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by Chris Marshall
01 September 2022
Nicola Sturgeon vowed to close the educational attainment gap but progress has stalled

Few education stories have dominated the agenda at Holyrood this year | Credit: Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon vowed to close the educational attainment gap but progress has stalled

Given its obvious importance and certain politicians’ fondness for declaring it their top priority, few education stories have truly dominated proceedings at Holyrood over the past year.

Following last year’s election, a long-awaited report on the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was finally published by the Scottish Government. Undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the report was largely positive about the state of Scottish education – much to the disappointment of those who assumed the government had sat on the report until after the election. 

However, the report was critical of the emphasis placed on exams in the final years of secondary school, saying there was a “misalignment” between the aims of CfE and the narrow focus placed on assessment for older pupils.

In response, the government announced plans to scrap both the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland. The two bodies, which have become increasingly beleaguered in recent years, will be replaced with three new agencies which are expected to begin operating from 2024.

The developments came as pupils in Scotland’s schools began sitting exams for the first time in three years, with life returning to a semblance of normality following the pandemic. But some assessments were modified to help reduce workloads for teachers and pupils. Those modifications are expected to continue next year.

One of the perennial challenges facing those in Scottish education is the matter of the poverty-related attainment gap. Once described by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as her “defining mission”, the gap has stubbornly refused to close, despite the Scottish Government spending more than £1bn attempting to do just that.

Appearing before MSPs in May, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville appeared to drop an SNP commitment to closing the attainment gap by 2026 when she refused to set an “arbitrary date,” telling Holyrood’s education committee the aim had always been “a long-term project”. Sturgeon’s 2016 programme for government had pledged to close the gap within a decade.

“I’m not going to set an arbitrary date when the attainment gap will be closed, particularly so close to the experiences we are still having with the pandemic,” Somerville told MSPs.

However, she later denied suggestions the pledge had been abandoned altogether.

The Scottish Government spent £750m on the Scottish Attainment Challenge in the last parliament and will spend a further £1bn during the course of this parliament, including up to £200m in the current financial year to support children and young people impacted by poverty. 
But while there’s been a failure to tackle the yawning gulf in attainment between those from the poorest homes and their peers from more affluent backgrounds, there’s little evidence of an overall decline in Scottish educational standards more broadly.

That’s despite the suggestion being made on a near-weekly basis at Prime Minister’s Questions in response to SNP calls for a second independence referendum. But with the prospect of another referendum looming, there are legitimate concerns about education falling further down the Scottish Government’s list of political priorities.

One of the priorities for those working in education is on the issue of pay. Amid rising inflation and the ongoing cost-of-living squeeze, the issue of public sector pay has again come to the fore. Scotland’s teachers are no different. 

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, has rejected a five per cent pay offer – well short of the 10 per cent increase the union is seeking for its members. 

In July, the EIS delivered a petition with 25,000 signatures to both the Scottish Government and local government organisation Cosla which it said indicated the “strength of feeling” on the issue of pay. The union is preparing to ballot its members for industrial action should a deal not be reached.

Funding is also an issue in the higher and further educations sector, with Scotland’s universities under increasing financial pressure due to the funding settlement from the Scottish Government. 

Scotland’s universities and colleges will receive £1.5bn annually from the Scottish Government until 2026-27 under details announced in the Spending Review, which was published in May. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the allocation amounts to a real-terms cut of eight per cent over that period.

Universities Scotland, the body representing university principals, described the funding settlement as “incredibly disheartening”.

There are also ongoing issues in Scotland’s colleges, which were subject to a radical reorganisation around a decade ago, with the number of institutions reduced from 37 to 26 following a series of mergers.

According to Audit Scotland, the sector will continue to face a deteriorating financial outlook in the years ahead, making it difficult to deliver high-quality courses. Colleges already face challenges in terms of retention, with more than a quarter of students dropping out of courses in 2020-21.

A report published earlier this year by the Scottish Funding Council, which awards funding to colleges and universities, called for a re-organisation of the further education sector to improve digital learning, attract and keep research talent and foster a more collaborative approach to leadership. In its response, the Scottish Government said it broadly accepted the report’s recommendations. It is expected to set out its response in due course.

Clearly, there are huge challenges to face in the year ahead – from tackling the attainment gap to helping our children and young people to return to normality following the impact of Covid. 
The opinion polls are clear – most voters consider education to be a top priority, alongside the NHS.

Yet with the prospect of another independence referendum next year – and a possible legal wrangle before about the Scottish Parliament’s ability to legislate for one – it remains to be seen just how much time will be devoted to this crucial policy area at Holyrood in the months that lie ahead.

Q&A: Shirley-Anne Somerville: Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described closing the poverty-related attainment gap as the “defining mission” of her government, yet a commitment to do so by 2026 has been dropped. Why?

We remain committed to substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026. The pandemic has made our ambition of achieving equity in education more difficult, but our record investment of £1bn in the refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge programme over this Parliament is empowering local authorities, head teachers and teachers to identify evidence-based approaches to tackle the attainment gap that are right for the children and young people in their schools. Over the course of the previous parliamentary session, there was demonstrable progress on a number of long-term measures, with pre-Covid gaps narrowing in literacy and numeracy in primary schools.
 
Education is fully devolved. How would independence make a difference when it comes to driving up educational standards in Scotland’s schools?

The era of devolution has shown that, with good decision-making, big strides can – and have – been made in our education system. These include the most generous funded early learning and childcare in the UK, an internationally renowned curriculum, the highest spending per pupil in the UK, schools in the best condition since records began, free school meals for primaries one to five, a huge investment to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, free tuition, a record number of young people getting a place at university, the Baby Box, and much more. With the powers of independence, we could build on these strong foundations. 

Does the decision to overhaul the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland amount to an acceptance that the Scottish education system is not currently where it should be? 

Our education system has much to be proud of. Indeed, in its independent review in June 2021, the OECD said Curriculum for Excellence was the right approach for Scotland and one that is viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice. In his paper on Scotland’s future approach to assessment and qualifications, Professor Gordon Stobart describes CfE as a “pioneering example of 21st-century curriculum reform”. 

Those findings show that Scottish education remains on the right track, but every education system must be open to further improvement. We want to build on our strengths to evolve and improve. We plan to create three new education bodies that will reflect the culture and values we want to be embedded throughout our education and skills system – a system that puts learners at the centre, supports our teachers and practitioners and which instils integrity, fairness and accountability.
 
Do you worry about the long-term impact of the pandemic on our children and whether it has helped exacerbate existing inequalities between those from poorer homes and the relatively well off?

Of course. The disruption caused by Covid has presented serious challenges for learners in Scotland, just as it has around the world. Supporting our children and young people and their wellbeing is central to our education recovery strategy.

Our teaching staff continue to play a huge part in providing that support. Figures published in December show that teacher numbers have increased for the sixth year in a row, rising to 54,285 in 2021. This is more than at any time since 2008, and the ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest since 2009. We are committed to increasing teacher numbers by 3,500 by the end of this parliament.

We know that learners from more deprived backgrounds have been affected disproportionately by the Covid crisis, which is why our increased £1bn investment to tackle the attainment gap is so vital. 

Scotland’s universities are seeing their budgets cut by up to 8 per cent in real terms this year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. How can they continue to compete on the world stage under those kind of funding pressures and would the introduction of student fees allow them to do so?

Of all UK nations, Scotland has the highest proportion of 25-64-year-olds educated to tertiary level, and, thanks to free tuition, students finish their studies with the lowest student debt anywhere in the UK. 

We remain absolutely committed to our universities, our students, and free higher education for Scots-domiciled students – based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
 
If money was no object, what one intervention would you make to improve Scottish education and the lives of children and young people?

Well, you would need to give me the powers over the UK benefit system first so we could end poverty by introducing a benefits system which is set at levels which are actually enough for families to live on. That would be better than trying to do this with one hand tied behind our backs as we are at the moment.
 
What kind of pupil were you at school?
I was the shyest kid in the class. It wasn’t until I got into politics that I found my voice. 
 
If you could go back to university now, what would you study and why?
Probably an engineering degree. I loved technical studies and science subjects at school and although I was encouraged at school to take part and I was used to being one of very few girls, looking back, I did think those were subjects that mostly boys did at university. I wish I had followed through and did something in that field.

This article is taken from Holyrood's Annual Review: A look back on the parliamentary year

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