Exclusive:Scottish high school league table 2023: many small-town schools in Scotland underperform, figures show

Small-town schools in Scotland are falling behind their urban and rural counterparts at exam time, exclusive analysis shows
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High schools in small towns across Scotland are struggling to send pupils off with the ‘gold standard’ of five or more Highers, NationalWorld analysis shows.

A third of small-town Scottish secondary schools are falling well below their individual attainment benchmarks set by the Scottish Government - a poorer performance than schools in either urban or rural areas.

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The Conservatives said the analysis was “deeply concerning”, while the Scottish Government said it recognised there needed to be “a more consistent and coherent approach to tackling any unwanted variation in performance” among schools.

The analysis comes as NationalWorld and its sister titles across Scotland publish the 2023 secondary school league table, comparing schools by the percentage of pupils who leave with at least five Highers, or equivalent qualifications. The league table is based on exam performance data published by the Scottish Government for the 2021/22 academic year.

League tables are often seen as a blunt instrument to measure exam performance by as they fail to take into account the types of pupil attending each school. 

As a result, the Scottish Government gives schools a ‘virtual comparator’ - a group of pupils from elsewhere in Scotland with the same characteristics as the pupils in the school, in terms of their gender, the number with additional support needs and societal factors such as deprivation levels. The attainment levels of this comparator group is then used as a benchmark to measure the school’s actual performance against. 

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Across Scotland, 41% of schools had more pupils getting five Highers than their virtual comparator, while 52% scored worse than their benchmark and the rest scored the same. But small-town schools performed particularly poorly, with almost three-quarters (73%) doing worse than their virtual comparator.

One-third (34%) of small-town schools fell behind their benchmark by at least five percentage points and just a tenth (11%) outperformed their benchmark by at least five percentage points.

Stephen Kerr MSP, Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for education, said: “It is deeply concerning to see that small town schools seem to be underperforming compared to their urban counterparts.

“This is a sad symptom of the SNP’s shambolic mismanagement of Scotland’s school system – which makes a mockery of Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that education was her government’s ‘number one’ priority – and all too typical of their habitual neglect of rural communities. This simply isn’t good enough.”

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A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “We recognise that there needs to be a more consistent and coherent approach to tackling any unwanted variation in performance which is why the Scottish Government is working in partnership with Education Scotland, COSLA and ADES to develop a joint approach to improving educational outcomes and experiences for children and young people.

“We know that the impact of the pandemic – compounded by the current cost of living crisis – means children and young people in all localities need our support now more than ever. That is why local authorities have set stretch aims for raising attainment and closing the poverty related attainment gap in 2022/23. These stretch aims will help tackle variation in progress across the system.

“The Scottish Government is determined to do all it can to ensure children and young people can reach their full potential, including a record investment of £1 billion over this parliamentary term in the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

“The most recent ACEL (Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence) statistics demonstrated a real recovery from the pandemic, with a record improvement over one year for primary pupils achieving the expected levels in numeracy and literacy.”

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