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Scottish pupils have excelled despite SNP education policy not because of it

Pupils across Scotland received their exam results on Tuesday. Credit: Alamy

Scottish pupils have excelled despite SNP education policy not because of it

Around 138,000 secondary school learners opened texts, emails and envelopes this week to discover their SQA exam results.

Every one of these senior phase pupils should be immensely proud of their achievements. They are a credit to themselves, their schools and indeed to Scotland.

We do, rightly, say this every year but it is more relevant now than ever. All of these young people were sitting high-stakes exams in ‘normal’ conditions for the first time in their lives – no dry runs for them.

All students lost significant time in school. Some lost much more than others. There has been no national effort to help them recover. Teachers and pupils have been told to just get on with it. They did, and then some.

We cannot afford to allow the hard work, resilience and dedication of Scotland’s pupils and teachers to mask the deep systemic problems which this generation of Scots face.

This Scottish Government has done absolutely nothing to mitigate the impact of the vast loss of knowledge in Scotland’s education system caused by Covid-19 disruption.

The fact that exam papers were set this year on a reduced curriculum is concrete proof that our young people will leave school knowing less than they would have done in other times. That is not controversial in any way. Neither should it be meekly accepted. There are consequences to be faced. Our colleges and universities are picking up the task of plugging those gaps.

They do so alongside massive budget cuts from the nationalist government – not extra resource to help them meet the needs of their students. Our economy and the businesses that drive it suffer the consequences, but it will be the future careers of our young people that will most obviously be harmed.

That will not go for everyone, thank goodness. We do know that some will pay a higher price for government failure than others.  

We know that dramatically more learning was lost in our poorest communities. That disruption has had the greatest impact on the most deprived schools and their pupils.

Last year, an Audit Scotland report warned that "variation in the learning experience of children and young people" during the pandemic could well "exacerbate the poverty-related attainment gap." A warning wilfully ignored by SNP Ministers. The results were clear this week.  

This week’s results show Higher attainment fell by 13 per cent among the most deprived quintile. This is compared to a fall of 5.9 per cent among the least deprived.

The government’s failings have had double the impact on the grades of the poorest pupils when compared to those of the wealthiest. Anyone paying attention will not be in the slightest bit surprised.

In recent months we have followed the ludicrous debacle of the education secretary ditching the commitment in parliamentary committee to close the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026.

Not so much an exercise in moving the goalposts so much as pulling the posts down, burning them and burying the ashes.

Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP was then hung out to dry by the boss – thhe First Minister – who we can recall said that closing this gap was “the number one priority of our government” and, should we have been in any doubt, that for Nicola Sturgeon “it is my personal defining mission.”

That was 2016. Nobody should really have believed it, but the intervening years have proven the mission to be the empty rhetoric of campaigns betrayed by ineptitude in government.

Yet the First Minister trudged into Parliament prior to this summer, threw her education secretary under the bus and re-committed to the rhetoric without any actions to support it.

Shirley Anne Sommerville’s response was to drastically cut the funding for schools in the poorest communities – described as “immoral” by school leaders – and continues this very week to refuse to commit that the job of closing the gap will be done. The hole has been dug and she’ll be damned if those goalposts are not going in it.        

No plan, no leadership, cuts for the poorest and an education secretary who does not even believe she can get the job done. It’s all pretty grim. 

What steps could be taken now by a government that believed in actually changing things? I’d start with an independent assessment of the education impact of the pandemic, a plan to make up the lost learning for this generation and a reality-based plan to address educational inequality.

None of it easy but all could be driven by a government that genuinely believed in it and prioritised it.

Our Scottish pupils have excelled this week despite SNP education policy – by no means because of it.

For that: themselves, their teachers and their wider schools should be immensely proud – whilst this SNP-Green nationalist government should be quietly ashamed.

Michael Marra MSP is Scottish Labour's spokesman on education and skills

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