Attainment gap in primary schools wider since Covid

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The attainment gap between primary school pupils from the most and least deprived areas of Scotland appears to have widened during the Covid pandemic.

New figures showed that literacy and numeracy levels in primary schools - which had been improving before Covid - have dropped overall.

But pupils from the poorest areas of the country have fallen further behind.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said Covid has had a significant impact on learning.

But opposition politicians said the data is a damning indictment of the government's education record.

The data showed that:

  • The gap between the proportion of P1, P4 and P7 pupils from the most and least deprived areas who achieved their expected level in literacy has increased from 20.7 percentage points in 2018/19 to 24.7 percentage points in 2020/21.
  • For numeracy, the gap increased from 16.8 percentage points to 21.4 percentage points.
  • For both primary literacy and primary numeracy the sizes of the gaps in 2020/21 were larger than at any previous point since comparable data was made available in 2016/17
  • Numeracy levels fell overall from 79.1% in 2018/19 to 74.7%, while literacy levels declined from 72.3% two years ago to 66.9% last year.

Closing the attainment gap has been a key goal of the Scottish government in recent years, but there had been fears that pupils from poorer backgrounds would be less equipped than wealthier pupils to deal with the impact on learning of schools closures and other Covid restrictions.

The Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels report said: "The closure of schools in March 2020 and January 2021 is likely to have had a negative effect on some pupils' progress and attainment with socio-economically deprived children amongst those who may have been most negatively affected."

These are the first, tangible statistics which show the impact of the pandemic on younger children's learning.

Everyone I have been speaking to who is in some way connected to this, including teachers, parents and government was expecting to see a decline.

It confirms what we already anecdotally knew; that the disrupted learning of the past 18 months has taken a toll on how well children are picking up new academic skills and improving on them.

It has also shown again the difference between how well those in the most affluent and least affluent households perform. This is a gap which has widened again after several years of getting smaller.

The figures also revealed that girls outperformed boys, a pattern that has been consistent since 2016/17.

The largest difference was in writing, with girls 12 percentage points ahead of boys compared with eight for listening and talking, seven for reading and one for numeracy.

Data for secondary school pupils and special school pupils was not collected in 2020/21, while there was no data for primary schools collected the previous year because of the pandemic.

Ms Somerville said the report highlighted the stark impact of the forced closure of schools and the shift to home learning.

She added: "Before the pandemic, the year-on-year trend in the ACEL data was positive.

"Unfortunately, the disruption caused by Covid-19 presented serious challenges for learners not just in Scotland but internationally."

'Grim' figures

The education secretary said the ongoing recovery work would include recruiting 3,500 additional teachers and 500 support staff over the current parliamentary term.

She will address the issue in a statement to MSPs later on Tuesday.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Oliver Mundell described the statistics as "grim".

He added: "These shocking results reveal the brutal impact on young people of Covid, which has been heightened by years of SNP failure.

"The double whammy of Covid and the SNP's botched reforms have sent the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils spiralling to its worst ever level."

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: "Education was meant to be Nicola Sturgeon's top priority but the government barely made a dent in the attainment gap pre-pandemic. Now the figures have crashed. Instead of closing the attainment gap its wider than ever.

"The SNP can't just blame the pandemic as the attainment gap was yawning before we'd even heard of Covid 19."