Progress in closing attainment gaps between rich and poor school children is faltering as their performances decline at differing rates, according to new data from the Scottish Government.

At levels four and five in secondary school gaps have widened over the past two years because the performance of pupils from deprived areas fell faster than those from wealthier backgrounds. Levels four and five include national four and five, which have replaced standard grade general and credit.

At the same time gaps have narrowed for children at levels six and seven, equivalent to previous higher and advanced higher. But this is only because the performance of the most affluent pupils declined at a faster rate than that of those from deprived areas.


Critics warn that past improvements are now “under strain” and that Scottish ministers are likely to miss their targets to close attainment gaps. The Scottish Government stresses that progress has been made over the last decade.

Revealed: the narrowing options at secondary schools in poorer areas

The Scottish Government has described the closing of educational attainment gaps as its “defining mission”. It has set a range of targets, including an aim to reduce the gap at level four from six percentage points in 2015-16 to four percentage points in 2019-20.

But evidence shows that the gap has actually slightly increased from 6.1 to 6.7 percentage points since 2015-16, suggesting that the target may not be reached this year. The Times recently reported that the government is set to miss all of its targets for closing the attainment gaps in literacy and numeracy.

In February the Scottish Government published statistics on student qualifications when they leave school. They include figures on the success rates of pupils from different social background at various levels.

The attainment gaps between rich and poor pupils can be assessed by comparing the performance and results of those from the most deprived areas with those from the least deprived areas, as measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. This system ranks every part of the country on a scale of one (most deprived) to ten (least deprived).

At secondary school the level five attainment gap has widened by 0.9 percentage points between 2016-17 and 2018-19, though it remained stable over the past year. The data shows that the change has been driven by the performance of the most deprived 60 per cent of pupils falling behind their more affluent peers.

The level five performance of pupils from the two most deprived areas fell by 1.1 percentage points between 2016-17 and 2018-19. Over the same period there were falls of 2.1 points in the third and fourth most deprived areas and 1.8 points in the fifth and sixth most deprived areas. In contrast, the performance of pupils from the two most affluent areas fell by just 0.2 points, while the third and fourth least deprived areas saw a fall of 0.5 points.

Pupils achieving one or more qualifications at level five or better

YearMost deprived (0-20%)Less deprived (20-40%)Less deprived (40-60%)Less deprived (60-80%)Least deprived (80-100%)GapTotal
2018-1974.480.186.290.894.620.285.1
2017-1875.081.687.191.395.420.385.9
2016-1775.582.288.091.394.819.386.1
Change-1.1-2.1-1.8-0.5-0.20.9-1.0
Source: Scottish Government

The same pattern was repeated at level four between 2016-17 and 2018-19. The attainment gap widened by 0.8 percentage points during this period because the performance of the 60 per cent of children from the most deprived areas dropped while performance of the 40 per cent from the least deprived areas remained stable.

Pupils achieving one or more qualifications at level four or better

YearMost deprived areas (0-20%)Less deprived areas (20-40%)Less deprived areas (40-60%)Less deprived areas (60-80%)Least deprived areas (80-100%)GapTotal
2018-1992.1%94.6%96.7%97.7%98.8%6.795.9%
2017-1892.6%95.2%96.6%97.9%98.7%6.196.2%
2016-1792.8%95.5%97.2%97.7%98.7%5.996.3%
Change-0.7-0.9-0.500.10.8-0.4
Source: Scottish Government

But when children reached levels six and seven, something different happened. Here the attainment gaps have closed, but only because the performance of better-off children declined faster than those of worse-off children.

At level six the attainment gap fell by 1.4 percentage points between 2017-18 and 2018-19. This was because the performance of pupils from the most affluent areas fell by 2.5 percentage points, nearly three times as much as the 0.9 point drop recorded for those from the most deprived areas.

At level seven the attainment gap fell by 1.8 percentage points over the same period. This was again the result of a disproportionate decline in the performance of the most affluent students (2.3 points) compared to the most deprived (0.4 points).

The Scottish Government data also discloses differences in the performances of pupils from areas defined as “remote”, “accessible” and “urban”. In 2018-19 the proportion of pupils from remote small towns who leave school with at least one level six qualification was 5.7 percentage points lower than those from accessible rural areas, who performed best.

This is an improvement on 2017-18, when the gap was 6.8 points, but this has happened because the performance of pupils from accessible rural areas declined faster than that of those in remote small towns.

The data also shows that pupils from remote small towns have made the least progress in the last ten years, with accessible rural and large urban areas seeing the biggest improvements in performance. The Ferret reported in February that children from remote areas have lower literacy and numeracy rates across primary and secondary schools.

School children in ‘remote’ areas do worse than elsewhere

Barry Black, a researcher at Glasgow University specialising in equity in education, thought the statistics were of “of significant concern”. They offered “no cause for optimism about equity in Scottish education,” he said.

“Attainment is higher now than it was in the past for all social groups, but such trends of progress are under strain.”

The government’s focus on reducing educational disadvantage was correct, he argued. “But it needs to be considered in the wider context of the whole system’s performance,” he told The Ferret.

“Raising standards for all and closing the attainment gap need to be simultaneous objectives. Important questions are raised here also concerning rural attainment, which is a trend worthy of much more attention than it currently receives.”

Black was concerned that the poorest 60 per cent of school children were disadvantaged compared to their peers. “It suggests that in fact our efforts to close this gap need to have a broader focus that just the poorest pupils,” he added.

“It is a telling example of how wider socio-economic inequality translates to inequality in education.”

The Scottish Conservatives accused the government of failing everyone. “Even where the attainment gap is closing, it’s only because the performance of youngsters in wealthier areas are declining at a quicker rate,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Jamie Greene MSP.

“It seems the education secretary John Swinney’s entire attainment gap strategy is framed around everyone getting worse at different rates.”

Over time, the percentage of school leavers achieving one or more passes at national five and higher levels has improved substantially. Spokesperson, Scottish Government

Scottish Labour argued that attainment was falling and the attainment gap was widening. The government was trying to hide its failings, it claimed.

The party’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, said: “Without proper investment and a whole-scale, comprehensive review of secondary education which investigates a broad range of issues in the education system including the exam related attainment trends, it’s almost guaranteed the Scottish Government will miss their targets on closing the attainment gap.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats called for cuts to teachers’ support staff to be reversed. “This analysis suggests that any progress so far has mostly amounted to tinkering around the edges or rested on the richest pupils doing worse, not improvements among those most in need of support,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Beatrice Wishart MSP.

The Scottish Government accepted that there would be “fluctuation” in exam results from year to year. “However, over time, the percentage of school leavers achieving one or more passes at national five and higher levels has improved substantially,” said a spokesperson.

“A record proportion of school leavers were in a positive destination such as study, work or training about three months after leaving school last year.”

The spokesperson added: “Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, attainment has increased amongst school leavers from both the most deprived and least deprived areas and, over this period, the gap has narrowed between the proportion of school leavers from the most and least deprived areas achieving one or more passes at levels four, five and six.

“There is more work to do and the International Council of Education Advisers has been clear that steady, incremental gains are necessary in order to deliver sustainable improvements towards closing the gap. That is why we have committed to extend funding for the Scottish attainment challenge at current levels beyond the lifetime of this parliament into 2021-22.”

All the data used in this story can be downloaded here.

Photo thanks to iStock/monkeybusinessimages.

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