In a keynote speech setting out plans to introduce standardised testing for primary pupils, she said: “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? It really matters.”
Nearly six years on, and with postal votes arriving on doormats within the next few days for another vital election, this is the perfect opportunity to take the First Minister at her word and judge her on her record on education.
We all know it has been a difficult 12 months for young people in school, with Covid restrictions playing havoc with normal timetables. Despite the best efforts of hard-working teachers and support staff, the experience of too many children with distance learning has been patchy at best.
For youngsters without substantial parental support, there are real concerns that they have fallen far behind their peers, and could take months, if not years, to catch up.
Last year we had the shambolic handling by the Education Secretary John Swinney of the SQA exam process, where he was forced to make a humiliating U-turn following outrage from pupils and parents at the downgrading of results. Now a fresh problem is looming in relation to this year’s assessments, causing major concern to pupils in senior school.
The formal sitting of National 5s was cancelled by Swinney in October last year, but it was only in December that he announced that Highers and Advanced Highers would not proceed.
Pupils then assumed that their grades would be based on continuous assessment of work by teachers, on a similar basis to what was done last year.
However, just within the last few weeks, they are now being told that they will face assessments – some schools are calling them “prelims” –that will count towards their final grades. These assessments will be sat later this month and throughout the month of May, with limited advance notice, and no study leave. It is little wonder that pupils feel anxious and unprepared.
This is the same cohort of young people who have faced loneliness and isolation as a result of lockdown, leading to rising levels of anxiety and mental health concerns. Right now, what they need is certainty and security, and the hapless SNP approach to education is offering neither.
All this comes against a backdrop of policy failures across the education brief even before Covid took its toll. The statistics for performance in basic literacy and numeracy have been woeful for an advanced country.
Scottish education performance has slipped down international league tables, with other countries overtaking us. The attainment gap remains stubbornly wide.
There are persistent problems with a lack of subject choice for pupils in senior school. And there remain serious concerns about the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, with insufficient emphasis placed on the gaining of basic knowledge.
Rather than address these concerns, the SNP response has been to double down, ignoring votes in Parliament and defending the indefensible. The long-awaited OECD report into Scottish education will not be published until after next month’s election, despite Opposition calls for the public to see it, leading to the conclusion being drawn that it can only be highly critical of the Scottish government’s approach.
What we have seen from the SNP is a new policy pledge to provide every pupil in Scotland with their own laptop or tablet – a proposal which has been greeted with a mixture of disbelief and anger from those who have struggled with home learning over the last 12 months with limited IT equipment.
Why, they are wondering, is this offer being made precisely one year too late? And will those who had to make sacrifices to purchase necessary equipment for their children from their own resources now be entitled to reimbursement?
Given all that has gone wrong with Scottish education under the SNP’s watch, a few gimmicks aren’t about to persuade parents and pupils that the future of schooling is safe in John Swinney’s hands.
At least the Scottish Conservatives have set out an alternative approach to deliver real improvements in our schools.
Most significant amongst these is the promise to recruit another 3,000 teachers, taking overall numbers back to where they were when the SNP first came to power in 2007.
We would address the lack of subject choice in secondary schools. Tackling inequality, and the stubborn attainment gap, would be a priority, with a new catch-up fund for those who have fallen behind due to lockdown, coupled with a £35 million national tutoring programme to provide one-to-one or small group tuition for children who need the most help to catch up.
We have previously set out our plans to improve the Curriculum for Excellence, so the development of skills is coupled with the acquisition of essential knowledge. And we would oppose plans, put forward by some, to scrap exams entirely given the role that external assessment plays in objectively assessing the abilities of pupils.
This is a programme for a new start for Scottish education, one that addresses the failures of the recent past, and seeks to restore what was once a world-class reputation for our schools.
Weighing this package against the experience of what has been delivered by the SNP over the past few years, and in particular the exams chaos of last year and this, there will be many 16- and 17-year-olds voting for the first time next month who will decide that the SNP has not earned their votes.
They will judge Nicola Sturgeon on her record on education, as she asked them to do, and they will find her wanting.
Murdo Fraser is the Scottish Conservative candidate for Perthshire North