THE cost-of-living crisis could have a “devastating” impact on Scotland’s attainment gap, a leading poverty charity has warned.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s associate director for Scotland said that children and young people from poorer backgrounds could be further disadvantaged at school as bills across the UK surge.

Chris Birt's comments come after last week’s exam figures showed the attainment gap had widened as the country went back to an exams-based system.

During Covid lockdowns, the Scottish Government implemented teacher-assessed grades which saw the achievement gap between the most and least well-off postcodes narrow.

READ MORE: Here's how the Scottish Government can tackle the attainment gap

Now, with predictions that the UK energy price cap could reach more than £3500 from October, Birt warned the impact on attainment could be “devastating”.

He said education could follow a similar path to that during lockdown.

“People in deprived communities have suffered worse because of Covid," he told The National.

“People who were having to isolate in smaller housing were less likely to get access to open spaces.

"We heard of lots of families that didn’t have access to the internet or devices that connected to the internet.

The National: The attainment gap widened in Scotland last week after young people returned to an exam-based systemThe attainment gap widened in Scotland last week after young people returned to an exam-based system (Image: PA)

“So, their schooling was more badly affected by the pandemic than kids in better-off families.

“And now you take that into the cost of living crisis. If you’re talking about some households having to pay over £4000 on their electricity bills, that means parents are facing impossible choices.”

Birt said many parents would be facing a choice between heating and eating which could negatively affect their child’s education.

He said: “These kinds of things create trauma within a child’s life and there’s been a lot of focus over the last five to 10 years about the role that trauma plays in so-called adverse childhood experiences in kids’ outcomes.

“The more dramatic events that happen within children’s lives, we see the evidence that it makes it more likely for them to do less well in school.

The National: The cost of living crisis will disproportionately hit the poorest families in the UK, which experts have warned could impact children's educationThe cost of living crisis will disproportionately hit the poorest families in the UK, which experts have warned could impact children's education

“Kids aren’t daft. They see their parents struggling, stressed out, potentially going cold, having shoes with holes in them, not having a new school bag.

“All of these basic things that impact on a child’s well-being, sometimes to the point of being hungry, but also to the point of feeling excluded, feeling different.

“Those are the sorts of things we need to get over if we’re ever going to close that gap.”

Dr Joan Mowat, a former depute head teacher and a senior lecturer at Strathclyde University, said she didn’t know whether the cost-of-living crisis would mean the attainment gap would regress, or whether it would simply slow down progress.

She told The National that stress factors, including financial worries, in a household can have an impact on a child or young person’s mental health.

She said: “It’s not just a problem in terms of actual finance.

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“You’re talking children with mental health issues. It’s not just about finances, it’s not just about learning, it’s about the mental health and welfare of children, creating stressors within the home that then affect the mental health and well-being of children.

READ MORE: Scotland's attainment figures 'very poor', Green MSP admits

“I think that is a significant worry.”

Education expert Dr Edward Sosu said the prospect of the cost-of-living crisis widening the attainment gap is a “huge concern” for him.

He told The National: “If nothing is done about this, as I say in my own research, I found that where incomes fall, where there are huge negative fluctuations in incomes, that has a negative impact on children’s achievement. So it is a concern.

“If that is not addressed that will definitely have a negative impact on efforts to close the attainment gap.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Parents and learners are rightly concerned about the cost emergency and the UK Government holds most of the powers needed to tackle it.

“This is why the Scottish Government continues to urge UK Ministers to use all of the powers at its disposal to provide immediate support to address the current crisis households and families are facing.

“We also remain absolutely committed to closing the poverty related attainment gap, which is why we are investing £1 billion in the Scottish Attainment Challenge during this parliamentary term.

“We continue to want to see as much progress in tackling the attainment gap and are still working with councils to substantially eliminate by 2026, and this year we have asked each local authority to set challenging aims on what they expect to achieve over the next year.”

“The Scottish Government has allocated almost £3 billion in this financial year that will help households face the increased cost of living, including the provision of services and financial support not available elsewhere in the UK.

"This includes the Scottish Child Payment which was doubled to £20 in April and will be increased to £25 per eligible child per week by the end of the year – a 150% rise within 9 months.”