SNP ministers under fire over widening attainment gap between richest and poorest pupils
Scottish ministers have been accused of presiding over a "shameful failure" after the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest pupils widened again.
Exam results sent out to learners across Scotland on Tuesday confirmed a 16 percentage point gap at Higher, up from 14.9 points last year, 7.9 in 2021 and 6.4 in 2020.
The difference in the number of pupils from the most affluent and the most deprived areas gaining A, B and C grades at Higher is now almost back to the 16.9 per cent gap recorded in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The gap was also larger than last year at National 5 level, although at Advanced Higher it is now narrower than 2019.
The overall pass rate has also moved a step closer to 2019 levels, having fallen since last year.
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr said: "The widening attainment gap should be a source of shame for ministers – pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been let down year after year by the SNP."For a government that claims to be ‘progressive’, it represents an abject and shameful failure.”
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon once described closing the poverty-related attainment gap as the “defining mission” of her government.
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, who visited pupils receiving their results at Edinburgh’s Craigmount High School on Tuesday, said: “I think undoubtedly is it a concern for me.
"It’s a real focus for the government in relation to our work around closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
We have made progress since 2019 but not as much as I would have liked to have done.”
She said the Scottish Government had invested record sums into the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which provides additional income to schools, and pupil equity funding.
But she added: “However, as we continue to recover from the pandemic there is more the government will need to do and local authorities in relation to closing that gap because the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis really can’t be ignored in that context.”
About 140,000 learners received their results on Tuesday for a range of qualifications, including Nationals, Higher and and Advanced Higher.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said it has used a “sensitive” and “more generous” approach to awarding for 2023, compared to the model used before the pandemic, in recognition of the ongoing impact of the disruption faced by learners in the last few years.
However, the level of adjustments to grades to take account of the pandemic was lower than last year, and is likely to reduce again next year.
The proportion of pupils achieving an A, B or C grade at Higher level this year was 77.1 per cent, down slightly on 2022 when it was 78.9 per cent, but still higher than the 74.8 per cent in 2019, before Covid.
At National 5 level, the A to C attainment rate was 78.8 per cent, which was below the 80.8 per cent last year and only just above the 78.2 per cent recorded in 2019.
The pattern was similar for Advanced Higher, where the A to C rate was 79.8 per cent this year, down from 81.3 per cent last year, and close to the 79.4 per cent recorded in 2019.
Fiona Robertson, SQA’s chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “These strong results also prove the resilience of Scotland’s learners, whose success has been enabled and supported by the hard work of teachers, lecturers and the wider education community.
“This year does not mark a return to normal for learners and educators. But it marks another significant and positive step on the path back to normal awarding, following the years of disruption to learning and teaching caused by the pandemic.
“Our sensitive approach to awarding this year was developed with and supported by the education community. It has given learners the best chance of performing to the best of their abilities.”
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, questioned comparisons with previous years.
“The SQA has managed to adjust the result so as to achieve overall percentages that appear credible according to their preferred story, which is that standards of assessment are returning to normal after the pandemic but have not quite got there yet,” he said.
"So they can point to percentages gaining A-C passes that are lower than last year but higher than in the last pre-Covid year.
"But comparisons with the pre-Covid years are simply not valid because the SQA has modified the syllabuses, the exam papers, and the grade boundaries with the intention of allowing for the disruption caused by Covid.
"For example, they entirely removed the direct assessment of practical work in sciences and languages, omitted the assessed coursework that normally assesses that practical work, and then also marked more leniently any exam questions about practical aspects of science and languages (by lowering grade boundaries).
"And yet, despite all these changes that were intended to mitigate the effects of Covid, the SQA still claims that the large fluctuations in overall results during and since Covid can be ignored because Covid has been so disruptive.
"This is a kind of double-counting of Covid-related disadvantaged. It strains credibility in the entire system.”
Professor Paterson also said the SQA had “presented some very selective statistics” on the attainment gap, suggesting that in some respects the inequality is lower than in 2019, if A-C grades are compared
"That selectiveness is disingenuous. At Higher and Advanced Higher, inequality in attaining an A-grade is greater than in 2019,” he said.
"Inequality is also greater for an A-C pass at Higher and Advanced Higher if we compare the second-most advantaged neighbourhoods with the second-most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
"Any decline of inequality is to be welcomed, but an honest appraisal would also note that difficult social circumstances do not affect only the poorest. It also affects pupils whose families live just above that lowest threshold."
Ms Gilruth told The Scotsman this week of her hopes that levels of “rigour” in Scotland’s exams can return to pre-pandemic rates next year, while retaining a “bespoke” level of support for learners.
Scottish ministers previously announced that the SQA would be scrapped and replaced in the wake of a controversy over its handling of assessments when exams were cancelled at the height of the pandemic, including a notorious algorithm which lowered many grades.
However, the legislation to establish a new qualifications body was recently delayed by Ms Gilruth.
She took the decision in order to properly consider a range of proposed reforms on the future of Scottish education, including the Hayward review, which calls for the end of exams for S4 pupils.
Green MSP Ross Greer has been a supporter of the proposals.
However, he has also raised concerns about a change to the SQA appeals process this year, which means they no longer consider alternative assessment evidence.
“We were delighted by the bold changes that the Hayward review recommended and look forward to the discussion with teachers, students and parents/carers on how they can be taken forward,” he said.
“I am frustrated though that the SQA has reversed the important changes made to the appeals system last year.
"This will only entrench the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds and penalise students who have faced exceptional circumstances.”
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