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19 June 2014, 06:20
The gap between the lowest and highest performing schools has increased in more than half of councils, the public spending watchdog has found.
The Accounts Commission said there was "significant variation in attainment between individual councils, schools and groups of pupils''.
There is also "a considerable gap between Scotland and the top performing countries''.
While deprivation "continues to have a large influence on attainment'', this does not tell the whole story, according to an Accounts Commission report on school education.
Councils' spending on education fell by 5% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2012/13, largely as a result of employing fewer staff.
The report said: "There are significant differences in attainment between pupils from deprived areas and those from more affluent areas.
"However, some schools have achieved better attainment results than their levels of deprivation would indicate, suggesting that the gap between the lowest and highest performing schools cannot be wholly attributed to different levels of deprivation. Closing the gap between schools is likely to be critical to improving overall attainment levels.''
Accounts Commission chair Douglas Sinclair said: "It is vital that councils close the gap between the lowest and highest performing pupils. There is no single solution for improving educational attainment and many of the factors are linked.
"There are many other skills that children need to succeed in life. As the report makes clear, there is a need for councils to understand broader educational performance and look beyond current exams.''
Douglas Chapman, education, children and young people spokesman at council umbrella group Cosla, said much of the report is constructive with "encouraging findings''.
"The report notably outlines that attainment levels in our schools have improved over the last 10 years against all 10 attainment measures examined,'' he said.
"We know we must do more to close the gap between our best performing children and those who have the ability to do even better.
"Achieving that while we see reducing education budgets is a challenge but councils are becoming increasingly innovative in how to best use the resources we do have to best effect.''
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: "This report highlights the significant real terms cuts to education budgets over the past few years.
"As the report states, this is a continuing problem and so schools are likely to continue to face serious challenges as they endeavour to deliver a consistently high level of provision at a time of declining resources.
"In particular, as the report again highlights, there is a substantial additional workload impact on teachers as a result of reduced budgets and declining staff numbers and this can have long-term repercussions for increased sickness absence and low staff morale.
"The report also touches on the damaging impact that poverty has on pupil attainment. This is an issue on which the EIS is actively campaigning, and simply must be addressed in order to provide all young people with a fair chance to reach their academic potential.''
Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said: "Deprivation is a strong factor in attainment performance and existing measures are not fully capturing a child's performance throughout their time at school. We must do everything we can to address these issues to ensure the best start in life for all of Scotland's children.''
Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon said: "If this gap in performance is not significantly reduced, it is going to continue to cause a number of social and economic problems in the future.
"And as the report states, it can't just be down to deprivation - there is clearly an issue of aspiration and ambition in some schools, and a need for positive support and opportunities.
"There is a danger a postcode lottery in pupil attainment will be created here, while our global competitors have addressed their problems and raced ahead.''
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said: "The highest achieving group of S4 pupils across Scotland had an average tariff score five times that of children who are looked after by a council but are living at home.
"Coming only days after the Scottish Government's own figures showed a 20% gap in positive destinations between looked after school leavers and all school leavers, it is clear that much more still needs to be done to improve support for Scotland's looked after children.''