SNP accused of failing Scotland’s young people as new figures reveal increase in poverty-related attainment gap

SNP ministers have been accused of “failing the young people of Scotland” and “entrenching inequality” after new statistics on school leavers revealed an increase in the poverty-related attainment gap. 

While Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly stated that she wants her government to be judged on its success in closing the attainment gap between pupils in rich and poor areas of Scotland, official figures show that one measure of this gap is at its highest point since 2012/13.

The Summary Statistics for Attainment and Initial Leaver Destinations, released on Tuesday morning, showed that the gap between the proportion of school leavers from the most deprived and least deprived areas attaining one pass or more at National 5 level or better stood at 20.8 percentage points.

Meanwhile, this gap stood at 36.1 percentage points at Higher level.

However, the number of school leavers going into higher or further education has reached a record high of 72 per cent.

The results also show that 93.3 per cent of 2019-20 school leavers were in a “positive destination”, such as higher education or employment, three months after leaving school — a decrease from 95 per cent in 2018/19 and the lowest figure since 2014/15. This fell by the greatest extent amongst those from the most deprived areas.

The number of school leavers in employment has also fallen to the lowest figure on record, from 22.9 per cent in 2018/19 to 16.2 per cent in 2019/20.

Mr Swinney has been accused by opposition parties of mishandling the pandemic 

Credit: PA

While Education Secretary John Swinney has pointed towards the pandemic as a reason for the disappointing figures, opposition parties have accused the SNP of “failing young people for years”.

“We all know that the exams system was very different last year. Even so, the attainment gap was steadily widening at SCQF Level 4 before the pandemic struck, and today’s statistics show the same pattern,” said Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart.  

“The Scottish Government can’t shrug this off. It would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for pupils and Parliament forcing John Swinney to ditch his exams algorithm which actively penalised pupils from the poorest backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour claimed the results “make a mockery of the SNP’s alleged focus on education and underlines the damage done by John Swinney’s mishandling of the pandemic.”

“These figures may well be the early signs of the impact of the pandemic on the life prospects of our young people, but the truth is the SNP has been failing our young people for years. The figures also make it clear that it is young people from our poorer communities that are the hardest hit,” said education spokesperson Iain Gray.

John Swinney said: “Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and giving every young person the chance to fulfil their full potential, regardless of their background, remains our defining mission. This commitment is a long-term one, and we know the closure of schools and the cancellation of last year’s exams due to Covid-19 has impacted our progress and made that task harder.”

Mr Swinney added that the attainment gap has “closed significantly at most SCQF levels” over the last ten years.

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