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Highland schools narrow attainment gap – but more work to be done

By Nicola Sinclair, Local Democracy Reporter

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New figures from Highland Council reveal its primary school attainment is the second most improved in Scotland.

Highland primary schools delivered a 10 per cent improvement in literacy attainment and nine per cent in numeracy.

The council says the education department rightly focused on pupil wellbeing post-Covid, but has since done intensive work on literacy and numeracy.

Results are now back to pre-pandemic levels. Last year, the Scottish Government benchmarking report placed Highland school attainment last out of 32 councils.

Education committee chairman John Finlayson.
Education committee chairman John Finlayson.

However, the education committee report asks councillors to note that Highland has now "closed the gap with the national average".

The figures, on the other hand, still put Highland significantly behind other schools in Scotland.

While literacy has improved by 10 per cent in overall primary school level, that means only 59 per cent of pupils are where they should be. In Scotland, the comparable figure is 71 per cent.

The education committee report points to two reasons for Highland’s lacklustre attainment scores in recent years.

The first, a strategic decision made by the committee to make pupils’ wellbeing the top priority in the difficult lockdown years. They say this inevitably resulted in a dip in academic performance.

Then, coming out of the pandemic, teachers struggled to find evidence to make accurate assessments. With work produced at home, and varying engagement levels across the region, teachers lacked the confidence to award the top marks. They erred on the side of caution.

Since then, Highland Council has worked extensively with education leaders to improve how they assess and record performance. They have also developed a moderation toolkit to help deliver consistent results.

Alongside that, primary schools have doubled down on literacy and numeracy, working to a rigorous improvement plan.

This strategy has produced results. Literacy has improved by 12 per cent in primary one, seven per cent in primary four and 11 per cent in primary seven. Numeracy is up nine per cent, six per cent and 11 per cent in the same age levels.

Overall, in 2021/22, 59 per cent of primary school pupils achieved the necessary standard in literacy. That’s a 10 per cent increase on the previous year. However, it’s 12 per cent behind the national average of 71 per cent.

Numeracy results are better, at 69 per cent across primary schools – a nine per cent improvement on 2020/21. But the Scottish average is nine per cent higher again, at 78 per cent.

Highland Council’s education committee meets on Wednesday, February 15. A report on attainment underlines the progress schools have made in the past year.

Across the 32 Scottish local authorities, Highland is the second most improved area. It’s one of only three to get a double digit boost to literacy scores, and one of six to improve numeracy by more than five per cent.

The report asks committee members to note these positives, including:

“Note that the significant accelerated rate of progress has closed the gap with the national average.”

Yet the gap is narrowed, not closed. Highland is still falling well short of the national average in both literacy and numeracy.

The report’s author, education boss Nicky Grant, says that assessment and moderation is still a weakness, and the figures don’t represent the true attainment of Highland primary schools.

But the figures are at least heading in the right direction, and rapidly.

To build on that momentum, the council is holding primary school attainment meetings throughout February. Every school in the Highlands is asked to commit to the literacy and numeracy framework and to ensure the curriculum is rich in these areas every single day.

The key driver to this work is the raising attainment action plan agreed by the committee last September.

At the same time, the Scottish Government requires all councils to set "stretch aims" as a target. Highland Council has, in its own words, set “extremely ambitious” aims.

These include a further 10 per cent increase in literacy results by 2023/24 and eight per cent in numeracy in the same timeframe. The council also wants to further close the attainment gap for pupils living in poverty.

Education chairman John Finlayson said: “The attainment improvement journey continues in a positive manner and will continue to be the core focus for all schools.

“It will of course be our ambition to close the gap fully and work is being done at all levels to ensure this happens.

“I would like to thank our schools and teachers for the progress made over the last year, following the pressures encountered by all our schools and young people during Covid.”

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