The Education Secretary has refused to give an “arbitrary” date for closing the country’s poverty-related attainment gap.
Shirley-Anne Somerville gave evidence on the Scottish Attainment Challenge to the Education, Children and Young People Committee at Holyrood on Wednesday.
The challenge picked nine local authorities with a high density of the poorest neighbourhoods and offered schools extra funding to address the issue – but plans to widen the challenge to all 32 councils have drawn criticism because the budget has only increased by a small amount.
When asked by convener Stephen Kerr if it is still the Scottish Government’s aim to close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils – something First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously identified as her top priority – Ms Somerville simply said: “Yes.”
But the Education Secretary would not give a date for the successful closure of the gap.
“I’m not going to set an arbitrary date on when the attainment gap will be closed, particularly so close to the experiences that we are still having with the pandemic,” she said.
“We know that the pandemic has had an impact on attainment.”
She touted the introduction of so-called stretch aims – where councils set annual targets to improve the health and wellbeing of youngsters, as well as how they will close their own attainment gaps.
“What we very much intend to do through the stretch aims and through working with local authorities is for local authorities to be able to determine what can be done in their area and what support is required from our national agencies to be able to support them to do so,” she said.
Ms Somerville went on to say she would prefer to not have a “top down” approach to closing the attainment gap, adding: “I prefer to work with local government.
“Of course our ambition is no less than to close the attainment gap, but we do need to recognise that is a long-term endeavour.”
When asked what she considered to be “long term”, the Education Secretary added: “We are determined to see greater pace of progress than we were before the pandemic and that’s what the stretch aims are an important part of.”
Stretch aims are due to be set by local authorities by September.
Later on Wednesday, MSPs debated a Labour motion to revise plans for the Scottish Attainment Challenge to reinstate full funding to the nine original councils.
Scottish Labour MSP Michal Marra said the SNP had abandoned their timetable to substantially close the attainment gap by 2026.
He told the Scottish Parliament chamber: “Nobody on this side of the chamber, in the Labour Party, will tolerate in any way using Covid as an excuse not to honour that timetable for our young people.”
Mr Marra continued: “The SNP and the Greens are asking us to believe a frankly ludicrous proposition, that the best way to give support to poor kids is to cut support for the areas with the most poor kids.”
Speaking for the Conservatives, Oliver Mundell said: “Today’s debate perfectly sums up the challenges in Scottish education under the SNP.
“It’s yet another example of where the rhetoric doesn’t match reality.
“And the idea that after this, they can continue to claim that education is their number one priority is a joke.”