CLOSING the attainment gap has been the “defining mission” of Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

“Substantially eliminating” the difference in educational outcomes from the richest to the poorest families is something the First Minister said she wanted to be judged on.

While the overall number of young people from poorer backgrounds passing exams and entering university has increased since Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond in 2014, there are warnings that progress remains limited.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon has made closing the attainment gap a priority for the Scottish GovernmentNicola Sturgeon has made closing the attainment gap a priority for the Scottish Government

And with the Scottish Government’s aim to rapidly reduce the attainment gap by 2026 now only four years away, it’s unlikely the SNP will meet its target.

Experts in the field are keen to stress Covid has thrown a massive wrench into the Scottish Government’s plans to narrow the gap.

Dr Joan Mowat, a senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University and a former depute head teacher, said this year’s figures – which showed the attainment gap had widened – are not directly comparable to those prior to or during the pandemic.

The National: Dr Joan MowatDr Joan Mowat

She said Covid had increased already existing inequalities globally and within Scotland, affecting disadvantaged children the worst.

Covid means Scotland may have to redouble its efforts to finally solve the attainment-gap problem.

So how can Scotland tackle it?

Focus on early years

A research paper commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in 2014 noted that gaps in attainment start remarkably early.

By age five, poorer pupils are already a year behind their richer friends in this area in terms of literacy. By age 12–14, pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy.

Dr Edward Sosu, who co-authored the paper, said work on improving educational outcomes for working-class children must start from a young age. He told the Sunday National the Scottish Government had started work on this but that it was counteracted by Covid.

Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland at the JRF, said there are still accessibility issues with early-years care.

Birt told the Sunday National: “We hear stories all the time, particularly from people like single parents, who can’t access the free offer because it’s completely inflexible.

“They just don’t fit around the realities of people who are having to go into low-income work.”

This can exacerbate inequality as expensive childcare locks parents into poverty, Birt added, as the cost of it can often outweigh the income increase from getting a job.

Sosu and the JRF praised Scottish Government policies such as childcare, as well as the Scottish Child Payment, saying they can make a real difference to families.

The SNP has said its hands are tied while most benefit powers reside at Westminster.

Director of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland John Dickie agreed, telling the Sunday National that Westminster must “do more to recognise the scale of child poverty across the UK and restore the family benefits”.

Reducing poverty

The focus on early years is part of an overall strategy to alleviate poverty. The attainment gap, after all, according to Mowat, is a “symptom of poverty”.

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While the Scottish Government is providing £1 billion directly to the Attainment Scotland Fund, Sosu warned that because poverty is still entrenched in Scotland, it means the disparity will still exist.

He said: “I think, fundamentally, the gap is due to living in socio-economic disadvantage and a result of poverty. You need to tackle poverty to tackle the achievement gap.”

Poverty can have a wide variety of effects on a child’s education. From hungry and stressed kids struggling to concentrate at school, to caring responsibilities taking attention away from homework.

One impact Sosu (below) found in his research was the link between poverty and cognitive development in children.

The National:

“What I found was that income gains within families improved cognitive outcomes while income drops, or fluctuations in income, were detrimental to cognitive development.”

If nothing is done to fix this, Sosu warns it could widen the attainment gap.

Attendance Research by Sosu found a link between deprivation and attendance.

The expert found differences in school attendance according to socio-economic status.

This is an issue that directly impacts educational outcomes.

A holistic approach

While Birt said schools must do all they can to solve attainment, Mowat warned they cannot solely fix a societal-wide issue.

The expert calls for a holistic approach to education that factors in wellbeing, poverty and mental health.

Mowat said: “Schools alone cannot solve this problem because the problem is much bigger than schools. That doesn’t mean to say schools can’t do absolutely everything they can.

“But the achievement gap is a symptom of the problem, it’s not the problem itself. The problem is inequality.”

Changing the curriculum and exams

The curriculum is incredibly important, with Mowat saying: “I think we need to focus on meaningful learning and teaching for understanding rather than content.

“This should be an opportunity to stand back and look at the curriculum and say, ‘Is this curriculum delivering what it should be delivering?’ And I have my doubts.”

Birt, on the other hand, has issues with exams, saying they disproportionately impact the poorest.

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He said: “Clearly, how kids are graded discriminates against people from poorer backgrounds, which the difference between teacher assessment and exam results show.”

While the initial exam-free method of the SQA during the pandemic caused uproar after some pupils from poorer postcodes were marked down by moderators, a later system saw the attainment gap narrow.

Reducing the attainment gap is a complex process that requires systematic change on several levels.

And while experts have lauded the Scottish Government for its ambitious goals, many have expressed scepticism over whether they’ll be able to meet these in the coming years.

If one thing is clear, it’s that the Scottish Government must continue its focus on reducing poverty if it is to ever eliminate it altogether.

The cost of living crisis will only make that harder.