The gulf between the number of wealthy and poor school-leavers in Scotland who go to university grew as the number of teenagers finding work after school plunged during the Covid pandemic, according to official figures.

Scottish government statistics showed that nearly two-thirds of school leavers (62.6 per cent) from the richest communities went to university last year compared to just over a quarter (27 per cent) of those from the poorest.

The difference between the two was the largest recorded since the 2014/15 academic year and has grown since 2016, when Nicola Sturgeon asked voters to judge her on her success in closing the wealth-related attainment gap.

Although there was a 2.5 per cent rise in the number of deprived school-leavers winning a university place, this was dwarfed by a 5.4 per cent increase among the wealthiest children.

It  also emerged that the number of teenagers finding work after school reached its lowest level for a decade last year as the pandemic triggered the deepest recession in centuries.

The overall gap between the proportion of rich and poor school-leavers who ended up in a "positive follow-up destination" – college, university, training or a job – closed by only 0.1 points last year.

The proportion of the poorest children meeting this target fell 0.7 points compared to the previous year, but a 0.8 point drop was recorded for the wealthiest school-leavers.

Overall, 92.2 per cent of school-leavers last year were deemed to have been in a "positive follow-up destination" by April this year, down slightly from 92.9 per cent the previous year. University was the most popular choice, with 42.9 per cent ending up in higher education – the largest figure recorded since comparable records began in 2009/10.

‘Inequality in Scottish education made worse by pandemic’

However, the proportion of youngsters who went into work nosedived to a record low, from 28 per cent in 2018/19 to 21.3 per cent now. At the same time, the proportion who were unemployed increased from 5.8 per cent to 6.8 per cent.

Jamie Hepburn, the higher education, further education, youth employment and training minister, said: "I am pleased that the proportion of young people in a follow-up positive destination is still at a high level, and a record high proportion are in higher education nine months after the end of the school year.

"However, 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."

In her first major Holyrood speech following the May 2016 election, Ms Sturgeon said: "I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission not just of this government or even this parliament, but of the country as a whole."

But an independent report by the Auditor General in March found that only "limited progress" had been made overall, and in last month’s election Ms Sturgeon said ending child poverty was her new "national mission".

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: "Today’s statistics have underlined the deep inequality in Scottish education that has been made worse by the pandemic. With pupils from the most deprived areas still less likely to access higher education, it is clear that much more must be done to tackle the inequality in our education system."

Beatrice Wishart, the Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said: "The Scottish government has failed to make a serious dent in closing the attainment gap, and now it is failing those who want to go straight from school into a job."