A new report has exposed the gulf between local authorities in tackling poor educational attainment among school pupils from Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods.
Figures published by the UK Social Mobility Commission (SMC) reveal big differences between councils in tackling the attainment gap that divides the life chances of the most deprived young people from their better-off peers.
In parts of the country, the reading and writing performance of pupils from the wealthiest parts of the country is almost a third better than those from the poorest areas, while in other local authorities the gap is negligible.
Opposition parties and education unions said the figures demanded further action on educational inequality from ministers.
Using controversial new Scottish Government data, the SMC report ranks local authorities by the average gap in reading and writing attainment in P1, P7 and S3.
At P1, the deprivation gap in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level was almost 34% in Highland, the worst-performing area. At P7, Aberdeenshire came bottom of the table, with an attainment gap of over 40%. And Aberdeenshire saw the biggest difference between the best and worst-off pupils at S3, of 40%.
However, the tables are likely to spark controversy as they were put together using Scottish Government attainment data published last year based on ‘teacher professional judgements’ of pupils’ standards.
The reports authors sounded a note of caution over their use of ‘experimental data’. New standardised assessments are being rolled out that will measure pupils’ results in key areas. Nicola Sturgeon has pledged that data will not be used to create school league tables.
“Education and employment outcomes vary widely across Scotland – with deprived, post industrial areas tending to report lower outcomes, while affluent rural areas tend to report higher outcomes,” the SMC report concludes.
“Even within authority areas, there are large gaps in outcomes between the most deprived and least deprived parts of the area.”
Tom Mason, the Scottish Conservative MSP for the North East said: “I think parents will be very disturbed to read the findings of this study.
“While we must treat anything described as ‘experimental data’ with some degree of caution, we cannot afford to be complacent about our children’s education.
“The fact that these statistics are showing that there is a significant attainment gap between pupils from poorer backgrounds and those from better off backgrounds is a major concern.
“Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said that reducing the attainment gap is her top priority. To date, there is no sign that this is the reality.”
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS teaching union, called on Scottish ministers to increase investment in schools.
What this report highlights is that as part of society schools and colleges are not immune from the impact of poverty. However, schools cannot overcome society’s problems working in isolation,” Mr Flanagan said.
“The issue must be tackled with adequate and sustained investment in Scotland’s schools. Adequate numbers of teachers, smaller class sizes, the expansion of free nursery education with minimum access to a qualified teacher for all 2, 3 and 4 year-olds, and appropriate levels of additional support for pupils who need it, are what is required to improve the educational and life chances of all our young people, and particularly those living in poverty.”
The SMC report highlighted the opportunity gap across Scotland in a number of areas. The poverty gap in university admissions is widest in Stirling, where just 10.2% of pupils from the poorest neighbourhoods enter higher education, compared with 64.8% in the richest areas.
In East Renfrewshire and Dumfries and Galloway, 30% of employees are paid less than the living wage of £8.75 per hour, more than double the proportion in Edinburgh.
In Edinburgh and East Dunbartonshire, just over 40% of jobs are in managerial or professional roles, almost twice the proportion in Dundee, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway or Moray.
However, despite being among the best paid parts of Scotland, residents in Edinburgh and East Renfrewshire also face the greatest struggle finding an affordable place to live, with house prices almost eight times the median annual salary.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have clearly stated that a child born today, irrespective of socioeconomic background, should have an equal chance of entering university by the time he or she leaves school.
"Our policy and spend decisions since then have shown our commitment to this aim, including a massive investment in childcare and early years, our £750 million attainment programme and continuing commitment to free tuition fees for universities and colleges.
“We are also committed to a range of actions outside of education to promote social mobility. These include the 50 concrete actions we will take over the course of this parliament to tackle inequality as set out in our Fairer Scotland Action Plan, a new £29 million programme to tackle poverty across Scotland, and delivering at least 50,000 affordable homes over the current parliamentary term.
“This work continues against a backdrop of continuing UK Government austerity measures, which are pushing more people, including children, into poverty and crisis.”