New attainment data highlights gaps in student performance beyond the rich-poor divide, with students in Scotland’s small towns and those with additional support needs continuing to fall behind their classmates.

Despite continuing the overall trend of improvement over last year’s reports, students who live in remote small towns have recorded lower rates of achievement than their peers every year since 2016/17, the first year that Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels (ACEL) data was reported.

The gap is widest at the primary level, where students in remote small towns were 7 points behind the next-lowest scores in literacy and 6 points behind in numeracy.

In S3, the gap was slightly lower, with remote small town students coming in 5 points behind the next-highest literacy rates and 2 points behind in numeracy.

ASN gaps are wide, but shrinking

When students with additional support needs (ASN) are compared to those without, the gaps are much wider.

The largest is at the primary level, where data shows only half of ASN students reached CfE literacy targets in 2022/2023, 32 percentage points lower than their peers (82%).

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Across all primary levels, the achievement rate in numeracy for ASN pupils was higher (60%), but still 27 points behind their non-ASN peers.

At the secondary level, attainment rates were higher and gaps lower in all subjects.

In keeping with overall trends, however, these gaps have slowly closed over time and performance has steadily improved since 2016/17.

In 2022/23, the literacy and numeracy gaps between ASN and non-ASN primary pupils were the lowest on record. The literacy gap peaked at 37 and numeracy at 31 in 2017/18, and both have gone down every year, apart from a one-point spike in numeracy following the pandemic.

Secondary rates follow a similar trend. Both literacy and numeracy gaps have fallen every year since 2016/17, and attainment rates themselves were at record highs in 2022/23.

Remote, rural, urban: What’s the difference?

The Scottish Government identifies six major urban/rural classifications: Large urban areas, other urban areas, accessible small towns, remote small towns, accessible rural areas and remote rural areas.

Classifications are made based on a combination of population and the distance or drive time to urban areas.

  • Large urban areas are settlements of 125,000 or more people (Aberdeen, Greater Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Motherwell and Wishaw)
  • Other Urban areas have a population between 10,000 and 124,999 (Including Elgin, Inverness, St Andrews, Stirling, Perth)
  • Accessible Small Towns have a population between 3,000 and 9,999, and are within a 30-minute drive of an urban area (Including Dunblane, Buckie, Lossiemouth, Shotts)
  • Remote Small Towns have the same population level as accessible small towns, but a more than 30-minute drive to the nearest urban area (Including Thurso and Wick, Lerwick, Kirkwall, Invergordon, Dingwall, Oban)
  • Accessible Rural areas have a population below 3,000 and a 30-minute drive to an urban area (More than 240 settlements, including Ladybank, Ardersier, Elphinstone, Dunkeld and Birnam)
  • Remote Rural areas have a population below 3,000 and a more than 30-minute drive time to the nearest urban area (Including Newtonmore, Ullapool, Mallaig, Kingussie, Drumnadrochit, Brora, Aberfeldy)

How do urban and rural students compare?

According to the 2022/23 ACEL data, students living in accessible rural areas recorded the highest rates of achievement, while remote small towns reported the lowest.

This was true across primary and secondary levels and includes both literacy and numeracy achievement rates.

Read more: Is attainment really at a 'record high' in Scottish schools?

Primary literacy rates were led by accessible rural students (75%), followed by large urban (74%), other urban and accessible small towns (72%), remote rural (69%) and remote small towns (65%).

Accessible rural students also led in primary numeracy (82%), followed by large urban (80%), other urban and accessible small towns (79%), remote rural (77%) and remote small towns (73%).

Data on S3 literacy rates reported high achievement in accessible rural and remote rural areas (89%), followed by large urban and accessible small towns (88%), other urban (87%) and remote small towns (83%).

For numeracy, S3 was led by accessible rural students (91%), large urban, accessible small towns and remote rural (90%), other urban (89%) and remote small towns (87%).

Read more: How are Scotland's literacy and numeracy levels calculated?

In all subjects and at all levels, higher literacy and numeracy rates are linked closely to access to urban areas. Every year since 2016/17, remote small towns have reported the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in ACEL reports. 

A variety of factors come into play that can impact how students perform in each area. Access to resources such as reliable internet, the size of schools and cohorts and time spent in transit can all contribute to student attainment. 

According to the most recent census and classification data, there are 25 remote small towns in Scotland. Apart from the five large urban areas, this is by far the smallest classification set of the more than 500 listed settlements.