NOTEBOOK: VIRAGOES BARE THEIR CLAWS AS PARLIAMENT GOES INTO PURDAH

HOLYROOD NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

We had yet another stairheid row in the Scottish Parliament this week as those two viragoes, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, bared their manicured and painted claws and got stuck into each other over education and independence.
It was not a pretty sight and did nothing for the argument that the introduction of more women into councils, public bodies and institutions would bring civility and good manners to Scottish politics.
I suppose that is something the public should remember on the eve of the Holyrood election.
Neither do I believe that parties giving preferential treatment to more gay, BAME and transgender persons will on its own make parliament a better place.
The sniping, a word that doesn’t fit the bill here because what went on was anything but covert, began predictably at First Minister’s Question Time.
Nicola Sturgeon has a reputation for being well-equipped in the Nippy Sweetie Stakes, but the truth is that Ruth Davidson isn’t far behind her when it comes to sledging.
Ms Davidson said that since this was her last FMQ time at Holyrood before she moves on the vermilion benches in the House of Lords that she wanted to make certain the Audit Scotland report on the attainment gap, “Improving outcomes for young people through school education”—did not go un-examined.

She said: “Before we get into the detail of that, the Deputy First Minister [John Swinney] said at today’s Education and Skills Committee meeting that he was nervous about the use of the phrase ‘catch up’ when talking about pupils affected by the pandemic, as that assumes that all children have fallen behind.

“Does the First Minister agree with that view, or does she share my concern that everything possible must be done to help pupils catch up after the better part of a year out of the classroom?”

The FM was fizzing. She told MSPs that Ruth Davidson could have chosen to ask her about education in any previous week “but she has chosen to indulge in smears instead of focusing on the issues that people want to focus on.

“I am therefore pleased that she is back on to the issue of education and attainment in what is, of course, her last FMQs before she goes to the un-elected House of Lords.”

Ms Sturgeon claimed: “On attainment, the Audit Scotland report published this week has lots for us to think about as we head to the election and as a new Government takes office after that.

“It narrates much progress, both in raising attainment and in closing the attainment gap. It recognises the obvious impact that Covid has had on that progress but also, I think, can give us confidence that the key building blocks are in place—through, for example, the attainment challenge, increased funding and increased numbers of teachers.

I think that it is really important that we support young people to catch up on their education. The Scottish Government has announced significant additional investment, supporting increased numbers of teachers and a host of other initiatives, to help with that.

“However, I make no apology for saying that, when it comes to the wider well-being of young people, it is really important that we recognise the impact of Covid not just on their education, which has been really significant, but on their mental health, in being away from their friends, grandparents and families, and that we take that holistic approach.

“Therefore, for example, we will be introducing a summer programme, backed by £20 million of additional investment, that will allow us to focus on the broader well-being of children, so that we make sure that they recover and catch up in that wider sense. Education is part of that, but it is not the only part.”

The departing interim Tory leader snapped back: “A bit of contrition from the First Minister might be in order, after the failures of her Government have been exposed, rather than a lack of honour or indeed any contrition.

“I do not know how the Deputy First Minister can say that he is concerned about the words ‘catch up’, because there is simply no way that pupils who would otherwise have spent the entire year in class can have done anything other than fall behind, through no fault of their own or of their teachers, over the past 12 months. The only question is, ‘How far?’

“While we respect the summer work, we want to know what else the Government will do to turn the situation around. It is not as if there was not already a serious problem in Scotland with a deeply entrenched attainment gap.

“This week’s Audit Scotland report says that the attainment gap ‘remains wide’ and that improvements are not happening quickly enough.

“It specifically says that those ‘in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected’  by the impact of school closures, and that those same disadvantaged children have less access to remote learning and to online resources.

“The Government has had years in charge of education, so why is progress on closing the attainment gap so slow?”

Ms Sturgeon often gives the impression that everything is about her. She said: “Ruth Davidson has spent weeks misrepresenting me. Many legitimate questions should have been, and have been, asked of me, and I have shown plenty of contrition where that has been merited.

“However, I have heard on the grapevine that there is a lot of division within the Conservative Party about its tactics over the past few days, so, moving on from misrepresenting me, Ruth Davidson is now misrepresenting the Deputy First Minister.

“I am really not sure what many people could find to disagree with in the view that, yes, we should help young people to catch up in their education, but, as we do that, we should help them to recover from the overall wider impact that Covid has had on them.

“That is the point that the Deputy First Minister was making. I find it really hard to see how and why Ruth Davidson would disagree with that.

“The Audit Scotland report has much to say about progress. For example, it says: ‘At the national level, exam performance and other attainment measures have improved … There has been an increase in the types of opportunities, awards and qualifications available to children and young people and an increase in the number awarded’.”

She added: “The report also focuses on the impact of Covid, and that is why we are so focused on dealing with that in the widest sense. We have committed almost £400 million of new funding over this year and next year as part of education recovery. That involves funding a range of actions, including the recruitment of 1,400 additional teachers, 200 additional support staff, new digital devices and youth support work—all the things that we need to do to support young people.

“That funding is also supporting the introduction of a £20 million pupil equity funding premium, which will be part of record investment through the attainment Scotland fund.

“I hope to be standing here again in the next parliamentary session—that is up to the Scottish people. While Ruth Davidson is off taking £300 a day to sit in the un-elected House of Lords, those of us who are in this chamber will be getting on with the job of improving education for all.”

Most people present were getting fed up with this back biting. Even the mild-mannered Presiding Officer, who told the two “ladies” – “I appreciate that this is a political exchange, and I always allow some latitude, but you have twice mentioned the House of Lords, First Minister. The point has been made. [Interruption.] It is a political exchange—I get it, and I understand it—but the point has been made, and I would rather that it was not so personal.”

Ruth Davidson told him his intervention was “gallant, but not required”. In other words, she was big and ugly enough to take care of herself.

She added: “My aim—to put it very bluntly—is to close that attainment gap. Not by a bit, but to close that attainment gap completely.

“That was said more than five years ago; as a promise, it has been proven worthless. The Government was running out of solutions well before the pandemic struck. The Audit Scotland report criticises the slow rate of improvement and it highlights the attainment Scotland fund, but it also makes the point that the attainment fund needs to change.

“Reading and writing are the basic core skills of every pupil, but the attainment gap for literacy in attainment challenge areas increased from 2017 to 2018, and it increased again from 2018 to 2019.

“Seven months ago, after the previous return of pupils to the classroom, the Scottish Conservatives were calling for measures to help them get back up to speed: 3,000 extra teachers, a national tutoring service and an independent inspectorate to ensure that schools were getting back on track.

“That has all been ignored, while our children are continuing to pay the price for Government complacency. Five years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said that she was going to shut the attainment gap ‘completely’. Can she now tell the country when that will happen?”

The First Minister said: ” If the Scottish people re-elect me to be First Minister, I will continue the work that we have been doing over those five years to improve attainment and close the attainment gap. Looking at the first five years of the Scottish attainment challenge programme, there is evidence that almost all the short-term and medium-term outcomes have been achieved. There has been demonstrable progress on several of the long-term measures to close the attainment gap.

“For primary pupils, the gap in literacy and numeracy has narrowed. For secondary 3 pupils, the numeracy gap has narrowed. The gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment and training has narrowed year on year. The gap between the most deprived and least deprived pupils achieving one pass or more at level 5 has gone from 33.3 percentage points to 20.8 percentage points. I could go on.

“Progress has been made, albeit that it has been hampered by a global pandemic. That is why we are investing in, and not just talking about, recruiting more teachers—we have recruited more teachers.

“As is shown in the Audit Scotland report on education, spend on education in Scotland has gone up by 5 per cent in real terms. We have the highest spending per head of any of the nations in the United Kingdom, and we have the highest number of teachers since 2008. Indeed, we have the highest number of primary teachers since 1980.”

  • Look out for a special article of what the teachers would like Scottish education to aspire to in The Dumbarton Democrat. Coming you way later today.

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