Education (Attainment)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 24 March 2021.

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Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

1. I add my condolences to those of the First Minister, for all those who have died, and I thank all those who are helping in the health and vaccine effort as we tackle Covid across the country.

Three major publications have been released this week. On the first two of those, questions remain about the lack of accountability and the serious flaws in the Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints. However, in my last First Minister’s question time, I want to make sure that the third document—the Audit Scotland report on the attainment gap, “Improving outcomes for young people through school education”—does not go unexamined.

Before we get into the detail of that, the Deputy First Minister said at today’s Education and Skills Committee meeting that he was nervous about the use of the phrase “catch up” when talking about pupils affected by the pandemic, as that assumes that all children have fallen behind. Does the First Minister agree with that view, or does she share my concern that everything possible must be done to help pupils catch up after the better part of a year out of the classroom?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will come directly to that question but, first, I say that Ruth Davidson could have chosen to ask me about education in any previous week, but she has chosen to indulge in smears instead of focusing on the issues that people want to focus on. I am therefore pleased that she is back on to the issue of education and attainment in what is, of course, her last FMQs before she goes to the unelected House of Lords.

On attainment, the Audit Scotland report published this week has lots for us to think about as we head to the election and as a new Government takes office after that. It narrates much progress, both in raising attainment and in closing the attainment gap. It recognises the obvious impact that Covid has had on that progress but also, I think, can give us confidence that the key building blocks are in place—through, for example, the attainment challenge, increased funding and increased numbers of teachers.

On Ruth Davidson’s specific question, I agree with the Deputy First Minister. I think that it is really important that we support young people to catch up on their education. The Scottish Government has announced significant additional investment, supporting increased numbers of teachers and a host of other initiatives, to help with that. However, I make no apology for saying that, when it comes to the wider wellbeing of young people, it is really important that we recognise the impact of Covid not just on their education, which has been really significant, but on their mental health, in being away from their friends, grandparents and families, and that we take that holistic approach. Therefore, for example, we will be introducing a summer programme, backed by £20 million of additional investment, that will allow us to focus on the broader wellbeing of children, so that we make sure that they recover and catch up in that wider sense. Education is part of that, but it is not the only part.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

A bit of contrition from the First Minister might be in order, after the failures of her Government have been exposed, rather than a lack of honour or indeed any contrition. I do not know how the Deputy First Minister can say that he is concerned about the words “catch up”, because there is simply no way that pupils who would otherwise have spent the entire year in class can have done anything other than fall behind, through no fault of their own or of their teachers, over the past 12 months. The only question is, “How far?”

While we respect the summer work, we want to know what else the Government will do to turn the situation around. It is not as if there was not already a serious problem in Scotland with a deeply entrenched attainment gap.

This week’s Audit Scotland report says that the attainment gap “remains wide” and that improvements are not happening quickly enough. It specifically says that those

“in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected” by the impact of school closures, and that those same disadvantaged children have less access to remote learning and to online resources.

The Government has had years in charge of education, so why is progress on closing the attainment gap so slow?

The First Minister:

First, Ruth Davidson has spent weeks misrepresenting me. Many legitimate questions should have been, and have been, asked of me, and I have shown plenty of contrition where that has been merited. However, I have heard on the grapevine that there is a lot of division within the Conservative Party about its tactics over the past few days, so, moving on from misrepresenting me, Ruth Davidson is now misrepresenting the Deputy First Minister.

I am really not sure what many people could find to disagree with in the view that, yes, we should help young people to catch up in their education, but, as we do that, we should help them to recover from the overall wider impact that Covid has had on them. That is the point that the Deputy First Minister was making. I find it really hard to see how and why Ruth Davidson would disagree with that.

The Audit Scotland report has much to say about progress. For example, it says:

“At the national level, exam performance and other attainment measures have improved ... There has been an increase in the types of opportunities, awards and qualifications available to children and young people and an increase in the number awarded.”

The report also focuses on the impact of Covid, and that is why we are so focused on dealing with that in the widest sense. We have committed almost £400 million of new funding over this year and next year as part of education recovery. That involves funding a range of actions, including the recruitment of 1,400 additional teachers, 200 additional support staff, new digital devices and youth support work—all the things that we need to do to support young people. That funding is also supporting the introduction of a £20 million pupil equity funding premium, which will be part of record investment through the attainment Scotland fund.

I hope to be standing here again in the next parliamentary session—that is up to the Scottish people. While Ruth Davidson is off taking £300 a day to sit in the unelected House of Lords, those of us who are in this chamber will be getting on with the job of improving education for all.

The Presiding Officer:

I appreciate that this is a political exchange, and I always allow some latitude, but you have twice mentioned the House of Lords, First Minister. The point has been made. [


.] It is a political exchange—I get it, and I understand it—but the point has been made, and I would rather that it was not so personal.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

Gallant but not required, Presiding Officer.

The First Minister turns a good line on this:

“My aim—to put it very bluntly—is to close that attainment gap. Not by a bit, but to close that attainment gap completely.”

That was said more than five years ago; as a promise, it has been proven worthless. The Government was running out of solutions well before the pandemic struck. The Audit Scotland report criticises the slow rate of improvement and it highlights the attainment Scotland fund, but it also makes the point that the attainment fund needs to change. Reading and writing are the basic core skills of every pupil, but the attainment gap for literacy in attainment challenge areas increased from 2017 to 2018, and it increased again from 2018 to 2019.

Seven months ago, after the previous return of pupils to the classroom, the Scottish Conservatives were calling for measures to help them get back up to speed: 3,000 extra teachers, a national tutoring service and an independent inspectorate to ensure that schools were getting back on track. That has all been ignored, while our children are continuing to pay the price for Government complacency. Five years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said that she was going to shut the attainment gap “completely”. Can she now tell the country when that will happen?

The First Minister:

If the Scottish people re-elect me to be First Minister, I will continue the work that we have been doing over those five years to improve attainment and close the attainment gap. Looking at the first five years of the Scottish attainment challenge programme, there is evidence that almost all the short-term and medium-term outcomes have been achieved. There has been demonstrable progress on several of the long-term measures to close the attainment gap. For primary pupils, the gap in literacy and numeracy has narrowed. For secondary 3 pupils, the numeracy gap has narrowed. The gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment and training has narrowed year on year. The gap between the most deprived and least deprived pupils achieving one pass or more at level 5 has gone from 33.3 percentage points to 20.8 percentage points. I could go on.

Progress has been made, albeit that it has been hampered by a global pandemic. That is why we are investing in, and not just talking about, recruiting more teachers—we have recruited more teachers. As is shown in the Audit Scotland report on education, spend on education in Scotland has gone up by 5 per cent in real terms. We have the highest spending per head of any of the nations in the United Kingdom, and we have the highest number of teachers since 2008. Indeed, we have the highest number of primary teachers since 1980.

We will get on with the hard work of improving attainment and closing the attainment gap. At the risk of upsetting you, Presiding Officer, which I would never want to do, I will add that I am sure that Ruth Davidson will be watching us from afar.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

Nicola Sturgeon described closing the attainment gap as her “sacred responsibility”, but the Audit Scotland report is clear that the attainment gap that was meant to be closed is just as wide as ever. Who is to blame on that vital issue? Why, it cannot be the party that has been in full control of our education system for the past 14 years—no. On Monday, we heard the Government’s only solution when confronted by more than a decade of failing Scotland. It was another independence referendum bill, because that is all it has.

For my last question to Nicola Sturgeon in the chamber, I ask her this: how many times will she demand another independence referendum before she finally gets round to closing the education attainment gap?

The First Minister:

There will be another independence referendum if the people of Scotland vote for another independence referendum. That is called democracy, which I know is a principle that Ruth Davidson perhaps does not, these days, recognise as much as she might once have done.

It is not me who is running away from responsibility and accountability—I am about to put myself before the Scottish people. I will put before the Scottish people my record in office; tell them, in areas where we have not made as much progress as we wanted to make, why that is the case; and put forward a positive case for the future. I will put forward the plans that will see us continue to improve attainment and close the attainment gap; continue to improve the health service and support economic recovery; and—yes—continue to support plans to allow this country to choose its own future, so that we can build that recovery firmly on the basis of the values of a majority of people in Scotland, not the values of Ruth Davidson and her Westminster bosses.

As that was her final question, I say that I genuinely wish Ruth Davidson well. Five years ago, she was trying to persuade people that she was the next First Minister. That did not quite work out—but I hope that she has a happy time in the House of Lords, Presiding Officer.