EDUCATION chief John Swinney has praised an initiative aimed at closing the attainment gap despite a government report concluding that it is widening.

The education secretary is today planning to mark the five year anniversary of the scheme which targeted local authorities most in need of help to bridge the gap between the performance of the richest and poorest pupils.

He will speak to headteachers and educators, praising the work of the nine “challenge authorities” on efforts to improve literacy, numeracy and wellbeing in pupils.

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However Scottish Tories education spokesman Jamie Greene said Swinney’s “triumphant speech” was “hard to believe” given that the report published late last Thursday stated children from the poorest backgrounds were still falling behind.,

The analysis commissioned by Swinney following a decline in school exam pass rates last year, stated that pupils “who are lower attaining are not improving at the same rate as higher attaining young people” and also controversially suggested that “pass rates can be improved by removing pupils who are on the border line of passing a Higher course.”

The Scottish Attainment Challenge initiative was launched by the Scottish Government in 2015, initially targetting primary schools in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire.

A number of funds were launched to help reduce the gap between the richest and poorest in schools, including the Pupil Equity Fund - which pledged £750 million to head teachers.

Ahead of his speech today, Mr Swinney said: “Our measures are making a tangible impact and I am proud of the work undertaken by headteachers and others to break down barriers to learning and raise the attainment of children in our schools.

“We have seen 88% of headteachers report improvements in closing the attainment gap directly as a result of our investment and we are seeing increased cohesion and collaboration across local authorities and schools.

“Pupil Equity Funding is also empowering our headteachers to make the decisions that directly improve the life chances of our young people.”

He added that there was “steady, incremental gains in attainment across the broad general education” and said it was what was expected “according to international experts”.

He said:”We now need a period of consolidation and sustainability to ensure that our reforms have the chance to become properly embedded in our education system.”

Just hours before the exam analysis report was released, Mr Swinney met with the International Council of Education Advisers, who said Scotland’s education system was in a “strong place” and the government should “stay the course” with its policies and “tolerate” slow progress.

Jamie Greene MSP said: “It is hard to believe that Mr Swinney is making such a triumphant speech when his own report states the attainment gap at some levels is actually widening.

“No-one denies that teachers are trying their very best to close the attainment gap either but they need the right support and strategy to do so.

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“We know that tough challenges face our rural communities, many of which have faced teacher shortages leaving them without the resources more readily available in urban schools.

“With falling higher pass rates, reducing subject choice, a significant rise in multi-level teaching, and a widening attainment gap, clearly the only person who believes John Swinney’s spin is himself.

“Parents and pupils know that education is worse under the SNP, and they are absolutely furious about it.”

Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray added: ““John Swinney may continue to parrot the same tired old lines about his successes in education, but the parents, students and teachers of Scotland know the reality; under the SNP Scotland’s education system has been badly neglected.

“This year alone we have seen Scotland plummet downwards in the PISA rankings and teaching unions highlighting the workload crisis that teachers are facing.

“Only this week we have seen the SNP shamelessly attempt to hide a report showing a massive 10 per cent drop in exam pass rates.

“This tired and arrogant SNP government is failing the pupils of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon once said education was her No. 1 priority. It seems the SNP’s no.1 priority now is trying to bury or spin bad news.”