Nicola Sturgeon has refused to accept that high school pupils were being offered fewer subjects as she was accused of a "mantra of denial" over a civil service report, which found there had been a decline since the Scottish curriculum was changed six years ago.
The First Minister came under pressure about a reduction in subject choice for secondary school pupils just a day after an independent report said the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence had a "negative impact" on children's attainment.
At FMQs today, the Scottish Conservatives raised a report by civil servants which was also critical of CfE, and stated there were “fewer subjects taken by pupils now than was the case prior to the introduction of the new qualifications”.
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But Ms Sturgeon said "there is a wide variety of choices available to young people in our schools".
While she admitted the senior school phase was set to be the subject of a review, she added: "I think we should look to judge our education system at the result, the qualifications, the outcomes that people are leaving school with. If you look at Level 5 there's a higher proportion of young people leaving school with a Level 5 qualification... when you look at Highers, the same picture emerges. A higher proportion of young people leaving with those qualifications. That's the outcomes of our education system."
Scottish Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw replied: "I should have known that denial would be the mantra of the First Minister.
"In May she was told this was a real issue as specified there [in the civil service report] and in June she told us it wasn't. Why did you and your education secretary mislead the Parliament?"
Ms Sturgeon hit back: "Jackson Carlaw should know that's not the case, there's a wider choice available to young people today and it's borne out by the statistics. A higher percentage of young people are leaving school with qualifications - the percentage has increased for people leaving with two qualifications right through to seven. That simply doesn't chime with the picture Jackson Carlaw wants to paint of our education system."
Referring to a report by the Sutton Trust on subject choice in English schools, she said Mr Carlaw's accusations were "more on the money" in terms of what was happening in England than Scotland.
However, a report published yesterday by Professor Jim Scott of Dundee University claimed that if the full extent of CfE was known in 2006, it would have been delayed or even cancelled.
Using national, local authority and individual school data, his report found attainment in Scottish national qualification Levels 3 to 5 in fourth year pupils has dropped by at least 32.9 per cent for each level since CfE was introduced in 2013. The number of Higher passes in S5 had also dropped by 10 per cent in the past four years - a reduction, the report claims, "Scotland cannot afford".
Mr Carlaw said this and the civil servants' report made a a mockery of the First Minister's claim that education was her top priority.
He added: "She says it doesn't matter how many subjects a child studies, her claim is how many qualifications are achieved. Unfortunately for her, her civil servants looked at that too. They found that while pupils could previously leave school with 10 qualifications at Level 5, they were now, on average, departing with eight, so even on her own measures she is failing."
He added: “The truth is that both Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney have claimed subject choice is not declining, despite being told differently by their own experts.They both now need to explain why they misled parliament.
"Education was to be her number one priority. When she made that claim she had both the goodwill and the support of this parliament to grasp the issue. But now, in the face of damning evidence, she has retreated to her comfort zone of spin and denial.
“There’s a choice to make in Scotland – we can be honest about the challenges facing education and redouble our efforts to restore our schools to their rightful reputation for a broad education. Or we can allow Nicola Sturgeon to host marches and shout into megaphones in the hope that will magic the problems away.”
Ms Sturgeon replied: "He wants to talk about the period since I became First Minister so let's do that. Let's look at Higher passes - in 2014, 58 per cent of young people left with one or more Higher pass, today that's more than 62 per cent; 48.6 per cent left with two passes now it's 52.4 per cent. At the other end, 8.3 per cent left with seven higher passes or more, today that's 9.6 per cent.
"That's the record of this government which stands in stark contrast to our predecessors and to the record of Westminster."