Our mission to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap remains central to our plans. That is why we have committed a record £200 million to the Scottish attainment challenge, including the introduction of a £20 million pupil equity funding premium for 2021-22, which emerged from the budget discussions and agreement with the Liberal Democrats. We continue to support our young people from low-income backgrounds with free school meals and a national minimum school clothing grant, and expansion of the free school meals provision was agreed in the budget with the Green party.
Our report on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap, which was published on 22 March, presents a strong body of evidence showing that good progress is being made towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the announcement of an additional £25 million to tackle poverty and inequality will not only further enhance the £100 Covid hardship payment for children and young people who receive free school meals, but enable support to be extended to children who receive free lunches in early learning and childcare settings?
Those provisions will be in place. They are part of the Government’s efforts to tackle child poverty in a number of areas—including through education expenditure and through the wider work that we take forward in collaboration with my Cabinet colleague Aileen Campbell—to ensure that we take a series of integrated measures to address the impact of child poverty, which, of course, has a significant bearing on the educational attainment of children and young people in Scotland. The provisions are part of the Government’s overall strategy to tackle the attainment gap.
Presiding Officer, I am uncertain about whether you will call members to ask further supplementaries on this question, but this is likely to be one of the last questions that you call me to answer. I extend my warmest wishes and grateful thanks to you for being a colleague over the past 22 years, particularly during the long sentence that we spent together on the Smith commission.
My apologies to the cabinet secretary for extending his sentence for slightly longer, but I promise that it will not be for too long.
For the whole of this parliamentary session, the Government has had the good will and support of the whole chamber for its top priority of closing the poverty-related attainment gap. This week’s Audit Scotland report shows that it is true, as the cabinet secretary has said, that the Government has invested hundreds of millions of pounds through the attainment Scotland fund and other funding to that end. However, the same report says:
“Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the ... Government’s aims.”
On reflection, why does the cabinet secretary think that the Government has made so little progress on closing that gap, which it called its “sacred responsibility”?
Presiding Officer, it is somewhat apposite that you have extended my handling of questions by bringing in another member of the Smith commission, who regularly bemoans the fact that I react in an uncharitable fashion to his participation on it. However, on his last day in Parliament, I will desist from such behaviour.
Mr Gray raised issues from the Audit Scotland report, which, as I told the Education and Skills Committee this morning, is a reasonable and fair report. It recounts the fact that progress has been made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap, but it also recognises that the challenges are stubborn.
The report highlights that progress has differed around the country by local authority area. That is a substantial issue that needs to be explored and which I will discuss with local authority partners, should the Government be returned at the election, to ensure that the lessons of good performance and good improvement that are being achieved in some parts of the country can be reflected in other parts of the country. That will enable the Government to intensify the work that we have always said would be a longer-term project and would last for more than one parliamentary session.
The key conclusion of the Audit Scotland report is that good progress has been made. The Government will build on that progress if it is re-elected in May.