PUPILS from the poorest backgrounds in Scotland have improved their exam results, but progress is marginal, new figures show.

Data from the 2017 exam diet indicates that the most disadvantaged pupils have seen a two per cent increase in their attainment compared to the most affluent communities where achievement has remained the same.

However, the scale of the gap remains significant with disadvantaged pupils achieving around half of the qualifications secured by the most affluent.

The figures, published on the website of school support and inspection body Education Scotland, also highlight the individual performance of schools.

The data shows Jordanhill School, in Glasgow, achieved the highest percentage of pupils securing Highers of any school in Scotland.

The figures on the attainment gap, which the Scottish Government has made a priority of closing, were given a cautious welcome by John Swinney, the Education Secretary.

He said: “Education is this government’s number one priority and we are investing heavily to ensure every child has an equal chance to succeed.

“This national level data shows things are moving in the right direction.”

Mr Swinney said education reforms such as Pupil Equity Funding, which targets money at schools in deprived areas, would help close the gap further.

He added: “While the figures are moving in the right direction, we recognise the scale of the challenge involved.

Stephen McCabe, education spokesman for council umbrella body Cosla, warned progress was being made despite budget cuts.

He said: “Despite a real-time reduction in education budgets of almost 4% in upper secondary the tariff score has improved by 15% since 2011 with the rate of improvement more than doubled for areas of multiple deprivation – in those areas, we have improved by over 40%.

“While achievement levels remain lower for children from the most deprived areas, there has been a faster rate of improvement within these groups.

“Councils have the drive and ambition to achieve better outcomes for all our pupils and continue to view the need for a whole-system approach as essential to continue to close the attainment gap.”

However, opposition politicians went on the attack accusing the Scottish Government of “glacial progress” on one of its key priorities.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, welcomed the “marginal improvement”, but said the scale of the challenge remained.

She said: “Several sets of recent statistics have laid bare the extent of the gap which remains between the most and least deprived pupils.

“None of this is helped by the ongoing controversy over National 4 exams and whether too many pupils are being pushed into a qualification level that is not consistent with their abilities.”

Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, said the figures showed progress was “marginal”.

He said: “After ten years of SNP mismanagement of education, pupils from our richest communities continue to do far better than those from deprived neighbourhoods.”

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Tavish Scott said: “Despite declaring it their main priority three years ago, the SNP Government has moved sluggishly on closing the attainment gap.

“Class sizes are at their highest since the SNP took office a decade ago, there are hundreds of teaching vacancies, support staff have been lost, and ministers are behind in their childcare expansion.

“SNP ministers will be worried because they have repeatedly told everyone to judge them on their record of closing the attainment gap.”

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, added: “It would be churlish not to welcome any closing of the attainment gap, but we can’t lose sight of just how slight this narrowing has been and how colossal the gap still is.

“Young people from the most deprived backgrounds are still being badly let down and we do not stand a chance of turning things around if we continue to see this as a problem which can be solved through education alone.

“Whilst massive additional funding is needed in schools to reverse a decade of cuts, a direct attack on the causes of poverty itself is what’s needed.”

However, Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling University, said the narrow focus on the attainment gap was not helpful.

He said: "Research projects have shown the clear link between deprivation and disadvantage on the one hand and school attainment on the other.

"Poverty can be a disadvantage, and children who live in homes where there is unemployment, high levels of stress and complex problems will be more likely to struggle with their learning.

"The school is only a very small part of the lives of children and while schools can make a difference, often the issues which lead to poor attainment ad poor performance in schools are linked to out of school factors.

"The language of the Scottish Government’s focus on closing the attainment gap can be unhelpful as it potentially narrows the discussion to a focus on national school qualifications."

The data on the attainment gap shows pupils in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods secured an average tariff points score of 635 in school exams compared to 1,219 for the most affluent fifth.

A National 4 qualification is worth 33 tariff points while a National 3 is worth 16 tariff points.