Peter Peacock, Education Minister, will set out next week the Scottish Executive's long-term reform plans, which will mark a major shift of resources to those most in need. They are falling further behind as overall standards rise steadily, Mr Peacock said.
The minister told a leadership and management conference in Stirling last week of the Executive's determination to tackle persistent disadvantage that could take decades to turn around.
Mr Peacock outlined a new strategy of "progressive universalism" through which more cash will be diverted to schools that face the greatest challenges. "We will concentrate more on those who have the biggest problems," he said.
He described the statistics on continued under-performance in disadvantaged communities as "shocking". The highest concentrations of deprivation, which have the highest free school meal entitlement, produced the lowest results, a key factor in bringing down the overall performance of the national education system.
Everyone else was moving forward but the bottom 20 per cent were static.
"The opportunity gap is actually widening," Mr Peacock admitted.
The minister contrasted the extent of deprivation with his experience during a summer visit to Finland, the top-performing country in the international league tables. During a tour of Helsinki, "they pointed me to the tower block that had deprivation".
Mr Peacock pledged to do more for the 11,000 looked-after children, who continue to under-perform against their abilities. "Their prospects in education are far, far too low and we need to do far better by them," he said.
Despite the broad challenges facing schools in disadvantaged areas, the minister believed there was still too much variation in performance between schools in similar communities. "We have very high performance in some areas of deprivation but not in others. Why is it that like communities have entirely different performance?" he asked.
The Executive's fresh strategy was applauded by Chris James, professor of educational management at Glamorgan University. Professor James told the Stirling conference that a forthcoming Welsh study would show quite clearly that there is no "deterministic link" between performance and disadvantage:
"It's perfectly possible to have high disadvantage and high attainment."
Ken Cunningham, headteacher of Hillhead High in Glasgow, and past president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said the "opportunity gap" was the big issue for the city. "How do we narrow it without damaging the experience of others?" he asked.
Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University, said he was not comfortable with the phrase, "bottom 20 per cent", but the biggest challenge of comprehensive education supporters was how to narrow the gap.
"We maybe need to be quite radical and more of the same won't do it," he said.
Social and economic policy was also important, Professor Boyd added. Much would be achieved if Gordon Brown as Chancellor met his aim of abolishing child poverty in 20 years. "That would make a massive difference to the job teachers do," he said.
Leadership conference 4; Class gap widens 6