Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Chris Marshall
01 November 2023
Don't let the spin fool you, the SNP has demonstrably failed on education

Closing the poverty-related attainment gap was said to be the SNP's defining mission | Alamy

Don't let the spin fool you, the SNP has demonstrably failed on education

In his speech to the SNP party conference, First Minister Humza Yousaf discussed the situation in Gaza, Scottish independence, Brexit, the bond market, poverty, immigration, the NHS and even the Scotland football team. 

Yet save for a few passing references to schools and universities, there was little mention of Scotland’s education system or suggestions on how it can be improved. It’s perhaps no surprise that the SNP shies away from talking about education – it’s an area where Scotland’s party of government since 2007 has demonstrably failed.

On reducing the poverty-related attainment gap, more than £750m was spent during the last parliamentary term and a further £1bn will be spent by 2026. In his speech, Yousaf said this had helped bring about the “biggest-ever reduction” in the attainment gap on literacy and numeracy in primary schools in a single year. But that is only part of the picture. 

The Scottish Government’s own statistics also show that for pupils in S3, the gap attainment in literacy and numeracy between those from the poorest and most affluent homes who achieved the Third Level or better widened last year to its highest level since 2016/17. 

When the SNP first announced that it would “close” the attainment gap, it was a policy which showed both noble ambition and more than a little hubris. There is clearly merit in the party’s argument that had it more fiscal powers at its disposable, it could better tackle the root causes of poverty. Yet this is a party which is again seeking to freeze the council tax – the headline announcement in Yousaf’s conference speech – the largest share of which is spent on schools and education.

An unforeseen complication in 2015 when closing the attainment gap was described as the SNP’s “defining mission” was the impact of the pandemic. There is good evidence to show that Covid lockdowns and missed schooling hit those from the poorest homes the hardest. A survey of headteachers published in 2021 found 95 per cent felt Covid and school closures had at least some impact on the attainment gap.

But while this is no doubt an important factor, we should not be diverted from the conclusion that on this key test – one which would have improved the futures of thousands of our young people and which the SNP itself claimed to regard as a priority above all else, spending nearly £2bn of public money in the process – the government has fallen well short. 

Asked about this failure in a recent Newsnight interview, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn countered that 95 per cent of school leavers go to “positive destinations”. However, that is a term so wide-ranging in its definition as to be almost meaningless. 

According to the Scottish Government, positive destinations include not just university and college but unpaid work, personal skills development, and any form of employment. Strictly speaking, someone who leaves school with no qualifications and finds themselves working a zero-hours contract could be said to have reached a “positive destination”. Flynn and Yousaf will never admit it, but that is no measure of a successful education system. 

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - Picking up the Pieces: Time is against John Swinney as he attempts to reunite the SNP.

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top