LAST MONTH, the First Minister told us – boldly it has to be said – that her “neck was on the line” when it came to addressing the attainment gap between those pupils who come from poorer backgrounds and those who come from richer backgrounds. She added that she wants her government to be judged on its record in education with the promise to do so much more for those groups of pupils and students who have, over decades, been at a disadvantage when it comes to entry to further and higher education.
She must have spent the summer holidays dreading the newspaper headlines and opinion pieces which, one after the other, were flagging up serious problems in the world of Scottish education; the sharp decline in literacy and numeracy, 31 per cent of schools not reaching at least a “good” standard in school inspections, the crisis of head-teacher recruitment in many primary schools, a drop in the number of young people skilled in science, and the news that Scotland lags significantly behind all other UK nations in getting the poorest pupils into university.
To give her credit, she has recognised what the Tories and some education experts have been saying for a long time; that not nearly enough is being done to ensure that there is more effective literacy and numeracy testing in primary schools – not more testing, but better quality testing which can be assessed against nationally agreed criteria instead of the hotchpotch we have just now. She knows only too well that she cannot afford any more bad news when it comes to basic standards of reading, writing and arithmetic without which you cannot achieve very much in any system of education.
So it is welcome news that this nettle will finally be grasped, but much more needs to be done in other areas. Just this week, in a submission to the Public Audit Committee, the Scottish Funding Council gave the First Minister another headache when it published statistics that showed 16 of our 27 colleges are failing to meet the access targets for the poorest 10 per cent of students, the very students which the SNP claims to be helping most.
To be fair, some colleges are doing well, such as those in Glasgow, but those in areas like the North East, Borders, Fife, Highlands and Islands, and West Lothian, are all really struggling to get the teaching time offered to disadvantaged students up to 10 per cent. The significant variation across Scotland has serious implications. Colleges are a crucial way for young people to get the skills and qualifications they need to build a successful career but they are also a way of mobilising a much more flexible labour force and helping sustain more vibrant local economies.
That is why it is so wrong that the SNP has slashed 140,000 college places since 2008, cut the number of lecturers by 9.2 per cent since 2011 and forced colleges to deal with a real terms cut in revenue funding of £54m since 2011. Faced with these crippling “economies” it is little surprise that colleges are finding life really tough when it comes to helping those students who are often far removed from the labour market and who therefore need more money spent on them to provide the crucial support they need.
The same is also true in higher education. The universities admissions service, UCAS, published figures in August showing that just 9.7 per cent of pupils from the most deprived areas in Scotland progress to university – compared to 17 per cent in England, 15.5 per cent in Wales, and 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland. It is also worth noting that 34.9 per cent of pupils from the most affluent areas of Scotland entered higher education. This gap is huge and once again serves to illustrate why the SNP is going in completely the wrong direction when its politicians talk about delivering a fairer society.
It might be a better picture if bursary support to the poorest students was more generous but it’s not, falling way short of what is provided south of the border.
But instead of trying to address this problem what does the Scottish Government do? It tells us that the reform of university governance is the top priority. Yet, there is not one shred of evidence that suggests the current governance arrangements are in anyway detrimental to the educational experience of students and staff.
The failure of the Scottish Government to grasp the fact that Scotland’s universities are held in high esteem throughout the world precisely because they are well governed and enjoy institutional autonomy is staggering. The success of universities has been a direct result of their diversity and their ability to attract the very best students and staff in a highly competitive global economy for which OECD figures prove that the best university systems are those at the greatest arm’s length from government.
It has taken years for the SNP to realise where the correct focus should be in primary school education. Now it is time for Nicola Sturgeon and her party to realise where the correct focus should be in further and higher education – and start living up to their election pledge that they will deliver a fair deal to pupils and students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.