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3 November 2015, 06:00
The Scottish Government's ability to close the education gap between rich and poor students has been questioned, with a commission saying it is "not persuaded'' the necessary strategies are in place.
The Commission for School Reform said while few would disagree with ministers' desire to tackle the issue, their policy priorities were "exceptionally ambitious'' and the timescale ``may well be unrealistic''.
Both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Education Secretary Angela Constance have made clear they want to see youngsters from deprived backgrounds doing as well as children from affluent communities.
In a new challenge paper to the government, the commission said: "While it is good to be ambitious, there is no evidence to suggest that what is being attempted is feasible.''
Commission chair Keir Bloomer, a former director of education, stated: "The Scottish Government are right to focus on the twin objectives of raising overall attainment and simultaneously closing the gap between the attainment of disadvantaged children and those from more affluent backgrounds.
"However, it is time for government to adopt clear strategies to achieve those valid ambitions.''
More than £100 million has been put aside to help schools in the most disadvantaged areas over the next four years via the Scottish Government's attainment fund.
The commission, which was set up by the think-tank Reform Scotland, said it ``seems likely that the government intends that Scottish education should be amongst the best in the world within at most 10 years'' while also making progress in closing the attainment gap.
It stated: "If Scotland is to become one of the world's best-performing systems within a small number of years, the current rate of improvement will have to be increased substantially.
"If, at the same time, the gap is to be narrowed without any adverse impact on the best-performing, the rate of improvement among the currently poorly-performing will need to be of a different order of magnitude to anything being achieved at present.''
Meeting the government's objectives will "call for much more effective mechanisms for bringing about change than those that have been employed in Scottish education up to the present time'', the paper said as it urged ministers to review current approaches.
It added that "admirable'' existing practices "have not delivered the pace of change required''.
The report said: "Government has set out policy priorities with which few people will disagree.
"However, they are exceptionally ambitious. Timescales may well be unrealistic.
"The potential tension between raising standards for all and boosting the prospects of disadvantaged young people do not seem to have been fully explored.
"The rate of improvement that will be required calls for a pace of change that has never previously been generated in Scottish education.
"The commission is not persuaded that the strategies and support mechanisms that will be needed for success are yet in place.
"Attention does not seem to have been given to developing effective change mechanisms.''
Mr Bloomer said: "In this, the first of a series of challenge papers, we want to prompt a new sense of urgency in Government thinking.
"We can transform our educational performance through concerted action to close the gap in attainment, drive up professional standards in teaching and empower schools to respond successfully to local educational needs.''
Scottish Conservative spokeswoman for young people Liz Smith said: "This is a stark message from some of Scotland's most-experienced and well-respected educationalists.
"They have been very blunt about the scale of the challenge facing the SNP which, in its eight years of government, has failed to address the serious issues affecting Scottish schools.''
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said: "Closing the attainment gap is an enormous challenge.
"Too many children are still leaving school unable to read and write.
"Disproportionately, these children are from more deprived backgrounds. The inadequate action from this SNP Government is failing those children most in need.
"The SNP's bureaucratic approach prevents many children who would benefit from targeted support getting the help they need.
"Lib Dem plans for a targeted pupil premium would ensure that children from more deprived backgrounds do not miss out, regardless of where they go to school.''
Scottish Labour opportunity spokesman Iain Gray said: "The SNP Government in Edinburgh want to be judged on their record - in education it is one to be ashamed of. We need to cut the gap between the richest and the rest in our classrooms.
"Scottish Labour would ask those earning more than #150,000 a year to pay a little more to establish a Fair Start fund.
"It'll mean £1,000 per head for the poorest pupils in Scotland - and we'll give the cash to headteachers, who know better how to spend the money than an SNP minister in Edinburgh.''
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Our commitment to close the attainment gap between children from the most and least deprived communities is generating discussion all across Scotland about how we might achieve this absolute priority for the Scottish Government.
"The contribution of ideas to this debate is welcome.
"This year, we launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge, backed by the #100 million Attainment Scotland Fund, to target intensive support for young people in some of Scotland's most-deprived communities.
"Our Access to Education fund has also seen #3 million invested over the past two years to support learning and raise attainment in schools across Scotland.
"We are also developing a National Improvement Framework so that we have the best evidence to see where we are succeeding and where we need to do more.''