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Education Scotland successor responsible for closing attainment gap, say MSPs

The report is released ahead of thousands of Scottish pupils receiving their exam results next week (Gareth Fuller/PA)
The report is released ahead of thousands of Scottish pupils receiving their exam results next week (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Reform plans for Scotland’s top education agency should include “taking ownership” of closing the poverty-related attainment gap, MSPs have said.

Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee has recommended that Education Scotland’s replacement is held accountable for assessing the success of key Government attainment pledges.

It comes as thousands of pupils prepare to receive their exam results next week.

Alongside the new education agency, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be replaced, with both set to be fully established by 2024.

Now, in a report on the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the committee noted concern at the evidence of variation in education performance across local authorities.

It has led the cross-party group to ask Scotland’s education agency to urgently investigate the difference and set out actions being taken to ensure consistency across the country.

The report considered the latest Audit Scotland report from 2021 which noted the attainment gap was “wide with limited progress” and had been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sue Webber MSP, the committee’s convener, said: “During this inquiry the committee heard positive stories about the work being done by schools to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.

Exam results in Scotland
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville announced Education Scotland and the SQA will be reformed (Jane Barlow/PA)

“However, in our report, we have noted Audit Scotland’s conclusion that there has been limited progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap and that inequalities have been worsened by Covid-19.

“It is essential that the reforms to the government’s education agency ensure the new schools inspectorate is able to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of plans to close the poverty-related attainment gap.”

Other committee recommendations are centred around ensuring teachers, parents, carers and pupils are heard on plans for attainment challenge spending.

The funding, which was initially allocated to nine “challenge authorities” where attainment funding was most needed, has now been spread across Scotland.

While the committee recognised that poverty exists across Scotland, the Scottish Government has been asked to monitor the impact of the tapering of funds from the challenge authorities.

And MSPs have asked the Scottish Government to set out how it will establish a national baseline for measuring progress in closing the attainment gap following the pandemic.

Scottish Tory education spokesman Oliver Mundell described the report as “damning” and claimed that it “highlights the utter failure of the SNP to close the poverty-related attainment gap”.

“Indeed, it’s only a couple of months since the Education Secretary abandoned the SNP’s totemic pledge to eliminate it by 2026 because so little progress was being made,” he added.

“That was the ultimate betrayal of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds by Nicola Sturgeon, whose Government’s record in education is one of abject failure.

“The SNP Government may have thrown in the towel on the attainment gap but thankfully the Education Committee has not, so I welcome their commitment to hold ministers to account.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government welcomes this report on the Scottish Attainment Challenge from the Education, Children and Young People’s Committee and is grateful for the attention it has given to this vital mission for Scottish education.

“The Scottish Government is committed to tackling the poverty related attainment gap and improving outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty and is investing a record £1 billion to support the Scottish Attainment Challenge over the course of this parliamentary term.

“We welcome the Committee’s recognition of the excellent work that is taking place in many schools across the country and the steps taken by the Scottish Government to accelerate progress in closing the gap.

“There is of course more to be done, in particular as we look to recover from the impact of the pandemic on the education of children and young people impacted by poverty, and we will consider the findings of this report carefully in the coming weeks.”