Reading and writing standards and the poverty-related attainment gap will have been negatively impacted during the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland’s education secretary has warned.
Shirley-Anne Somerville said closing the attainment gap was the government’s “key long-term ambition” but said progress had been affected by the pandemic.
Literacy standards are also expected to be worse than previous years when primary school achievement data is published in December.
Somerville confirmed funding of up to £200m to help children from the poorest backgrounds would continue for the next year ahead, but Scottish Labour described the announcement as “callous cuts”.
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, the Education Secretary said: “We also recognise the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on the most disadvantaged in our society.”
She told MSPs: “I anticipate we may see evidence of the impact of the pandemic on educational attainment.
“It is not for me to presume what that evidence will show, however given the evidence from our own equity audit, we may well see the proportion of young people achieving the relevant level in nursery and literacy reduce in comparison to previous years, as well as an impact on the poverty-related attainment gap.”
Somerville added: “Although progress has been made in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, I am clear that the pace of progress must recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic and it must increase.”
She also indicated a desire to “reduce the burden” teachers face and added that she does not want them “tied up in bureaucracy”.
Explaining how the Scottish Government planned to improve the attainment gap, Ms Somerville said headteachers would have “significant additional funding, with up to £130 million of pupil equity funding available to support the most disadvantaged children”.
A total of £43m will also be given to Scottish councils to help schools try to close the attainment gap and to “support education recovery”.
But Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra said the announcement amounted to “callous cuts” which he described as “grotesque and intolerable and it almost defies belief”.
He said “This policy decimates education funding for the poorest children in the nine poorest local authorities in Scotland.
“These children have suffered most in the pandemic, they’ve seen their life chances weakened and so is the case again today.”
Mr Marra went on to say the leader of one of the nine councils currently in receipt of attainment challenge funding told him they would not be able to afford the planned increase of 120 members of staff and asked what Ms Somerville would say to staff “whose posts she has just cut”.
In response, the education secretary said: “We have worked very closely with local government… and this change that we are making to local authorities is supported by Cosla, so I presume all the criticism that Michael Marra has just directed towards me is also directed towards Cosla leaders.”
She added: “We absolutely do recognise, as do our colleagues in local government, that poverty exists in every local authority in Scotland and that’s exactly why we’ve taken the decision that we have.”
Scottish Tory education spokesman Oliver Mundell said the First Minister had “broken her promise” to reduce the attainment gap, adding: “Nothing the SNP do to rehash the same failing initiatives can rewrite history.”
He continued: “Teachers, pupils, their parents and carers all know that simply throwing money around the system while ignoring the real challenges facing our schools is never going to work.”
Somerville said she “fundamentally disagreed” with Mr Mundell’s statement, saying that some progress has been made in reducing the attainment gap.
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Willie Rennie said: “The SNP government has lost its way on transforming Scotland’s education system and fiddling around with the challenge fund is hardly the bold action we need.
“If the Cabinet Secretary believes these measures will make a difference, she should be able to tell Scotland by which year the poverty-related attainment gap will be closed completely.”