THE attainment gap between rich and poor is being fuelled by the growth in out of school classes such as dance and drama by pupils from middle class backgrounds, experts have warned.

Chris McIlroy, a visiting professor of education at Strathclyde University, said extra-curricular activities were fundamental in building confidence and resilience, but pupils from poorer backgrounds often missed out.

As a result, he warned, Scotland was entering a new "Victorian" age where exposure to culture, languages and the arts was increasing becoming the preserve of the wealthier members of society.

The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early and by the age of five can be as much as 13 months in literacy and numeracy.

By the age of 14, pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy.

Speaking at a conference on the attainment gap organised by Reform Scotland, Mr McIlroy said: "There is a lot of evidence that enrichment activities outside school have increased over the past twenty years and middle class parents have become much more active in this area which widens the attainment gap.

"It is for very good and understandable reasons because parents want their kids to do as well as possible and they see this as something within their control that they can do to help make that happen.

"However, there is a whole group of other children who are not getting exposure to this in anything like the same way and we need to do something about that."

Mr McIlroy said a similar phenomenon occurred in the Victorian era when the children who were most successful were those with access to books or art at home and opportunities to visit places and observe nature.

The Victorian response, he said, was to open public libraries, parks, art galleries and swimming pools to make such activities accessible to all regardless of their income.

He added: "There is an argument that we need a similar system now to make sure all of these activities are available to families from all backgrounds.

"Often this is because of finance because families cannot afford the extra curricular activities and sometimes it is about the environment they live in where these activities are not seen as being important.

"We need to make more funding available to schools or community groups specifically for this purpose so that no child misses out on these experiences."

Mr Milroy's comments came the year after a major report by the Child Poverty Action Group found children from poorer backgrounds felt "excluded" because they could not afford to take part in school activities which cost money.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: "The attainment gap is clearly a societal issue rather than a purely educational one, with low family income being one of the most significant factors impacting on attainment.

"It's important that schools do all they can to support all young people in accessing valuable extra-curricular cultural activities. The preferable solution would be sufficient government and council funding to deliver this type of educational activity."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council added: "Parents are going to do everything in their power to ensure their child has the best possible opportunities, whether that be extra-curricular activities, work experience or access to school trips, and we need to ensure that children from lower income families do not miss out."