Education in Scotland: After SNP gives up on its 'defining mission' to close 'poverty-related attainment gap' by 2026, I feel ashamed – Brian Wilson

The Scottish Government loves its little ceremonies. Every organisation which gets a pound of public money can expect to have a minister along to have his or her picture taken.

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/pool/PA)
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/pool/PA)

Yet really important landmarks like the burial of “defining missions” go unrecognised. So let us lay a metaphorical wreath to mark what Holyrood’s education committee heard this week – and its implications for the disadvantaged children of Scotland for a generation to come.

It fell to Shirley-Anne Somerville, as John Swinney’s successor, to tell the committee that the commitment to “substantially eliminate” the “poverty-related attainment gap” by 2026 has been formally abandoned with no new “arbitrary date” for completion.

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In 2016, Ms Sturgeon’s programme for government declared this to be “the defining mission” of her administration and “a yardstick by which the people of Scotland can measure our success”. Well, in that at least she was right. The “measure” is one of abject failure.

Not only has there been no progress but outcomes are now significantly worse. Attainment in literacy and numeracy has declined in all age groups since 2016 and there are no prizes for guessing that the brunt has not been borne in the leafy suburbs but in places where disadvantage is piled upon disadvantage.

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The literacy statistics show that 80.7 per cent of primary pupils in the most affluent areas reached the expected standard, compared to 56 per cent from the poorest backgrounds, the widest gap on record.

Four-fifths isn’t great by international standards but just over half is disastrous for an essential building block – the ability to read and write – of future learning.

Let me be fair. I had no expectation that the “poverty-related attainment gap” would be “substantially eliminated” by 2026 as Sturgeon claimed in the interests of a political headline. That is because I recognise how tough the challenge is and the inter-generational forces to be broken down in order to achieve anything approaching equality of opportunity or outcomes.

It’s 25 years since I was Scottish education minister pre-devolution and became a total convert to the principles of early intervention, so there is nothing new about the challenge or shame in recognising it. The only shame lies in paying lip-service to its significance without then accepting the absolute moral and political obligation to address it.

You have to throw the entire kitchen sink at breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage but with the right inputs the outcomes can be spectacular. But it cannot be one budgetary sub-heading fighting for attention in a climate of council cuts. It really does have to be the “defining mission” of educational priorities, otherwise – as is now confirmed – nothing changes.

It is widely recognised that Scotland is caught in a state of political inertia, based around the constitutional divide with everything else subordinated to it. We have a devolved government which either has little enthusiasm for acting radically on anything else or a vested interest in demonstrating how little can be achieved through devolution, rather than how much.

A tragic by-product of this false political dichotomy is that any movement towards deep-rooted social change is on permanent hold. There is an economic, educational and social underclass just as much as in Mrs Thatcher’s hey-day yet the powers and resources exist to make a real difference for Scotland. Look again at these “poverty-related attainment” statistics and ask why they are not being better used?

I am ashamed to live in a society where barely half the children from poor backgrounds can read, write or count to a standard that will give them a decent chance in life. So too should be those who declared a “defining mission” and then failed so dismally to pursue it. For that alone, they should go.

What Scotland should judge more than the failure of the “defining mission” is the empty glibness with which it was trumpeted. A lot of progress could have been made within a decade that would still have fallen well short of “virtual elimination” but that would have required a laser-like focus with resources to match. It hasn’t happened. The dial hasn’t moved.


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