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I thank Liz Smith for bringing the topic for debate. Like Iain Gray, I am frustrated that, once again, we are debating education during Opposition time alone. Given that the Government claims that educational attainment is its top priority, it is frankly alarming that the Scottish National Party is so reluctant to bring forward debates on our schools during Government time.
However, if we look at the findings from Professor Jim Scott, we see that it is not difficult to understand why the Government is not falling over itself to bring the issue to Parliament. There has been a sustained trend of decline in overall attainment, a widening of the attainment gap and an increase in the number of learners who leave school without qualifications. We all agree on the principles of curriculum for excellence, but its introduction at a time of budget and staffing cuts, compounded by confusion over policy and objectives, has been a recipe for some quite predictable problems. Teachers have been left to pick up the pieces by a Government that did not plan properly or invest in the implementation of the biggest change to Scottish education for decades.
Worst of all, it has been left to academics to research and compile the information that the Parliament finds itself using regularly, both in the chamber and committees. Where was the body that is responsible for inspecting standards in Scottish schools? The last time Education Scotland appeared before the Education and Skills Committee, it refused outright to accept findings—including those of Professor Scott—showing the impact of deprivation on subject choice. It insisted that its experience told a different story, yet it failed to undertake any kind of comprehensive research or analysis of deprivation and its impact on attainment—thus the committee’s clear instruction that it now do so.
Professor Scott has highlighted in his report an apparent lack of concern at all levels of governance about attainment. That reflects my experience with the public body that is responsible for standards in our schools and, given the Government’s aversion to bringing forward debates on education, it feels as though such a culture permeates the Government and ministerial level as well.
The widening of our attainment gap and the increase in the number of young people leaving school without qualifications cannot be viewed in isolation. I welcome the SQA’s confirmation that it is looking at the increase in the number of leavers with no qualifications, but the 18-month timescale that it gave indicates a lack of urgency that the cabinet secretary really must put right.
It would be wrong to pretend that the issues are all within education policy. They are also the result of poverty and the impact of that poverty on children who are growing up in Scotland. Around one in four children in Scotland live in relative poverty, a figure that has been rising steadily since around 2010 when the coalition Government began the waves of austerity that are still hitting our public services. Cuts to welfare support, punitive sanctions and caps on child tax credits have all left families worse off. A low minimum wage, excessive qualifying periods for protection against unfair dismissal, the growth of zero-hours contracts and the expansion of the gig economy mean that work is no longer a route out of poverty, either. Families get trapped in a low-pay no-pay cycle.
Closing the attainment gap in education simply will not happen at a time when child poverty is once again growing. That is not to say that everything needs to be solved at Westminster or even here at Holyrood. Councils provide key services for families in poverty; lunch and breakfast clubs, social and recreational activities, libraries, support services, housing and transport are all provided at the local level. We know from the experience of Finland that policies such as free lunches for all pupils are key to its high levels of attainment. For Finland, attainment and equality across the board go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that it is one of the highest-attaining countries and has one of the lowest rates of child poverty on the planet.
That is why the Greens have prioritised halting the cuts to council budgets in our negotiations with the Government over recent years, but there is so much more to do. This time last year, the Greens set out in our paper “Level the Playing Field” a range of policies that will help pupils. The Government is more than welcome to take and implement anything that was proposed in that paper; indeed, in a few instances—after a little encouragement—it already has. Education is an area in which Opposition parties are genuinely keen to work with the Government, but whether the issue is officials unwilling to even collect the data that is required or ministers unwilling to bring the issues to debate, we need to see not just a change in policy but a fundamental shift in Government culture.
The Greens are happy to support the motion and both amendments today.