The SNP has betrayed an entire generation of children

Scottish Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth
Scottish Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth

Scotland’s education system was once a source of pride for those of us born and raised north of the border. It was taken as read, as a complacent assumption, that our schools were head and shoulders above those in the rest of the developed world.

“Complacent” is the entirely appropriate word. The continuation of Scotland’s more meritocratic system was guaranteed by the provisions of the Acts of Union in 1707; the fact that Scotland’s educational institutions were not subsumed in a Britain-wide system led directly – or so their supporters claimed – to better results and a higher attainment level than those of our English neighbours, particularly in terms of working class participation.

Alas, whether or not those boasts were entirely justified by the available empirical data, or whether Scots’ natural tendencies towards self-regard played a role in the boasting, no such claims can be made today. The latest nail in the coffin of Scottish exceptionalism when it comes to education were delivered yesterday by the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which made for worrying reading for parents, if not for Scottish ministers.

Scottish pupils’ results in science and maths have continued to decline: the drop in achievement since 2006 is the equivalent of missing 21 months of science lessons and more than 18 months of maths, according to analysis.

Undoubtedly the SNP, which runs the devolved administration in Edinburgh and has 100 per cent responsibility for this devolved area, will undoubtedly blame other factors; the Conservatives, naturally, but also the Covid pandemic. Jenny Gilruth, the education minister, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact across the majority of learning and teaching.” Every nation of the UK has seen a reduction in its Pisa scores, she added, failing to mention that the conclusion drawn by Andreas Schleicher, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), noted a significant disparity between the UK’s constituent nations, with Wales and Scotland seeing the biggest decline in standards.

In reference to the catastrophic drop of 20 points in Scotland’s scores since 2015, Mr Schleicher added: “I think the last years have not been great for Scotland.”

Understatement is a wonderful and illuminating thing. And yet we were promised by the former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, that her administration should be judged on its success, or not, in education. Speaking in August 2015 about the glaring attainment gap between schools in poorer areas of Scotland and those in better off areas, she said: “Let me be clear: I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as first minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people, then what are you prepared to? It really matters.”

Yet those comments were made more than eight years after the SNP took charge of Scotland’s schools. Another eight years have passed since then and no such promises have been kept. Any modest progress made has gone into reverse.

But hang on a minute – wasn’t devolution supposed to have heralded a new era of excellence in Scotland’s schools? Weren’t “Scottish solutions to Scottish challenges” a core part of the offer made to Scots when we were invited to approve the principle of devolution in the 1997 referendum?

And if Gilruth and all her colleagues are simply going to blame other people and external factors for their failure to deliver what they repeatedly promised, isn’t that in itself the greatest possible condemnation of devolution in principle? Wasn’t the establishment of a Scottish Parliament supposed to make locally-elected politicians responsible for their failures as well as their successes?

Yet year after year, parents and pupils have been let down by a party and a parliament that have singularly and spectacularly failed to deliver on their promises.

How much longer must young Scots suffer the penalty of the failure of our politicians? The SNP are no supporters of devolution itself, and wish to see the whole project scrapped in favour of independence. So in a way, their part in undermining Holyrood and its ability to change anything for the better makes some clumsy sense. “Look,” they might as well be saying, “without independence your politicians (i.e., us) still don’t feel any need to deliver for you.”

And given that until recently, any degree of failings tended to be overlooked by an electorate still divided by the independence referendum of 2014, it was quite understandable that SNP ministers felt free to focus on their own pet political project rather than getting on with the day job. You get what you vote for, and Scottish voters, like those they repeatedly elected to office, must accept the consequences of their own actions.

But democracy, above all, means the opportunity to change your mind. The question is whether the opposition parties are up to the task of providing real, practical and valuable reforms to our education system, or if they will follow the SNP down the road of seeking voters’ support to govern, only to plead impotence once their request has been heeded.

If the latter, then devolution will have been proven, without any doubt, as a massive fraud perpetrated on our nation.

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