Nicola Sturgeon’s request that we judge her on her record of dealing with educational inequality was rather startling. This is because she wants Scots to judge her on her future performance, not the failings of her government since it came to power in 2007.
The most recent data from UCAS shows that the number of Scottish school leavers due to enter university from the most deprived households has risen by 0.1% this year to just 9.7%. In England the proportion increased by 0.5% to 17%. Scotland is lagging far behind and the gap is widening.
Ms Sturgeon’s government has tried to tackle this problem not by employing more teachers (there are 4000 fewer) or by increasing the grant for the poorest Scots (they cut it), but by having the universities set themselves targets.
The problem universities face in meeting these targets is that there is simply not the supply of good students from deprived backgrounds to enable them to be met. Universities are therefore forced to accept students from poor backgrounds who do not meet the normal entry standard.
As an academic who runs one of the UK’s top engineering programmes, I know of courses in Scotland with empty places reserved for students from poor backgrounds that don’t exist, whilst those Scots who exceed the entry standard are being turned away. This is not progress, but it is the record Ms Sturgeon must be judged on.
There is no easy or cheap solution to closing the attainment gap in Scotland. The first step in solving the problem we face, however, must be for Ms Sturgeon’s SNP Government to be honest about their lamentable record in office.
The second thing Ms Sturgeon must be encouraged to do is work with the opposition parties, Scotland’s local authorities, teachers and parents to ensure every child reaches their full potential. In a keynote speech last week, Kezia Dugdale made it clear that she wanted to work with the SNP government to tackle educational inequality and offered solutions to Ms Sturgeon. Let’s judge Ms Sturgeon’s sincerity on these issues by her response, when it comes, to Kezia Dugdale’s offer.