Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to set a date for closing Scotland’s poverty-related education attainment gap.
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson, speaking during the final session of first minister’s questions before May’s Holyrood election, said her party’s suggestions to help safeguard schoolchildren against the harms of Covid-19 had been ignored.
Ms Davidson, making what is likely to be her final contribution to the parliament, said proposals, such as including a national tutoring service and recruiting 3,000 more teachers, were simply sidestepped by ministers.
An Audit Scotland report this week found that, despite progress being made, the attainment gap remains wide, with a difference of 36.2% in the number of school leavers with five awards above level five from the most and least affluent backgrounds.
Ms Sturgeon would not give a timescale for closing the attainment gap – something she has identified as a key aim of her government – but said she would work hard through the next parliamentary term if the SNP are returned as the largest party.
Ms Davidson, speaking in her final parliamentary appearance as Tory group leader, asked: “Five years ago Nicola Sturgeon said she was going to shut the attainment gap completely, can she now tell the country when that will be?”
In response, Ms Sturgeon said: “If the Scottish people re-elect me to be first minister, then I will continue the work that we have been doing over the five years to improve attainment and close the attainment gap.
“If you look at the first five years of the Scottish attainment challenge programme, there is evidence that almost all of the short and medium-term outcomes have been achieved.
“There’s been demonstrable achievements on several of the long-term measures to close the attainment gap.”
Progress ‘hampered’ by Covid
The literacy and numeracy gap in primary school pupils has narrowed, along with the gap in numeracy for S3 pupils, differences between the number of school leavers in positive destinations and leaving with one pass or more at level five.
Ms Sturgeon said that although progress had been made, it had also been “hampered” by the coronavirus pandemic.
Uncertainty over pupils’ return to school
Appearing before Holyrood’s education committee earlier in the day, education secretary John Swinney said there had been “benefits and advantages” to pupils learning at home during lockdown.
Mr Swinney also admitted there is still a “certain amount of uncertainty” about whether all secondary pupils will be able to return to school full-time after Easter.
The Scottish Government closed schools to most pupils for a second time at the start of this year, as part of efforts to halt increasing numbers of coronavirus cases.
All children are now back in primary schools but secondary students have so far only been able to spend a limited amount of time in the classroom.
‘Now is the time for people to judge’
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also used the final session of first minister’s questions to challenge Ms Sturgeon on her government’s failure to close the attainment gap.
He said: “At this rate of progress it will take 35 years to have equity in education – 35 years. Meanwhile, yet more generations of thousands of young people will be left behind.”
Mr Rennie continued: “The first minister said, ‘judge me on education’. Well, now is the time for people to judge.
“Does the first minister accept she has had enough time and she has not done enough for young people in Scotland?”
Ms Sturgeon told him she expected there would be “significant progress” over the five years of the next Holyrood term, if Scots return her to power.
Public spending watchdogs at Audit Scotland recognised that “Covid has undoubtedly hampered progress” in their latest report, she added.
The SNP leader said: “We’re about to go into an election campaign where it is up to the Scottish people, in the election campaign I will put forward my record, the record of my government.
“I will be straight with the Scottish people about the challenges we face, where we haven’t made enough progress, and what we intend to do about (that). And on May 6 people in Scotland will make their decision.”
With Wednesday’s session the final one before Holyrood enters its pre-election recess period, Ms Sturgeon was at pains to mention Ms Davidson’s future in the House of Lords, where she will take her seat after stepping down at this election.
The first minister repeatedly said she would face the electorate while Ms Davidson would not, prompting presiding officer Ken Macintosh to step in, saying he would rather the exchange “wasn’t so personal”.