Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon but she’s consistent. Every autumn, when she sets out her programme for government, the First Minister makes the same pledge:
'We will make it a priority to improve the educational outcomes of pupils in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland… a targeted approach to attainment that will help children across Scotland—especially those in our disadvantaged areas.’
'Improving school attainment is arguably the single most important objective in this programme for government. Improving it overall and closing the gap between children in our most and least deprived areas is fundamental to our aim of making Scotland fairer and more prosperous.'
'I have said that I want to be judged on our success in narrowing and, ultimately, closing the attainment gap. We must not tolerate a situation where some children from deprived areas do less well at school than those from affluent areas.'
‘[I]mproving education—including by closing the attainment gap—is our number one priority.'
Nicola Sturgeon keeps her promises. She just doesn’t act on them. New figures on university admissions mark another gloomy chapter in Scottish education under the SNP, already a lengthy and dismal story. Applications from students in the most deprived parts of the country have fallen for the first time in a decade; applications from the most affluent rose by 1.9 per cent last year. In England, applications from the worst off hit a record high — 22.6 per cent — and there was a rise in Northern Ireland to 24.5 per cent. Wales remained static at just shy of 20 per cent.
The statistics come with a health warning. Ucas is responsible for processing only two-thirds of university admissions north of the border and measurements of deprivation differ too. Even so, the ten-year drop is a startling finding and supplies more evidence of a troubled education system and a Scottish Government that appears helpless to do anything about it.
Closing the attainment gap is central to the SNP's claim to be a progressive party and, by extension, its contention that an independent Scotland would be a more egalitarian society. And their record? Schools are down 4,000 teachers; a survey that showed Scottish schoolchildren falling behind on literacy and numeracy was scrapped; and the pass mark for Higher Maths had to be lowered to 34 per cent (not a typo).
SNP austerity in further education has led to student numbers falling by 150,000 since the party came to power. While a recruitment drive for specialist graduates promised in 2016 still hadn't hired a single one by December 2017. It's little wonder that while more than 96 per cent of the richest school leavers go on to a 'positive destination', the figure is just 85 per cent for the poorest – and the Scottish Government's definition of 'positive destination' is so broad as to include being on a zero-hours contract. The humiliating nadir came when the education secretary's local high school, desperately understaffed, wrote to parents asking if any of them had a maths degree and could help out.
There are some (heavily qualified) reasons to be cheerful, such as the £750m Attainment Scotland Fund and the STEM strategy. But the attainment gap in life begins early on, the evidence shows scant progress in reducing it, and the levels of investment being made by the SNP are inadequate.
What is to be done? First, there has to be an acknowledgement that 'free tuition' is nothing of the sort. Diverting resources from programmes that disproportionately benefit the poor to bankroll a university sector that disproportionately benefits the middle classes has real, lasting consequences for those on the leaner end of the income scale. If Labour is determined to scrap fees in England, it should learn from Scotland's mistakes in designing new finance arrangements. Perversely, Scotland's modest bursaries (maintenance grants) system sees the poorest students taking out the most in loans. Fees and bursaries are only one end of the equation. The other, education from early years onwards, is where the attainment gap has to be narrowed. It will require significant investment in teachers in the most deprived areas, including salary incentives to bring the best teachers into the worst schools, more help for parents who struggle to support their child's development, and a renewed effort to drive up literacy and numeracy attainment. Eventually we will run out of embarrassing surveys that can be scrapped.
The problems of Scottish education are not all political but those that are loom large. First, bold rhetoric has built up expectations that the present government has not fulfilled and is not prepared to make the kind of transformational investment that would be required to fulfil them. Second, the SNP seems sincerely determined to close the attainment gap but just as sincerely clueless as to how; it has lurched from review to review, from minister to minister, and where the dial has shifted it has been seldom and modestly.
Third, though they hate to be told it, some (not all) of the blame lies with the independence referendum. The nationalists' second term in office, when they had their outright majority and could have done anything they wanted with education, was spent setting one half of the country against the other in an exciting, sometimes inspiring, often ugly debate on national identity and the constitution. This didn't stop with defeat on September 18, 2014, as the SNP remained in campaign mode for a succession of elections general and devolved. Only in recent months have they scrambled for the policy threads dropped in 2012.
'The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,' Nye Bevan once told Labour conference, but for the SNP independence is the only priority. Nicola Sturgeon can choose to change that, choose to be more than someone who couldn't achieve her dream and so kept a generation of children from achieving theirs. She can choose to make education her number one priority – and mean it this time. Or does she want to spend the rest of her career giving the same hollow speech over and over?