Euan McColm: Why don’t voters take Sturgeon at her word on education?

It’s the issue on which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has invited us to judge her leadership.

Last week's report released by the government revealed exam performance in some subjects had fallen significantly. Picture: David Davies/PA
Last week's report released by the government revealed exam performance in some subjects had fallen significantly. Picture: David Davies/PA

In a major speech, months after she took office, Sturgeon was adamant. “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 do?”

The First Minister committed her government to closing the schooling gap between affluent and poorer areas. Pupils would have the same opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless of their personal circumstances.

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The danger of asking people to judge you is that they may feel justified in doing so. Anyone taking up Sturgeon’s invitation to scrutinise her record on education will find much to criticise.

Last week, it emerged that the numbers of Scottish pupils passing core Higher subjects fell significantly – in some cases by as much as 10 per cent – last year. It is difficult to disagree with Scottish Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene’s analysis that there are now clearly major and systematic problems within our education system.

If a single aspect of education was reserved to Westminster, the SNP would be calling debate after debate at the Scottish Parliament about the state of the system. Sturgeon and her Education Secretary, John Swinney, would be leading the charge against the UK government’s pernicious impact on Scotland’s schools. “Look!” they would scream. “Look at how Westminster holds back our children.”

Inconveniently for the First Minister, she and her government are entirely responsible for the state of our education system. There is no Westminster bogeyman to blame, no political mileage to be made.

And so the Scottish Government prefers not to encourage debate on the subject.

When it comes to education, Swinney adopts a defensive, things-are-being-done position whenever opposition parties have the wit to raise questions, but beyond platitudes there’s nothing to convince that he knows how to turn things around.

Across the country, there are stories of schools under intolerable pressure: In Dundee, the system struggles to cope with 200 fewer teachers than were employed when the SNP came to power; in Edinburgh, pupils routinely attend school for only four and a half days a week.

Between 2010-2018, the SNP cut more than £400 million from the education budget. The loss of this colossal sum has had a devastating impact across the country, with specialist teaching roles cut and staffing numbers depleted across subjects.

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Sturgeon may say that her commitment to raising standards in education is all-consuming, but at the same time she has been responsible for imposing savage cuts on schools.

But the SNP’s attack on pupils – especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds – goes deeper than cuts to schools. A prolonged council tax freeze under this government has been translated into savage cuts across services upon which poorer families, in particular, depend. The slicing of services from addiction support to financial advice undermines families where the stability children need if they are to have a chance of thriving at school is often fragile, at best.

Those close to the First Minister insist she is sincere in her commitment to improving schools and driving up achievement. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

But all the sincerity in the world can’t compensate for a lack of teachers.

Sturgeon wishes, right now, to speak of nothing but the subject of independence. The break-up of the UK, after all, is the glittering prize she entered politics in order to pursue.

But those voters – the majority of Scots – who remain resistant to the idea of independence may feel that if the First Minister could expend even a tenth of the energy she devotes to the constitutional battle on the matter of education, the system might be in considerably better shape.

It is frequently said, these days, that the SNP government benefits from the poor quality of its opposition at Holyrood and, perhaps, there is some truth in this. Labour, especially, has struggled to connect with voters in recent years. But would a higher calibre of opponents be enough to damage the SNP, right now?

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Among those committed to the idea of Scottish independence, the Scottish Government can do little wrong. Any and all failings can be blamed upon the Union. If only Scotland was “free” then everything would be different.

And so we find ourselves in a situation where our government is failing Scotland’s children, badly, yet a sizeable minority – enough to keep the SNP in power at Holyrood – either don’t care about the nationalists’ inadequacies or don’t believe they exist.

During a spiky exchange in Holyrood last year, Labour MSP Jenny Marra told Sturgeon that the attainment gap between kids from rich and poor backgrounds was, indeed, closing. However, this was not because those from more deprived backgrounds were doing better but because those from more affluent backgrounds were doing worse. This accurate and damning analysis is the sort of thing that should cost the SNP votes. In the current political climate, it barely makes a mark.

The SNP came to power at Holyrood in 2007 after convincing voters that it could be trusted to deliver “competent” government. There would be nothing flashy, nothing revolutionary, just good, sensible leadership.

For a number of years, the party got away with failing to reform services, from education to the NHS. A smattering of giveaways – free tuition fees for a limited number of Scots students, free prescriptions, the abolition of parking charges at hospitals – coupled with a risk-averse approach to the development of policy helped the nationalists create the impression that they were both progressive and trustworthy.

That lack of engagement across the policy agenda is at the heart of the crisis in Scotland’s schools.

If voters took Nicola Sturgeon at her word and judged her on the state of Scotland’s schools, she’d be out of a job at the next election.