Ministers have been told to “go back to the drawing board” on tackling educational inequality after figures showed the difference between state and private schools in the proportion of Higher A grade awards was as large as ever.
Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) statistics reveal 75.6 per cent of independent sector entries received the top result under 2021’s alternative certification model (ACM), which was developed after exams were cancelled due to Covid-19. This compares with a rate of 45.6% for local authority establishments.
The 30% gap is up a little on 2020, when the percentages for independent and council-run schools were 67% and 38%, respectively. However, it is slightly narrower than the 32% difference recorded in 2019 – the last year in which a conventional exams diet was held.
At A-C level, private school attainment was 97.3%, compared with 86.7% in the state sector. The gap was 1.6% higher than in 2020 but smaller than the 18.9% difference reported in 2019.
The 2021 alternative certification process required teacher-judged provisional results to be based on demonstrated attainment. However, the relatively late exams cancellation decision and a second period of school closures resulted in a tight assessment window, with widespread reports that pupils were subjected to a test marathon between Easter and summer.
Secondary pupils returned to campuses full-time after the Easter break but there have been indications many privately educated individuals were benefiting earlier from substantial provision of in-person teaching.
In March this year, Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) director John Edward said his sector had been able to get most secondary learners back into class safely. He attributed the success to greater flexibility in the use of public spaces and rented facilities. Mr Edward also acknowledged better teacher-pupil ratios had helped accelerate the process.
Henry Maitles, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of the West of Scotland, said: “All the figures confirm is something that was there pre-Covid, which is that the kids who go to independent schools do better on average than those who go to state schools. What you’re looking at is not so much an educational gap but a poverty gap.”
He added: “These results continue a trend the Scottish Government claimed it was going to do something about, which is educational inequality – and they’ve been unable to do so.
“For me, doing something about educational inequality means dealing with poverty and inequality within society as a whole. The Scottish Government’s attempts to do something about educational inequality are clearly not having the desired effect and they need to go back to the drawing board on it.”
Shadow Education Secretary Oliver Mundell accused the SNP of losing “all ambition to close the widening attainment gap”.
He added: “Pupils have already had to adapt to disrupted learning, and these latest figures confirm they are also coming up against an education system that delivers equity in name only.”
Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: “The education attainment gap is yawning as wide as ever. That pupils in private schools secure far better results shows how much government has let down pupils and teachers in state schools.”
Mr Edward said: “SCIS and the independent sector were as closely involved as local authorities, teacher unions and other professional bodies in the development and promotion of the ACM. The results – while hugely encouraging – also went through the same rigorous procedure as all other pupils and schools in Scotland.”
A spokeswoman said the Scottish Government was committed to closing the attainment gap.
“This year’s SQA results saw a narrower poverty-related attainment gap compared with 2019, and the number of university acceptances from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland reached a record high for SQA Results Day,” she added. “Progress has been made but we know there is more to do. That’s why we are investing a further £1 billion over the course of this Parliament to help to close the attainment gap.
“The attainment gap between pupils in state and independent schools for passes in Highers and Advanced Highers was narrower in 2021 than in 2019.”
The SQA said the 2021 ACM gave schools, colleges and training providers autonomy around the timing and nature of assessment to ensure that, as far as possible, there was maximum opportunity for learners to undertake the required learning and be given the best chance to succeed.