Nicola Sturgeon wants to mark her own homework

The first minister does not want you to compare Scotland’s performance with anywhere else. So what is there to hide?

December 20, 2021
Nicola Sturgeon. Transparency was meant to be part of her brand. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Nicola Sturgeon. Transparency was meant to be part of her brand. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

For Nicola Sturgeon, transparency is part of the brand. Styling herself as the “most accessible first minister ever” when she succeeded Alex Salmond in 2014, Sturgeon has repeatedly pledged to lead the most scrutable government Scotland had ever had. The values she projects—and which Yes voters identify with—are those of openness and accountability. The values she attacks—usually when she is calling out Westminster—tend to be those of secrecy, conspiracy and corruption. 

But it’s all an act. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scotland is not a shining light but a black box. Since taking power, the SNP has gradually, but deliberately, changed the way different public services collect data, measure outcomes and are held to account. The intention appears to be political: to create differentiation, evade scrutiny, and avoid intervention from Westminster. But it is the Scottish people who are suffering the consequences—with worse public services and an unaccountable state. 

There was once a time when Scottish politicians proudly proclaimed the Scottish schools system as the best in the world, the product of the Scottish Enlightenment and the incubator of great intellectuals like David Hume and Adam Smith. Yet today the Scottish government appears to be so ashamed of its record overseeing education that it refuses to take part in international studies. 

In 2010, the SNP ended Scotland’s participation in two key international surveys—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). This was ostensibly to “reduce the burden on schools.” But a cynic might point to the results of both surveys over the previous decade, which revealed schools in Scotland recording lower maths and reading improvement than schools in England. 

Whatever the justification, the decision has had serious consequences for schoolchildren. In the words of one Scottish education expert, Keir Bloomer, “we know less now about the performance of Scotland’s schools than at any time since the 1950s.” This prevents schools from learning best practice from overseas and hinders ministers’ ability to fix problems as they emerge. Indeed, statistical research conducted at the University of Edinburgh found that leaving TIMMS may have embedded ineffective maths and science teaching practices in Scotland’s schools that might otherwise have been rectified.

The only international education survey which Scotland remains part of—the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—reveals why the SNP may want to mark its own homework. Scotland’s PISA results have fallen for reading, maths and science since the early 2000s, while England’s have improved. In 2006, Scotland recorded higher scores in reading and maths than England, and was only marginally behind in science. By 2018, England’s PISA scores were higher on all three measures, and Scotland’s 11-point lead in maths in 2006 had been reduced to a five-point deficit. Indeed, the OECD recently wrote that “on the most recent 2021 PISA surveys, Scotland was similar to the international average after having been one of the leading countries in maths achievement a decade before.”

It is not just in schools. A similar pattern of data divergence is visible in NHS Scotland, which has been in the care of the Scottish government since it was transferred from the Scottish Office in 1999. While data was collected separately before 1999, devolution has exacerbated divides. When the Health Foundation attempted to compare health outcomes across the four nations of the UK in 2014, researchers found it impossible to compare hospital waiting times because Scotland had changed the way it collected the data since devolution. The Nuffield Trust, another health thinktank, has lamented that in recent years it has “seemed that no government organisation within the UK took a concerted interest in the comparative performance of the different systems of health care.” One SNP MP has even amplified the misleading line that Scotland measures drug-induced deaths differently to other countries, to explain away the fact it has the worst drug mortality rate in Europe. 

It was not meant to be this way. When Westminster devolved responsibility for administering public services to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments, there was an understanding that data needed to remain consistent across the UK. In 2001, the statistical bodies of each of the four nations signed the Concordat on Statistics to provide assurance that “the UK Government and devolved administrations will continue to work together to reach consensus on how to best meet these needs, producing coherent/comparable statistics at the UK and disaggregated levels.” But in the decades since, data has become a new front in the battle for independence. 

Scottish Nationalists angrily claim that it is their and other devolved governments’ right to pursue different policies under the terms of devolution and, if they wish, to measure outcomes differently too. Perhaps. It is certainly true that Wales has been guilty of obfuscation too, with the then-first minister Rhodri Morgan pledging to create “clear red water” between the Welsh and English educational systems in 2002 and ending the publication of pupil performance data.

But we should ask who benefits from Scotland’s statistical obscurity. Not the Scottish people, whose public services are less able to learn from other systems in other parts of the UK and around the world. Not UK taxpayers, whose hard-earned cash can no longer be evaluated for value for money in different parts of the UK. Even devolution itself will suffer, leading to less accountable government. 

The coronavirus pandemic offers a salient reminder of the importance of robust and independent data to help inform policy decisions, manage public services and hold politicians to account. It also shows that it is possible for Scotland to publish internationally comparable data while taking its own decisions about delivery. As we recover from the horrors of the last few years, it is in the interests of everyone in the United Kingdom—especially Scots—that policymakers can compare performance and work together to improve results. If the Scottish government refuses to accept this, people will legitimately ask: “What is the SNP trying to hide?”