Time to close ‘persistent and significant’ attainment gap between rich and poor Scottish children

The attainment gap between poorer and richer children in Scotland still remains ‘persistent and significant’, according to a new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published today (7 May).

The report, written by University of Strathclyde, looks at how well Scotland’s education system is serving those from low income families. The authors say interventions can be made at ‘all stages and all ages’ in a child’s school career to close the gap. Despite an overall increase in school standards, children from low income backgrounds are still being left behind and achieving less than their better off peers.

Children who grow up in poverty tend to do less well in education because of factors in their home background for example having parents who are more stressed, less able to afford educational activities and resources and less well-placed to help them with their school work. To meet the needs of such children, schools need to dovetail their systems, curriculum and teaching to 'bridge' between home and school so that children living in poverty experience success in education and can use it to lever themselves out of poverty.

The report found the attainment gap begins before school and is amplified as children move through the school system. By age five, children from poorer families are around 12 months behind their richer peers in problem solving and vocabulary.

In early secondary school, only 28% of children from poorer families are performing well in numeracy, compared to 56% of those from advantaged backgrounds. Children from poorer families are more likely to leave school early and without a qualification.

Failure to close the gap wastes the talent of Scotland’s children and costs Scotland economy. On leaving school, poorer children are three times as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to work only part-time hours and if they do find work, they will earn only around half as much as children from richer backgrounds (a gap of £23 per week for men and £45 for women).

The report authors say the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, local authorities and schools need to focus strongly on the attainment gap. Specifically:

  • Scottish Government should raise awareness of and provide clear guidance on how schools can close the gap.
  • Education Scotland, which is responsible for curriculum advice and inspection, and local councils need to ensure that every school has the data to tell them what their attainment gap is and what impact their actions are having for different groups of children.
  • Every head teacher and teacher needs to use the data and take action by designing a curriculum that meets the needs of the community the schools serves. Proven teaching methods such as peer-tutoring and one-to-one tutoring, study skills, mentoring opportunities and working with parents on supporting children’s learning at home can also help those from poorer families.

Jim McCormick, Scotland adviser at JRF, said: “Scottish education serves many children well, but too many poor children risk becoming poor adults unless we close the attainment gap. This limits their life chances and prospects, which not only has a knock-on effect for them through unfulfilled potential, but for Scotland’s economic performance. At all ages and stages in a child’s school career, there are interventions which can be made to break the cycle of low attainment. Closing the attainment gap must be a higher priority for everyone concerned with education in Scotland.”

Sue Ellis, co-author of the report and from the University of Strathclyde, said: “Inequality between pupils from poorer and better off families does not need to continue. Schools need to pay greater attention to closing the attainment gap but they need help in the form of clear, evidence-informed and helpful advice from Government, national agencies, local authorities and universities. Every teacher wants to do their best for all their children and it doesn’t need to cost a lot of extra money. This report shows how this can be achieved – everyone has a responsibility to address the poverty experienced by children throughout their school life.”