It has been 10 months since the election, yet parents and teachers still remain in the dark about the Scottish National Party’s plans for our schools. As we have just heard, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has kicked the consultation on how schools are run into the long grass. The First Minister says that that is just one part of her education reforms, and she is right, because there is also the education bill, which is the very symbol of the Government’s apparent number 1 priority, and it has been kicked into the long grass, too. The SNP’s power grab to centralise every school budget in the country has been kicked into the long grass as well, and the roll-out of national testing, which the First Minister also mentioned, has also been delayed. Education was the First Minister’s “defining mission”. Is it not the case that education is defining the Government as indecisive and distracted?
That question demonstrates that, when a member of Kezia Dugdale’s party, after spending the weekend at the Labour conference, described Kezia Dugdale as simply a “pound shop Ruth Davidson”, he was absolutely right, although maybe it is more like buy one, get one free.
Kezia Dugdale asked where the education bill is. The education bill is what will deliver the proposals from the governance review. When we have considered the more than 1,000 responses to that and brought forward our proposals to Parliament, we will also introduce a bill, as we said we would do. Kezia Dugdale also said—I think I got this right—that we are centralising education budgets. Really? We are giving £120 million direct to headteachers in almost every single school across the country. We are giving resources and the power to use them direct to headteachers. Only in the world of Scottish Labour could that be described as centralising education budgets—it is the exact opposite of that. Giving it to headteachers is decentralising it.
Through that extra resource in our schools, we are empowering headteachers to deliver what they think is required to improve attainment. That is building on the work of our attainment challenge and, as I have already said to the other half of the act, the national improvement framework is making sure that we have the data to track improvements in our schools. That is the kind of work that we are getting on with, day in and day out. I say to Kezia Dugdale, as I said to Ruth Davidson, that maybe she should get out a bit more into our schools, as I was yesterday, and see a bit more of what is happening in reality.
The SNP Government has failed for 10 years on education, so it is no wonder that the First Minister has to resort to personal attacks. That is beneath her—it is what we expected of Alex Salmond, not what we expect of the First Minister who is committed to closing the gap. The problem is not just the lack of progress; it is the fact that things are actually going backwards.
John Swinney spent years cutting education budgets as finance secretary. He cut more than 4,000 teachers and 1,000 support staff, he cut 150,000 student places in our colleges, he cut university budgets and he slashed grants for students, too. John Swinney now faces the consequences of his own decisions. He was supposed to be a safe pair of hands, but he is fast getting a reputation for dropping the ball on education. If teachers and parents can see that the education secretary is letting down Scotland’s children, why can the First Minister not see that?
Kezia Dugdale has come to the chamber week after week and alleged that spending on our schools is going down. Figures that were published this week—for the most recent year for which we have statistics—show that there was a real-terms increase in education spending across our local authority areas, so Kezia Dugdale’s scaremongering has been exposed.
Take universities—we have record numbers of young people going into our universities now. We are not just meeting, but exceeding our manifesto commitment in terms of whole-time equivalent places in our college sector. The attainment gap is starting to narrow and more people from deprived communities are going to university than was the case when we took office.
We are seeing progress because of the decisions that this Government has taken and the investments that this Government has made. However, there is so much more work still to do, which is why we will get on with the reforms in our education system that will make sure that we deliver the commitments that we have made to young people and parents around the country.
The First Minister gave the game away there, because she said that, in the past year, the money for education went up. Is that supposed to make up for it going down over the nine years that preceded it? The reality is that she has cut £1.5 billion from local services since 2011—she cannot escape from that truth.
I would not want the First Minister to think that John Swinney has not been busy. He has launched an improvement framework, a governance review and an advertising campaign. However, he has not done anything to improve our schools.
It is not just John Swinney. Since May, the Government has launched more than 120 consultations and reviews, which is three a week. The enterprise review alone has three reviews within it and the health and social care delivery plan has another four reviews within it. There is even a review into the review of fracking. That might make sense if this were a new Government, but this SNP Government has been in place for 10 years. I know that the First Minister has only one thing on her mind, but when is she going to stop talking about governing and actually start doing some governing?
I advise Kezia Dugdale to listen to this: this Government will never stop talking to, engaging with and consulting the people of Scotland. The Labour Party stopped doing that and it went from first place to second place in Scottish politics, then it went from second place to third place. Who knows where it will end up?
Let us get back to education. Kezia Dugdale comes here and talks about education funding. I have a very basic question for her: if she thinks that not enough money is being spent on schools in council areas around our country, why are Labour councils proposing to freeze the council tax next year after spending 10 years moaning about it? Why are they not using the power that they have spent 10 years asking for and why are they refusing to raise extra money for education? That is a question that Kezia Dugdale cannot answer.
The other things that Kezia Dugdale does not want to talk about are the £120 million that is going direct to headteachers, the extra resources that are available through the attainment challenge, or the many things that teachers are doing in our schools to improve education and to close the attainment gap, because that does not suit her narrative. Just as with Ruth Davidson, I will leave Kezia Dugdale whining on the sidelines, and this Government and I will continue to get on with the hard work of improving our schools.
For 10 years, we have had Labour councils, and Labour MSPs in the chamber, saying, “End the council tax freeze.” As soon as we end the council tax freeze, what do we have? We have Labour leaders in councils such as Inverclyde saying that they are going to become the longest-serving leaders ever to freeze the council tax.
Labour does not know what it is doing from one day of the week to the next, and that is why it is in the mess that it is in. I will continue to make sure that we do our job of delivering improvements in our education system, and delivering for parents and children across the country.
I have been contacted by the owner of a local nursery in my constituency that looks after 133 children. Is the First Minister as disappointed as I was to hear that the nursery will be hit with a business rates hike of 65 per cent? That will mean inevitable cost increases for parents, which will prevent mothers from returning to work.
We have introduced a business rates relief scheme, as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution announced in the chamber a couple of weeks ago, to ensure that seven out of 10 businesses across our country will pay either the same or lower business rates in the coming year. Five out of 10 business premises across the country pay no business rates whatsoever. The finance secretary announced additional relief for the hospitality sector and for office premises in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. We did that to free up local councils to use resources that they might have to provide any additional support that they think is required. That is why it has been so disappointing that Tory councillors in some councils have voted against local rates relief schemes. Instead of coming to the chamber and asking me that question, perhaps Alexander Burnett should direct it to Tory councillors in his area.