Closing the poverty-related attainment gap: progress report 2016 to 2021

This report presents the evidence of progress towards achieving this defining mission over the period of the parliament 2016-2021. In doing so it also acknowledges the disruptive and detrimental impact of COVID-19.

Ministerial foreword

As was set out in our National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan, we need Scottish education to deliver both excellence, in terms of ensuring children and young people acquire a broad range of skills and capacities at the highest levels, and also equity, so that every child and young person should thrive and have the best opportunity to succeed. This vision is shared across the education sector and, in support of that, this government set a defining mission of closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

There are many strengths in Scottish education, and I see evidence of those on a daily basis. The collective response to the pandemic has been outstanding, with all parts of the sector demonstrating commitment, professionalism and compassion to support the needs of our children and young people.

Despite these strengths, the attainment gap has remained a feature of our society for generations and does not do justice to the type of Scotland we wish to build. That is why we set ourselves the bold but necessary ambition of substantially eliminating the attainment gap within 10 years, while also making demonstrable progress during the lifetime of this parliament. There was a need to bring more light, urgency and focus to this issue. Nothing is more important than ensuring every child and young person has the same opportunity to succeed in education, regardless of their background.

Over the last five years, we have put in place a comprehensive range of measures to turn the corner with the attainment gap. These have been built around the flagship Scottish Attainment Challenge, but also feature throughout our wider education policies, relentlessly focusing efforts on driving up improvements in education and reducing the impacts of deprivation on educational outcomes.

As we have made this sustained investment, the social, economic and political context in which we are living has changed enormously. The UK Government’s rigid approach to austerity has meant that we have had to work even harder to offset these challenges. The UK’s exit from the EU , alongside the uncertainty caused in recent years, will mean those pressures continue. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. Despite this background, our key purpose has not changed and indeed remains more important than ever. Now, more than ever, there is a need to stay the course with our vision of equity and excellence.

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.

We deliberately injected ambitious timelines into our stretch aims – it would have been a dereliction of duty to do otherwise. Our next task will be to reflect on what more is required to deliver a step change in the pace of existing improvement. The evidence set out in this report, bringing together a range of analyses for the first time, will help us to understand where that further support and focus is required.

Building on existing progress, we will continue to work in partnership with local authorities, schools and other partners to facilitate, broker and support action. Concepts of empowerment and collaboration, where decisions about children and young people’s education are made as close to them as possible, will continue to be a driving force for positive change.

In conclusion, let nobody be in any doubt that I am wholeheartedly committed to continuing to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap beyond this parliamentary term. We have already committed to over £200m in Attainment Scotland Funding in 2021/22, building on the £750m invested over the course of this Parliament. That unwavering commitment will continue beyond 2021/22, and we will draw on our findings from this report, the recent Equity Audit and elsewhere to guide our thinking. As we do we will ensure all children and young people have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their backgrounds.

John Swinney MSP
Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills

March 2021



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