3. What the First Minister has just described should be the spirit of the Scottish Parliament and we all have a responsibility to try and live up to that. In the past year, however, I am afraid that Scottish politics has been poisonous and it needs to change.
The Audit Scotland report on the attainment gap said that the Scottish Government’s performance on education is “limited and falls short”. The First Minister said that she would close the poverty-related attainment gap completely, but that was six years ago.
“It will not be done overnight,” she predicted, but we have had 2,000 overnights since then. The First Minister did not answer the question earlier, so I ask her again. How much longer will young people have to wait before the First Minister delivers on what she promised?
I intend to continue doing what the Government and I have done for the past five years, which is making the progress, taking the decisions and making the investments to progress that work. Building on the progress in this parliamentary session, I expect us to make significant progress over the next session, if that is what the people of Scotland choose.
It is right to prioritise raising attainment and closing the attainment gap. The Audit Scotland report recognises
“that the complexity of contributory factors means that it will take time” to achieve that. It also recognises that Covid has undoubtedly hampered progress:
“Pupils living in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected by school closures ... inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid”.
However, the report also narrates progress when it says that
“exam performance and other attainment measures have improved” and that there has been an increase in the opportunities, awards, qualifications and the number of those being awarded, as well as an increase in school investment over the past few years.
The building blocks are in place, and progress has been made. If the people of Scotland put their trust in me and us again, my focus and determination are to make sure that we continue that progress in the next parliamentary session.
I do not think that the First Minister should trumpet a 36-point poverty-related attainment gap. The First Minister has not been in power for five years; the SNP has been 14 years in power, and she is responsible for the state of education today. At this rate of progress, it will take 35 years to have equity in education. Meanwhile, yet more generations and thousands of young people will be left behind. There is a yawning attainment gap; 5,000 teachers are on casual contracts; maths and science results are at a record low in international league tables; an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report is hidden from the voters on purpose; and even the Government’s website admits that performance is worsening.
The Liberals Democrats have put forward a plan to get Scottish education back up to being the best. We even supported measures in the budget on education—that is how determined we are to turn the situation around. The First Minister said, “Judge me on education.” Now is the time for people to judge. Does the First Minister accept that she has had enough time and that she has not done enough for young people in Scotland?
No, I do not accept that, but it is not really up to me; we are about to go into an election campaign and it will be up to the Scottish people. In the election campaign, I will put forward my record and that of my Government. I will be straight with the Scottish people about the challenges that we face, where we have not made enough progress and what we intend to do about that. On 6 May, people in Scotland will make their decision. They will either re-elect this Government or they will not. That is democracy; that is accountability and scrutiny, which I welcome and relish.
I say to Willie Rennie that I did not trumpet anything. I say very gently to him that, through his continued mischaracterisation of the position with the OECD report, he is almost engaging in Trump-like behaviour. The OECD has said that we cannot publish the report before it is finalised, because it is the author of the report. We got its agreement to place a summary report in the Scottish Parliament information centre, but the OECD set the conditions for sharing the report with the Parliament. Anybody in the Parliament who has taken the opportunity to read the report will know that Opposition claims about it do not stack up with the reality.
I am absolutely willing, prepared and looking forward to putting the Government’s record before the Scottish people. I know that we have more work to do in all sorts of areas, but I will read out what the International Council of Education Advisers says about Scottish education, which is an important antidote to those who want not only to highlight where there is more work to be done—which is absolutely right and proper—but to talk Scottish education down in order to do down the Government. It is important to put what it says on the record. It says:
“Scottish education exhibits many strengths. It values equity as well as excellence. It has an excellent standing internationally. It is investing effort and resources to narrow attainment gaps, working with and strengthening the teaching profession”.
That is the foundation that we have. If the Government is re-elected, we will work every day in the next parliamentary session to build on that foundation.