EVERYONE knows about the attainment gap between schools in well-off and deprived areas: children from disadvantaged backgrounds are four times less likely to go to university than those from wealthy ones. But new education figures have revealed something else that is just as troubling for different reasons – not only is there a huge gap between the educational outcomes for the poor and the well-off, there is a gap in deprived communities as well. It is a disturbing new level of inequality. It is deprivation piled on deprivation.

The precise reasons for the discrepancies in the numbers – and why pupils in some disadvantaged communities are performing more than twice as well as their counterparts elsewhere in Scotland – are not necessarily easy to pin down, but a look at where success has been achieved does suggest some interesting patterns. In Glasgow, for example, there have been dramatic improvements in the last ten years and much of it has been achieved not through flashy policy initiatives, but quietly and behind the scenes with simple targets and a focus on improving teaching standards.

In its analysis of the new figures, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points to some of these factors, and others, as possible reasons for the discrepancies, including one of the most important: the culture in schools. There was a time when the teachers and council officials would say of certain schools that poor results was just the way things were. But we know that an expectation that pupils can and should do well and go on to college and university can help improve what pupils achieve. Promoting and spreading that approach could have hugely positive outcomes.

Writing in The Herald today, John Dickie, of the Child Poverty Action Group, also calls on government to do more to help alleviate some of the burdens of poverty that can make school life harder. Action to address school costs, he says, helps to clear the way of the barriers which stop children benefitting from teaching strategies proven to raise attainment.

However, Mr Dickie also quite rightly points to the dangers of poverty stigma. What this means is that discreet ways have to be found to help pupils in need without drawing attention to the fact that they need help – a card for school meals, for instance, that can be issued to all pupils whether they are being subsidised or not. The way pupils dress can also be a spark for poverty stigma, which provides a strong argument for school uniforms, strictly enforced. Pupils can still home in on signals of difference, such as shoes or watches, but uniforms can go a long way to smoothing them out.

The submission of Kevin Lowden, of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, to Holyrood’s education committee is also worthy of close attention. Mr Lowden says that collaborations between higher and lower attaining schools have been shown to have positive results for pupils and at one point the Scottish Government seemed to agree with him. In 2013, the Government announced schools experiencing difficulties would be twinned with those punching above their weight, but four years later, despite the positive early results, the scheme was dropped.

It appears that one of the reasons the scheme went nowhere was that there was some opposition from within the educational establishment – many teachers resisted the idea of their schools being seen as underperforming – but it also looked like short-termism from the Government, which is exactly the opposite of what the sector needs. The fact that pupils in disadvantaged communities do not have an equal chance of succeeding is disturbing. But the gap will only be closed by targeting what works on the schools that need it most – and then sticking with it until the results start to show.