The First Minister insisted she had not broken her promise to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.
She said statistics published this week showed a “recovery” was under way in education since the pandemic widened the gap. But figures show the attainment gap in schools remains above pre-pandemic levels.
On average, the gap went from 12.2 per cent to 14.7 per cent for S3 pupils achieving the third level in these metrics. The gap has risen from 17.34 per cent in 2018/19 to 18.22 per cent in 2021/22 in primaries one, four and seven, according to analysis of the data.
Ms Sturgeon was challenged on the issue by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during First Minister’s Questions, where she denied failing to “keep her promise to young people across Scotland”. She said the SNP had pledged to “substantially eliminate the attainment gap” and she stood by the commitment “completely”.
The First Minister added: “Pre-pandemic, the poverty-related attainment gap was closing. The negative impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored, in Scotland or elsewhere.”
Ms Sturgeon went on to quote from the Department for Education in England, which said the pandemic had a “greater impact on disadvantaged pupils”. She said: “What we actually see in the statistics published this week is that recovery is under way and we’re starting to see improvements again.”
The First Minister also said she was “not using Covid as a shield”, as Mr Ross had asserted. But the Tory leader accused the Scottish Government of failing on education.
Mr Ross said: “A First Minister who told everyone to judge her on her record in education, it was to be her number one priority, the big test in her time in office. But she’s failed on the attainment gap, failed on class sizes, failed on standards, failed on violence in schools, failed on teacher numbers.
“Nicola Sturgeon wanted us to judge her on education, she said her neck was on the line. If that is the case, if the First Minister wants to be judged on education, if her job is on the line, if – as she said – there are fewer things more important than education, then why doesn’t Nicola Sturgeon ditch the de-facto referendum and make the next election all about her record on Scotland’s schools?”
Ms Sturgeon has previously said the SNP would fight the next general election as a de-facto referendum on Scottish independence after a ruling from the Supreme Court found Holyrood cannot legislate for another vote.
Responding, the First Minister said: “The judge of how long I stay in this job isn’t actually Douglas Ross, the judge of that is the people of Scotland. On all evidence, the people of Scotland think that when it comes to a choice between me and any of the other leaders in this chamber, then they want me to be First Minister.”
She went on to say there were more teachers per head of population in Scotland than in England, along with higher spending, and she reiterated her point that “progress” was being made in reducing the attainment gap.