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Why we can’t wait for progress on closing the attainment gap

Fiona King, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Save the Children looks at the latest attainment gap figures in Scotland.

Household income should not determine how well you do at school.  At the risk of stating the obvious, it simply isn’t acceptable in Scotland today that children from the most deprived areas do significantly worse at school than those from the least deprived areas.  Yet this week’s data shows quite clearly that this remains the case, with the poverty-related attainment gap still stubbornly wide.

There is some good news though. The new Scottish Government statistics published this week show progress on the ‘attainment gap’ for literacy and numeracy for Primary 1, Primary 4 and Primary 7.  There is a small move in the right direction, with most stages seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels after the chaos of the last few years.  Yet this narrowing is not statistically significant and the reality is that very little progress has been made to shift the dial on the school attainment, despite it being a Scottish Government priority.

A word of caution on the data.  The headlines from the Scottish Government on this dataset use amalgamated data – that is to say Primary 1, 4 and 7 all together.  Within that there is a far more nuanced story to tell.  Equally, the data is on Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) areas rather than evidence of household income levels.

Without going down a statistical rabbit-hole, the overall point is that gains or improvements in closing the attainment gap are meagre: the gap between the proportion of primary school pupils (combined) from the most and least deprived areas who achieved the expected level in literacy narrowed from 21.3 percentage points in 2021/22 to 20.5 percentage points in 2022/23. Put another way, those from poorer backgrounds are STILL 20 percentage points behind their better off peers despite significant investment. Progress on ‘closing’ the gap is staggeringly slow.

Driving down inequality and achieving parity of opportunity for all children in education is a huge challenge but at its core it’s about poverty. This means that the Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) available for schools is a vital part of the puzzle as long as it is spent on closing the attainment gap and not to fill holes in other budgets.  But only with reducing poverty levels – and therefore reducing the numbers of children starting school behind their peers - will we see a closing of the attainment gap.

Poverty inhibits and oppresses a child’s chance to thrive. For the 1 in 4 children across Scotland experiencing poverty right now, the attainment gap is just one manifestation. Childhood experiences of poverty impacts in the short, medium and long-term for education, health, wellbeing and employment and earning potential.  What we need to see is a shift in emphasis and a cross-portfolio approach. The evidence is clear that it is both better – for individuals and society - and cheaper to prevent poverty than it is to seek to redress the balance once a child starts school.

The approach to closing the attainment gap needs to start before a child enters a formal learning environment. The foundations for learning are hardwired in the first months and years of life, as we highlighted in our Better for Babies briefing, we need increased investment in the first year of life for those at risk of poverty to short circuit the later impacts for older children.

So this week's statistics are not a step back. But they are not a step forward either. Children from poorer backgrounds are being failed and the impacts could last a lifetime.  Reducing child poverty and closing the attainment gap are two sides of the same coin: to achieve one we must achieve the other.  We must redouble our efforts to ensure no child in Scotland grows up in poverty and has the opportunity to thrive in school and beyond. 

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