LITERACY and numeracy standards in schools are likely to fall and the poverty-related attainment gap widen as a result of the Covid pandemic, the Education Secretary admitted.

Shirley-Anne Somerville said closing the gap between rich and poor pupils was still the Scottish Government’s “key long-term ambition”, but a setback was now expected. 

Opposition parties accused SNP ministers of losing their way on education as Ms Somerville announced a new funding package to help address the attainment gap.

She said £200million would be available in 2022/23 to help disadvantaged pupils.

However Labour criticised what it called “callous cuts” after she confirmed £43m previously ringfenced for the nine poorest councils in Scotland would now be shared across all 32.

This pot of "challenge" funding had been dedicated to Clackmannanshire, Dundee, East Ayrshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire. A new distribution will be announced in the spring.

Ms Somerville said: “I anticipate we may see evidence of the impact of the pandemic on educational attainment.

“Given the evidence from our own equity audit, we may well see the proportion of young people achieving the relevant level in numeracy and literacy reduce in comparison to previous years, as well as an impact on the poverty-related attainment gap."

She added: “Although progress has been made in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, I am clear that the pace of progress must recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic and it must increase.”

Labour MSP Michael Marra said: “That the SNP are choosing this moment to make callous cuts to the poorest children’s education is grotesque and intolerable. It almost defies belief. Far from rhetoric on recovery, they are abandoning any pretence they care about the poorest pupils in the poorest areas.

“This announcement means savage cuts to the nine most deprived education authorities, £25.5 million stripped from attainment funding and hundreds of jobs in frontline education now at risk. 

“This is a do-nothing Minister, in a do-nothing Government, who simply couldn't care less. This is a betrayal of our children and our future.

“We were told education was their number one priority, but they never gave a damn.”

Tory MSP Oliver Mundell, said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s promise to close the attainment gap has well and truly been broken and nothing the SNP do to rehash the same failing initiatives can re-write history.

“Simply throwing money around the system while ignoring the real challenges facing our schools was never going to work, but neither will suddenly axing additional cash for the poorest communities.  

“Instead we need a credible plan to restore standards in our education system, and to ensure pupils in every school are getting the education they deserve.

“By focusing far more on teaching and learning we will help those who start at a disadvantage close the gap and give them a fighting chance.

“Continuing to lower our aspirations and plug the gap with well-meaning initiatives alone cannot deliver the equality of opportunity and social mobility we all want to see.”  

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie said the SNP had “lost its way on education”.
Accusing the Education Secretary of a funding “fiddle”, he said: This statement just

paves the way for bad news to come on the already yawning poverty related attainment gap. 

“Years ago, the SNP Government promised to close it completely but now it is set to get even wider. The SNP Government has lost its way on transforming Scotland’s education system and fiddling around with the challenge fund is hardly the bold action we need.

"If the Cabinet Secretary believes these measures will make a difference, she should be able to Scotland by which year the poverty related attainment gap will be closed completely.”

Ms Somerville stressed the package had been agreed in consultation with the council umbrella body Cosla.

Its spokesperson for Children and Young People, Cllr Stephen McCabe, said: “We welcome the recognition that councils across Scotland will be pivotal in work to tackle the attainment gap, not only providing additional support within schools but enabling stronger links with the wide range of important services for children, young people and their families that sit beyond the school gates.”