THE Education Secretary has dropped a key government pledge to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland’s schools by 2026.

Shirley-Anne Somerville admitted that ministers had made slow progress before the pandemic and refused to set a new “arbitrary date” for completion.

Pressed by MSPs today she claimed the ambition has "always been a long-term project” — despite setting a clear target in 2016 to close the gap within a decade.

Nicola Sturgeon’s 2016 programme for government stated “it is the defining mission of this government to close the poverty-related attainment gap”. 

It said: “We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this parliament (2016-2021) and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade. That is a yardstick by which the people of Scotland can measure our success.”

The latest official figures, published in December, found that the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived areas increased to the highest level on record, with the largest ever differences in primary pupils achieving the expected levels in literacy and numeracy.

The Curriculum for Excellence education statistics figures for literacy revealed that 80.7% of primary pupils in the most affluent areas were at or above the expected standard, compared to 56% of those from the poorest backgrounds.

With the attainment levels falling by three percentage points for the most well off and 7.1 percentage points for the most deprived since 2018-19, the gap stood at 24.7 percentage points, according to the statistics published then.

Today Ms Somerville blamed the lack of progress on the pandemic, budget cuts from Westminster and a global economic slowdown.

She told Holyrood's education committee that there will be “greater pace of change” in the years ahead.

Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr, the committee convener, asked: “When will we see improvement to the extent that the gap has been closed?”

Ms Somerville replied: “I’m not going to set an arbitrary date when the attainment gap will be closed, particularly so close the experiences we are still having with the pandemic.”

She said she would not dictate a policy and a target but would instead “work with local government . . . to deliver the aims that are correct for their area”.

The Education Secretary said good progress was being made before the pandemic, despite a report by Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, that described it as limited.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman, accused Ms Somerville of “dressing up stagnation as progress” by selectively quoting infinitesimal improvement which still left a big attainment gap of 35 points at some levels.

He said: “When you spend £1 billion surely you would expect something better than this . . . it was claimed initially that we were going to close the poverty-related attainment gap completely.

“I have heard ministers roll back a bit on the ‘completely’ saying it ‘might not be possible to close it altogether’. The First Minister used to say it was her guiding mission, her top priority, but we don’t hear her saying much about it any more and we now hear it is a very long-term project."

Following the meeting, Scottish Conservative Shadow Education Secretary Oliver Mundell MSP said: “There could be no clearer admission of failure from the SNP Government than them giving up on this totemic pledge.

"This is the ultimate betrayal of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds by Nicola Sturgeon. 

“She described eliminating the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived backgrounds as the ‘defining mission’ of her government back in 2016.

“Since then, we’ve seen that gap widen to a chasm, and now the Education Secretary has thrown in the towel and confessed the goal is unachievable.
“Among the litany of SNP failures on education, this is the most damning and shameful of all.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “After years of abject failure, the SNP has finally abandoned its timetable for its so-called ‘defining mission’ to close the attainment gap.

“The SNP is not just abandoning its timetable – it is abandoning generations of young Scots from deprived backgrounds.

“As we speak, this SNP government is cutting millions of pounds from attainment challenge councils – this is scandalous. Using the pandemic as a fig-leaf for their failure on education is intolerable, cynical and unacceptable.

“This failure is emblematic of the SNP’s wasted 15 years in office – Scotland deserves better.”

Curriculum for Excellence education statistics also found that pupils from the poorest backgrounds were worst affected during the coronavirus pandemic as reveal achievement fell at every level.

Teacher judgments of pupils’ reading, writing, maths and their listening and talking abilities indicated a drop in performance across all of P1, P4 and P7 stages.