Schools should never use poverty among their pupils as an "excuse" for low educational attainment, Angela Constance has insisted.
In a major speech setting out her vision for education in Scotland, the education secretary, who has been in post for six months, argued that every child should have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential, irrespective of background.
Acknowledging that poverty was a barrier to attainment, Ms Constance said that it was the job of the whole education sector to "overcome that barrier, not use it as an excuse".
Speaking at the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change on Tuesday, Ms Constance said that while the government was doing all it could to eradicate financial hardship, it "will never be acceptable for poverty to be an excuse for failure".
"Inside each and every one of us should burn the same ambition we have for our own children for Scotland's poorest children," she said. "For in truth, they have the most to gain from success in school and, in turn, we gain too as a society and an economy from their success in life."
Ms Constance said that what she wanted for her own son, as well as every child in Scotland, was "an education system that is fair and which provides excellence to all children irrespective of their background or circumstances".
She added that it was necessary to provide "the skills they need to thrive, rather than simply survive in life".
Evidence over ideology
There was "much to be proud of" in Scottish education, according to Ms Constance, who cited a well-trained graduate workforce and record exam results. But it was time for an "honest evaluation" of the system's failings - not least the work needed to close the attainment gap between pupils from deprived backgrounds and their more affluent peers.
Well-trained teachers and improved information for parents would be key to achieving this, Ms Constance said. In her efforts, she would be led by evidence, not dogma or ideology, and would "not be afraid to shine a light on those aspects of our system which are not delivering", she added.
The education secretary explained that the pound;100 million Attainment Scotland Fund, announced earlier this year, would support the local authorities serving the most deprived communities, providing schools with greater access to expertise and resources. Education Scotland was now recruiting attainment advisers (see "Advisers sought to tackle attainment gap", right) for every local authority area. The Raising Attainment for All programme - with 23 local authorities and 180 schools on board - was also committed to improving literacy, numeracy, health and well-being, she said.
"We have to do more," Ms Constance added. "And we have to do it now. Every school, every council needs to own its attainment gap and take action. We must not rest until we see clear evidence that educational outcomes are improving for every child in Scotland."
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, told TESS that poverty impacted on all aspects of learning, and said a "general exhortation to schools to close the attainment gap" would be "meaningless" unless it was supported by significant funding.
"You need additional staff," he added. "You are working with children who have a deficit in their current circumstances. To overcome that, you need staff - adults who can spend more time working directly with children who need support."
In areas of multiple deprivation, smaller class sizes would also help, allowing teachers more time to nurture children, Mr Flanagan said. "Our bottom line is we need to direct the money where the need is greatest. There are things you can do across the whole system, but pound;100 million is a relatively modest amount, so while it is welcome, it has to be spent wisely."
Mr Flanagan also stressed that schools alone could not eradicate the impact of poverty. "While we have inequality in society, that is reflected in our schools," he said.
`Combined effort' needed
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, agreed that schools could not tackle inequality alone. "It takes a combined effort of public services and communities," she said, "and part of that effort should be around helping families to build their confidence about getting involved with education services and supporting their child's learning.
"The vast majority of parents want the best for their children. The challenge for families is how they can take their hopes and wishes and make them a reality."
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, agreed with Ms Constance that schools should "use every strategy available to encourage and support young people to achieve their very best".
Ms Constance made her comments less than a week after the SNP government's performance in education came under fire in the Scottish Parliament.
During First Minister's Questions, deputy Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: "After eight years in office, the SNP's record on education is this: the vast majority of S2 pupils from the poorest backgrounds falling behind in numeracy; the number of pupils passing exams plummeting; and the number of people going to college falling dramatically.
"In a globalised world where education matters more than at any time in our history, Scotland's young people are being let down. Is this really a report card to be proud of?"
Angela Constance's vision for education
Free and open to all.
Invests in and values teachers and other staff.
Recognises and supports learning throughout life.
Centred on the "needs and interests of children as individuals".
Involves parents, families and communities in children's education.
"Free from the commercialisation that we see happening elsewhere."
Based on evidence and "not driven by dogma or ideology".