzanne continues: “If we can reduce the vocabulary gap at early level, children will be more able to access the curriculum.

“Between August and October in the first term, teachers were asked to watch how children engaged with their learning, how they got on with peers and settled into school. Teachers then used that observation alongside the checklist developed to identify children in need of targeted support to determine which children would benefit from being part of the pilot.”

On top of this qualitative data, the Renfrew Word Finding Test was used as a quantifiable baseline measure to confirm teachers’ judgement. It also supported schools and teachers in their conversations with parents explaining why they thought their children would benefit from being involved in the pilot.

An ASN teacher in one of the pilot schools identified two Primary 2 children for involvement, with both children scoring significantly lower than Primary 1 pupils in the Renfrew test. One of the pupils had interrupted learning and his initial assessment scored his expressive vocabulary at four years and seven months, when his actual age was six years two months. The other pupil had global delay in learning. His initial assessment scored his expressive vocabulary at four years six months, when his actual age was five years nine months.

Both pupils were involved in a programme of dedicated one-to-one activity with their teacher, classroom assistants and parents. Throughout the course of the pilot project the school aimed for four sessions a week, including activities using BookBug stories and songs, and packs comprising books, puppets, games and puzzles tailored to the interests of each child.

The teacher says: “Initially parent input was really good. We had a journal in which parents were to write what they had been doing at home; however slowly the parents’ comments reduced. I think this was partly because of the nature of the parents’ employment and their lack of time to sit down and do it. In future we’re going to aim for three to four sessions in school, and we will continue to work with the parents to support their children.”

It wasn’t hard for the teacher to stay motivated, although the project required dedicated time to be set aside. She explains: “As soon as the programme was started and you saw the children’s enthusiasm that was enough of a motivator to keep going. This is a priority and I do think that we need to assign time to early intervention. It is imperative because if you get them young then you’re going to need less intervention up the school.”

“The children have loved the one-to-one attention from the team involved,” says Suzanne. “Not only have they been nurtured, they’ve been pushed and that’s switched their enthusiasm for learning on even more.”

In May 2017, the children were re-tested using the Renfrew test with both showing significantly improved results.

“The huge success that we’ve seen from the pilot has enthused me to go further with it,” says the school’s ASN teacher.

The programme has been extended to include nursery pupils as well as those children transitioning into Primary 1 when the term begins. Pre-school children have already been assessed and the school is looking to deliver three to four sessions a week in nursery with the identified pupils.

The ASN teacher is also planning to extend use of the school’s nurture room to the community. She says: “We’d like to use the space to work alongside parents. Have a cup of tea, sit around the table, play a game, as you would do at home, and just model that for parents.”




Read the practice exemplar on the National Improvement Hub at:

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Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins

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