Education has once again been in the spotlight this week, and has often led the political exchanges in Scotland.
The SNP’s record was highlighted during the BBC Scottish leaders’ debate on May 21.
This time it was Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale who criticised the First Minister for Scotland’s education failings, saying that the SNP had presided over an increase in the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils.
The claim has been assessed by Ferret Fact Service, and we found it to be half true.
The education attainment gap is the name given to the varying levels of academic success between people from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Education Scotland gave a definition of the term in 2016 as part of a Scottish Government initiative to close the attainment gap.
It read: “Many children and young people living in our most deprived communities do significantly worse at all levels of the education system than those from our least deprived communities. This is often referred to as the ‘attainment gap’.”
Educational attainment has traditionally been lower in those from poorer backgrounds, and the size of the gap in achievement between poorer and richer pupils is often cited as an indicator of a country’s inequality.
In Scotland, such a gap has been seen in various studies, with evidence suggesting those from more deprived backgrounds do less well in education.
There are a number of ways to measure levels of attainment in the classroom, but no clear method to define the attainment gap.
One often-cited survey is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which shows the level of attainment of 15-year-olds in reading, science and mathematics once every three years.
The latest findings are from 2015, and show a slight narrowing since 2009 in the education attainment gap in science, but the gap has remained steady since 2012. In mathematics the study found a “sustained reduction in the gap”.
PISA does not use the same measure of deprivation as Scotland, where it is commonly measured by area.
A report from the Sutton Trust think tank using the PISA figures found Scottish pupils were scoring below average compared to other countries in the survey.
The Scottish Survey on Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) is also used as a measure for deprivation and attainment. Since 2012, there has not been a significant change in the gap between the richest and poorest students in reading or writing at P4, P7 or S2.
Numeracy is measured in different years to literacy by the SSLN. There has been a significant increase in the attainment gap for P4 pupils since 2011.
Overall, SSLN statistics show that for the last five years at least, a significant attainment gap has endured and general attainment has decreased in many areas, but there does not seem to be strong evidence the gap has increased.
There is more evidence for such a gap when looking at the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels, which measures poverty as the bottom 20 per cent according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). This shows an increasing gap between the richest and poorest as they move through school.
However, there is some evidence to suggest in higher and further education Scots from deprived backgrounds are in fact doing better than when the SNP got into power, but remain much less likely reach university.
The inconsistency of the data means it is extremely difficult to say with any certainty if the overall attainment gap is growing, shrinking or staying the same. So while Kezia Dugdale can point to some statistics which back up her claim, the SNP and First Minister can reference other findings which suggest otherwise.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True
Kezia Dugdale is partially correct to say that the attainment gap between most and least deprived pupils in Scotland has increased on some measures. However there is not a consistent indicator available, so it is not possible to accurately say whether Scotland’s overall gap is increasing or otherwise.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working 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. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our community forum.
In response to an FFS evidence request, Scottish Labour provided reference to a Sutton Trust report, evidence from UCAS and recent CfE summary statistics.
This fact check was also published in the Sunday Herald on 28 May, 2017.