‘Cancel 2021 exams to avoid widening of attainment gap’

Researcher Barry Black said the poverty-related attainment gap will have widened since schools were forced to close.

Next year’s exam diet should be cancelled, a researcher has said, as he warned of a widening of the attainment gap.

Barry Black, of the University of Glasgow, said in a research paper that the poverty-related attainment gap – the difference in educational performance between the richest and poorest pupils – will have widened since schools were forced to close.

His report calls on the Scottish Government to push for the most disadvantaged children in Scotland to be prioritised for a return to school, as well as for them to be offered summer school programmes and one-to-one tuition to ensure their continued development.

Schools in Scotland have been closed to all pupils except those deemed vulnerable or the children of key workers – who can attend hub schools – since March 21 in a bid to control the spread of coronavirus.

The Scottish Government’s “route map” for easing the lockdown measures identified August 11 as the school reopening date, however, it was announced pupils will initially return part-time, with half of their learning done at home.

As well as school closures, the decision was taken to cancel this year’s exam diet, instead moving to a form of teacher moderation to decide grades.

The paper describes a similar move for next year’s exams as “sensible”, adding the 2020-21 session will be “like no other”.

Mr Black believes summer learning loss – a phenomenon whereby poorer children progress more slowly during summer holidays than their more affluent counterparts – paired with the inequalities faced in online learning will mean the attainment gap will widen in the next academic session.

The paper states access to the online classroom is harder for those who are less well off, particularly in accessing the internet.

The Scottish Government has committed £30m to provide equipment such as laptops to families in need, as well as promising online access.

Mr Black said: “There is a temptation to view lockdown and its potential impact on the most disadvantaged pupils as a one-time event which will have a negative impact that can be later rectified.

“However, the reality of what schooling will look like come August poses the same threat of widening the gap in attainment between the most and least deprived as lockdown itself.

“The summer learning loss effect, alongside the significant challenges lockdown and online learning have presented, means there is a likelihood that attainment, particularly of the most disadvantaged pupils, will be negatively affected.

“There is hope a new normal can emerge from this crisis but first we need to prevent the attainment gap from widening even further when August comes.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are committed to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, despite the huge challenges and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are providing local authorities and schools with flexibility to redirect resources aimed at closing the attainment gap to help mitigate the impacts of the crisis on our most disadvantaged families. This includes the recent announcement of #250 million for Pupil Equity Funding over the next two years.

“In addition, digital resources are being purchased to support children and families who do not have the equipment to access some aspects of home learning.

“Planning for the 2021 examination diet is under way. The Scottish Qualifications Authority will provide further advice to schools to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to capture, on an ongoing basis, the learning outcomes met by young people in the Senior Phase in school year 2020/21.

“This will provide a strong evidence base to support assessment and certification.

“Working with all partners on the Education Recovery Group, we will continue to consider a wide range of issues, including qualifications, and to support schools to provide high-quality education and support for the emotional and social wellbeing of all pupils.”

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