Can we break the link between children’s social backgrounds and how well they do at school?

The SNP manifesto said that their “defining mission” would be “delivering significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade.”  Other parties also have a focus on educational inequality.

The link between social background and attainment: a global issue

Economic, social and cultural status explains about 15% of the variation in PISA[1] mathematics scores, on average across OECD countries. In Scotland it explains around 13% of the variation (Scottish Government 2013).

On average, exam attainment improves as deprivation decreases.  However, this does not mean that all pupils living in poverty do badly or that social background is not a factor in attainment for everyone else. Pupils in the 40% least deprived areas[2] are generally not living in poverty, yet they still do worse, on average, than those in the 20% least deprived areas, who in turn do worse than those in the top 10%.  The chart below shows how attainment improves steadily as social and economic background improves.  One example of the attainment gap is the Higher results of school leavers (SCQF level 6).  On this measure, the gap is narrowing slowly (Figure 11).  Over three years, an increasing proportion of pupils from deprived areas have left school with at least one Higher (or equivalent).  There are many other possible measures. The SNP manifesto stated that they will identify specific measures for the attainment gap in order to measure progress.

School leavers’ attainment of at least one qualification at SCQF level 6 by SIMD quintile, 2011/12 and 2013/14


Source: Scottish Government 2015

These statistics are only averages.  Some pupils and some schools buck the trend.  For example, in 38 schools in 2014, leavers from the 20% most deprived areas had an average tariff score that was higher than the national average for those from less deprived areas (information collated from Parentzone 2016).[3]

What has the Scottish Government done about the attainment gap?

A key priority of the National Improvement Framework, launched in January 2016, is “closing the attainment gap between the most and least deprived children.”  It sets out 6 drivers of improvement:

  • School leadership
  • Teacher professionalism
  • Parental engagement
  • Assessment of children’s progress
  • School improvement
  • Performance information.

The Education (Scotland) Act 2016 requires local authorities and Scottish Ministers to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities of educational outcome that are created by socio-economic disadvantage, and to report on the action they have taken.  This includes creating new reporting requirements on education improvement linked to the National Improvement Framework

Many existing policies might be expected to have a positive effect on the attainment gap.  These include: efforts to improve leadership and teacher quality, Curriculum for Excellence, involvement of parents in schools, a focus on pre-school learning and early intervention.  New initiatives, announced prior to the election campaign specifically in relation to the attainment challenge include:

  • The Attainment Scotland Fund (£180m over four years), focused on primary schools in deprived areas
  • The Innovation Fund (£1.5m), announced in January 2016 (Scottish Government 2016) with applications open to any school in Scotland
  • The appointment of Attainment Advisors from Education Scotland in every local authority
  • The National Improvement Hub providing access to research and evidence of what works. In addition to the above, the SNP manifesto includes commitments to expand the Attainment Challenge to a wider number of local authorities and to secondary schools.

The SNP manifesto announced an additional £750m in the next parliament for the Attainment Scotland Fund, £500m of which will go directly to head teachers, based on free school meal eligibility, to spend on measures head teachers consider will have the most impact (SNP 2016).

[1] PISA is an international sample survey of science, literacy and maths ability amongst 15 year olds.

[2] As measured by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), is a composite measure of deprivation in a small geographical area.

[3] In 38 out of 225 schools the average tariff score for leavers from 20% SIMD was above 743, which is the national average tariff score for leavers living in the 21% to 40% most deprived areas.

Camilla Kidner


Scottish Government (2013) Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012: Highlights from Scotland’s Results, OECD, Social Research and Scottish Government. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Scottish Government (2015) Education innovation, Newsroom. Available at – [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Parentzone (2016) Find a school. Available at –

Scottish Nationalist Party. (2016) Scottish Election Manifesto 2016.  Available at –

Scottish Government (2015) Attainment and Leaver Destinations, supplementary data. Available at –