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Exam results 2021: ‘Alarm bells ringing’ as poverty attainment gap widens

The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in Scotland has grown since last year.
The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in Scotland has grown since last year.

The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils in Scotland has grown since last year.

Exam results show that those in the fifth most deprived areas achieved A to C grades at a lower rate than those in the fifth least deprived areas.

For Higher results, the difference rose from 6.5% last year to 7.9% in the 2021 results.

The SQA said the different assessment models used post-pandemic made it difficult to compare figures on a year-to-year basis.

Traditional exams were scrapped after Covid, with a teacher-led ‘alternative certification model’ taking place in the school year just passed.

While the attainment gap has widened, it is down from the pre-pandemic figures in 2019, which showed a 16.9% gap in Higher results.

‘Down to a number of issues’

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said a number of issues influenced results between years.

“Learners have faced disruption to learning and teaching this year,” she said.

“The Scottish Government’s equity audit highlighted some of the challenges young people have faced that go beyond assessment.

“We’ve modified approaches to assessment to address disruption to learning, providing additional flexibility to deal with this year’s exceptional circumstances.”

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “As in any year, the results highlight some areas for us to focus attention on.

“Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and ensuring every young person has the chance to fulfil their potential remains central to our work.

“We know that the challenges presented by the pandemic mean our efforts to deliver equity in education are more vital than ever. So we are investing a further £1 billion over the course of this parliament to help close the gap.”

Somerville: ‘We’ve made good progress’

She added: “We have seen a slight increase in the attainment gap since last year.

“But when we look at it on a historical basis we’ve actually seen a real, real decrease in the attainment gap from 2019 and from years previously.

“In a wider context, which I think is important when we are talking about exceptional years like the past year, we’ve seen that we’ve made good progress as a government.”

The Scottish Conservatives were critical over what they called a “flawed and unfair” system since the arrival of Covid.

Oliver Mundell, Scottish Conservatives education spokesman

Education spokesman Oliver Mundell said: “Congratulations to Scotland’s school pupils who deserve a huge amount of praise for battling through another incredibly difficult year.

‘Nothing short of a disgrace’

“Despite the disruption they faced, the SNP’s system has judged them more harshly than last year’s pupils, as we warned was the case.

“Compared to last year, grades are down across the board. The attainment gap is up.

“That should set alarm bells ringing that this year’s system is just as flawed and unfair as the shambles pupils suffered last year.

“But most damning of all, pupils from poorer backgrounds have been marked down the most from 2020 to 2021.

“They are twice as likely to see their grades fall at Higher and Advanced Higher than children from the most affluent areas, year-on-year.

“That is nothing short of a disgrace.”

More from the Schools and Family team

Exam results 2021: Pupils celebrate ‘year like no other’

Exam results 2021: Teachers left ‘in awe’ of pupil resilience

Exam results 2021: ‘We could either lie down or keep fighting’

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