Scottish election 2021: John Swinney pledges to 'tear down' financial barriers for poorest pupils

A pledge by John Swinney to “tear down” financial barriers faced by Scotland’s poorest pupils, should the SNP be re-elected, has been dismissed by opposition politicians who claim the education secretary “is the problem” in Scottish education.

Mr Swinney is today expected to unveil a package of measures designed to reduce the cost of the school day, including ending the practice of pupils being expected to pay for materials in practical subjects, and an increase in the school uniform grant.

He will also say the Scottish Government should pay for pupils from poorer families to take party in school trips, including primary 7 residential camps and at least one trip in high school. The new pledges come just a week after Nicola Sturgeon announced a laptop or device for every pupil and free school breakfast and lunch for all primary school pupils.

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However, his election “giveaway” was criticised by opposition politicians, who said Mr Swinney, who has faced two votes of no confidence in the last year, was “the problem not the solution”.

John Swinney has made a raft of spending pledges.

As the election campaign restarts after a brief hiatus in the wake of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Mr Swinney is expected to lay out plans to end the practice that is common in subjects such as art and design, music, home economics, hospitality and technology, of pupils being expected to pay fees for materials or provide their own.

He will also say every pupil should be able to take part fully in school trips and an SNP government would exempt less-well off families from the costs of trips and activities.

Further, he will announce an increase in grants towards school uniform costs for poorer families from the £100 minimum to £120 in primary school and £150 in high school, with the grant being linked to inflation and the use of exclusive branded retailers banned.

“Our goal is to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up for every child,” Mr Swinney will say. “That’s why the SNP has invested enormously in early years – from the baby box to the transformational increase in childcare provision seen in recent years.

“It’s why we’re extending free school meals to ensure that no child is forced to try and learn while hungry. And it’s why we are going to give every pupil the device they need – so they can learn in the modern world.

“But we know that some families are sacrificing essentials like heating, food and rent payments so that their children can participate fully at school. This is simply unacceptable."

He will add: “If re-elected, charges for practical subjects in school will be abolished, poorer families will be exempt from the cost of school trips and the value of uniform grants will be increased.

“The pandemic has been tough for everyone, but particularly so for the younger generations – and by reducing cost of the school day, we will make a real difference in the lives of children from low-income families.”

However, Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said the SNP had made “limited progress” in reducing the attainment gap between the poorest and wealthiest pupils and SNP MSPs had previously voted against his motion to introduce free school meals for primary pupils.

He said: “The SNP have had 14 years in charge of education to bring in policies to support pupils from our most deprived areas. With the election fast approaching, it appears as though John Swinney has suddenly found the money to offer giveaways to tempt voters.

“John Swinney and his SNP colleagues have been more focused on another independence referendum than supporting our disadvantaged young people.

“The Scottish Conservatives have long been committed to guaranteeing free breakfast and lunches for our youngest pupils and will implement a pupil catch-up premium so those from deprived communities don’t fall behind.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson and candidate for Shetland, Beatrice Wishart, said: "Anyone who has watched Scottish education in the past five years will have concluded that John Swinney and the SNP are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

"From the abandoned promise to close the attainment gap to the disastrous handling of exams two years in a row, teachers, parents and pupils can have no faith that the SNP will get Scottish education back on course.

"This is how education was treated when it was supposed to be the SNP's number one priority. Just imagine how far down the agenda it will be shoved if they get a majority.

"Scottish Liberal Democrats spent the first week of our campaign setting out proposals to help education bounce back including a job guarantee for every teacher to cut class sizes to expanding in-class support for children who need it to help them reach their full potential. That's how to put the education recovery first."

The measures announced by Mr Swinney had been “re-hashed again and again” but “failed to tackle the vast inequalities in Scottish education the SNP has presided over”, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Michael Marra said.

He added: “For over a decade the SNP has been cutting local government funding and placing the burden of education costs onto families and onto teachers.

“The policy of providing free materials to allow students to participate in practical education would be more meaningful if the SNP had not cut council funding to the bone over the past 14 years, leaving teachers to pay for materials for pupils out of their own pocket.”

He describe the SNP’s record on education as an “unmitigated failure” and called for “real funding increases”.

The Scottish Greens are also expected to unveil a proposal to guarantee every pupil at least one residential trip during their time at both primary and secondary schools.

John Dickie, director of Child Poverty Action Group Scotland, said: “The evidence from our work in schools is absolutely clear. The costs of the school day imposes a heavy burden on already struggling families.

"That’s why in our Cost of the School Day reports we have been calling for increases to the minimum school clothing grant to more closely reflect the actual costs parents face and for action to ensure no child misses out on school trips, especially the primary 7 residential that children tell us is so core to their school experience.

"Missing out on school trips, not having the right school clothing and not being able to fully participate at school more generally really undermines children’s experience of school, with long-term consequences for their education and life chances.”

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