SNP's failure to close poverty-related education gap 'an enormous tragedy'

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Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon - AFP
Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon - AFP

SNP giveaways such as free bikes and lunches are not enough to address the "enormous tragedy" facing poorer children due to school closures, a prominent education expert has warned.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, attacked all major Scottish parties for a lack of ambition on education in their manifestos for the Holyrood elections.

Nicola Sturgeon had said that closing the attainment gap between rich and poor would be her “defining mission” over the last parliament but failed to make any significant progress, according to independent analysis by Audit Scotland.

In her manifesto, she had pledged to spend £1bn more in schools, while offering an expansion of universal school meals and free laptops, tablets, internet connections and even bikes to pupils.

However, the SNP did not set out any plans for major structural reforms to how education is delivered, and the party has previously been accused of offering gimmicks and giveaways rather than delivering serious changes to drive up standards or reduce poverty.

“There's been a lot of detailed focus on specific things, for example, providing free lunches to everyone,” Prof Paterson told the BBC.

“These are quite commendable, but there's been a lack of the big picture or any debate about the major impact which the Covid crisis has had on children's learning.

“The parties' hearts are in the right place but they're not really thinking as ambitiously as they could do.”

Despite once being renowned for its education system and spending more per pupil than other UK nations, Scotland has plummeted down international league tables.

Performance is lower than in England in reading, maths and science, according to the PISA rankings, which compare performance of pupils internationally.

Prof Paterson said that initiatives like supervised homework clubs could help pupils catch up and recover from a year of major disruptions to their schooling, which are likely to have harmed poorer pupils the most.

“The impact has been enormous,” he added. “Almost certainly, what's happened in one year, is as large an increase in the attainment gap in primary as normally happens over seven years.

“That's an enormous tragedy for the children caught at the bottom end of that and something urgent has to be done. To be honest I don't see, really, any adequate response from any of the parties to that real crisis.

“Somebody giving out for example free laptops or extra free meals are good in themselves, but they're not nearly enough to cope with a massive increase of educational inequality.”

Asked how he would grade the parties’ manifestos on education, Prof Paterson said he would give them all four out of ten.

John Swinney, the education secretary, said an extra £1billion of investment over the next five years would be directed to schools to help them close the attainment gap.

New teachers would also be recruited, he said, although critics say this merely amounts to reversing cuts since the SNP came to power in 2007. He insisted progress had been made in closing the attainment gap but added it would take “a number of years” to shut completely.

Ms Sturgeon had previously pledged to “substantially” close it within 2026, although at current rates of progress, achieving the ambition would take decades.

Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said the SNP had failed on education over the last 14 years.

In a radio debate, he told Mr Swinney: “You've had 14 years to close the attainment gap, Audit Scotland are clear you're making snail's pace progress on this.

"The digital divide is widening, so you can sit here in front of voters and say, ‘give us another five years I promise I'll do it this time’. Why should they trust you?”

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