Analysis: Scottish Government urgently needs to tackle attainment gap

The timing of the publication of a damning report into the state of the poverty-related attainment gap – coming just a day after the Scottish Government’s own report trumpeted unbridled success in the area – was an interesting choice by Audit Scotland.

While the government’s own study triumphed a narrowing of the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school – and another narrowing of the gap in numeracy achievements at S3 level – the Audit Scotland report warned that, in fact, the gap remains wide – and is only going to be made worse as the effects of the pandemic are felt in the coming months and years.

This was inevitable. Whatever small step in the right direction was made in previous years towards closing the gap between children who grow up in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland, Covid-19 only served to push two steps back when schools closed.

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Closing poverty-related attainment gap is making 'good progress', Scottish Gover...
Scotland's poverty-related attainment gap is still too wide, the report said.

While some children had easy access to the internet, devices on which to access platforms such as Microsoft Teams and parents working from home on hand to help them if they got stuck with the work they were set, others were left waiting weeks without being able to as much as log on to the online learning their school had provided.

Some youngsters without a laptop or tablet of their own were offered devices from school – or their local authority – but in many cases, these devices took weeks to arrive, resulting in hours of missed lessons.

While most state school pupils had little or no live online teaching during the first lockdown, private schools created enriched timetables of not only academic lessons, but music and PE – as well as pastoral calls to check in on the mental health of their isolated pupils.

Elsewhere, some disengaged youngsters failed to log on to a single lesson, while those who did often struggled with unreliable internet connections.

Now, as pupils return, the impact of a lack of face-to-face teaching will be felt once more.

Some schools are offering younger secondary school pupils less than half a day a week in school – with their online learning cut so that staff can accommodate those in the school building. Others, especially those with smaller class sizes to begin with, offer a much more full timetable.

Even pre-pandemic, the Scottish Government’s own figures show the gap was not necessarily closing in all areas – with the gap between the literacy achievements of pupils from the most and least deprived areas actually increasing between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

With an election looming, the Scottish Government’s record on education is under even greater scrutiny than before.

The recent return to school has come under heavy criticism, while last month, the Liberal Democrats raised a motion in Parliament saying that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) “cannot be trusted” with ensuring Scotland’s education system recovers after the pandemic.

Exams have been cancelled for the second year in a row and the Scottish Government has been accused of trying to bury an independent review into Scotland’s curriculum for excellence, led by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The Scottish Government needs to wake up and acknowledge its attainment gap – and take urgent action to tackle it.

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