Attainment gap 'narrowing' but progress deemed too slow

Social Mobility Commission report also considers private education, rural schools and impact of Covid

Henry Hepburn

Social mobility: Scotland's attainment gap 'is narrowing but change too slow'

A "state of the nation" report from the UK government's Social Mobility Commission this week presented a mixed picture for Scottish education.

The report looks at issues around social mobility in each of the four UK nations, and says, for example, that in Scotland attainment gaps related to poverty were narrowing but remained "substantial".

There was a lot of detail underneath the headlines, however, so here is our round-up of some of the key points for education in Scotland.

Social mobility report: Attainment gaps

Audit Scotland has been "critical of the return on the investment in closing the poverty-related attainment gap". Education outcomes, the commission states, are "particularly poor for care-experienced young people, Gypsy/ travellers and white Scottish/UK boys".

A "significant minority" of pupils do not achieve expected levels, with the proportion of S3 students attaining the fourth level in Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) outcomes being "particularly concerning".

The commission report says: "The key for social mobility is not the overall performance of all children in Scotland but the attainment gaps between children from different backgrounds. Although narrowing, these gaps are substantial and the pace of change falls far short of transformative".


Social mobility report: What it says about Scotland

Background: Child poverty was rising before Covid

Attainment gap: Progress on closing the attainment gap ‘limited’

Child poverty: How a primary school helped to feed a community

News: Six ways Covid has hit poorer pupils the hardest

Big read: How schools are helping poorer families with money


Private education

"There is a flourishing private education sector in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and private tutoring is more prevalent in more affluent areas as parents seek advantage for their children," the report states.

"Parents with more resources are better able to secure advantages within the state system by moving to areas with what are perceived as ‘better schools’."

Structural barriers

The Poverty Alliance has commended some measures designed to "mitigate disadvantage", such as "contextualised offers" to students applying for university, but such approaches "only partially compensate for the structural factors that limit educational opportunity in Scotland".

However, there is some evidence of progress in improving educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged, in work designed to tackle factors that hamper social mobility. There is, for example, "evidence of small increases in the proportion of pupils achieving the expected Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) levels in reading, writing, listening and talking, literacy and numeracy".

Government interventions

While there have been a number of "high-profile Scottish government interventions...focusing particularly on improved attainment among the most disadvantaged", evidence indicates that "success has been limited".

The rural-urban divide

Children from small towns and rural areas are "consistently underperforming relative to those from urban and more accessible rural areas". The divide is "marked in primary school but less so in secondary school".

After school

Most students in Scotland progress from school to what is officially termed a "positive destination": 92.9 per cent in 2018-19 being a "significant increase" on 85.9 per cent a decade ago. However, "progress has now stalled, the effect of the pandemic is yet to be known, and positive destinations are less likely for those from the most deprived areas". 

Further education

Most colleges predict a financial deficit by 2022-23, which "could lead to downward social mobility if it results in an increase in the already large attainment gap in further education".

Higher education

"Equality of opportunity to access higher education does not assure equality of outcomes in education," states the report.

"Indeed, there is concern that free tuition fees hinder social mobility by inadvertently benefiting students from the wealthiest backgrounds who are more likely to go to university, and participation rates amongst poorer students are lower in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK where tuition fees are paid.

"At the same time, fewer funds are available to provide financial support for the most disadvantaged students, with the system providing only small bursaries and access to loans to support living costs during study."

The gap in progression rates to higher education between young people from the most and least deprived areas is large (24.5 and 57.2 per cent respectively in 2018-19), but has "narrowed significantly" over the past decade (from 38.1 to 32.8 percentage points).

The impact of Covid

There are "high levels of concern among senior local leaders about the impact of Covid-19 on children’s education experiences and attainment".

A recent Education Policy Institute review of Covid-19-related catch-up programmes across the UK found that funding per pupil announced so far was "less generous in Scotland than in Wales and England".

The full Social Mobility Commission report can be found here.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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