The report from the Auditor General for Scotland and the Accounts Commission found that exam performance and other attainment measures at the national level have improved.
However, it said progress over the past seven years had been inconsistent. The report warned there were large variations in local authority performance, with some councils' performance getting worse on some measures.
Yesterday, a separate report from the Scottish Government claimed the gap between the proportion of primary pupils – from P1, P4 and P7 – from the most and least deprived areas achieving the expected level in literacy and numeracy had narrowed since the 2016/17 academic year.
It also said that at S3 level, a year before pupils sit their National 5 exams, while the gap had narrowed for pupils in terms of numeracy attainment, it increased slightly for literacy between 2017/18 and 2018/19, after having reduced slightly between 2016/17 and 2017/18.
However, the Audit Scotland study warned the poverty-related attainment gap in education “remains wide” and called for action to be taken by the Scottish Government in the wake of the pandemic.
The body pointed to date showing that in 2018/19, the proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level five was 82.7 per cent for pupils from the least deprived areas, compared to 46.5 per cent for school leavers from the most deprived areas – a gap of 36.2 percentage points and down from 41.6 percentage points in 2013/14.
Opposition politicians criticised the Scottish Government for its performance in education, saying it had “failed” in its mission to close the attainment gap. Education unions warned that “greater and sustained investment” was needed to combat the problems exacerbated by the pandemic.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The impact of poverty on children’s life chances remains a matter of huge concern, and much more needs to be done to support young people living in poverty to overcome the barriers that they continue to face.
"Schools do all that they can with insufficient resources to support young people from all backgrounds, but cannot, in isolation, overcome such serious societal issues as inequality and poverty.
"We have long known of the devastating impact that poverty can have on young people, and this has been made worse during the pandemic when young people from less affluent backgrounds have been far more likely to have had their in-school learning disrupted and to face barriers in accessing education outwith the school environment.
"It is clear that much greater and sustained investment is needed to tackle the impact of poverty on young people’s education, and all of Scotland’s political parties must fully commit to tackling this issue in the context of education recovery during the next Parliament.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra said: “This long-awaited report could not be clearer – the SNP has failed in its mission to close the attainment gap in our schools.
"Before Covid, educational inequality was vast and stubborn. It has undoubtedly increased since. The government focus required to turn this around will be considerable.
"The poverty-related attainment gap represents poorer life chances for young people in our most deprived communities.”
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly said people should judge her on the SNP Government’s education record, but the reality is that after 14 years in charge they have failed miserably to reduce the attainment gap in our schools.
“Even prior to the pandemic, the SNP had failed to address learning inequalities. They have slashed thousands of teachers from our classrooms and broken their promises on reducing class sizes.”
Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said: “This report is damning for a government asking to be judged on how they’ve tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Home learning during the pandemic has clearly created its own challenges, but as the report shows this problem long pre-dated Covid."
The report said while the national curriculum recognises that school is about more than exams, there has been an increase in the types of pathways, awards and qualifications available to young people. However, it warned that better data was needed to understand if other important broad outcomes, like wellbeing and self-confidence, were improving.
The report praised the Scottish Government, councils, schools and the other bodies responsible for planning and delivering education, saying they were working well together before Covid-19 and they were able to respond rapidly in “exceptionally difficult circumstances”.
Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "Significantly reducing the attainment gap is complex, but the pace of improvement has to increase as part of the Scottish Government's Covid-19 recovery planning. That process needs to particularly focus on the pandemic's impact on the most disadvantaged children and young people."
Elma Murray, interim chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “There is variation in educational performance across Scotland, but this is not solely about exam performance. Education also supports and improves the health and wellbeing of children and young people, which has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is vital that councils, schools and their partners work to reduce the wide variation in outcomes as well as understanding and tackling the short and longer-term impact of Covid-19 on learning and wellbeing.”
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, while an independent commission on school reform has called for a full-scale public review on how pupil performance will be judged in the future.