As “top priorities” go, Nicola Sturgeon’s focus on education is not going very wellby Alex Massie / January 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
In August 2015, Nicola Sturgeon declared that education, not the cause of Scottish independence to which she has devoted her political life, was the policy area that mattered most to her. “Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this” she said. “If you are not, as first minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to? It really matters.”
Four years later, this seems a bolder pledge than ever. For a long time, education was something that Scots prided themselves on doing well. Scotland’s distinctive education system—broad-based, largely comprehensive—was both different from and superior to the way education was done in England. Civic Scotland, that great amorphous accumulation of Scottish received and frequently conceited wisdom, bathed itself in superiority.
And there was, it must be allowed, something to this. Before the great expansion of higher education south of the border, the typical pupil in Scotland was significantly more likely to attend university than their typical counterpart in England. The much-cherished “lad o’ pairts” rising to eminence from humble beginnings was not a wholly mythical creation.
Those days, however, are no more and Sturgeon’s 2015 acceptance that something, somewhere, had gone wrong in Scottish education was admission enough that something had to be done. Denial was apparently no longer an option. In this, Sturgeon at least offered a refreshing realism that provided some hope the years of refusing to accept there might be room for improvement were now over. The trouble comes when that rhetoric has to be translated into action.
Since then there have been some successes, including the overall number of qualifications gained by Scottish pupils. And as Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament this week, “The percentage of school leavers who are getting a level 5 qualification”—broadly comparable to a GCSE—“has increased from 71 per cent when we took office to 85 per cent now.” If this is the lowest of low bars to clear, it is happier news that the number of pupils leaving school with at least one Higher (somewhere between an AS and an A level) has increased. And as the first minister put it, “for the…