Scottish Election 2021: Nicola Sturgeon's poor record on education is a vital election issue – Christine Jardine MP

Judge me on education, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon once asked us. Not on health, social care or transport. Education.

Nicola Sturgeon once asked to be judged on education and voters now have the chance to give their verdict (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon once asked to be judged on education and voters now have the chance to give their verdict (Picture: Andy Buchanan/pool/Getty Images)

And after approaching a decade and a half in power that is precisely what a generation of first-time voters may do.

Not least because it is the main experience they have on which to assess the end-of-term report for a government which has been in power for their entire school careers.

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Many of them were getting excited about new uniforms and their first day at school when the SNP came to power promising smaller class sizes and that they would close the attainment gap.

So where are we now?

As we consider those 14 years of SNP control, have they passed the tests they set themselves or do they have to accept that they, and they alone, will be judged and held responsible for where they have failed?

It can’t be blamed on any other authority, council or government. It’s certainly not the fault of the teaching staff or educationalists who have struggled through the storms around them to provide our children with the best they could. They too will have a say in what happens next.

The close of any parliamentary term can feel like the end of an era.

If this was it, the ending was messy, bitter and marked by internal squabbling and a breakaway party.

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But I suspect the voters, of whatever age, will care less about that and more about the answer to the questions posed by the First Minister herself.

What about those class sizes for instance?

In 2007, the SNP manifesto promised to cut class sizes in primaries one to three to just 18 pupils per classroom.

But at the last count the average class in those years was more than 23 pupils. And that is the lowest figure since 2012.

Looking at the changes in the attainment gap doesn’t exactly paint a picture of glowing success either.

When the SNP came to power, Scotland's education system was the envy of the world but now the gap between the grades that children from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds gain is wider than it's been for many years.

That is not, of course, simply my opinion.

In 2006, Scotland sat at number ten in the Pisa international rankings for education. In 2019, we had fallen to 19th and Scotland’s mathematics and science ranking was at a record low.

Over those years, an estimated one in five of Scottish children has left school functionally illiterate.

Of course those are statistics and not everyone in that generation of first-time voters will be familiar with them.

What will have made more of an impact on them is the reality of the situation they have faced.

One year in particular has a right to feel short-changed. Over the past 12 months, they have endured chaotic results, confusion over and loss in some cases of conditional university places.

Then for those who were successful, no classes after arriving at university, away from home for the first time, only to be told they would be there in isolation.

This is also the year that was the first and most disrupted by the SNP’s rushed and shambolic introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, characterised by a sea of forms and mounting stress for teachers.

And what about those who completed their education earlier in the SNP’s control. They were promised that their student debt would be wiped out. They are still waiting.

Of course there are those on the nationalist side of the argument who will point to their fictitious claim to have ended tuition fees.

Poppycock is such a lovely word and absolutely correct here. It was a Scottish Liberal Democrat minister who signed them out of existence.

But then we are used to the SNP’s rather unique interpretation of events which always casts them in the role of hero, even when it was actually someone else.

Most recently we had their false claims over period poverty legislation which was actually the result of private legislation introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon.

Before that my own party’s former MSP Jim Hume had the credit for his Bill to outlaw smoking in cars where there were children appropriated by the SNP.

And I remember in one election being aghast at an SNP campaign broadcast which implied credit for measures like free personal care for the elderly which had been enacted by the previous Labour and Lib Dem administration by saying it was a “Scottish government” achievement.

No doubt over the next six weeks, there will be some clever spin to make the educational failures of the past 14 years appear as endless success.

Before she invited the question, I am sure the First Minister had an answer in mind. Or perhaps her party hoped it would distract from their shortcomings in those other areas I mentioned earlier.

I doubt we will know before May 6 what judgement the public have made.

Until then the polls try to read us the as-yet-unwritten story, bombarding us with various Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat-like graphs of gold, yellow, green, red, blue and who knows what else.

And what account will they now take of the SNP’s failure to achieve its main goal: independence. That hasn’t happened.

Perhaps because if your the goal is independence, then surely you would want to prove that you are a party that can govern effectively so people can trust the storms can be weathered once we are cast adrift.

If you want to set up your own company you need to prove your worth to all the potential investors before you launch.

We are all stakeholders and investors in Scotland’s future. In deciding how we invest, that judgement will be based on many things and education will not be the least of them.

Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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