Pupil writing with a pencil in a school lesson.

Claim SNP has reduced attainment gap by two-thirds is Mostly False

Addressing the difference in attainment between Scottish pupils has been a major part of the Scottish Government’s policy platform over the past decade. 

Ahead of the forthcoming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, SNP MP David Linden made a claim about the SNP government’s progress in reducing the gap between rich and poor students in an interview with BBC Radio 4

“In terms of education, we’ve closed the attainment gap by two-thirds”.

David Linden MP

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it Mostly False.


In 2016, the SNP called education “the defining mission” of its government, and then-first minister Nicola Sturgeon said closing the attainment gap between rich and poor students was “a priority”.

This has continued under Humza Yousaf’s time as first minister, who said his government would “continue to focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap in schools”. 

Research has shown that the poverty-related attainment gap has a significant impact on social mobility and can have “real consequences for the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds”. 

Progress on Scotland’s educational attainment gap is published by the Scottish Government. There are a number of different measures recorded, including attainment of literacy, numeracy and reading for those in school across different levels, and school leaver destinations

The attainment gap is defined as the difference in attainment between students in the most deprived areas and the least, measured using the Scottish index of multiple deprivation (SIMD). 

The latest statistics for in-school achievement covering 2021-22 were published at the end of last year. It should be noted that the Covid-19 pandemic affected the statistics in 2020-21.

Attainment is measured for pupils in Primary 1, 4 and 7, then for Secondary 3 across five categories: reading, writing, listening & talking, literacy and numeracy. 

For Primary 1 pupils the attainment gap increased slightly across all categories between 2016-17 and 2021-22. The largest increase was in numeracy where the difference was 1.1 percentage points. 

In Primary 4, the picture was mixed. There were small increases in listening and talking, as well as numeracy, and slight decreases in reading, writing and literacy. The largest decrease between 2016-17 and 2021-22 was 0.6 percentage points in literacy. 

A more significant decrease was found in Primary 7 attainment. The gap between the least and most deprived students decreased across all categories. A 3.4 percentage point decrease in listening and talking was the most significant. 

Attainment for Secondary 3 pupils is measured against two levels: SCQF level three and level four. 

The attainment gap for achievement of level 3 increased in all categories, with a 2.6 point increase in reading. 

For SCQF level 4, the attainment gap between 2016-17 and 2021-22 stayed fairly static, with small increases in writing and literacy, and a small decrease in listening & talking.

None of these statistics showed a reduction in line with David Linden’s claim.

Statistics are also released on the attainment gap for school leavers. This is measured by percentage of pupils from the poorest and richest areas who gain at least one passing grade at SCQF 4, 5 and 6. These numbers equate to National 4, 5 and Higher level respectively.

Since 2009-10, the gap in those achieving at least one level 4 pass has narrowed from 11.3 to 5.8 percentage points.

For level 5, the gap has reduced from 33.3 to 19.1 points, while at level 6 it has narrowed from 45.6 to 37 points.

The attainment gap is also measured in leaver destinations. This is measured as where young people who leave school in Scotland end up three months afterwards. Those who are in either employment, further or higher education are measured as a percentage. 

The attainment gap for school leavers has decreased more significantly than across other measures. Since 2009-10, it has narrowed from 13.2 points to 4.4 in 2021-22. In response to Ferret Fact Service, the SNP stated this was the statistic David Linden was referring to. 

It is true on this measure that the attainment gap is about two thirds lower than it was in 2009-10. Since 2016-17 it has reduced by 2.5 points.

However, this is only one measure of the attainment gap, and there has been little progress on measures of attainment for pupils in school, with many categories increasing over the past five years and others remaining static. 

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False

David Linden’s claim is selectively presented. His claim Scotland has reduced the attainment gap in education by two-thirds is based on one specific measure – school leavers destinations since 2009-10. Across other measures there has not been a similar reduction, with the gap remaining static or increasing across numerous categories. 

This claim is Mostly False

Photo credit: iStock/Ritthichai

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