Kathleen Nutt

Political Correspondent

MSPs are demanding an urgent investigation into variations in pupils' school performance across different parts of Scotland.

Holyrood's education, children and young people committee called for the probe to be completed within six months as it publishes its report today examining a poverty related education attainment gap which sees pupils from wealthier families do better than those from poorer ones.

The cross-party group noted findings from a study earlier this year by Audit Scotland which found that measures introduced by ministers under the Scottish Attainment Challenge to address the disparity have had limited success. Audit Scotland also raised concerns that pupils were doing better in some areas of Scotland than others and that some councils spent more per pupil than others.

MSPs gave the Education Scotland six months to complete the investigation into what was happening in different council areas and to put forward interventions to achieve greater consistency in education standards.

"The committee notes with concern evidence on variation in education performance across local authorities in Scotland. It is important that children and young people's outcomes are not dependent on where they live," it said.

"There is a key role for Education Scotland to play in tackling these variations. The committee recommends that Education Scotland is tasked with undertaking urgent work to investigate the reasons for these variations and with setting out the action it is taking to achieve consistency across the country.

"The committee recommends that Education Scotland reports back to the committee on progress with this work within six months of the publication of this report."

Elsewhere in the report, MSPs said reform plans for Scotland's leading education agency should include "taking ownership" of closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

They recommended that Education Scotland's replacement is held accountable for assessing the success of key government attainment pledges.

The report comes as thousands of pupils prepare to receive their exam results next week.

Alongside the new education agency, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be replaced, with both set to be fully established by 2024.

Nicola Sturgeon's 2016 programme for government stated a goal to substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.

However, Eduction Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville dropped the pledge in May this year, admitting the government had made slow progress and refused to set a new “arbitrary date” for completion. She said the goal “has always been a long-term project”.

Sue Webber MSP, the education committee's convener, said: "During this inquiry the committee heard positive stories about the work being done by schools to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.

"However, in our report, we have noted Audit Scotland's conclusion that there has been limited progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap and that inequalities have been worsened by Covid-19.

"It is essential that the reforms to the government's education agency ensure the new schools inspectorate is able to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of plans to close the poverty-related attainment gap."

Other committee recommendations are centred around ensuring teachers, parents, carers and pupils are heard on plans for attainment challenge spending.

The funding, which was initially allocated to nine "challenge authorities" where attainment funding was most needed, has now been spread across Scotland.

While the committee recognised that poverty exists across Scotland, the Scottish Government has been asked to monitor the impact of the tapering of funds from the challenge authorities.

And MSPs have asked the Scottish Government to set out how it will establish a national baseline for measuring progress in closing the attainment gap following the pandemic.

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell MSP said: “This damning report by a cross-party group of MSPs highlights the utter failure of the SNP to close the poverty-related attainment gap – something Nicola Sturgeon described as the ‘defining mission’ of her government back in 2016.

“Indeed, it’s only a couple of months since the Education Secretary abandoned the SNP’s totemic pledge to eliminate it by 2026 because so little progress was being made.

“That was the ultimate betrayal of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds by Nicola Sturgeon, whose government’s record in education is one of abject failure.

“The SNP Government may have thrown in the towel on the attainment gap but thankfully the Education Committee has not, so I welcome their commitment to hold ministers to account.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government welcomes this report on the Scottish Attainment Challenge from the education, children and young people’s committee and is grateful for the attention it has given to this vital mission for Scottish education.

“The Scottish Government is committed to tackling the poverty related attainment gap and improving outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty and is investing a record £1 billion to support the Scottish Attainment Challenge over the course of this parliamentary term.

“We welcome the committee’s recognition of the excellent work that is taking place in many schools across the country and the steps taken by the Scottish Government to accelerate progress in closing the gap.

"There is of course more to be done, in particular as we look to recover from the impact of the pandemic on the education of children and young people impacted by poverty, and we will consider the findings of this report carefully in the coming weeks.”