When she became first minister, Nicola Sturgeon told the nation that improving Scotland’s education system was at the top of her government’s priorities. She was specific about exactly what her ‘defining mission’ would be: closing the poverty-related attainment gap. ‘Let me clear,’ she told her supporters, ‘I want to be judged on this.’ Today’s results, however, show that she failed: the gap remains as wide as ever.
Students across Scotland will receive their exam results today — and while the Scottish government is busy making plenty of noise about pass rates exceeding pre-pandemic levels, the real story is a murkier one about the nation’s attainment gap. This year’s results show that the difference between the richest and poorest kids achieving top A grades in National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams, as well as those achieving passes (A-C), has once again increased from pandemic levels.
In fact, since 2020, the gap between the proportion of rich and poor students getting A to C grades in their Highers widened from 6 percentage points in 2020 to 16 in 2023. Any progress made on the attainment gap since 2018 has been wiped out; the current divide is within a percentage point of that recorded in 2019. This trend spans all types of national exams, reflected in the numbers for National 5 (GCSE level exams) and Advanced Highers too.
The data from the 2023 exam diet flies in the face of efforts by the Scottish government to accelerate progress in closing the gap, despite its ‘refreshed’ efforts. The government introduced the ‘Scottish Attainment Challenge’ programme, to span from 2022 to 2026, which is supported by £1 billion of funding and an annual investment of £200 million in 2022/23 to support young people living in poverty.