Nicola Sturgeon has accused Ruth Davidson of having a “constitutional obsession” with independence as the First Minister came under pressure over her “10-year record of failure” on education ahead of Thursday's council elections.
Ms Sturgeon highlighted a Tory election leaflet for the local authority contest, which she said mentioned “mentions me, or the SNP, or independence, a grand total of 43 times.”
She said there were only nine mentions of Ruth Davidson or the Tories and nothing at all about education, before accusing the Conservatives of having no policies other than opposing independence.
But her claim was met with incredulous laughter from the Tory benches at Holyrood, with Ms Sturgeon pressing for a second independence referendum less than three years after the last one.
Ms Davidson used First Minister’s Questions to highlight declining academic standards in numeracy and science over the decade of SNP rule at Holyrood and argued the official statistics showed education is not Ms Sturgeon’s priority.
The Scottish Tory leader said voters go to the polls on Thursday to elect councillors whose jobs will be to support schools but “thanks to the Nationalists our schools can no longer be classed as world-leading.”
A total of 2,572 candidates competing for 1,227 seats across 354 wards will be elected under the single transferable vote system, whereby voters number them in order of preference. They will be counted electronically, with the result announced on Friday afternoon.
Both the SNP and Tories are expected to make major gains across Scotland’s 32 local authorities, with Labour on course to be routed and to lose control of a series of power bases it has held for decades, including Glasgow City Council.
All the parties will analyse the results closely for trends in wards in key Westminster constituencies ahead of next month’s general election.
Ms Davidson has argued a Tory vote will send a message to Ms Sturgeon to drop her plans for a second independence referendum and focus on improving public services, including education.
Speaking on the tenth anniversary of the SNP winning power, the Scottish Tory leader challenged the First Minister to explain why the proportion of children performing well in numeracy in P4 and P7 fell between 2011 and 2015.
She also highlighted a sharp decline in teacher numbers and a damning report that found the brightest Scottish pupils are the equivalent of a year’s worth of schooling behind at science compared to before the SNP took power.
But Ms Sturgeon said: “I am standing here wondering why, if education is of any priority to the Conservatives, they are putting out around the country leaflets such as the one that I have here, which I got through my door.
“It mentions me or the SNP or independence a grand total of 43 times. It mentions Ruth Davidson or the Tories just nine times, and one of those times is her signature. It mentions Ruth Davidson’s policies on education zero times.”
Despite the Tories producing a 26-page local government manifesto, the First Minister claimed “they have not put forward a single policy” during the campaign. She added: “They have a constitutional obsession; I will get on with raising standards in our schools.”
Speaking after their exchanges, Ms Davidson said: “The SNP has been in sole charge of education for a decade, and these failings are inexcusable. “One in five children leave school functionally illiterate, the proportion of youngsters performing well in numeracy is falling, and pupils’ ability in science is in ‘pronounced and sustained’ decline according to experts.”
She concluded: “The SNP may say its priority is education, but the last decade tells a different story entirely.”