This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Humza Yousaf’s strategy to push the SNP forward out of the shadow of his predecessor has taken another stumble.

It’s not the party’s finances, the ferries scandal or the host of policies dumped by the First Minister in his first few months at the helm.

But a long-made promise by Nicola Sturgeon to rid Scotland of the attainment gap – the difference between those from the most-affluent backgrounds and those from the least affluent backgrounds – appears to be getting worse, with only three years left to fix it.

Statistics from the SQA show that the attainment gap between pupils obtaining an A to C grade at National 5 level stood at 15.6% – a widening of the figure seen in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

For Highers, the attainment gap for A-C has risen from 14.9% in 2022 to 16% this year.

But it remains slightly lower than the 2019 figure of 16.9% – a figure the Scottish Government has been keen to cling onto. And for good reason, given the pandemic and disruption to schooling in 2022.

For National 5s, the attainment gap has increased slightly from 2022 when it was 14.6% to 15.6% this year.

Starkly, the only mention of the attainment gap in the Scottish Government press release on the results is that “the poverty-related attainment gap remains narrower than it was in 2019 across National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers”.

This stance was emphasised by SNP Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, who warned that “the pandemic has disproportionally impacted young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds”.

She added that the results “show that the gap in attainment levels between the least and most deprived areas remains narrower than it was in 2019”.

Whether the attainment gap should be compared to 2019 or last year is really a moot point – despite it being important.

Last year’s school year was peppered with disruption – something that kids in Scotland are getting used to as the norm. If it wasn’t the pandemic cutting holes into the academic year and assessments, staff have been on strike in a bid to secure a fairer pay deal.

But the Scottish Government, under Ms Sturgeon promised to get rid of the attainment gap – with the former first minister insisting she would put her “neck on the line” over the vow.

The prospect and expectations of doing this have shifted though – but this is yet to be relayed to the Scottish public.

The Herald:

In December, then-education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville told MSPs that the Scottish Government is “committed to substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap”.

That was quite the climb-down from Ms Sturgeon labelling the strategy her “defining mission”.

The original deadline to end the attainment gap is 2026, and no matter how much money is thrown at bringing it down, it is unlikely in the current climate to have been substantially eliminated.

When Ms Sturgeon made the pledge in 2015, not even she would have probably anticipated that the SNP would still be in power in 2026 to see it through – or facing the pandemic or the cost-of-living crisis.

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But in the current economic climate, the gap between Scotland’s least and most affluent households, in all regards including education, is only likely to move in one direction.

Labour too is calling for more action on reducing the attainment gap – a noble request from Anas Sarwar’s party.

The party’s education spokesperson, Pam Duncan-Glancy, warned that progress is “stalling”.

She added that results have “basically gone back to 2019 levels”, when it was known the “system was unequal”.

But Labour too has its own questions to answer on its dedication to tackling poverty – given Sir Keir Starmer’s recent support of the two-child benefit cap, a policy charities and experts have warned is throwing families into poverty.

No-one serious doubts the Scottish Government’s commitment to eradicating the poverty-related attainment gap – the SNP has shouted loud and proud about its ambitions.

But like many other of the party’s intentions, results have been an issue.

The Scottish Government under the SNP, particularly with Ms Sturgeon in charge, faced problems with over-promising and under-delivering – whether that’s party activists expecting a second independence referendum, promises to tackle the climate crisis or building those two ferries we hear so much about.

But in a similar vein to promises that the NHS will recover, failing to eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap is a policy that anything less than success will be acceptable to the public.

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