The Scottish Government has suffered a parliamentary defeat over education after MSPs backed opposition claims the administration is “failing” pupils, teachers and parents.
MSPs voted 63 to 62 at Holyrood in support of a Scottish Labour motion to that effect as the party used its debating time to pile pressure on Education Secretary John Swinney, who has delayed his planned reforms to the sector.
The motion stated that “many teachers have lost confidence” in the official bodies Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and also that “disappointing” international figures show “a decline in reading, maths and science scores in Scotland”.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made education and closing the attainment gap one of her top priorities during this parliament.
Pressure has been mounting on the SNP administration over the issue, with education dominating First Minster’s Questions last week and much of the day’s proceedings at Holyrood on Wednesday.
Following the narrow vote, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale tweeted: “SNP defeated again on Education record in the @scotparl tonight - sooner or later they will have to listen to the will of Parliament.”
During the Labour-led debate, the party accused the Scottish Government of presiding over a decade of failure on education.
Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said Mr Swinney should ditch his reforms entirely and instead “invest properly in schools” and address the teacher shortage.
Labour also highlighted staff levels and resources for schools, claiming since the SNP came to power in 2007 teacher numbers have fallen by 4,000 and local government budgets have been cut by £1.5 billion since 2011.
Mr Swinney described the motion as “pathetically miserable” and “disgraceful”.
The debate followed confirmation that the Education Bill, which was originally meant to be published early in 2017, will be published “some time during 2017” as Mr Swinney looks over some 1,100 responses to a school governance review.
The review proposes more powers for headteachers in a major shake-up of the way schools are run.
Mr Gray said what schools actually need is more resources, teachers and time.
“Failure to deliver it is the defining characteristic of the SNP decade in charge of education,” he said.
“Don’t delay your reform programme, Education Secretary. Ditch it now and start investing properly in schools.”
Mr Swinney said he “utterly refuted” the characterisation of Scottish education by Labour.
“The government has set out in the national improvement framework, an agenda for strengthening Scottish education from the foundations that we have.
“I am first to accept ... that there are challenges that exist within Scottish education and there is an opportunity for political parties in this Parliament to work with the government in taking forward the agenda and contributing to the agenda.
“What concerns me about the characterisation of Scottish education from Mr Gray today is the unwillingness to acknowledge the strength of performance that has been achieved.
“Whether that’s the 30% increase in Higher passes since 2007 or the increase to 93.3% of positive destinations of young people leaving education, or the fact that nine out of 10 young people from deprived communities are now continuing in education.”
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith pointed to the international figures as she described the challenges facing the sector as “extensive”.
She told MSPs: “We also know we have problems in teacher recruitment ... and we learnt last week that we have serious shortages in key subjects like English and maths. That’s a serious worry for Scottish education.”
Green MSP Ross Greer, a member of Holyrood’s Education Committee, criticised Government plans for standardised assessments and the “deeply unnecessary” governance review.
Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, who sits on the same committee, proposed that education needs “a change to the culture of conformity”.