'Relentless': How one Scottish school is blazing a trail as it battles to bounce back from Covid and the cost-of-living crisis
Every year, Shelley McLaren heads out to meet the Primary 7 pupils who will be moving into her secondary school after the summer.
The ritual is about building relationships and “getting the chat”, which are vital skills for staff at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School.
But this year, Ms McLaren, the head teacher at Craigroyston High, found one girl was missing.
"The teacher was like, ‘I’ve not seen her for the whole year’,” she recalled. "I was like, ‘what? How can this even be possible?’ The teacher said she just doesn’t come to school.”
The youngster was one of an alarming number of “ghost children” across the UK, who appear to have turned their backs on education since the Covid-19 lockdowns, resulting in plummeting attendance rates.
However, while many people were away enjoying their holidays over the summer, Ms McLaren was in almost constant contact with the family.
Now, after agreeing to try a “fresh start”, the pupil attends school every day.
"You see her playing at break and at lunch, and it is amazing. This has changed her life, and her mum says that as well,” said Ms McLaren.
She added: "I suppose you just have to be, I would say the word is relentless, with individuals, and not give up on them.”
Craigroyston High’s catchment area includes Muirhouse and Pilton, among the most deprived communities in Scotland.
In Irvine Welsh’s cult novel Trainspotting, the character Spud lies about having attended the school during a job interview.
Things had moved on since those kind of days. The school roll more than doubled in recent years from about 350 to 760, and is forecast to hit 900 by the end of the decade, as housing developments come on stream in the north of the Scottish capital.
Meanwhile, the number of Craigroyston pupils going on to “positive destinations” has increased from 88 per cent when Ms McLaren took charge six years ago, to now being about 96 per cent.
However, recent steps forward have been undermined by a crushing, double-whammy blow.
"I felt like we started to make really good progress. The poverty just didn’t seem as hard-hitting," Ms McLaren explained.
"But then after Covid and after the cost-of-living crisis, we are 100 per cent back to where we started. Now people are really struggling.”
Staff at Craigroyston, including the head teacher, deliver food parcels on a daily basis.
"It’s just something that’s part of my job that, maybe like seven years ago, definitely wouldn’t have been part of my job,” she said.
Between 8.15am and 8.45am each morning, Ms McLaren also stands at the door of the school with a large tray of cereal bars, and a ticket scheme provides lunches to about 100 pupils who do not officially receive free school meals.
Offering food to hungry students is one way to keep them coming to school.
High absences had “always been a struggle” at the school since Ms McLaren joined as an English teacher 14 years ago. But in the wake of Covid, they have become a “huge concern”.
She said: "Last year’s attendance was remarkably the worst it has ever been. It was significantly worse than other years.
"I think it’s just a bit of a struggle. Mental health issues, physical health issues, this unbreakable cycle of challenges has almost just made some young people just be like, ‘well, what’s the point?’.”
Earlier this year, local authority figures revealed 14 per cent of Edinburgh primary school pupils now had persistently poor attendance, compared to 7 per cent in 2018/19. At secondary schools, the proportion increased from 14 per cent to 20 per cent.
Recent improvements have been made at Craigroyston, however, in part due to its “attendance champions” initiative, which is attracting attention across Scotland.
Under the scheme, teachers are paid £1,250 extra a year, the equivalent of one hour’s overtime a week, to be responsible for getting four children or families to school each day.
"They work with the families, they contact them on a daily basis if need be, they maybe go and pick them up if they have to. They do a lot of rewards for coming to school, that might be like pizza on a Friday,” Ms McLaren said.
This year the project – which involves 12 teachers targeting 50 families – has been specifically focussed on S1 and a few S2 pupils, in the hope that earlier intervention can break the cycle of absence.
As well as the attendance champions, the school has “tightened up” other routines, including sending text messages to parents if a child is late in the morning, at break or lunch.
Meanwhile, Donna Aldridge, a pupil support officer for attendance, spends much of her day knocking on doors in communities, encouraging pupils to attend.
If Ms McLaren had an expanded budget, the first thing she said she would do would be to “buy five Donnas”, as she is “absolutely incredible”.
Last week, the S1 attendance rate at Craigroyston was 92.99 per cent. In the same week last year, albeit with different pupils in S1, it was 88.42 per cent.
The improvement is clear, although in the same week in 2019, before the pandemic hit, the attendance rate for S1 was 95.38 per cent.
"We’re not doing anything spectacular, or wonderful, and we’re not making humongous gains,” the head teacher said.
"But what I would say is that if we didn’t do these things, our attendance would be much worse.”
For Shelley McLaren, Donna Aldridge and the other “relentless” staff at Craigroyston, improving attendance is about much more than just statistics, however.
"Fundamentally, education will improve the life chances of our pupils,” the head teacher said, before adding: “So they need to be here.”
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