Scottish Government 'falls short' on pledge to close education poverty gap

Credit: PA

The education attainment gap between pupils from poor and better off backgrounds in Scotland “remains wide”, Scotland’s public spending watchdog has found.

In a report out today Audit Scotland said that progress on closing the gap “has been limited and falls short of the Scottish government’s aims”.

And inequalities in education related to poverty in Scotland’s schools have been “exacerbated” by the problems of the Covid-19 pandemic, the watchdog said.

In a speech in August 2015 Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be judged on closing the gap in performance between pupils from better off and poorer areas.

Credit: Audit Scotland

The First Minister said: “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

During a speech at Wester Hailes Education centre in Edinburgh she added that her aim was to “close that attainment gap completely.”

Responding to today’s report the SNP’s political opponents accused the First Minister of failing to fulfill her promise of more than five years ago.

The detail of the report says improvement in closing the “poverty-related attainment gap”, as it is called, “needs to happen more quickly”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney. Credit: PA

It also shows the reduction in the attainment gap which has occurred is explained by the performance of pupils from the most deprived areas improving more than those from the least deprived areas.

The report says that the gap is wider the further up the level of secondary schools schools exams pupils go, and the gap is “reducing only slightly” in primary and early secondary schools.

Audit Scotland said it was “hard to identify the long-term impact” of two funds set up by the Scottish government to improve attainment - the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC) and the Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF) until changes filter through. 

It also said it had found some councils had done better than others and that “deprivation alone does not account for all variation in council performance”.

Credit: Audit Scotland

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "Significantly reducing the attainment gap is complex. But the pace of improvement has to increase as part of the Scottish Government's Covid-19 recovery planning. That process needs to particularly focus on the pandemic's impact on the most disadvantaged children and young people."

In its response to the report the Scottish government said “good progress” was being made towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

The report highlights “a number of key strengths in the education system”, the government said, including a systemic change in culture and ethos, improved learning and teaching, strengthened collaboration, work with families and communities and a focus on health and wellbeing.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who is also the education secretary, said: “Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and giving every young person the chance to fulfil their full potential, regardless of their background, remains our defining mission. 

“Our ambition is a long-term one and this report clearly shows significant progress has been made in the last five years.”

Credit: PA

Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Jamie Greene said: “Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly said people should judge her on the SNP Government’s education record but the reality is that after 14 years in charge they have failed miserably to reduce the attainment gap in our schools.

Labour’s education spokesperson Michael Marra said: "This long awaited report could not be clearer - the SNP has failed in its mission to close the attainment gap in our schools.

“Nicola Sturgeon said that Scotland should judge her on the SNP’s handling of education. Well, this verdict is clear - the SNP has failed the very tests that Nicola Sturgeon set herself."