SNP’s policies on education have failed to make the grade - Christine Jardine

There was one moment in the news coverage this week which I shall remind myself of every time I am told what a good job this Scottish Government is doing.

School pupils in George Squarem Glasgow, protest against the downgrading of exam results by the  SQA
School pupils in George Squarem Glasgow, protest against the downgrading of exam results by the SQA

A teenage girl who had just received her results discovered she had been graded lower than her achievements throughout the year should have dictated.

She looked, and sounded, stunned.

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The university place she had been assured of now looked out of reach. Her planned future thrown into confusion. She told the TV reporter that she just did not understand what had happened.

That is not good enough either for her, for her peers, or for the very many educationalists who invest their careers in providing our young people with the best start in life they can.

This year, of all years, they needed the system to work for them. To support them through a pandemic which has demanded tremendous sacrifices and denied them so many experiences and opportunities.

Instead it failed them.

At a time when it is the responsibility of our political leaders to mitigate, not accentuate those hardships, our Scottish Government has been found lacking.

Rather than reassure, their explanation for the debacle – that the SQA adjusted individual pupils results to reflect the historical performance of their schools – has simply highlighted the continuing and unacceptable performance gap in our system.

High performing pupils in average schools have been penalised, by being shackled to historical results which do not reflect their personal abilities and over which they have no control.

As Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie said this week: “The disadvantage and inequality that has been growing over the last decade and more has been baked-in to the results this year.”

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Yes these are unprecedented times, yes the First Minister has appeared cool, competent and in control of the short-term measures to pull us through it.

But she and her administration cannot use Covid-19 as yet another sticking plaster to obscure the very real and long-term problems which blight a generation who have spent their entire school careers under an SNP Government.

International reports show Scottish education plummeting down the league tables which compare our schools with those abroad.

That proud boast that ours was the finest education in the world now seems empty, and out-dated.

Certainly for those at the chalk face it has long ceased to be the case, replaced by the reality that too many of our young people leave school functionally illiterate and the past few years have been to endure rather than enjoy.

Many of those who graduated from our universities this year are the same young people whose school years were disrupted by being the first to sit the new National 5 exams. Their teachers had to deliver a curriculum which was not only untried and untested but, by common consent, largely chaotic and stressful for all.

“But” I hear the SNP apologists proclaim, “they have not had to pay tuition fees when they went to university.” No, they haven’t and they shouldn’t, and I am not going to rehash the old argument that it was actually the Lib/Lab coalition which removed them.

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But it is not enough to state that case without actually ensuring that the funding is in place to guarantee that there is a university education from which to benefit.

Nor is it enough to say you don’t have to pay when you have just messed up the gradings and denied students a future of which they thought they were assured.

Just last month the Scottish Government and its funding council announced a consultation on how to cope with a predicted sector-wide deficit approaching £400 million.

Edinburgh Napier University – one of the 1992 expansion intake – is currently faced with potential redundancies and its Principal, Professor Andrea Nolan, who is also the Convener of Universities Scotland, has warned of the financial impact of Covid-19 on all universities.

But again it is not the only factor.

The crisis follows years of cuts to teaching and research funding by the Scottish Government.

Universities Scotland say a solution would be for the Scottish Government to cover the full cost of tuition for Scottish students. But there are widespread concerns that the Scottish Government will instead see mergers as the way ahead.

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The college sector will need no reminder of the SNP policy which led to the merger of many institutions to create regional further education giants. That cost jobs and cut more than 100,000 college places.

So let us not pretend that Covid-19 has come along to throw a spanner into otherwise robust and smoothly operating machinery.

It is easy to look good at the best of times. It is in the worst of times that you are tested and your resilience, or lack of it, becomes transparent.

The signs have been there for some time that all was not well.

At the most recent Scottish election in 2016 my party, the Liberal Democrats suggested a penny on income tax for education.

That would have raise £475m and allowed us to make the sort of improvements which would have closed the attainment gap in our schools which has been highlighted this week, rather see it continue to grow.

We could have improved literacy standards, saved those college places and worked with our universities to create a stronger financial base.

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Having taught in Scottish universities for more than a decade I have experienced the changing dynamic.

It’s less than a year now until the SNP faces its assessment by the Scottish public of how it has served them.

Many of those who vote for the first time next May are this week surveying the damage that has been done to their career, university or training prospects by a system created and developed by the SNP over the past 13 years.

Nicola Sturgeon famously asked us to judge her on education.

We will, and after this week she may find her results have been downgraded.

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