Doing well at school for all our children

Alison Todd

Earlier this week Scotland’s new Cabinet Secretary John Swinney set out his delivery plan for excellence and equity in education.

Closing the educational attainment gap – in other words – making sure every child can achieve their best at school, wherever they are from or whatever their family background, is at the heart of this Government’s agenda. And it was certainly reassuring to hear the Cabinet Secretary say that Scotland’s broader approach to children’s wellbeing, known as getting it right for every child, or GIRFEC, runs through his entire approach to education.

We know that many children who have experienced abuse and trauma will perform more poorly at school than their fellow pupils. A child living day in, day out with feelings of fear and helplessness, dreading what may happen once they are through their front door, or living with the knowledge they still have to relive their experiences by giving evidence in court proceedings, simply cannot focus at school in the same way as their other classmates. Where families may be struggling with alcohol or substance misuse, poverty or mental or physical ill-health and/or children are taking on caring responsibilities, the extra challenges of family life can make it harder to arrive at school well-rested, fed, dressed and ready to learn.

Take five year old Ewan who was referred to a Children 1st family support worker after witnessing and experiencing domestic abuse by his mum’s ex. His mum was anxious and upset about everything that was happening and his dad had been estranged from the family for over a year. The family courts had just agreed to a contact request by Ewan’s dad, but Ewan was refusing to attend. Ewan’s behaviour at school was going downhill, he was quiet and shy and had difficulty controlling his anger.

Our family support worker helped Ewan to understand and talk about his emotions and to think about ways to manage his anger. She also contacted the family court and worked with Ewan to help him express his views about contact with his dad to the Sherriff.

“It made me feel important and better,” said Ewan. Ewan’s mum said that he was happier and more confident. Working with Children 1st had brought Ewan and his mum closer together. And Ewan’s school said they had seen a huge change in his behaviour and concentration.

Teachers play an enormous role in children’s lives as both providers of formal education and by nurturing their pupils’ health and wellbeing. But our experience and knowledge of working with many of Scotland’s most vulnerable families tells us that efforts to close the attainment gap which only focus on what happens during school hours will not succeed. Families who have experienced abuse need whole family, trauma-informed support which helps them build on their strengths and move on from their experiences, to be able to fully engage as pupils or as parents who can support their child’s learning.

To-date, the debate about how best to close the educational attainment gap has focused on formal structures – testing, governance and bureaucracy. As policy develops, we hope that as much attention will be paid to what needs to happen outside of school, to support our most vulnerable children and their families, to ensure experiences of trauma and abuse do not determine their academic future.