‘Varied’ success in attempts to bridge attainment gap

Report on five years of the Scottish Attainment Challenge finds that, on some measures, the gap has widened

Emma Seith

'Varied' progress has been made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap in schools in Scotland, says Scottish government report

A new Scottish government report reflecting on five years of its push to close the "poverty-related attainment gap" in Scotland – backed by a fund of £750 million – finds progress has been made but change is varied and “on some measures the gap has widened”.

The report stresses that “for the majority of measures” attainment of pupils in the most deprived areas has increased, although not always at the same rate as for those from the least deprived backgrounds.

The report says: “The poverty-related attainment gap is closing, but this remains a complex and long-term endeavour. Equally, while there are positive indications of progress, there are also variations in the pace of that progress across the country. We know that the impact of Covid-19 is likely to have placed further pressure on the gap.


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“However, over the five-year time period a number of key elements have been put in place that provide strong foundations for ongoing progress. Important strengths of the Scottish approach include: a systemic change in terms of culture, ethos and leadership; a strengthened awareness of the barriers facing children and young people adversely affected by socio-economic disadvantage; the significant role of local authorities in driving forward a strategic vision for equity at local level.”

'Positive progress' in closing the attainment gap in schools

The report goes on to say that progress has been made in closing the gap but it adds that “the level of such progress is varied depending on the measure under consideration”.

It continues: “Change in the attainment gap across the Challenge Authorities [the nine authorities that received extra investment through the Scottish Attainment Challenge] is varied, and, on some measures, the gap has widened. However, this is largely not due to performance worsening, but instead that performance in the most deprived areas has improved but not kept pace with performance of those from the least deprived areas.”

The Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched in February 2015 with £750 million invested over this parliamentary term (2016-2021). The largest part of the spend went direct to schools via the Pupil Equity Fund, which was distributed based on the number of pupils registered for free school meals.

The nine authorities with the highest levels of deprivation were also targeted – the so-called "Challenge Authorities" – and were given additional funding to close the gap, as well as the 73 schools with the highest concentration of pupils living in areas of multiple deprivation. There was also a fund created specifically for care-experienced children and young people and several national programmes.

In 2020-21, a total of £190 million was invested in the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

However, with the Scottish Parliament elections coming up in May, the current iteration of the programme is coming to an end.

The report highlights how attainment has changed over the period – although disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic means data is not always available for the most recent years of the programme, or comparable with previous years.  

  • Overall for primary pupils, the attainment gap in literacy and numeracy narrowed between 2016-17 and 2018-19. For literacy, it went from 22.1 percentage points to 20.7 percentage points; for numeracy, it went from 17.6 percentage points to 16.8 percentage points.
  • At S3, the attainment gap in literacy grew from 13.6 percentage points in 2016-17 to 13.8 percentage points in 2018-19.
  • At S3, the attainment gap in numeracy reduced from 14.9 percentage points in 2016-17 to 13.5 percentage points in 2018-19.
  • The percentage-point gap between the proportion of school leavers from the most and least deprived areas attaining one or more pass at National 5 level or better increased between 2016-17 and 2018-19, from 19.3 percentage points to 20.2 percentage points. Over the longer term, the gap has reduced from 33.3 percentage points in 2009-10.
  • The percentage point gap between the proportion of school leavers from the most and least deprived areas attaining one or more pass at Higher level or better decreased from 37.6 percentage points to 35.8 percentage points. Over the longer term, the gap has reduced from 45.6 percentage points in 2009-10.

According to the report, there has been a 12 percentage-point increase in schools reporting seeing an improvement in closing the poverty-related gap in attainment and/or health and wellbeing as a result of the Attainment Challenge since 2017, from 78 per cent in 2017 to 88 per cent in 2018, 91 per cent in 2019 and 90 per cent in 2020.

Headteachers were asked to report factors that supported progress towards closing the poverty-related gap in attainment or health and wellbeing. The most common factors chosen were the ability to implement approaches relevant to school (58 per cent of heads), teaching and staff resources (52 per cent), higher quality learning and teaching (45 per cent), use of evidence/data (40 per cent) and engagement with families (30 per cent).

Headteachers were also asked about the key factors that limited progress in closing the attainment gap. Staff time and workload and reduction in other services/resources were seen as the main factors limiting progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

“Other commonly mentioned factors included staffing resources and recruitment, level of PEF [Pupil Equity Fund] received and staff absences,” the report adds.

In his introduction to the report, education secretary John Swinney says: “I am greatly encouraged by the progress that has been made over the last five years. The strength of evidence demonstrates that positive progress has been made towards achieving our short- and medium-term outcomes and, I believe, strong foundations are now in place to help us achieve our long-term ambition of closing the poverty-related attainment gap. There is still work to do but I am confident that we are on the right path.”

Click here to read the report in full.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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