19 March 2021

Education and Children's Services Committee Round-up

Education and Children’s Services Committee met on Thursday 18 March to discuss a range of reports, including an update on the Learning Estates Strategy, school attendance and absence and the progress of Foundation Apprenticeships.

The committee began by taking cognisance of what has been a big week for Aberdeenshire’s schools, recognising the huge team effort from those involved in preparing for the return of pupils as well as continuing to support those learning remotely. A particular shout out for support staff in schools going above and beyond at short notice!

Covid-19 update
Director of Education and Children’s Services, Laurence Findlay provided a verbal update on the impact of Covid-19 in schools and the vast amount of work going on to support children and young people. As part of this update he explained that two additional in-service days have been added, in line with national guidance, to secondary school calendars for 3 and 4 of June to support the work staff are doing to submit grades to the SQA.

Teacher representatives were called upon to offer their insights and acknowledged that it is a challenging time but schools are managing well. The importance of engaging directly with young people to ensure they feel supported was also recognised, with recent sessions at Portlethen Academy and more broadly between the committee and young representatives from across Aberdeenshire cited as examples of best practice.

Learning estates
The committee was asked to consider and comment on the local authority’s Learning Estates Strategy which led to a detailed discussion about the work of Aberdeenshire’s Learning Estates Team, the priorities guiding their work and the extensive engagement undertaken with communities. It also spurred interest in the digital capability of the learning estate, recognising the digital advances which have been brought about by remote learning and being able to retain some of that learning and see the benefits in school too.

Councillors were also keen to gain an understanding of the linkages between learning estates and the carbon budget, food waste, catering, and even school transport. This paper was agreed.

As part of a separate Learning Estates Update, the committee was asked to acknowledge and comment on the continued development of the Learning Estate, on School Roll Forecasts and note the core fact submission to Scottish Government for 2020 outlining the suitability and condition of schools. They also agreed to receive a further report outlining work for 2021/22 in May 2021.

A number of questions were raised about future plans for individual schools, with officers explaining that work has been done since the suitability and condition of schools was last assessed to address issues and that capacity is very much dependent on the build out rate of new homes within communities. Some home building happens more quickly than anticipated while in other cases projected figures are much lower than previously expected. In a number of cases at the moment, school rolls are expected to peak over the next few years but then fall again and the team is doing extensive work to ensure mitigating measures are in place. 

You can read a full news release on extensive progress led by the team: http://www.bit.ly/3qUPI4B and read the Learning estates update report in full on the website.

School admissions, attendance and absence
A paper on the secondary school S1 admission limits and reserved places was also agreed, outlining the number of reserved places for secondary schools for next session as well as the admission limits for each school.

A report about attendance and absence in Aberdeenshire’s schools during the 2019/20 school year indicates that attendance was very slightly lower than the year before, and this was prior to the impact of Covid. Councillors were asked to consider and comment on the findings as well as recognising and congratulating children and young people, their parents/carers and staff on the continued high levels of attendance in schools across Aberdeenshire. The recommendations were agreed.

Acknowledging that a knock in confidence appears to impact on young people’s attendance and absence, members asked what is being done now to ensure any dip in young people’s confidence due to school closures is being addressed. Laurence highlighted that ensuring services are tailored to needs, that young people continue to have their voices heard and that the local authority continues to work very closely with parents will all make a difference. Head of Education Vincent Docherty pointed to three priorities for schools just now: safety, wellbeing and pick-up of learning – in that order.

In relation to truancy in particular, Vincent said: “There are always underlying issues when a young person is having difficulty engaging and the first thing we do is find out what those are. In terms of GIRFEC, that’s about putting a process in place to ensure children and young people are supported. Each young person has their own story and it’s our job to work with them and find out the most appropriate ways in which to help them.”

This paper was also AGREED.

School leaver destinations and teacher staffing
A paper outlining a summary and analysis of school leaver destinations for 2019/20 was also agreed, with the committee commenting on the analysis and providing comments on the progress  made in supporting young people post-school and beyond to ensure sustained destinations.

Officers explained that there is some fluctuation year on year in terms of the numbers of young people choosing to go on to further education. In relation to concerns raised regarding care experienced young people in particular, officers said this is being addressed by engaging with young people themselves and using that lived experience to inform future supports.

Laurence Findlay noted challenges ahead given the impact of Covid-19 on the economy but assured members we are well-paced to mitigate against that. He said: “This is a continued area of focus and the team is committed to doing everything we can to support young people making those transitions.”

A number of programmes will be coming on stream, including working with Barnardos, post-school provision involving employers, a huge planned increase in volunteering opportunities through Aberdeenshire Voluntary Action and working closely with Community Jobs Scotland to help young people with additional support needs in particular.

A report about teacher staffing asked elected members to acknowledge the current position in Aberdeenshire and endorse ongoing action to ensure a healthy picture across the board. There was reference to a ‘multi dimensional game of chess’ as teachers in their qualifying years may not be quite ready to begin the new session as Newly Qualified Teachers but plans are underway to build in that additional support, and additional funding to support recovery will continue for the new school session in August 2021.

Primary School Design Brief
A discussion to approve Aberdeenshire’s updated Primary School Design Brief prompted discussion about accessibility. Officers explained the aspiration is for all schools to be fully inclusive, and where possible we would always endeavour to make a positive impact as a result of changes to the school estate. The updated brief was agreed.

Carbon Budget
A report presenting the service’s Carbon Budget six-monthly update asked councillors to consider and comment on the development of Education and Children’s Services Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy, determine any further actions needed and note the ongoing responsibility of the Director to secure reduction targets as set out. This was AGREED.

CLD third sector funding
Approving a proposal to redirect core funding to support the development of community-led groups and to provide wider opportunities for access to CLD services at a local level was also on the agenda. Councillors agreed one of three options in terms of an appropriate approach for enabling this, which is for the CLD service to taper off payments to organisations receiving funding over the next two years, reducing by 50% of each grant per annum.

Read the Community Learning and Development Third Sector Funding report in full.

Analysis of attainment and achievement, and Foundation Apprenticeships
Analysis of attainment and achievement of young people from Aberdeenshire secondary schools in accredited awards for 2019/2020 was laid out for elected members in a different format this year, taking cognisance of the altered approach to the process last year. Members were asked to consider and comment on the report to further inform the service’s approaches to improving attainment levels, and acknowledge and congratulate everyone for the level of success outlined in the report.

Vincent as Head of Education was keen to remind everyone that young people should be rightly congratulated for their achievements. Although there were no final exams, a lot of work went into these accreditations.

Councillors offered a huge well done to everyone involved – the young people who had a ‘roller coaster year’ and the individual hard work they put in, support from parents and carers as well as teaching staff throughout, and all those leadership teams and support staff supporting the whole process. 

A teacher representative offered elected members their insight into what makes the biggest difference in terms of Pupil Equity Funding, highlighting the recruitment of additional Pupil Support Assistants and other staff as one thing which has made a particular impact. Elected members enjoyed a detailed discussion about the statistics, and the role of National Progression Awards as well as Foundation Apprenticeships in supporting all young people to reach their potential. The report was agreed.

Committee members were also given a detailed update on the development of Foundation Apprenticeships in Aberdeenshire’s schools, recommended to acknowledge and comment on progress made  during the last year and acknowledge a successful bid to Skills Development Scotland to continue as a lead provider for the delivery of Foundation Apprenticeships from August. They were also asked to endorse the approaches to build capacity across the region in particular with the engagement of employers, and advise on and inform these plans.

Councilllors commented on the excellent means of providing education, skills, knowledge and opportunities Foundation Apprenticeships deliver and agreed the recommendations for this too. You can view a host of videos from Foundation Apprentices sharing their individual experiences on the Council’s YouTube channel DYW playlist.

Corporate Improvement Plan and Policy Register Annual Reporting
A paper on the Corporate Improvement Plan asked elected members to consider and comment on plans presented to Audit Committee in February and agree to receive quarterly updates for monitoring and scrutiny. The Corporate Improvement Plan has been developed following discussions with Audit Scotland and the Acting Legal Services Manager (Governance), the Corporate Finance Manager and the Business Strategy Manager and feedback from senior Councillors during the preparation of the Annual Governance Statement.

Councillors were reminded that the service’s own improvement plan will also be brought back to the committee at a later date, looking in more detail at performance and progress within various areas of work. They agreed the recommendations and also agreed a paper looking at Policy Register Annual Reporting.

Tackling Poverty and Inequalities Progress Report
The Tackling Poverty and Inequalities Progress Report was also presented to the committee. This asked elected members to acknowledge and support the progress made in tackling this agenda and identify any specific concerns which the Tackling Poverty and Inequalities Group could be asked to consider. This recognised that we are likely to see a further impact as the full impact of Covid-19 is recognised and that services continue to engage with those with lived experience in order to shape services and meet needs. This area of work is being expanded and the Lived Experience Forum is to strengthen the voice of children and young people.

Members agreed with the approach of looking at things now through a Covid lens and made suggestions including prioritising the availability of affordable credit, and working to reduce the stigma around poverty and inequality. They also recognised the extensive work that has gone into this area of work.

Director Laurence Findlay said that using our data to identify and support need and early intervention is absolutely vital. He commented: “We are ensuring the wellbeing agenda is given utmost priority in everything we do. Young people need to feel well and supported in order to attain and succeed, and we have plans to offer tailored support to make a big difference to children and and young people and their families.”

This paper was also AGREED.

Some of the achievements across Aberdeenshire’s schools are pulled together in a Good News update for elected members ahead of every committee. You can also find a link to watch the meeting itself in full on the Committee’s page on the website.