Leaders: Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge could come back to haunt her

The pledge to tackle the attainment gap may come back to haunt Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Steven Brown

The pledge to tackle the attainment gap may come back to haunt Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Steven Brown

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CLOSING the attainment gap is a laudable aim but government faces testing times ahead if it fails to keep its promise on education

The fall-out from yesterday’s First Minister’s Questions gives further evidence of how tough a challenge Nicola Sturgeon has set herself over closing the attainment gap in education.

Having earlier this year staked her personal reputation on achieving improvement in education, Ms Sturgeon has found herself under attack over results for 2013-15, and has also come under fire for apparently backtracking over the publication of results of new national tests.

On the first point of attack, Ms Sturgeon admits that figures showing deterioration in performance in maths are “not acceptable”. She has said this before, when she said she would make education her top priority.

On the follow-up attack, she is damned if she does publish, damned if she doesn’t. And having just appointed a new education secretary, a change in strategy is a reasonable expectation. John Swinney was not moved to the education brief to keep things ticking over.

But here we have clear examples of the problems that the First Minister has created by promising to raise standards. Until she achieves that, she will be under constant attack from rivals, who are entitled to hold her pledge to account at every opportunity. Yesterday, she said that the whole parliament should get behind a national priority to cut the attainment gap, rather than pursuing individual agendas. Consensus politics was her suggestion after the Holyrood election failed to produce an overall majority for the SNP, but so far, that idea has not caught on.

And to achieve improvement, she will require a means of measuring future standards against past levels. School-by-school data could enable this, but while opponents want this information to be made public so that struggling schools can be identified and given support, one leading union says publication would lead to the creation of league tables, which it believes causes more damage than good. But if we are serious about improving performance, we should not be scared of league tables. Without convincing metrics, we do not have the evidence of progress required in this area.

That said, it should be straightforward enough to use the collected data to identify which schools need help without putting full test results in the public domain. But whatever happens, the for-and-against arguments are poles apart, again showing Ms Sturgeon is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The First Minister is to be applauded for acknowledging failures in education and pledging to put them right, but she will wait long enough for anyone to agree with her eventual strategy. She has to start producing evidence of improved performance, and that will not happen overnight. She should prepare for many more bruising encounters over the state of Scottish education.

Closing the attainment gap would be a career-defining achievement for any politician. The risk Ms Sturgeon has taken with her pledge is that a failure to close that gap would be just career-defining.

Ensuring that the beat goes on

So, should an on-duty police officer in full uniform sing a karaoke song in a Glasgow bar?

That’s what Sergeant Jon Harris did in the Waterloo Bar in Glasgow after police had been called to an incident. After the incident had been dealt with, he was asked to sing a song and he obliged with a decent rendition of karaoke classic I will survive. This being the 21st century it was of course videoed.

Some will say that under the financial strictures facing the police, this was not the best use of police time, and it should have been spent on some more pressing matter.

There are some who would say that it undermines the dignity and authority of the uniform and it might lessen the respect in which the force should be held. They might add that Police Scotland has a poor PR perception following recent high-profile failures and needs to be seen as chastened and penitent.

But they would all be wrong. Sgt Harris should be commended by his superiors for doing exactly the right thing.

The first point to make in all this was that the incident had been dealt with. The professional policing aspect had been achieved and taken care of.

Another key element to this is the fact that Sgt Harris is from the city centre community policing team. This is community policing at its best, showing a sense of humour and a willingness to get involved and turning what was a tense situation into one where everyone was enjoying themselves. Police Scotland has got a PR problem, but officers like Sgt Harris are exactly what is needed to improve it.

But he might want to work on his choreography if he’s going to make a habit of it.

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