Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to give a date for closing the poverty-related education attainment gap.
Scottish Tory Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said her party had made suggestions last year about how to ensure children in school are not negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, but that all suggestions – including a national tutoring service and recruiting 3,000 more families – were ignored.
The First Minister did not give a timescale for the closure of the attainment gap, but said she would work hard through the next parliamentary term if the SNP are the largest party after May’s election.
Ms Davidson, speaking in her final First Minister’s Questions before she leaves Holyrood, 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?”
The question comes as an Audit Scotland report this week found that, despite progress being made, the attainment gap remained 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.
In response, the First Minister 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.”
Ms Sturgeon said the literacy and numeracy gap in primary school pupils had 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.
The First Minister said progress had been made, but also “hampered” by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following the First Minister’s answer, Ms Davidson asked how many times she would “demand” another independence referendum “before she finally gets round to closing the education gap?”
The First Minister said: “There will be another independence referendum if the people of Scotland vote for another independence referendum – it is called democracy.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, also challenged the First Minister on her Government’s failure to close to attainment gap in schools.
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.”
The Lib Dem 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 returned her back to power.
Public spending watchdogs at Audit Scotland recognised that “Covid has undoubtedly hampered progress” in their latest report, she added.
The First Minister 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. And on May 6 people in Scotland will make their decision.”
With Wednesday’s session the final one before Holyrood enters it’s pre-election recess period, the First Minister 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.
Ms Sturgeon repeatedly said she would face the electorate, while Ms Davidson would not, prompting Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh to step in and warn her against mentioning the House of Lords, saying he would rather the exchange “wasn’t so personal”.