Nicola Sturgeon has failed a generation of young Scots

Ian Murray
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Nicola Sturgeon asked the people of Scotland to judge her on her education record. Well, it’s a fail from me. The last 13 years of SNP government has seen the once world-beating Scottish education system plummet so fast and far down the international league tables that the response has been to withdraw Scotland from most of the measurements. This fail was compounded this week when pupils in Scotland were the first in the UK to receive their exam grades following the coronavirus pandemic.

With no physical exams taken, the awarding of certificates was always going to be difficult to get right. But nobody could have anticipated the way the Scottish government would hard-bake inequality into the system. The method adopted has decided children’s future based on their postcode or the previous performance of their school, not their performance in the classroom assessed by the people who know them the best – their teachers.

As a result, thousands of pupils from poor communities have now had their futures stolen from them by the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon has failed a generation of young Scots, and that should be a harsh lesson for anyone who still thinks the SNP is a progressive government. At the very least, it should certainly be the final nail for any claim that education is the number one priority for the First Minister.

This year, initial grades were decided on teacher estimates. But the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) applied a ‘moderation’ calculation, which resulted in 133,000 entries being adjusted from the initial estimate – or around a quarter of all entries. A staggering 93% were adjusted down at least one grade.

That’s the kind of difference that can decide whether a child goes to university or not. But here’s the real scandal: the pass rate for Highers – the equivalent of A-Levels – was only reduced by 6.9 percentage points compared to teacher estimates for children from the richest communities in Scotland. It was cut by 15.2 percentage points for children living in the poorest neighbourhoods.

In other words, pupils living in deprived areas had their exam results downgraded by more than double the rate of their peers from affluent backgrounds. A shameful attainment gap exists in Scotland, and the Scottish government chose to add that to the algorithm rather than address it. There is a crucial lesson here for OfQual ahead of GCSE and A-Level results, and we must hope the Tory government does not preside over a similar unfair system in the weeks ahead. If the system damages the life chances of individuals, then it is not much of a system at all.

I was proud to go to school at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, where for many years there has been inspirational and innovative work carried out by hard-working teachers and pupils. But the school is in one of Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods, and I now fear pupils there will be among those unjustly penalised this year because of where they live. If it was in my time, I wouldn’t have been able to go to university as my grades would have been lowered to the school average over the previous years.

My inbox has been deluged with emails from worried pupils and parents – and it’s the same for MPs and MSPs across Scotland. The human cost was laid bare in Motherwell near Glasgow, where Olivia Biggart has worked to achieve her dream of attending medical school. Her predicted five As have been downgraded to two As and three Bs because she lives in a deprived community, jeopardising her future to be a top doctor.

Taking away life opportunities like this is heart-breaking and should shame the SNP forever. The First Minister defended this action, blamed the teachers, and then said that it would not be correct for the poorest pupils to have done so well. She defended using an algorithm to maintain the widening of educational attainment that her government has created.

What happens now if those pupils who have been disadvantaged win their appeals? By the First Minister’s reckoning this means they can’t win their appeals because that would mean poorer kids doing better. Surely not? It is astonishing that Nicola Sturgeon, herself from a working-class family in Ayrshire, has pulled the rug away like this.

As for her beleaguered Education Secretary, John Swinney, he has simply lied to the people of Scotland, claiming there is “no evidence” that pupils from poorer areas were disadvantaged. That’s blatantly not true. He has lost the confidence of pupils and teachers, so how long before he loses the confidence of the First Minister?

Next year’s Scottish parliament election is rapidly approaching. The SNP and Tories want to make the debate all about the constitution, but this week has been a stark reminder why that must not be allowed to happen. We owe it to the people of Scotland to focus on what really matters: how to restore Scottish education to the best in the world, how to protect our NHS, and how to rebuild our economy after a deep recession.

Labour already has some of the ideas to build a better Scotland: a national care service; increased investment for councils so they can reverse school spending cuts imposed by the SNP; and a jobs guarantee scheme for young Scots.
While the SNP has let down a generation, we will work tirelessly for a more socially just and fairer society.

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