Nicola Sturgeon once asked to be judged on education. Six years on, the verdict is damning – John McLellan
Six years ago, before Brexit, before Covid, before her civil servants and law officers were screwing up the Alex Salmond inquiries, Nicola Sturgeon chose the Wester Hailes Education Centre to lay out her top priority.
“Excellence in education is essential to our prosperity, competitiveness, well-being, to our overall success as a nation,” she said. “I want to make clear, beyond any doubt, the intention of my government to ensure that Scotland’s proud educational traditions are renewed and refreshed for the modern age, so that they stand, not as a symbol of our past, but as the hallmark of our future.
“Let me be clear, I want to be judged on this… If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to?”
So as the First Minister laps up the adulation this week, despite the Salmond Affair being one of the most sordid episodes in SNP history and the worst example of obstruction and maladministration in 22 years of devolution, what’s happened to her Number One commitment?
The pandemic obviously had a massive impact on education and last year can be written off as far as tracking underlying progress is concerned, but that still leaves five years to examine.
Conveniently, an international report into the quality of Scottish education sits locked away in Education Secretary John Swinney’s safe, marked “Do not open until after the election”, but there is no escaping the conclusions of Audit Scotland’s “Improving outcomes for young people through school education” report published this week.
“The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19,” it said. “Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the Scottish government’s aims. Improvement needs to happen more quickly and there needs to be greater consistency across the country.”
Inconsistency was highlighted by the First Minister in 2015 but, six years on, with millions pumped into the National Improvement Framework unveiled in that speech, the difference is minimal.
According to Audit Scotland, in 2018-19 the number of school pupils in the poorest areas gaining five or more awards at Level 5 was an astonishing 36.2 per cent below those in the least deprived areas, but the problems start much earlier. “The poverty-related attainment gap, in terms of expected levels of literacy and numeracy, is also evident at primary school level and early secondary school level, and is reducing only slightly,” said the report.
It also found spending per pupil had no correlation to outcomes, and “a wide variation in education performance across councils, with evidence of worsening performance on some indicators in some councils”, suggesting a failure of co-ordination in a centralised approach which has been running for six years.
This is no partisan, politically-driven report which the SNP can rubbish like the parliamentary inquiry into the disastrous Salmond investigation, but a dispassionate, independent assessment of progress in what was supposed to be Ms Sturgeon’s main aim.
“I want to be able to say, with confidence, that there is no better place in the world to be educated than here in Scotland,” she said in 2015. Can she honestly now say that goal is meaningfully closer? Audit Scotland suggests her neck should be on the line.