Exclusive:Exam success for Edinburgh's most disadvantaged pupils enables city to cut attainment gap

New figures show significant progress across almost every measure in Edinburgh

Dramatic improvements in exam results by pupils from Edinburgh’s most deprived communities have enabled the city to make progress in cutting its poverty-related attainment gap, The Scotsman can reveal.

New analysis of this year’s results shows the difference in performance between the richest and poorest pupils continues to fall across almost all cohort measures in Scotland's capital, although the gap remains substantial. The figures have emerged amid ongoing concern at the widening attainment gap across Scotland.

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Edinburgh City Council figures show, at S5, the proportion of its pupils from the most deprived communities gaining three or more Highers at A to C increased from 18 per cent in 2019 to 21 per cent in 2022, before soaring to 31 per cent this year.

In the same year group, the proportion of pupils from the poorest areas who gained one or more Higher jumped to 57 per cent this year, from 41 per cent in 2019 and 42 per cent in 2022. A slight year-on-year fall was recorded in the proportion of these pupils gaining five Highers or more, from 16 per cent to 14 per cent, but it remains more than double the 6 per cent recorded in 2019.

At S5, there have also been more modest improvements in attainment against the same measures among the pupils from the most affluent areas. Overall, the poverty-related gap when comparing attainment in S5 of one or more Highers has fallen from 43 percentage points last year to 34 points this year.

In terms of those passing three or more Highers, the gap has gone from 47 to 42 points in a year.

Figures for Higher attainment at S6 also show the poverty-related gap has fallen against all measures in Edinburgh in the period.

The proportion gaining one or more Higher at S6 is up 26 points in a year, while there has been a 12-point increase in attainment of three or more Highers, and a 15-point rise in passes of five or more Highers.

At S4, the proportion of the poorest pupils passing five or more National 5s in Edinburgh has gone from 17 before the pandemic in 2019, to 24 in 2020, 21 in 2021, and 23 per cent in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the gap between the poorest and richest has narrowed at S4 in that period from 51 points in 2019, to 49 during the subsequent three years, and down again to 47 points this year.

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The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) this year continued to use a more “sensitive” approach to grading to take account of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on education, although it was said to be less “generous” than in 2022.

Edinburgh differs from the rest of Scotland in that almost a fifth of city-based pupils attend private schools. Residents also generally have higher incomes, but there is significant inequality, with about of fifth of children in the city growing up in poverty.

The local authority said its data on this year’s exam results is not comparable with other areas. However, the figures appear to show the city is bucking a national trend, against a backdrop of Edinburgh traditionally having a high poverty-related attainment gap.

Across Scotland, there was a big improvement in A to C attainment at Higher and National 5 among pupils from the most deprived areas between 2019, before Covid, and 2020, when exams were cancelled.

However, this has been followed by a decrease in the proportion getting passes among the same group in 2021, 2022 and 2023, to the point where it is now almost back to 2019 levels.

The overall poverty-related attainment gap has also almost returned to pre-pandemic rates, having widened each year since 2020.

In Edinburgh, performance among the pupils from the most deprived areas generally improved between 2022 and 2023, while the gap to those from the wealthiest areas has also continued to narrow.

Councillor Joan Griffiths, the city council’s education convener, said: “It’s really encouraging to see the early analysis of our exam results has shown a narrowing in the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged pupils in our schools. This is all down to the hard work of our young people, the dedication of our staff, and the support of parents and carers.”

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Colin Meikle, head teacher at Craigmount High School in the west of Edinburgh, has witnessed the changes at his school.

"It is definitely something I feel at school level – there is a drive to make sure that everybody is successful,” he said. He said the progress in attainment was not only with national qualifications (NQ).

"One of the things that we’ve really been working on since coming out of the pandemic in particular is the curriculum – particularly looking at curriculum pathways and the courses that are available to everyone,” he said.

"We’ve really increased the number of wider courses that we’ve got, like National Progression Awards, Personal Development Awards, National Certificate courses that we’ve been doing, and opportunities to work with the college.

"From the number of courses that we did have that were outwith the NQ, as a school in Craigmount we’ve trebled the number of courses we’re offering at SCQF levels five and six, in particular, in order to broaden the range of pathways for pupils.

"I think that’s going hand-in-hand with the opportunity for them to have discussions with their pupil support leaders about what the best pathways are for them.”

Mr Meikle added: "I think as well another whole aspect to this is just allowing us again to refocus, I think since Covid, on learning and teaching. That’s what excites us as teachers, that’s why we came into the job – because we absolutely love making our classroom practice the very best that it can be.”



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