In an update to Parliament outlining plans for the next phase of the £1bn Scottish Attainment Challenge, Ms Somerville said she would lay out pupil equity fund (PEF) allocations for the next four years to allow head teachers to plan ahead, Meanwhile, she unveiled “challenge funding” of £43 million to be extended to all of Scotland’s local authorities – rather than the nine which previously benefited from the scheme - to help tackle the attainment gap and support education recovery.
The investment will be distributed equitably between all 32 local authorities based on Children in low income families data for the last financial year, with a full breakdown of allocations to be published in due course.
Opposition parties have warned that expanding the funding would take money away from children living in Scotland’s poorest communities, however supporters said that there are children living in poverty in all local authorities in Scotland.
Earlier this year, an Audit Scotland report warned that Scotland’s poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and said that existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The report said progress over the past seven years had been inconsistent and warned there were large variations in local authority performance, with some councils' performance getting worse on some measures.
Under the new plans, head teachers will receive up to £130 million next year through PEF, which can be used in whatever way they think best to support disadvantaged pupils in their schools.
Meanwhile, local authority work to improve the educational and well-being outcomes of care experienced young people will receive approximately £11.5 million, with around £9 million reserved for a number of a national programmes supporting children to reach their full potential.
Ms Somerville said: “Closing the attainment gap remains our key long-term ambition. We are increasing our investment to £1 billion over this parliamentary term to support education recovery and improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty.
“We are determined to increase the pace of this crucial work and to ensure children and young people across different parts of Scotland reach their full potential. Our head teachers and teachers know their pupils best, and they have our full trust to help achieve this backed by £200 million for the year ahead. Schools can’t do this alone and we have fully aligned our work on closing the attainment gap with wider work to tackle child poverty."
She added: “Nothing is more important than ensuring every child and young person has the same opportunity to succeed in education, regardless of their background – we will deliver this for them.”
Scottish Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, Oliver Mundell, said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s promise to close the attainment gap has well and truly been broken and nothing the SNP do to rehash the same failing initiatives can re-write history.
“Simply throwing money around the system while ignoring the real challenges facing our schools was never going to work, but neither will suddenly axing additional cash for the poorest communities. Instead we need a credible plan to restore standards in our education system, and to ensure pupils in every school are getting the education they deserve.”
He added: “By focusing far more on teaching and learning we will help those who start at a disadvantage close the gap and give them a fighting chance.
“Continuing to lower our aspirations and plug the gap with well-meaning initiatives alone cannot deliver the equality of opportunity and social mobility we all want to see.”
Scottish Greens education spokesperson, Ross Greer, said: "There are children living in poverty across every council area in Scotland. This new way of distributing Attainment Challenge funding is a welcome recognition of that reality.
"The majority of children experiencing poverty don't actually live in what we would recognise as deprived postcodes, so whilst geographically targeted approaches are sometimes useful, in this case the previous Challenge fund was missing a majority of the children it was set up to help. That will no longer be the case. This comes on top of £20 million in additional funding this year to help the most disadvantaged pupils recover from the effects of the pandemic."
Scottish Labour’s Education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “That the SNP are choosing this moment to make callous cuts to the poorest children’s education is grotesque and intolerable. It almost defies belief.
“Far from rhetoric on recovery, they are abandoning any pretence they care about the poorest pupils in the poorest areas."
HMI chief Inspector and chief executive of Education Scotland Gayle Gorman said: “Education Scotland remains focused on our long term commitment to working collaboratively with Scotland’s educators across all sectors to ensure our children and young people most impacted by poverty continue to be supported to achieve as much as their more affluent peers. We need to ensure that all children and young people achieve the very best outcomes through education – wherever they are in Scotland and from whatever background they come from.”
Under the new funding allocation, local authority work to improve the educational and well-being outcomes of care experienced young people will receive approximately £11.5 million, with around £9 million reserved for a number of a national programmes supporting children to reach their full potential.
Councillor Stephen McCabe, spokesman for for children and young people for councils’ umbrella group COSLA, said: “Councils are on the frontline of efforts to support children and young people in poverty every day. That’s why we welcome the recognition that councils across Scotland will be pivotal in work to tackle the attainment gap, not only providing additional support within schools but enabling stronger links with the wide range of important services for children, young people and their families that sit beyond the school gates.”