In February 2015, shortly after becoming First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech in which she said “too many children still have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work. None of us should accept a situation where so many people are unable to realise their full potential. It lets too many young people down. It harms our economy and it weakens our society. And it diminishes all of us.”
Three years later and Sturgeon found herself on the back foot in an angry exchange with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson during First Minister’s Questions.
Davidson condemned the “scandal” that just two schools in the poorest parts of Scotland offer students a choice of 12 or more subjects at Advanced Higher level, compared to 70 per cent of schools in better-off areas.
She also claimed S4 pupils at the “majority” of schools were only allowed to take up to six subjects, meaning they effectively have to choose the subjects they will take at Higher level at the age of about 14, which, for most people, is surely too young to make such a life-changing decision.
Sturgeon responded to the attack in two ways. She told Davidson there had been a 40 per cent increase in pupils in deprived areas leaving school with Advanced Highers, repeating the figure “in case you didn’t hear the last time”.
But, perhaps in a sign that she was rattled, she tried to deflect the criticism by saying this week’s real “scandal” involved the Tory MSP Peter Chapman, who resigned as rural affairs spokesman after it emerged he had used his position at Holyrood to lobby on behalf of a firm he owns shares in. That may be a scandal, but it was a poor way for Sturgeon to respond to a question about education, particularly it’s an issue close to her heart.
While the rise in pupils from deprived areas with Advanced Highers is clearly progress, limiting the combination of subjects available to pupils can reduce the chance they will be able to get a place to study subjects like medicine and architecture.
In her 2015 speech, Sturgeon said it was only because of her “first-class” education that “this working-class girl from Ayrshire is able to stand here today as First Minister of Scotland”. She must now ensure the brightest students from the poorest parts of Scotland also get the chance to fulfil their potential.