CHILDREN from deprived backgrounds could be allowed to return to school before their wealthier counterparts, Scotland’s Education Secretary has suggested.

John Swinney said “particular regard” needed to be paid to the challenges facing the poorest young people during the coronavirus lockdown.

He said: “One of the options we can look at is the possibility of trying to bring back into formal schooling some young people from deprived backgrounds at an earlier stage than others to try to sustain their education.

“But that would have to be very carefully considered as to how it could be deployed.”

Mr Swinney, who is also the Deputy First Minister, made the comments while giving evidence to Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee.

He said there is likely to be a spike in the number of children considered “vulnerable” after the Covid-19 outbreak due to trauma caused by the pandemic.

Elsewhere, the Education Secretary agreed to look into the possibility of offering pupils from more deprived areas extra support as they prepare to return to school.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray asked the minister if he would consider a scheme being touted in the north of England, where poorer pupils will receive extra tutoring in groups or one-to-one.

Mr Swinney said: “There is a distinctive approach that needs to be taken to meet the needs of young people from deprived backgrounds as they return to formal schooling.

“The idea that he’s put forward seems to me to be a reasonable idea and I’ll make sure that it’s considered by the particular work stream of the Education Recovery Group that’s looking at providing support to children and young people who come from a background of deprivation.”

There are widespread concerns the closure of schools will increase the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.

The Scottish Government is considering how to implement a “phased approach to returning pupils to school, when it is safe to do so”.

However ministers insist it is unlikely schools will fully reopen in the foreseeable future.

A framework document on lifting the lockdown, published earlier this week, suggested a “chronological list of priority” pupils could be drawn up for a phased return.

This would include vulnerable pupils and those who are transitioning from P7 to S1, as well as those about to commence national qualification courses in S3 to 6.

Mr Swinney said traumatic experiences like the loss of a loved one could see some children pushed into the vulnerable category.

He said there would be a “significant set of issues” created by the coronavirus outbreak, adding: “Some young people who were not previously deemed to be vulnerable will become vulnerable as a result of the experience around coronavirus.

“Some of that may well be the fact that they acquire trauma as a consequence of this experience, young people will be exposed to bereavement, perhaps in circumstances where they would not have access, because of lockdown, to family support that would allow them to perhaps come to terms with that bereavement.

“These are issues that we know from all the work that we’ve done throughout the years on adverse childhood experience that can contribute to the acquisition of trauma.

“I don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge that will face us as a consequence of coronavirus on some of these wider harms that are created.”

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition previously warned the coronavirus crisis risks creating a “lost generation” of vulnerable children and young people.

It raised “major concerns” that only around one per cent of youngsters classed as “vulnerable” are attending childcare hubs during lockdown.

The organisation also said the number of vulnerable children will increase because of the additional pressures placed on families and communities by the Covid-19 outbreak.

It said there is a lack of consistency across local authorities when it comes to the definition of “vulnerable”, and called for greater clarity.

Elsewhere, universities are to receive a one-off funding boost totalling £75 million to help them cope in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Swinney acknowledged “world-renowned university research activities are under threat from Covid-19”.

But he insisted the UK Government also needs to step up and fund universities north of the border.

Mr Swinney said the “main interventions” from Westminster so far “have been focused on the higher education sector south of the border”.

He said: “We need the UK Government to take a UK approach and join with Scottish universities and the Scottish Government to build a support package that will protect the sector from the impact of this virus.”

The Scottish Government funding comes after St Andrews University said it faces a “hole in our financial position” of at least £25m as a result of the outbreak, with principal Sally Mapstone describing the situation as “as serious a financial crisis as our university has faced in modern times”.

Scottish Funding Council analysis has indicated Scottish universities could suffer a loss of around £72m due to Covid-19 this academic year alone, with a collective operating deficit of between £384m and £651m forecast for the next year.

Holyrood’s higher education minister Richard Lochhead has now written to Michelle Donelan, his counterpart at the UK Government, calling for additional cash.

Mr Swinney said university research activities are under threat “from a loss of university income to the risk to jobs and investment”.

He added: “That research is critical to Scotland’s future public health and prosperity.”