Alison Rowat: So, First Minister, you asked to be judged on your results?

·5-min read
Pupils have  put years of disruption behind them and  returned to the examination hall
Pupils have put years of disruption behind them and returned to the examination hall

ON behalf of the nation’s media I’d like to apologise to Scotland’s pupils, or at least the ones who have been through the exam mill recently.

Every year we turn up to rubberneck as you open the dreaded results, and every year photographers ask some of you to jump in the air, because that’s what you always do on receiving good news.

To these time-honoured traditions we have added another. Every year, columnists and leader writers bump their gums over the continuing failure to close the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their better-off counterparts. Then every year we forget about it, until the next time.

This year, the Higher pass rate for pupils in the most deprived areas was 70.2%, down from 83.2%. In the least deprived areas the pass rate was 85.1%, down from 91%. Taken together, this resulted in an attainment gap of 15 percentage points, up from 7.8 points the year before.

Failing to close the attainment gap is hardly the only policy area where the Scottish Government is falling down on the job. The attainment gap is different, though. It is one of the rare instances when the Government made a clear, cast-iron commitment to do better. These don’t come along very often so it is notable when they do.

They even wrote this one down. Here it is in the 2016 Programme for Government. It was to be the “defining mission” of the administration to “close the poverty-related attainment gap”. Within the lifetime of the parliament (2016-21) “significant progress” would be made, the ultimate goal being to “substantially eliminate” the gap by 2026.

Adding to the commitment were personal pledges from the First Minister. It was her priority to raise the bar for all, close the attainment gap and open up opportunity for every child. “I want to be judged on this,” she told us.

Well here it is: mission unaccomplished once again, First Minister. Perhaps we should be grateful her promises were not carved in a giant rock. As it is, the pledges have been preserved on video tape, there to be played over and over.

Among the reasons given for this year’s failure to close the gap is continuing disruption due to Covid. Doubtless it was a major factor, but does anyone believe that, even without Covid, the Scottish Government would be well on its way to substantially eliminating the gap by 2026? That would be a terrific result, a genuine cause for celebration. Dream on.

On one thing you can rely. If the pass rate for pupils in the least deprived areas had suffered a double digit drop how long would it be before parents were lining up to speak to the headteacher? An hour? Two?

You have to wonder why the Scottish Government is not straining every sinew to close the gap. Not only is it a terrible injustice to give some children a better chance in life than others, it makes no economic sense. If Scotland is ever to be a successful, independent, prosperous nation it needs to harness the talents of all its young people, equally.

I don’t doubt that Ms Sturgeon was being sincere when she made her promises and asked to be judged on the results.

Yet I also recall what happened two years ago when the Government’s principles were put to the test. It was 2020, Covid had forced the cancellation of exams for the first time. Teachers were asked instead to estimate the grades each pupil could expect, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority would moderate the results up or down using some unspecified formula.

In the event, the SQA downgraded a quarter, or 125,000, results. Key to deciding whether to moderate up or down were a school’s past results.

This meant that a pupil from a poor area, regardless of how hard they had worked, was more likely to have their grades downgraded than those from a well-do-do one.

It was, in short, a postcode lottery in which wealth determined the winners and losers.

When this obvious unfairness was pointed out, not least by pupils themselves, the Scottish Government sided with the SQA, which in turn said it was acting to maintain “the integrity of the system”. Both the Education Secretary, John Swinney, and his boss, Ms Sturgeon, said the estimated grades of the teachers had not been credible and the independent SQA had been right to act. It was not for politicians to stick their beaks into exams.

Such was the backlash that within a matter of days the Scottish Government executed a screeching U-turn and the estimated grades were restored. Even the Government’s staunchest defenders were left puzzled and hurt. Why had the Government’s first instinct been to side with the SQA over teachers who knew their pupils best? How could they countenance penalising poorer pupils simply because of where they lived?

Two reasons come to mind. First, the SNP, party and Government, are allergic to criticism. Their gut reaction is to circle the wagons. The other is that they can talk a good talk on social justice and radical change, but in reality they will never walk the walk.

Substantially eliminating the gap by 2026 would require a huge shift of resources away from the middle classes. A lot of eggs would have to be broken to make that omelette. Why bother when you have the votes of the poorest already? What are they going to do, go back to Labour?

If the SNP were genuinely serious about closing the attainment gap they would put it on a list of targets to be achieved before another independence referendum could be held. That’s not going to happen, and in the meantime the life chances of too many young people will be squandered.

Ms Sturgeon once said that her priority for her time as First Minister was that every young person got the same advantage as she did when she was “lucky” growing up in Ayrshire, where she went to state schools before going on to the University of Glasgow.

The point is that no-one should have to rely on being “lucky” to get a good education. It should be a fundamental right, regardless of where you come from. For every “lucky” working class kid who gets through, there are lots of “unlucky” ones cast aside. Shame on any Government that continues to let that happen.