Scottish Election 2021: Covid recovery, with education at its core, must be the top priority for government – Willie Rennie MSP

On Thursday, May 6, the people of Scotland have the chance to answer a very important question: What do you want the country to look like in 2025?

Teachers and pupils deserve better than a government that is distracted by issues like independence (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Over the past 12 months, our lives have been fundamentally reshaped by the pandemic. Unable to see friends or loved ones, people’s mental and physical health has suffered. Thousands of jobs have been lost and children and young people have seen their schooling turned on its head.

At the same time, we have seen the very best of humanity; the little kindnesses of neighbours checking in on one another; the hard work and sacrifices of our key workers and the astonishing scientific achievement that the precious vaccines represent.

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As we come out of the pandemic, this election is a chance to choose what kind of society we go back to.

For me, if I could make this election about one thing it would be education.

Teachers parents and pupils have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic to make the best of an impossible set of circumstances. They've been creative and full of good ideas – something that can't be said of Education Scotland or the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

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As a liberal, I see education as the essential investment that allows everyone to achieve their potential. The benefits that individuals, and Scotland as a whole, gain from investment in education are so great that for me this must be the overarching priority of the next Scottish Parliament.

At the start of the pandemic, we recognised that the NHS needed all hands on deck.

Now that there are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, we must bring the same approach to the educational recovery.

That’s why, starting this week, my party will be putting forward proposals for every stage and every age: to get a good start in life; to excel at school; and to help people retrain if they need to later in life.

In the recent budget, Scottish Liberal Democrats negotiated constructively and secured an extra £80 million for education. But that’s just the start of our ambitions.

After the year pupils and teachers have endured, the answer isn't to make children sit at desks for longer. Instead, our Bounce Back plan will make every hour learning in school count for more.

I want to see a teacher job guarantee so that children get the talents of every qualified teacher, cutting class sizes. I spoke to some of them recently – teachers who saw the adverts, dreamed of nurturing young minds, but who have been on short-term or zero-hours contracts for years. I want to end the casualisation of the teaching workforce because our children can't afford for any teachers to be unemployed or feel under-employed come August.

I want to see more pupil support assistants and a new programme of extra supported study for S4-S6 guided by the judgement of class teachers.

I want to see a legal right for families to both defer P1 and have it replaced with early learning and childcare, allowing families to choose the right option for them and their child, not have the choice imposed upon them by SNP ministers.

I want to see good quality, flexible childcare that works for children and families, and colleges and universities that deliver life-long education and training.

We live in a beautiful country; I want to see more outdoor learning and increased provision of residential outdoor education.

I want to see investment in local grassroots activities and sports with new funded entitlements for children and young people to use over the holidays.

And I want to see the enhanced pupil-equity funding won by Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Budget made a permanent feature of Scottish education so that schools in the toughest areas can plan ahead with certainty.

This is the scale of ambition that I want to see for Scottish education.

Nicola Sturgeon previously described education as the defining mission of her government. I don’t believe that, you don’t believe that and, let’s be honest, nor does she.

Audit Scotland says progress on closing the attainment gap between the wealthiest and least well-off pupils has been "limited and falls short". We've seen the exams scandal and Scotland slipping down the international education rankings. Teachers and pupils deserve better than a government that is distracted.

For the SNP, education – and everything else – will always play second fiddle to what they really care about.

People are exhausted after years of independence debate, Brexit and the pandemic, so the last thing we need right now is another independence referendum. Not a single pupil will get a better education because we have another referendum. It would be a tragic waste of energy, time and potential.

Instead of a government that is distracted you can have one that is putting all its energies into the challenges people are facing day in, day out.

At this election my Scottish Liberal Democrats will put recovery from the pandemic first. We will invest in the creation of jobs, cutting NHS waiting times, boosting mental health services, helping pupils bounce back and tackling the climate emergency. And we will be the party of education.

With more MSPs, we can make sure that whatever shade of government wins the election, it will be one that puts these issues first.

I am an optimist, I believe in this country and, while I often despair at its leadership, I believe it is a kind and welcoming place that values everyone who lives here and wants them to be the best they can be. Let’s put the recovery first and make that a reality.

Willie Rennie is the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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