Bottom of the class in education
Former Conservative MP Mary Macleod questions the SNP's commitment to education
Classroom - PA
Throughout her tenure as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly asked voters to judge her on her record on education.
However, improving the education system will always take a back seat to her party’s desire for independence. Her lack of progress on education will therefore be the Sturgeon legacy that never was.
Since Sturgeon starting talking about education as being at the “forefront of her domestic agenda” over two years ago, educational standards in Scotland, as judged by the Programme for International Student Assessment, have declined significantly in reading, writing and maths.
To make matters worse, a recent index also saw Scotland drop four places to 20th on a measure of social and economic wellbeing. Economist John McLaren partly attributed the fall to a “worsening education performance”.
Recently, the First Minister unveiled her Programme for Government and declared that education will continue to be its “defining mission”. The economy and even the constitution seem to have taken a remarkable back seat.
Unfortunately, we have heard all of this before. Her aim to deliver “excellence for all” and “restore Scotland’s education system to world-leading status” is much more than a noble ambition; it is an admission of past failure and a clear signal that they have taken their eye off the ball.
Research conducted by the Sutton Trust last year found that pupils from less-privileged backgrounds are four times less likely to go to university than those from more affluent families. In 2004, 19 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s top four universities: – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews – attended an independent school. By 2014-15 this had increased to 26 per cent.
The SNP’s historical opposition to tuition fees has resulted in a cap on the number of places paid for by the Scottish Government. As a result, and as the Sutton Trust’s research notes, “the supply of university places has not kept pace with rising demand” and has had a “disproportionately negative effect on students from the most deprived backgrounds”.
Only eight per cent of 18-year-old Scots from the poorest backgrounds attend universities. This is compared with 17 per cent in England, 15 per cent in Wales and 14 per cent in Northern Ireland. It would appear that Scotland is bottom of the class on widening access to university.
Yet more evidence emerges of widespread failure in the education sector. The president of the teachers’ union NASUWT in Scotland has recently warned of a growing teacher recruitment crisis and has called for greater support from decision makers in Holyrood. Sturgeon had to acknowledge the difficulties some schools are facing in recruiting teachers when it embarrassingly emerged that a shortage of maths teachers had led the heads of both Trinity Academy in Edinburgh and Blairgowrie High School to appeal to parents for help to cover classes.
Despite remaining the largest party in Scotland with 35 seats, the SNP’s 2017 general election performance was a disaster, losing 21 of the 56 constituencies it won in 2015. Sturgeon admitted that her plans for a second independence referendum were “undoubtedly” a factor and that she would “reflect carefully” on the result. Yet, only a few months later and just days after re-committing to education as her administration’s defining mission, her speech marking 20 years of devolution has a real sense of déja-vu.
“Independence is the natural extension” of devolution, Sturgeon claimed, and once again reaffirmed her pledge for a second independence vote at the end of the Brexit process. Less than two weeks since Nicola Sturgeon appeared before Holyrood, promising to get back to the day job through her Programme for Government, the SNP’s constitutional agenda has once again become clear.
The SNP’s ‘tunnel vision’ over independence has led to a neglect of domestic policies in the past and following this speech, it’s hard not to see how education standards, amongst other things, will not drift even further.
It will be the next generation of young people in Scotland who will be affected. It is their future. And Sturgeon’s downfall will be that she has not put them at the very top of her agenda.
Mary Macleod is a former MP and adviser to the Queen
Scotland performs well in first international assessment of collaborative working among 15 year-olds
Independent review of student support recommends students need a minimum of £8,100 a year
Scottish Funding Council figures reveal a lack of interest in teaching key subjects which are seeing shortages in schools
Dame Anne Glover is Professor of Molecular Biology and Cell Biology at the University of Aberdeen, takes part in Holyrood's series of Q&As with leading women in science