SNP ministers have been warned over “the deep inequality in Scottish education” after the number of teenagers finding work after leaving schools reached its lowest level for a decade in the wake of the pandemic.

Official Scottish Government statistics found that more than twice as many youngsters in the least deprived areas went to university after school, as compared to those from the poorest parts of the country.

Overall a total of 92.2% of those who left school in 2019-20 were in what was classed as a “positive follow-up destination” – such as college, university, training or job – by April 2021.

This was down slightly from the 92.9% of school leavers who achieved this the previous year.

University was the most common choice for those leaving school in 2019-20, with 42.9% ending up in higher education – higher than the 38.4% the previous year – and is the largest share since consistent records began in 2009-10.

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The figures showed that in the most deprived parts of Scotland just over a quarter (27%) of school leavers last year went on to university, compared to almost two thirds (62.6%) in the most affluent communities.

In the poorest parts of Scotland college was the most common destination, with 31.5% of leavers heading for further education, while 20.5% went into work, but one in 10 (10.8%) were out of work.

This compares to just 3.6% of leavers from the least deprived areas being out of work by April 2021.

A total of 47,351 teenagers finished school in 2019-20, the smallest number since consistent records began in 2009-10.

With just 11.4% of leavers being S4 students, and 25.8% from S5, the report noted that “it is possible that some S4 and S5 pupils who might have otherwise left school in 2019-20 decided instead to stay at school for reasons related to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.”

The Scottish Greens have highlighted that many of those classed as reaching a ‘positive destination’ are “being paid poverty wages and on a zero-hours contract”.

Scottish Greens education and young people spokesperson, Ross Greer, said: “The pandemic was always going to have a negative impact on young people leaving school, but the steep drop in youth employment should be ringing alarm bells in government. And that’s before recognising that many of those counted as having reached a ‘positive destination’ are in fact being paid poverty wages and on a zero-hours contract.

“The Greens and trade unions have long called for the definition of a positive destination to be changed, so we can better tell whether or not young people are in the kind of quality employment they deserve.”

As well as 42.9% of leavers going on to higher education, the figures showed a very slight increase in the proportion going to college – with this rising from 23.3 for those leaving in 2018-19 to 23.6% in 2019-20.

However, the proportion of youngsters who went into work after leaving school fell from 28% in 2018-19 to 21.3% – the lowest figure since 2009-10.

At the same time the proportion who were unemployed after leaving school increased from 5.8% to 6.8%.

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Where young people end up after leaving school “may reflect both choices made by pupils, as well as the opportunities available to them”, the report noted.

For the latest group of leavers it said that “the availability of particular opportunities to 2019-20 school leavers may have been directly affected by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic (employment opportunities, for example)”.

It also noted that leavers’ options may “have been affected by the impact of the 2020 certification approach on school leaver attainment”.

The Scottish Government’s Young Person’s Guarantee scheme, announced in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, promises the “opportunity of a job, placement, training or volunteering for every 16-24 year old in Scotland”.

Labour education spokesman, Michael Marra, said the figures “have underlined the deep inequality in Scottish education that has been made worse by the pandemic”.

He said: “With pupils from the most deprived areas still less likely to access higher education, it is clear that much more must be done to tackle the inequality in our education system.”

He warned it was “all too clear that the pandemic has exacerbated inequality”, and added: “We need action to tackle this inequality and we need it now.

“We need a radical national education comeback plan with the resources to match.”

Scottish Conservative education spokesperson, Oliver Mundell, added: “These figures show that despite the First Minister’s promise to close the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils, it has barely budged since she took office. “Progress was too slow before the pandemic and it’s now ground to a halt.

“The pandemic has only exacerbated the deep problems the SNP have created in Scotland’s schools. They can’t hide behind Covid to explain their failures.”

But, Jamie Hepburn, the minister for higher education, further education, youth employment and training in the Scottish Government, said that he was “pleased that the proportion of young people in a follow-up positive destination is still at a high level, and a record-high proportion are in higher education nine months after the end of the school year”.

But Mr Hepburn added: “This year’s statistics clearly highlight the impact of the pandemic on young people, with a sizeable decrease in those entering employment reflecting the limited opportunities in the labour market.

“We are providing direct support to those affected through the Young Person’s Guarantee which gives every 16 to 24-year-old a job, placement, training or volunteering opportunity.”