Literacy levels of children in areas classified as “remote” are up to 14 percentage points behind those in other parts of the country. In numeracy the same children are up to 12 points behind their peers in accessible, urban parts of Scotland.
At every stage of school pupils in remote small towns perform more poorly than those in other places. Those from remote rural areas perform below average in primary school but improve in secondary.
Critics say the rural attainment gap is ill-understood, but could be due to depopulation, teacher shortages, mixed years groups, deprivation, migration and other factors. They demand research and investment to tackle the problem.
The Scottish Government insists that it works “closely with local government to identify these issues and support improvements where needed.”
The Ferret discovered the gap by analysing the latest Scottish Government report on the ‘Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels’. This is the official national measure of performance in primary and lower-secondary schools.
One section of the report breaks down results into six different geographical categories, according to the populations of settlements and their proximity to larger communities. The categories are large urban, other urban, accessible small town, remote small town, accessible rural and remote rural.
Small towns are those with between 3,000 and 9,999 inhabitants, while an area is classed as rural if it has fewer than 3,000 residents. If a location is also more than 30 minutes drive from an urban area it is classed as being remote.
Just 3.5 per cent of Scotland’s population lives in remote small towns, with a further 5.9 per cent in remote rural locations. These areas are concentrated in five highland and island local authorities: Argyll and Bute, Highlands, Na h-Eileanan Siar, Orkney and Shetland.
A Scottish Government spreadsheet lists 32 remote small towns across the country. They include Aviemore, Blairgowrie, Buckie, Campbeltown, Crieff, Dingwall, Dunbar, Girvan, Invergordon, Kelso, Kirkcudbright, Kirkwall, Lerwick, Newton Stewart, North Berwick, Oban, Rothesay, Stornoway, Thurso and Wick.
The most recent attainment statistics were published in December 2019 by the Scottish Government. They show that primary school children in remote small towns and remote rural areas were consistently below average in literacy and numeracy.
In primary one an average of 76 per cent of children in Scotland as a whole reached the expected level in literacy. This fell to 69 per cent in remote small towns and 71 per cent in remote rural areas.
There was the same pattern with numeracy levels in primary one. The average for Scotland was 85 per cent, dropping to 80 per cent in remote small towns and 79 per cent in remote rural areas.
In primary four just 60 per cent of children from remote small towns, and 62 per cent of those from remote rural areas, achieved the expected standard for literacy – well below the Scottish average of 70 per cent. A similar gap was found in numeracy.
For children in primary seven, the proportion in remote small towns achieving the expected literacy standard was 60 per cent – 11 points below the 71 per cent average – while numeracy rates were 10 points below average. Literacy and numeracy performance was also below average in remote rural areas.
Across all three stages of primary school those in remote areas did worse than average. Pupils in remote small towns scored 63 per cent in literacy and 71 per cent in numeracy, compared to Scottish averages of 72 per cent and 79 per cent, with those in remote rural areas performing only slightly better.
In secondary school differences persisted, but tended to lessen. By the end of S3 pupils in remote small towns were still below average in literacy and numeracy at level three, though those in remote rural areas achieved average levels.
The government data also showed differences in achieving literacy and numeracy at level four, which is intended to stretch the most able pupils. Just 36 per cent of those in remote small towns reached this level for literacy, compared to a Scottish average of 48 per cent.
In S3 level four numeracy the largest gap – 14 percentage points – was between those from remote small towns and those from large urban areas. Across all stages pupils from accessible rural locations performed best in literacy and numeracy, with those from large urban areas close behind.
The data also suggested that since 2017-18 there has been an overall decline in performance of children from remote small towns and remote rural areas. But the Scottish Government pointed out that the attainment statistics were not considered fully reliable until this year, making comparisons with previous years difficult.
Phil Prentice, chief officer of the government-funded support group, Scotland’s Towns Partnership, thought that several factors were likely to be behind the underperformance of children from remote areas of Scotland. “Educational attainment issues in small rural towns is a very complex mix of issues which differ across geographies,” he said.
“Some areas that could be looked at include depopulation of indigenous populations, problems attracting and retaining teaching talent, mixed year groups in very small schools, digital connectivity, concentrated pockets of European Union migration where English is not the first language, and wider general deprivation and social work placing of high issue families.”
He added: “Understanding the causal factors in more depth would encourage more positive policy responses.”
Amanda Burgauer, former chair of the campaign group, Scottish Rural Action, and an SNP parliamentary candidate in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, called for more support for remote communities.
“We need to look at the disadvantages these children can face, economically and culturally, and seek to address those, while recognising that there are distinct benefits to growing up in rural areas,” she told The Ferret.
“We need to ensure that education in remote areas is supported by infrastructure and other investment that reduces inequality and gives young people the start in life they deserve.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats said the data raised “important questions” about how pupils develop in different parts of the country. “The Scottish Government should consider whether further research into this area would help to shine a light on why our remote rural and small town areas are still struggling and whether Scottish education is on the right course,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Beatrice Wishart MSP.
According to Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray MSP, there were many factors at play in the attainment gap. “If the Scottish Government was serious about closing that gap it would be acknowledging that, researching it and addressing it,” he said.
“Instead all their energies are devoted to spinning the figures to hide the reality.”
The Scottish Conservatives described the evidence of a rural attainment gap as “disturbing” and urged ministers to do more to close it.
“It confirms the tough challenges facing our rural communities, many of which, in recent years, have faced teacher shortages in key stages in primary school and which have been left without the resources more readily available in urban schools,” said the party’s education spokesperson, Liz Smith MSP.
The Ferret asked the Scottish Government to explain the geographical attainment gap, and what work was being done to address it. In response the government insisted education was its “top priority” and it was “working to create a world-class system that supports all pupils to succeed.”
The government argued that schools had seen “incremental gains in attainment” and that more pupils than ever were leaving school for positive destinations. “The Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels data helps us to identify lower attainment in particular areas or groups of children such as those in small rural towns,” said a spokesperson.
“The Scottish Government and Education Scotland work closely with local government to identify these issues and support improvements where needed. Over 95 per cent of schools receive Pupil Equity Funding from the Scottish Government and they are targeting support and interventions to help support their pupils, in a range of ways, including those who face rural challenges.”
In December 2019 The Ferret revealed that children in poorer parts of Scotland have nearly 10 per cent fewer choices of subjects in secondary schools than those in better-off areas. We also reported in May 2019 that schools were suffering wide gender gaps, with boys choosing more technical subjects and girls avoiding them.
Primary one pupils achieving expected level
|Remote Small Town||69%||80%|
|Accessible Small Town||78%||86%|
Primary four pupils achieving expected level
|Remote Small Town||60%||69%|
|Accessible Small Town||70%||78%|
|Accessible Small Town||72%||77%|
Primary seven pupils achieving expected level
|Remote Small Town||60%||66%|
|Accessible Small Town||72%||77%|
Primary one, four and seven pupils achieving expected level
|Remote Small Town||63%||71%|
|Accessible Small Town||73%||80%|
Secondary three pupils achieving level three
|Remote Small Town||81%||87%|
|Accessible Small Town||89%||92%|
Secondary three pupils achieving level four
|Remote Small Town||36%||55%|
|Accessible Small Town||48%||62%|
Cover photo thanks to iStock/OtmarW. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.