It was an uncharacteristically foolish thing to do for a leader who keeps her wits about her (as opposed to the Prime Minister, who only achieves half of that).
Closing the poverty-related attainment gap is, very probably, an impossible task of Herculean proportions and it certainly appears that here and now, as we approach the end of 2021, the situation is even worse than it was when she made her fateful promise.
Of course, Covid hasn’t helped: children from disadvantaged backgrounds were never going to thrive on online or blended learning whereas many middle-class children benefited from the enriched schooling provided by their schools (some of them independent schools) and their parents. Thus, in educational terms, the rich got richer and the poor poorer.
So, as Christmas looms, it’s a great joy for me, after a further year of bashing the Scottish government about its dismal educational record, to give some praise where praise is due, because I believe that last week’s Scottish budget will actually help with this monumental, entirely worthwhile and moral aim.
That’s because the best way to close the poverty-related attainment gap doesn’t lie in frittering about with doses of ‘PEF money’ (Pupil Equity Fund) or establishing another attainment fund, it lies in combating poverty, particularly child poverty.
The answer isn’t to adjust the attainment of poor people, it’s to make people less poor and then watch them attain. In the USA, President Joe Biden has – and he promised this – substantially reduced child poverty in one year. Columbia University estimates that child poverty in July was 41 per cent lower than normal.
That will inevitably have positive consequences for the educational attainment of those children – children who eat better and sleep better will, apart from anything else, be more inclined to attend school and attendance is a big battleground in terms of educational attainment.
This is why it’s excellent news for schools that Kate Forbes is doubling the Scottish Child Payment, the initial introduction of which was a brave and practical use of the Scottish government’s powers. It will shortly double to £20 a week for qualifying families with children under six and, by the end of 2022, will be extended to children up to the age of 16. Wait a few years and that will surely see those children doing better at school.
I think we have all gone along with closing the attainment gap as the primary push in schools for a long time without really questioning it. We may have our doubts about some of the tactics being used but essentially we’re all agreed that it would indeed only be right that Kirsty in Muirhouse does as well in school as Kirsty in Morningside, assuming they both have the same aptitude. No one can deny that.
However, it has become the educational drum that the Scottish government has banged on, to the detriment of everything else. Maybe it’s about time we recognised as a nation what all teachers instinctively know – it’s the duty of schools to try to raise the attainment of all young people in their care.
Really the SNP’s mantra should be about making every child in all Scottish schools do better, stretching the most able – regardless of their social background – while (absolutely) aiming most resources at schools in poorer areas. That would come from creating much more diversity in the pathways open to young people; at the moment, we’re in danger of drifting towards some common middle, which won’t really, in truth, benefit anyone.
There is also, of course, very sadly, a poverty-related gap in life expectancy in Scotland. We know this: the more disadvantaged you are, the more likely you are to die young.
If closing that gap was a central plank of government policy, would we expect all the work to be done by the NHS? Would we openly state that what we wanted was poorer people to live as long as richer people, rather than trying to make everyone live as long as possible?
And wouldn’t we recognise that the alleviation of poverty would be the central way of helping less well-off people live longer, rather than leaving the initiative entirely with doctors? It makes no sense that the educational equivalent is seen so much as the duty of teachers, who are worn to a frazzle anyway.
So, a plaudit to the government for a step in the right direction. We can only hope that in 2022, the First Minister – beset as she has been by horrors unimaginable in 2015 when she made her vow – has more time to consider education as a priority.
She and the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Shirley-Anne Sommerville, need to be widening the focus of their strategy on Scottish education next year, rather than continuing to tread water as Boris sinks beneath the waves of incompetence and corruption and the nation waits for another independence referendum (or not).
If, genuinely, Ms Sturgeon wants to be judged on the closure of the poverty-related attainment gap, she should double the Scottish Child Payment again soon, and at the same time bring some fresh and exciting thinking into the whole arena of Scottish schools, before another whole generation of Scottish children don’t do as well as they could.
Cameron Wyllie publishes a blog call A House in Joppa