The proportion of pupils finding a job on leaving school has reached a record low, with the drop linked to the impact of Covid-19 on the labour market.
The level of school leavers entering the workplace fell to 16.2 per cent in 2019-20 – a drop of 6.7% on the previous year and the lowest figure on record.
Scottish Government figures also revealed that, overall, the percentage of pupils going on to work, training, college or university dropped from 95% to 93.3% year on year.
This drop was worse for those from the most deprived backgrounds, meaning a bigger percentage of pupils in the wealthiest areas had gone on to a positive destination three months after leaving school. This gap has increased from 5.5% in 2018-19 to 6.3% last year.
The figures – which come after last year’s exams were cancelled and teacher estimates used for grades instead – also showed that the proportion of school leavers in college or university is at a record high, with 72.2% continuing in education compared to 67.6% in 2018-19.
However, there remains a stark divide at university level, where more than twice as many pupils from the richest backgrounds gained a place compared to those from the poorest areas.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said it was “heartening” to see so many young people going on to positive destinations despite the challenges of Covid-19.
“This year’s statistics clearly highlight the impact of the pandemic on young people, with a sizeable decrease in those entering employment reflecting the limited opportunities in the labour market,” he said.
“We are providing direct support to those affected through the Young Person’s Guarantee which gives every 16 to 24 year old a job, placement, training or volunteering opportunity.
“Closing the poverty-related attainment gap and giving every young person the chance to fulfil their full potential, regardless of their background, remains our defining mission.
“This commitment is a long-term one, and we know the closure of schools and the cancellation of last year’s exams due to COVID-19 has impacted our progress and made that task harder.
“While official measures of the attainment gap rose slightly over the year, the proportion of leavers from the most deprived areas gaining one pass or more at a given level or better rose at most SCQF levels and the attainment gap is much smaller than it was in 2009-10.
“We have committed over £300 million in education recovery over this year and next, including to recruit additional teachers and support staff and address digital exclusion. and I am determined to continue to support our young people through these unprecedented times.”
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Mr Swinney added that the figures reveal increases in the proportion of school leavers gaining one pass or more at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.
Scottish Labour claimed the data showed that the SNP is failing Scotland’s young people and “entrenching inequality”.
The party’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The news that fewer pupils are leaving school to go on to positive destinations makes a mockery of the SNP’s alleged focus on education and underlines the damage done by John Swinney’s mishandling of the pandemic.
“These figures may well be the early signs of the impact of the pandemic on the life prospects of our young people, but the truth is the SNP has been failing our young people for years. The figures also make it clear that it is young people from our poorer communities that are the hardest hit.
“With the number of leavers entering the workplace plummeting, it is clear that much more needs to be done to support pupils who do not choose to pursue further or higher education.
“It is time the SNP government stopped talking about independence referendums and started telling us how they intend to build a recovery which will secure a future for Scotland’s next generation