Scottish Labour deputy leader Kezia Dugdale told Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP had “let Scotland’s students down” over debt levels since it first came to power.
The Labour MSP claimed the SNP had broken a manifesto pledge to “dump the debt”, which she said the nationalists had made ahead of the party’s first Holyrood election win in 2007.
Ms Dugdale said: “Since the SNP took office in 2007 they have cut the budget for bursaries and grants by £40 million.
“That’s £40 million less for students who have the talent to get on in life, but don’t have the financial resources of their better off peers. It’s thousands of working class kids who have the grades to be nurses, engineers or doctors but can only get the extra support they need by borrowing more.”
However, the First Minister hit back and said that average student debt in Scotland was “much lower than anywhere else in the UK” and claimed that the Labour government elected at Westminster in 2007 had introduced fees for students.
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon has not ruled out bringing in testing for primary-school pupils as she said she was determined to improve Scotland’s education system.
The SNP leader came under fire on her government’s record on education, with Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats all pressing her on the issue at First Minister’s Questions.
A recent survey of literacy and numeracy found there had been a drop in standards in both reading and writing, and Education Secretary Angela Constance said earlier this week some children are “failed by school”.
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said there was a need for a “new system of primary testing” such as there is in Denmark and Ontario, “so that we all can see which schools need help and which schools are leading the way”.
Ms Davidson said: “After eight years of this government, until your child is 14-years-old, you have no clear idea how good their education is in comparison to the rest of the country.
“It is no wonder that the Scottish Government doesn’t know what to do because it doesn’t know what is going on.”
She asked the First Minister: “Enough is enough, will you get on and introduce primary testing or not?”
Ms Sturgeon told her: “I openly acknowledge that while we do have, through exam passes, a wealth of data about the performance of secondary-school pupils, we do not have that same data on primary-school pupils.”
She said there was a “serious and substantial” programme of work under way, adding: “I’m not going to simply give Ruth Davidson a yes or a no answer, to jump to the decisions before we have properly considered what the right thing to do is.
“We do need a new national performance framework, but we do need to make sure that the data we’re collecting and the way we do that is right, proportionate and sensible.
“We’re considering these issues at the moment and I look forward, and the Education Secretary looks forward, to updating Parliament very soon on the the direction in which we want to go.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “I am determined that we make the improvements in our education system that require to be made.
“I, with Angela Constance, with the entire government, are going to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that needs to be done to do right by the young people of Scotland.”