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Highland Council outlines action plan to tackle ’embarrassing’ league table results

Councillor Muriel Cockburn wants Highland education to 'look forward and upward.' Photo by Sandy McCook
Councillor Muriel Cockburn wants Highland education to 'look forward and upward.' Photo by Sandy McCook

Highland Council’s education committee has set out a plan to raise attainment across the region.

It follows growing concerns about Highland’s lacklustre performance in school exams. 

Last November, Highland Council data revealed it lagged behind the national average, particularly in the senior phase of school.

In Highland, 18% of fifth year pupils got five or more Highers. The national figure is 25%.

By S6 the gap widens – with 34% of pupils securing five awards compared with 40% nationally.

Speaking at Thursday’s education committee, councillor Muriel Cockburn branded the results “embarrassing” and asked “What are others doing that we are not?”

The work begins now

The report sets out a range of measures designed to improve Highland attainment in the years ahead.

Meetings have already taken place with secondary schools, and Highland education bosses are now turning their attention to primary schools.

Executive chief officer Nicky Grant outlines a process of ‘collaborative engagement, support and challenge’ across Highland primary schools.

The first step is a series of meetings this month and in March, which will focus on performance data.

The theme of ‘challenge’ runs throughout, encouraging leaders to agree immediate steps towards improvement.

Nicky Grant in an office
Nicky Grant, executive chief officer for education. Picture: Sandy McCook

The council has already said it will work to improve transitions from early years, and adopt new strategies for literacy and numeracy.

All teachers will be offered special training to provide a consistent approach to benchmarking and data analysis.

In secondary schools, Highland Council will review the breadth of the curriculum, with a special focus on the 20% of pupils with the lowest attainment levels.

It will also look at integrating skills into the 3-18 curriculum and explore non-graded SCQF courses for ‘alternative curricular pathways.’

What makes this plan different?

Councillor Graham Mackenzie was sceptical. “We’ve been here before. And not only have we been here before, but we’ve been here before many times.

“I suppose my question is, what makes this plan different?”

He added: “We don’t seem to work these things through to the end.”

Ms Grant reassured members there would be “a relentless focus on attainment, especially among our most vulnerable”.

Highland attainment is behind the national average, especially in Highers. Photo by David Jones/PA Wire

She highlighted some ‘good news stories’ on Highland attainment. Positive destinations have risen by 2%, employment among the most vulnerable are up 7%, and the outcomes for looked after children are up 12%.

However, the education boss accepted that council would benefit from looking at what other areas are doing. Ms Grant said her team needed the support, challenge and engagement of elected members.

Mr Mackenzie accepted this had been “lacking” and said councillors have “nobody to blame but ourselves”.

“Councillors can provide support and scrutiny to schools in our communities. I don’t think the education service or us as members have been very good at that, quite frankly.

“I also want to mention the achievement seminars. These are only effective if people turn up to them, and we’ve had three in the most recent past. The attendance of members was appalling in my view.”

No magic wand

Mr Mackenzie called for returning councillors and new elected members to really engage with the issues. He wants the committee to look forward and deliver change.

Fiona Grant, head of secondary education, agreed: “We are at a point in Highland education where we’ve acknowledged we’re not where we want to be,” she said. “It’s not a proud place to be in.”

Ms Grant said every head teacher in Highland is focused now on where Highland sits nationally, and understands what needs to happen next. “That is a huge step forward for us,” she said. “We are all focused on improving attainment for Highland.

There’s no magic wand I’m afraid – schools are a mesh of relationships, and these extend beyond the school boundary… It’s a journey that everyone in Highland needs to be on.”

Ms Grant said she wants a focus on consistency, and on improved support for head teachers to do a job that is “not easy”. She said there are not currently enough central officers to help the schools.

“I’m looking forward to the new administration coming in, because we’ve got a task ahead, and we move forward with honesty and sharing.”

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