THE poverty related attainment gap between pupils living in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland has grown wider since last year, exam result figures published today show.

Statistics from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show that for pupils in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland, the Higher pass rate was 70.2per cent this year, down from 83.2 per cent last year

In the 20 per cent least deprived areas, the Higher pass rate stood at 85.1 per cent, down from 91 per cent last year when teacher assessments were used.

The SQA said the attainment gap between the most and least deprived areas of Scotland was 15 percentage points in 2022, up from 7.8 percentage points in 2021. However the gap is narrower than in 2019, when it was 16.9 percentage points.

Today's results are for the first full set of exams to have taken place since before the start of the pandemic after the SQA awards in 2020 and 2021 were based on teacher judgement, supported by assessment resources.

But the SQA have said that while 2022 saw the return of exams, it was not a normal year due to substantial disruption caused by the highly infectious Omicron variant which led to high levels of absences among pupils and teachers.

As a result modifications were made by the SQA to the exam system to take account of the difficult circumstances.

For example, in English if a pupil chose a poetry option, he or she was expected to become familiar with six poems throughout the year.

However, towards the end of March students were told which poem the exam, held the following month, would focus on.

Modifications to take account of any ongoing pandemic related disruption to school life will be in place in the new academic year.

"We announced the decision to retain modifications to assessments to provide certainty to the education system before the end of term because many schools start teaching for the new year in June," Fiona Robertson, chief examining officer at the SQA, told a briefing for journalists this morning.

Ms Robertson was asked about the growing attainment gap between pupils from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.

She said: "We need to be careful about comparisons given the different assessment approaches that have been in place last year.

"Sitting here last year there was also a slight widening in the attainment gap between 2020 and 2021. 

"And a number of sources of evidence do point to the challenges that young people have faced during the pandemic years, including those young people living in deprivation. 

"We had the Scottish Government's equity audit...[which] showed a widening of the gap in terms of both numeracy and literacy and indeed headteachers themselves have acknowledged the pandemic has impacted on efforts to close the gap.

She said that awards were given to individual pupils without any information on their backgrounds.

 And she added: "Our job as an awarding body is to make sure assessments are fair...Teachers set, mark and grade our assessments."

Ms Robertson was asked whether the results indicated that pupils from poorer backgrounds have disproportionately suffered in terms of their education during the pandemic.

She said that while "detailed questions about the attainment gap" were not for her, other sources of information had been published relating to the challenges posed by the pandemic on attainment gap.

Substantially closing the attainment gap is among the key missions of the Scottish Government.

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.”

Experts have warned the pandemic is likely to perpetuate the gap which sees pupils from richer homes gain higher qualifications than those from poorer families.

Schools experienced significant disruption in the 2021/22 academic year with the highly infectious Omicron variant leading to high level of teacher and pupil absences.

To take account of the disruption and the expected knock on effect on the attainment gap, the Scottish Government increased spending by £250m under its Scottish Attainment Challenge to address the additional problems in delivering the policy. However, the gap has become more significant since last year.

For National 5, the gap in 2022 was 14.6 percentage points - down from 17.1 percentage points in 2019 but up from 9.1 in 2021.

The gap for Advanced Higher was 13.2 percentage points this year - down from 13.6 percentage points in 2019 but up from 5.5 last year.

Scotland's Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: "While the results show the gap between attainment levels in the least and most deprived areas has narrowed from the 2019 level, we know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted learners from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

"We are determined to accelerate the progress that has been made and we are investing a record £1 billion in the Scottish Attainment Challenge during this parliamentary term."

The deprivation areas are determined by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), which divides the country into quintiles.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Oliver Mundell said "The widening attainment gap is a badge of shame for the First Minister and a shocking indictment of the SNP's dismal record on education.

"Nicola Sturgeon described eliminating it as the 'defining mission' of her Government, and yet this year the gap has widened to a chasm yet again."

He added: "It's unforgivable that year after year, talented pupils from poorer parts of the country are being failed by the SNP. But it seems they are no longer serious about tackling this issue."

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: "The attainment gap is still entrenched, and this was to be a national priority of the Scottish Government to remove the attainment gap.

"We should also recognise that through Covid many years of education were lost for our young people and friendships and that had an impact.

"We're now going head first into a cost-of-living crisis where more children are going to be pushed into poverty.

"I fear that the attainment gap will get even more entrenched, particularly in those more poor and deprived areas.

"We need the Government to get their head out of the sand and confront the cost-of-living crisis and also be true to that promise to remove that attainment gap."

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: "Every pupil who has worked hard for these results deserves credit and congratulations especially as this has been a year of significant disruption. They have achieved much in difficult circumstances.

"But in return our students deserve more from their Scottish Government than desperate spinning about the closure of the poverty-related attainment gap.

"At best the gap is stagnant, at worst it has widened depending on which year is used as a comparison.

"The SNP promised the gap would close by 2026 and these results show that the Government have little chance of achieving their number one priority."

In response to criticism from opposition parties, Ms Somerville told PA that the suggestion poorer pupils have been betrayed is "a real disservice to our young people who have worked under very, very difficult circumstances to have near-record pass rates for an exam year".

She added that the Scottish Government was seeing progress towards closing the attainment gap by its 2026 target before the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We know that's been made more difficult because of the pandemic, not just in Scotland, but right across different education systems, but we are absolutely determined to still fulfil that commitment."