FFS explains: Scotland’s educational attainment gap

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

The educational attainment gap in Scotland has been one of the biggest challenges for the current .

Unions and campaigners are warning that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic could further deepen the disadvantage that young people in the most deprived areas face in education

A move to home schooling during Covid-19 lockdowns widens the divide, according to some experts.

The Ferret looked at attainment in Scotland, and the progress that has been made in bridging the gap between students in the most and least deprived areas.

What is the attainment gap?

In Scotland, pupils from the most deprived areas do significantly worse at every level of education on average than those in the least deprived. This is known as the attainment gap.

Evidence suggests the attainment gap persists through all levels of school and into higher education and employment.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said closing the gap between students from the most and least deprived areas would be her government’s “defining mission” in 2016 when was re-elected to the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge in 2015, which aimed to close the gap between students from the most and least deprived areas. It is underpinned by a £750m funding package across the last five years.

Why is attainment linked to deprivation?

There are a number of factors which help to explain why children from less deprived areas do better in school than those from more deprived places.

Issues with housing, nutrition, transport, and clothing, for example, affect access to education and impact a pupil’s capacity to learn. The cost of materials, uniforms, school trips, and additional extras can entrench inequalities.

Differing levels of funding for schools mean that pupils from deprived areas may experience schooling that is less well-resourced, and with less experienced teachers.

A ‘digital divide’ is also evident, where deprivation has an impact on levels of internet access and numbers of devices (such as laptops and tablets) which pupils can use to access schoolwork and other learning materials.

How is the attainment gap measured in Scotland?

Attainment is often measured against the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which is a relative measure of deprivation in small areas of Scotland. It measures deprivation across seven criteria: income, employment, education, health, access to services, crime and housing.

The Scottish Government regularly publishes data on the levels of attainment of those in the most deprived fifth of Scottish SIMD areas, compared to the least deprived fifth.

For younger pupils, the attainment gap is measured in relation to literacy, numeracy, reading and writing. The Scottish Government releases statistics annually on how well P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils from the most and least deprived parts of Scotland are doing.

For older students, the number of grades at different levels are measured, as well as their destination after leaving school, such as higher or further education, or into other forms of training and employment.

When the Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched, a list of measures were specified upon which the government would grade its performance in tackling the gap.

Is the attainment gap closing in Scotland?

The Scottish Government categories cover attainment from pre-school age to school leaver destinations.

In early years, children are measured against several ‘domains’ to see whether they are developing as expected. The gap between the most and least deprived children exists even at this young age.

In 2018/19, children from the most deprived backgrounds were 16 percentage points less likely to show ‘no concerns’ at the 27-30 month stage. This gap has increased by two points since 2013/14.

When children begin schooling, their attainment is regularly measured against the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), with regular statistics published on abilities in reading, writing, literacy, numeracy, as well as listening and talking.

Since 2015/16, Primary 1 level has seen little success in decreasing the attainment gap across any measure. No gap has decreased by more than one percentage point in any of the categories.

The story is similar for Primary 4, where apart from listening and talking (2.1 percentage point decrease), the gap has stayed fairly consistent for the past three years.

More significant progress has been made at the Primary 7 level, with three to five point decreases in the attainment gap since 2015/16. Most notably in listening and talking, the difference has decreased by more than three points.

For S3 pupils, there has also been some positive movement in the achievement of the CfE third level, with the attainment gap decreasing between three and four percentage points in all areas.

The attainment levels of older pupils are measured through their achievement of pass grades at different Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) levels, such as National 3, 4, and 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.

There has been limited progress in recent years at bridging the gap in achievement of SQCF levels.

What is the attainment gap in school leaver destinations?

For school leavers, the attainment gap has reduced a small amount in relative numbers of richer and poorer children going on to Higher education. However, Scottish Government initial leaver destination data still show the gap is still significant with 59.3 per cent of the least deprived students going on to Higher education, compared with just 25.9 per cent of the most deprived.

The gap in Higher education has reduced six percentage points since 2009/10.

The Scottish Government also measures ‘positive destinations‘, which covers anyone who leaves school to go into “higher education, further education, training, employment, voluntary work, personal skills development and (between 2010/11 and 2017/18) Activity Agreements”.

Since 2009/10, the gap in initial positive destinations has narrowed from 13 percentage points to five.

Is there an attainment gap in exclusions?

The number of children being excluded from school has been linked to SIMD deprivation level in Scotland.

Pupils from more deprived areas are more likely to be excluded from school (either temporarily or permanently). In 2018/19, exclusion rates for pupils living in the most deprived areas were more than four times higher than for those in the least deprived areas.

The Scottish Government measures exclusions by deprivation level every two years, and publishes both the total numbers and the rate per 1,000 students from the most and least deprived areas. Since 2010/11 there has been a significant narrowing of the exclusions gap, driven mainly by a significant reduction in the numbers of pupils from deprived area being excluded.

: International look at the Scottish attainment gap

Another measure of Scotland’s gap in attainment is through the PISA report, an international study which measures performance in reading, maths and science every three years. Its latest report was published in 2018.

In 2018, the variation in reading scores explained by students’ background was 8.3 per cent. This is similar to the variation measured in 2015 (8.6 per cent). Since 2012, the variation has reduced by 2.7 percentage points, suggesting a small narrowing of the attainment gap.

The deprivation-linked gap in maths test scores has reduced from 12.9 per cent to 7.9 per cent since 2012. While in science, the percentage has slightly reduced, from 11.3 per cent to 10.1 per cent.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to ideas.theferret.scot, email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

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