THE Scottish Government was in desperate need of some good news on the performance of schools.

Since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made improving education one of the defining missions of her administration there has been precious little to cheer about.

The latest set of official education figures from the Scottish Government will provide the SNP with belief the tide is finally turning.

The statistics show overall standards in reading, writing and numeracy for pupils leaving primary school are all rising after a decline in recent years.

There was also a slight closing of the yawning attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils in reading and writing at P7 - although it will take decades for the gap to fully close at current rates of progress.

John Swinney, the Education Secretary, suggested the findings showed the setting up of the £120 million Pupil Equity Fund (PEF), which channels extra money to schools serving disadvantaged areas, was beginning to have an impact.

He said: “There is an increased proportion of primary pupils assessed as achieving the expected levels of Curriculum for Excellence by up to four percentage points which coincides with the first year of the fund.

“While it is too early to draw direct conclusions from this data, I am encouraged to see the attainment gap has also narrowed slightly.”

However, the gap is still significant and grows wider as pupils move up through primary and into secondary.

Overall, fewer than three out of five of Scotland’s most disadvantaged pupils achieve expected standards in literacy by P7 compared to 83 per cent of the richest pupils

Only two-thirds of the same group are meeting expected levels of numeracy compared to 82 per cent of affluent pupils.

And even though overall standards have increased there are still around a quarter of pupils who move to secondary without meeting expected standards in literacy and numeracy.

Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative Party’s education spokeswoman, described the figures as “grim”.

“The fact one in three pupils is leaving primary school without reaching basic standards in literacy is the main worry,” she said.

“These figures aren’t just bad news for the prospects of youngsters, but bad for the future economy.”

Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, criticised the “utter failure” of the Scottish Government to tackle attainment.

He added: “SNP ministers claim education is the top priority, but these figures show that the poorest young people are being failed badly.”

The figures also showed some welcome relief for the Scottish Government in the ongoing teacher recruitment crisis.

In 2017/18 the number of teachers rose to its highest level since 2010 with schools now employing 51,138 full time equivalent teachers after an increase of 447 from the previous year.

However, once again there are significant caveats. Although the number of teachers increased overall, in almost a third of councils totals fell.

And the figures showed nearly 1,000 teachers are being paid for through PEF funding rather than core grants, which provides less long-term security.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said PEF funding was “inflating” the figures.

“These posts, valuable though they are, are short-term only and not guaranteed to be retained in future years,” he said.

“These posts were always intended to be on top of the existing workforce and, if you strip them out, there are just over 51,000 teachers in Scotland compared to more than 55,000 in 2007.” The EIS also attacked a continuing decline in the number of qualified teachers working in nurseries.

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, described the temporary nature of PEF-funded teaching posts as “papering over the cracks”.

He said: “Most of the new staff are on temporary contracts paid for using limited pots of attainment funding, which explicitly cannot be used to replace lost classroom teaching posts.”

However, Mr Swinney said teacher levels were the highest this decade, adding: “The average size of primary one classes has been dropping consistently in recent years, which is particularly important as helping children in the early years is crucial if we are to close the attainment gap between the most and least deprived.”

There is another concern about the statistical publication from the Scottish Government on achievements in literacy and numeracy.

The background notes describe the statistics as “experimental” because they are based on the professional judgements of teachers after the Scottish Government scrapped the previous system of pupil surveys.

Of the 30 local authorities that submitted information to the current publication only one third said they were “generally confident in the robustness” of the data.

That means Scotland does not have a reliable system of evaluation of basic standards allowing for detailed comparisons of councils or schools, despite the introduction of standardised assessments.

Tavish Scott, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the situation was unacceptable.

He said: “Experts have warned it will now take years to build up the evidence of how our pupils are really getting on.”