NICOLA Sturgeon said she would put her ‘neck on the line’ over closing the pupil attainment gap — so where’s her P45?
Her flagship pledge to ‘substantially eliminate’ the postcode lottery in state education in a decade was quietly dropped last week, amid the ScotRail furore.
One policy disaster took the spotlight away from another — but the ignominious end of the First Minister’s schools campaign is her most shameful failure.
It was a personal crusade, a ‘defining mission’; ultimately though, it was beyond her, and anyway she’s far too busy wasting time on the push for another referendum.
Tomorrow (WEDS), Miss Sturgeon becomes Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister, but after years of cover-ups and weapons-grade spin, there is one truth that not even her spin doctors can suppress.
For all of its progressive credentials, the SNP has failed children in the most deprived households, fobbing them off with soundbites — then giving up when it got too tough.
Miss Sturgeon had pledged to eliminate the gap between the best and worst-performing schools in her 2016 programme for government, which said it should be ‘a yardstick by which the people of Scotland can measure our success’.
The SNP’s 2016 programme for government stated: ‘It is the defining mission of this Government to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
‘We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.
‘That is a yardstick by which the people of Scotland can measure our success.’
The usual excuses were trotted out after Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville ditched the timetable for closing the attainment gap — which is really more of a yawning chasm.
Covid is the culprit — naturally the pandemic is also said to be at the root of the ScotRail driver shortages — as learning from home, for those who were lucky enough to get the hardware and the virtual lessons, was another major obstacle in the path of educational reform.
Yet before last year’s Scottish election, public spending watchdog Audit Scotland said the gap ‘remained wide’, seven years after Miss Sturgeon was appointed First Minister.
Last week Miss Somerville refused to give an ‘arbitrary date’ for closing the gap, while reaffirming that getting rid of it was still the SNP Government’s goal — presumably whenever it finds the time to get round to it.
At Higher level, attainment at A-C level was 7.9 per cent higher in schools within the least deprived areas in 2021, up from 6.5 per cent the previous year.
But performance at grade A was 22.1 per cent higher in least deprived areas compared to the most deprived, which was the widest gap in five years and higher than the 20.2 per cent seen in 2020.
The disparity at A-C level also widened at National 5s between 2020 and 2021, from 7.9 per cent to 9 per cent, and at Advanced Higher, from 3 per cent to 5.5 per cent.
Back in January, the SNP’s own failed schools quango, Education Scotland, said the drive to tackle the gap was destined to fail — perhaps one of the few correct predictions it’s ever made.
Sadly, it took another four months for government to catch up and admit its quangocrats were on the money — and the admission came after the local government elections earlier this month.
Education Scotland said the ‘pace of progress has not yet been sufficient’, while its bosses also questioned what their own purpose was, and how they could address problems with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) — unsurprisingly, there weren’t any convincing answers.
An OECD review last year found a ‘lack of clarity’ in the CfE about the importance of knowledge and some evidence that what pupils were being taught was ‘too limited to adequately prepare [them] for academic studies’.
In 2019, the year before Covid appeared in the UK, a global report found that Scottish pupils lag behind those in Latvia, Slovenia and Estonia in maths — and are outperformed by children in England.
There is little doubt that the pandemic has played a part in disrupting the SNP’s progress towards addressing inequality in schools, but it was foundering before then.
The problem was not that the promise was made — and most education experts believed it was a challenge that would be incredibly tough to meet — but that not nearly enough was done to turn it into reality.
And now that it has come apart at the seams, amid a blizzard of weak excuses, Miss Sturgeon is going nowhere, despite her ‘neck on the line’ vow back in 2015.
The near-implosion of the newly nationalised rail network last week meant many might have missed out on this pivotal moment in Miss Sturgeon’s political career — effectively the end of the only serious pledge she has made that had nothing to do with the constitution.
We have reached an extraordinary juncture in our politics when one monumental failure is used to try and bury another — but then the SNP is adept at such cynical manoeuvring.
And there are parallels between the ScotRail and the education crises, as both are characterised by attempted blame-shifting — and a heavy dose of denial (the same goes for the ferries row).
The Nationalists have tried to argue that nationalisation was going swimmingly — even as rail services were about to be slashed by a third.
For many years, the SNP has also maintained that any suggestion of a dip in classroom standards was little more than a Unionist conspiracy.
Yet even by its low standards, it’s still something of a feat for the SNP to have taken over public ownership of the railway and then, within seven weeks, for ScotRail to tweet, as it did yesterday, that customers should actively give it a wide berth — and ‘make their own arrangements’.
It’s harder, of course, and certainly more expensive, to make your own arrangements when it comes to education.
Many will have made the switch to private schools (and a lot of them will be agonising over how to afford it as the cost of living soars).
In the meantime, the real losers are children, particularly those in poorer households, who will leave school without the skills to survive in the workplace — or have already left.
Their futures were the subject of a gamble by a First Minister who never really believed she would succeed, and guessed that she could wriggle off the hook when she failed to live up to her empty promises.
Don’t buy the self-serving waffle of the SNP and its apologists: the lesson of the past 15 years is that your child’s education matters far less to this government than tearing Scotland out of the UK — the only ‘defining mission’ it has ever cared about.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 24, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant