THE attainment gap is still alive and kicking.

Figures released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show that when compared to 2020, children from deprived backgrounds still have a far lower chance of reaching university or scoring well in exams. Indeed, the gap has slightly widened.

It’s an appalling reflection on a compassionate society – but really, who is surprised?

So long as Scotland is governed by a UK Government with the worst state benefits and most punitive approach to poverty in the western world, it can only partly influence the fate of children via devolved control of the education system.

Why Nicola Sturgeon declared she could eliminate a problem rooted in decades of Westminster policy is a mystery. And by the way, England’s not doing any better.

“The gap between private and state school A-level grades has grown to its widest in the modern era,” according to the Guardian. Some 70% of all entries from students at private schools got A* and A grades, compared with 39% of entries from comprehensives.

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Of course, 2020/21 was been an exceptional year thanks to the closure of schools, the disproportionate effect of that on poorer kids and the numbers who dropped out of school altogether. But some things don’t change.

The attainment gap is being discussed, as always, in terms of money, school focus, special funds, methods of measurement and (the inevitable) targets.

But if the under-achievement of working-class kids is primarily the product of bad housing, poverty and an unequal society – not something individual schools can easily turn around – how can it be tackled effectively without the full powers of independence?

For one thing, I’d love to hear Nicola Sturgeon make that argument. For another, I’d love to hear far more about the gap-narrowing measures Scotland could apply right now – more social equality and more play.

The National: Nicola Sturgeon

Equal countries don’t have better quota systems to get poor kids into university – they have none.

Instead, Nordic countries cut to the chase and reduce the income gap in the knowledge the educational attainment gap will follow. Dear old Scotland baulks at louping that tough hurdle with the tax-raising powers at its disposal – desiring equality, but evidently not that much, scared to dismantle the top-down, winner-takes-all outlook of Britain for a consciously equalising Nordic model.

So, we sit betwixt and between – using tests and quotas to patch up the predictable failings of the most unequal society in the OECD. And conducting an important debate about access to education, advantage, entitlement and equity with one important option off the table – independence.

And it will never get a mention so long as Scotland continues to feed the illusion that Holyrood can close the education gap with its current limited powers. Indeed, the divide is only likely to get worse.

Demand for coaching amongst primary and secondary school pupils almost doubled in Scotland between 2008-15. Did that prove academic standards are in decline or simply suggest that the fight for a university place is now so intense that parents believe any extra advantage is worth grabbing for their child? Even if that is producing a generation of homework drones.

Meanwhile, families from poorer areas of Edinburgh are apparently renting flats for six months in better catchment areas to get their children into good schools with a more certain path to university.

This has to change.

And the easiest transformation that could happen right now may seem the most counter intuitive – more play and a later school starting age.

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SCOTTISH kids don’t have the grounding in kindergarten that our European neighbours take for granted and the combination of less play and more early formal learning is leaving our kids singularly ill-equipped for formal education. Especially kids from deprived backgrounds.

In 2016, the educationist Sue Palmer began Upstart Scotland, a grassroots campaign for four years of kindergarten and a later school starting age for all Scottish children, to undo the “schoolification” that’s been a hallmark of British society since 1870 when Westminster chose an early school starting age to free mothers for work in factories. The wisdom of five as a starting age has been taken as gospel ever since.

But only 12% of countries in the world expect children to start school this young – and all are former British colonies. According to the OECD, Finland, Estonia and Switzerland are the three western nations with the best educational outcomes. All have a play-based kindergarten stage before their children start formal learning at the age of seven.

The Estonians have combined some powerful policies – a well-funded, universal kindergarten stage and digital transformation – to great effect. Schools have always had autonomy and pupils have free school meals, transport and no external exams until the final years of secondary school. But the vital Estonian twist was put in place 30 years ago when the country’s digital revolution was launched – not in the workplace but in the classroom.

Today 70% of kindergartens have access to robotics and almost every school delivers its entire curriculum using digital technology – which helped Estonians take a relatively short-lived Covid lockdown in their stride. This approach has produced generations of digitally savvy, entrepreneurial youngsters, including the brains behind success stories like Skype and Bolt – even though Estonia is still a low wage economy with a GDP lower than Scotland’s.

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The Scottish Government does have a National Play Strategy, launched in 2013. But there’s no statutory duty on councils to provide that play, and faced with multi-million-pound cuts, it’s not surprising that most councils view play as an optional extra . Even though the problem-solving, communication and team-building learned through play are the soft skills employers actually need.

Yet in Scotland, despite recent advances providing childcare for two-to-four-year-olds in the most deprived areas, there’s been no questioning of the deep-seated belief that school must start at five and children cannot have spelling, reading, writing and controlled behaviour drummed into them early enough. This simply flies in the face of nature.

According to scientists like David Whitbread of Cambridge University, “Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

In other words, if you stifle play you stunt personal growth.

So, what about a radical change to our education system instead of this annual disappointment-fest? Experts broadly agree about the benefits of more play, less stress and later schooling, to improve educational attainment and guard against mental health problems in later life. A play-based kindergarten stage has even more to offer after 18 months of Covid, which has piled stress on to young children, especially those growing up in poverty.

But all political parties remain adamant that individual schools and pet projects can transform engrained inequalities all on their own.

They can’t. Of course, schools can be better or worse at the remedial work needed to help the worst affected children stumble through. But if we really want to transform outcomes, we need political consensus that inequality creates the pre-conditions for under-achievement and that damage is done before kids even reach school.

So, let’s pose the attainment gap question differently.

How can Scotland tackle the equality gap that fuels under-achievement?

And who thinks five is a better school starting age than four years of play-based kindergarten and a later school start at seven?

Any chance of that as an early debate when the Scottish Parliament resumes?