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5 October 2023

Why did Nicola Sturgeon fail her own education mission?

The former Scottish first minister made schools her priority but the reality has been drift and decline.

By Chris Deerin

When I interviewed Nicola Sturgeon in April 2016, she had been first minister of Scotland for around 18 months. She’d had time to shape her government and set her priorities.

Considering the decisions she’d taken so far, I asked her, which made her proudest? “I wouldn’t use the word proud because I think this is a work in progress, but deciding early on that education and the attainment gap was going to be my yardstick,” she told me. “It’s not something I’m going to say is ‘job done’ in a year or two years or probably even five years, but that’s the one that I’m going to measure myself against.”

By the time Sturgeon left office in March this year, after almost a decade in power, that self-selected measure – the difference in the number of pupils from the most affluent and the most deprived areas gaining A, B and C grades – did not reflect well on her ministry. In August, exam results sent out to pupils in Scotland confirmed a 16 percentage point attainment gap at Higher level, up from 14.9 points last year, 7.9 in 2021 and 6.4 in 2020. 

In our interview, I laid out what I thought were some basic rules behind successful education reform, and I haven’t changed my mind about them. You have to be willing to remove headteachers and teachers who are not up to it; give good heads the autonomy to run their school largely as they see fit, keeping the local education authority at arm’s length; build a national culture that demands high standards; encourage diversity and experimentation within the system; and last, but not least, be willing to confront vested interests.

Sturgeon’s response? “If anybody decides to be a block to making sure we’ve got the best education system then they should be moved out of the way. I’ll be confrontational with anybody if it’s about improving the educational experience of kids that come from the kinds of [working-class] communities that I grew up in. I don’t want it to be a lottery in life as to whether you get the chances to do what I did or not.”

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There are very few people in Scotland today who would view this as a promise kept. I don’t think any of my rules were addressed. And yet, at the time, Sturgeon seemed fired up about the challenge. So what happened?

[See also: Will the SNP ever learn to say no?]

In my interview with Liz Lloyd, the former first minister’s long-time chief of staff, published yesterday, an explanation of sorts emerges. After the 2014 independence referendum, says Lloyd, although voters remained polarised between Yes and No, there was general agreement that the constitutional debate should be set aside for a bit. “Nicola’s first ministership was not designed to be about the constitution… We came in thinking, ‘Let’s focus on public service reform, focus on the economy.’”

Then Brexit happened, against majority Scottish opposition, and arguments about leaving the UK returned to the fore. Sturgeon was left with little choice but to pick up the independence cudgels again, says Lloyd. The SNP also developed other priorities – the kind of institution-building that complemented its desire to create a new state, such as the establishment of a more progressive tax system, a social security system and a national investment bank. “They’re complicated things, they take a lot of effort,” Lloyd points out.

But still. Scotland’s education system, which is wholly in Holyrood’s hands and which is crucial to the nation’s prospects and any war on poverty, is not in the shape it could or should be. There are good schools and fine teachers, but overall there is a sense of drift and even decline. The reforms that have been introduced have largely been of the “progressive” kind that, if they are going to affect the attainment gap, threaten to do so by bringing the highest-achieving more into line with the lowest, rather than vice versa. Under the Curriculum for Excellence, pupils in a majority of schools face a reduction in the number of exams they can sit, regardless of academic ability. The Scottish government is considering scrapping exams for 14- and 15-year-olds altogether. Succeeding downwards while trying to make school “easier” doesn’t seem like much of a national goal.

Kate Forbes, who lost narrowly to Humza Yousaf in the race to succeed Sturgeon, clearly agrees. Speaking to the Herald this week, she argued that “there’s no reason why children, irrespective of their background, can’t reach the same levels. I think there’s a risk in our public discourse about the attainment gap; about thinking we need to make education simpler and easier in order to ensure everyone is achieving the same.

“The opposite is true. Our education system should be about hard work and based on aspiration and ambition. It should realise that we are competing with India, with Japan, with Denmark. Until you do that, I don’t think you can close the attainment gap. It’s the only route out of poverty that works.”

One wonders, and not for the first time, what might have been if Forbes had won the leadership election. One hopes, too, that Scottish Labour, which insists it will pursue the public service reforms avoided by the SNP, is paying attention. Otherwise, the depressing prospect is simply more of the same.

“I don’t think we’ve done as well as we’d like to have done [on education],” Lloyd admitted, though she insisted that institutional resistance to reform was a big problem. “With Cosla [the association of local authorities], there is a defensiveness about protecting their turf. You need teachers to be part of the discussion and you need local authorities to take their defensive hackles down, and come to the table with a willingness to be creative. You can’t force people into that.

“I’m not sure we had the political capital and the cooperation of the other partners in the education system. The government can pull far more levers in the health system than it can in education because the education system is owned by the local authorities. You can say, do this – [but it] doesn’t mean they’re going to do it.”

Lloyd is a smart and thoughtful interviewee, whom Sturgeon was lucky to have by her side, but in the end I refuse to buy this. At Westminster, since the Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker’s reforms in the late 1980s, governments of different stripes have followed a pathway of reform that has made a real impact on the performance of less-privileged children. It hasn’t always worked, it certainly wasn’t easy, and there have been scraps with vested interests along the way, but the difference is now there to be measured. As, sadly, is the difference Nicola Sturgeon failed to make.

[See also: Inside Labour’s battle for Scotland at the Rutherglen by-election]

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