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Understanding the attainment gap

Adriana Duta, Francesca Fiori and Cristina Iannelli

Closing the educational attainment gap is a top policy priority in Scotland and rightly so; inequalities in educational attainment continue to be stark and this, in turn, hinders young people’s opportunities for social mobility. In 2017, the percentage of pupils attaining at least one Higher or more was twice as high in the most advantaged areas compared to the most disadvantaged areas (as shown in the graph below). In fact, inequalities would be even more pronounced if we were to look at the proportions attaining 3+ qualifications. Furthermore, area-based measures are likely to underestimate the extent of inequalities since some disadvantaged families live in areas classified as ‘advantaged’ and vice-versa.

Table showing the percentages of school leavers by SCQF level (1+) and SIMD deciles - Scotland 2017













Source: Scottish Government (SG). Summary statistics for attainment, leaver destinations and healthy living, No. 8: 2018 Edition - Attainment and Leaver Destinations.

What can we learn from our research about the factors driving the attainment gap?

Our research, based on individual-level, longitudinal data, allows us to go beyond a mere description of the extent of inequalities provided by the official statistics, examining the reasons behind these inequalities. Our findings show that inequalities between more and less socially advantaged children in cognitive skills and socio-emotional wellbeing are already visible at the age of 3 and that they persist and, in some cases, even widen over time. Inequalities are also evident in teachers’ assessment of children’s various (non)cognitive skills (please see the graph below).

Table showing teachers' assessment of children's skills on school entry: differences by parental background in Scotland
















Source: Millennium Cohort Study, Teacher Survey (2006), Scottish sample, (own calculations)

Our work suggests that how often parents read to their children and the attendance of centre-based childcare play a role in explaining these differences. Moreover, a more stimulating learning environment and calm atmosphere at home, as well as living in smaller urban and in rural areas, and in owned or privately rented accommodation, are among the factors enabling some children from economically disadvantaged families to achieve above-average results despite their family circumstances.

In conversation with teachers, practitioners and (non)governmental representatives

In April this year, we held a joint event with the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh to discuss our research findings with representatives from local schools, voluntary organizations working on tackling poverty and inequalities among children, and from the Scottish Government. We have also been working with Pauline Lockhart, an actor and theatre-maker, who read extracts from her work in progress – Schooled. This play gives voice to Scottish pupils and teachers, past and present. Participants in the event engaged in a lively and thought-provoking conversation on the mechanisms through which the attainment gap comes about, and on potentials drivers of change.

What schools can and cannot do to reduce the attainment gap

Schools clearly have a key role to play in reducing inequalities. Passionate, motivated and well-trained teachers are crucial for effective learning in the classroom and can impact significantly on the future prospects of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, a shared issue among school professionals participating in our recent event was the need to be supported by other professional figures (psychologists, additional - needs specialists etc.) to be able to focus on the quality of the teaching provided. Moreover, it was suggested that incentives should be in place to recruit and retain highly motivated teachers in schools located in more deprived communities. Teachers also unanimously voiced the concern that it often feels as though the burden of closing the attainment gap is entirely their responsibility.  

“It takes a village to raise a child”

Further discussion at the event focused on the argument that the existence of a true support network, ‘the right person at the right time’, could make a huge difference for those children with a disadvantaged start. This includes parents but it should go beyond this, especially when parents themselves are under a lot of strain. Participants at the event were very much in favour of universal and subsidized access to early years care. The increase of the number of hours of free childcare for all children aged 3, and the extension of this right to children aged 2 from low-income families, pledged by the Scottish Government can contribute to reducing the initial disparities through the provision of a stimulating learning environment for all children before entering school. However, only a proper evaluation will be able to tell us if this is the case. In Scotland, initiatives to promote and support early parent-child activities such as Stay, Play and Learn, Bookbugs and PlayTalkRead were also praised. However, participants expressed the need for similar initiatives aimed at engaging parents as well as for supporting children learning and development also beyond the early years.

There is no shortcut to reducing the attainment gap. We, as a society, need to encourage a system that commits to a long-term, holistic approach to policies across health, childcare, social services, welfare, and employment, all focused on children’s wellbeing at different development stages. Research evidence and the experience of educational practitioners suggest that this would be the most promising route to close the attainment gap.

Find out more about our research on educational inequalities:

Education | Research Themes | Understanding Inequalities

If you have any questions, you can contact the authors by emailing understanding.inequalities@ed.ac.uk