SCOTLAND'S brightest pupils are falling behind their international counterparts, according to an influential study.

A report by the Sutton Trust said recent figures from industrialised countries showed "major weaknesses" in Scotland including a "prolonged and sustained decline in able pupils' performance in science".

The educational charity report, which used figures from tests conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said Scotland was below the median in reading and mathematics and "trailing behind the performance of able pupils in England in most subject areas".

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The figures also show bright disadvantaged pupils in Scotland are about two years and seven months behind their well-off classmates in science and maths, while in reading they are lagging by around two years and two months of schooling.

The report concludes: "Scotland has few stand-out strengths when it comes to the performance of its most able pupils... there is no specific area where able children in Scotland really excel."

It goes on to recommend the establishment of a fund to identify "high potential" children from low and middle income backgrounds when they start primary and for "sustained interventions" throughout their time at school.

Last night, Iain Gray, education spokesman for Scottish Labour, said the Scottish Government should be "ashamed" of the report's findings.

He said: "Nicola Sturgeon said education would be the defining priority of her government, she put her top minister in charge of it and has announced a stream of schemes, but the gap between the richest and the poorest most able pupils is more than two and a half years.

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"In Scotland today how much money you have means that, even for the ablest pupils, they can be two and a half years behind the richest pupils in key subjects like maths and science. That is a scandal."

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said one of the key issues was the level of support schools could give to pupils of different abilities at a time of limited resources and staff shortages.

He said: "The unfortunate part of this is that schools often focus on getting youngsters from a D or E grade up to a C to keep the school statistics right.

"If the resource was there it would be just as valuable to help the youngsters who are going to secure a B to reach a higher grade."

However, Dr Margaret Sutherland, a senior lecturer at Glasgow University's School of Education, said she had reservations about the way the Sutton Trust report "labels and categorises" able pupils.

She said: "It suggests able pupils are an easy group to identify because they score well in tests and it is not as straightforward as that because ability can come in different forms.

"Pupils who are able in some areas may not be so able in others or may not demonstrate abilities in ways we expect or that can be measured by such tests.

“While there can be issues for individual pupils and families in relation to stretching the most able, from our experience we know many schools and councils are actively seeking to raise attainment for the brightest as well as the work they do to close the attainment gap and raise attainment for all."

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Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said families believed schools to have high expectations for all pupils.

She said: "The challenges we face in closing the attainment gap and addressing the under-performance of able pupils are significant ones which boil down to wasted opportunities and wasted talent.

"There is no one silver bullet, but high expectations at school, specific and targeted interventions which address the impact of poverty and effective work with families to support children’s learning are, we believe, critical if we are going to make an impact."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We welcome this research which adds to our understanding of some of the challenges we want to address in our determination to close the attainment gap over the next ten years.

"We have already recognised the role that universities could play in supporting highly able school pupils to achieve their potential by working with schools to develop programmes to support them."

The Sutton Trust report said: "An effective national programme for highly able state school pupils with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of progress would do much to improve social mobility, maximising the attainment of the majority of highly able students."

Other suggestions include making schools accountable for the progress of their most able pupils, ensuring a broad curriculum with three sciences on offer and asking schools where able pupils do well to help pupils in the wider area.