'Record £215m' to close attainment gap in schools

Scotland's stubborn poverty-related education attainment gap is to be tackled with a record £215m spending boost by the Scottish Government.

The attainment gap has been stubbornly high
The attainment gap has been stubbornly high

New Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced the money three months after the government was told by Audit Scotland the gap “remained wide” despite a pledge to eradicate the divide in attainment levels between the poorest and wealthiest pupils.

She said the announcement was part of the government’s commitment to pay the first instalment of the £1 billion Attainment Scotland Fund in the first 100 days of Parliament, as it was “more vital than ever” to tackle the attainment gap which had worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic with school closures impacting on pupils’ education.

The funding, the largest sum ever handed out in a single year to tackle the issue, will ensure “targeted help” for the most disadvantaged students, she said.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has announced money to tackle the attainment gap.

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Headteachers across the country will share £147m in Pupil Equity Funding in 2021-22, including a “top up payment” of £20m for additional challenges faced as a result of the pandemic, while nine councils with the highest concentrations of deprivation in Scotland – known as Challenge Authorities – will share a further £43 million.

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Audit Scotland report: Scotland's education attainment gap 'remains wide'

A further £7 million from the Schools’ Programme will be shared between 73 additional schools with the highest concentration of pupils from areas of deprivation and schemes to help improve the attainment of youngsters who have been in care will also receive up to £12m. Finally another £7m will go to national programmes, including those run by the third-sector, which work to raise attainment.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously pledged that tackling the attainment gap is a top priority, but her government has come under fire for its record.

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It was embarrassed in March after an Audit Scotland report found that the poverty-related gap remained wide just 24 hours after the ministers insisted they were making ‘good progress’ on closing divisions between the least and most well-off school children.

The body pointed to data 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 said the government had “failed” in its mission to close the attainment gap, while education unions warned that “greater and sustained investment” was needed to combat the problems exacerbated by the pandemic.

Announcing the funding Ms Somerville, who was appointed Education Secretary after May’s Holyrood election, stressed that “closing the poverty-related attainment gap and ensuring every young person has the chance to fulfil their potential remains central to this Government’s work.”

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She added: “Our ambition is a long-term one and we know that the challenges presented by the pandemic mean our efforts to deliver equity in education are more vital than ever.

“This first instalment of the expanded Attainment Scotland Fund, with record funding of more than £215m, will allow headteachers, schools, councils and other partners to provide targeted help for some of our most disadvantaged pupils.

“We are providing investment across a number of diverse programmes which will benefit looked-after children, support pupils in our most deprived areas and empower headteachers to invest their funding on initiatives that are right for the children in their schools.”

The news of the funding comes as the government awaits the publication of a delayed OECD review into the school curriculum, which is expected to highlight how resources have been used in ensuring the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence, with the organisation flagging a “misalignment between CfE’s aspirations and the system of qualifications” as well as “the need to get policies in place that deliver the right balance between curriculum autonomy and equity for students.”

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Scottish Conservative education spokesman, Oliver Mundell said the announcement of money was welcome and his party had called for an increase in funding, but he added: “Before the pandemic, progress was too slow on closing the attainment gap and it’s now ground to a halt.

“While this will help, on its own, this funding won’t close the attainment gap. We still need the SNP government to sort out the deep problems they’ve created in Scottish education.”

Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Michael Marra said: “The attainment gap is a blight on our society that embeds inequality into our system. The SNP promised to close it, but they have failed and their botched handling of exams is making the situation worse day by day.”

He said the money was only a “marginal increase” on what had been spent before the pandemic. “It does not fill the gap of what has been cut by the SNP over the last 14 years. It does nothing to respond to the impact of the biggest loss in education since the introduction of universal education. What is needed is a properly resourced education comeback plan with fairness at its heart.”

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Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart also said the new funding would not “disguise the fact that despite the First Minister’s promise to close the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, it has barely budged since she took office.”

She added: “At the current rate it will take more than three decades to close the attainment gap. Our children and young people cannot wait that long.

"With the additional struggles as a result of the pandemic, this funding must be the bare minimum. The government must make the pupil premium permanent to give schools confidence to make long term decisions and inspire real change. That would also give confidence to schools to recruit additional staff and reduce short-term contracts.”

Green education spokesman Ross Greer added: "More money for schools is always welcomed but an attainment gap caused by poverty won't be closed in classrooms. Poverty needs tackled at source. Expecting teachers to be somewhere between a social worker and a miracle worker is unfair and unsustainable. Wider interventions like rent controls, home energy schemes to reduce fuel bills and attaching family income advisors to every school in Scotland are the kind of bold initiatives needed to address this outrageous inequality."

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