No-one expected instant results in the Scottish Government’s drive to close the attainment gap in education, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has highlighted as her biggest priority for her administration.
And it is quite possible that any strategy embarked upon now might not bear dividends until the next term of government at Holyrood, or the one after that. There is unlikely to be a quick fix for the problem, although increased investment would help.
But having staked her reputation on improving significantly Scotland’s offering in education, Sturgeon needs to be able to point to evidence of progress, otherwise she is going to be pilloried. Her reputation could suffer lasting damage, which is the risk that is taken when offering the electorate a personal assurance of better times ahead.
John Swinney, her most capable minister and the go-to man here, faces an unenviable task. Meanwhile, he has several other responsibilities which will not allow him to devote all his time to education.
It’s tempting to have sympathy for Swinney, but criticism of his initial moves has been mounting, as we report today. A better indication of what he believes to be the problems, and how he intends to address them, would help give the impression that the matter is in good hands, even if the minister does not have all the answers. Building public confidence is a key part of a successful strategy, and it is not enough to point to the election result as evidence of a mandate. It should not be forgotten that many of those who voted SNP did so on the basis that they expected improvement in education.
This is an issue where the First Minister simply must deliver if her pledge is not going to backfire badly. It is too easy to say the right thing by admitting standards in education are unacceptable and declaring that this cannot continue. By far the harder task is to deliver a convincing and effective strategy. Months on from Sturgeon’s pledge to improve attainment, we’re still waiting to hear how it is to be done.