PLATITUDES are une partie du jeu, part of the game of politics. These statements, often containing moral content, become too overused to remain interesting. But when does a platitude become an empty one? When does it become a thought-terminating cliché that is so mindlessly trite and vague that you can read whatever you want into it? Answer: when the SNP government puts it on a leaflet.
When the SNP leaflet came fluttering through my letterbox I was immediately confronted by ‘Hope for a better tomorrow’. More cynically minded people might react by thinking ‘prepare to be disappointed’ perhaps? But the leaflet’s pledge on education merits a moment’s consideration: ‘Equip children to succeed in tomorrow’s world’. Who could possibly disagree with that! Problems arise when you consider the uncontroversial ‘pledge’ insinuates the children of Scotland are currently unprepared for ‘tomorrow’; and much improving urgently needs to happen. But who has been in charge of education in Scotland for the last fourteen years? A responsibility, it should be noted, that has never been held by politicians or mandarins in London.
Unfortunately for Scotland’s school children, the empty platitudes are not improved upon when examining the SNP manifesto commitments on education. Their policy prescriptions to ‘equip children to succeed’ seem mismatched to the challenges they are supposedly going to solve.
For example, the SNP manifesto correctly identifies the problem of children struggling to learn due to poverty and hunger. “No pupil should struggle to learn because of poverty. We know that some families are sacrificing essentials like heating, food and rent payments so that their children can participate fully at schools” So far so good. “We will provide free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil in Scotland” – hooray!
Free school meal entitlements already exist for children from deprived backgrounds.
What the SNP is proposing is to extend that entitlement to the children of Scotland’s wealthy. Giving the kids of Morningside free meals does not strike me as a means of tackling food insecurity, poverty or hunger facing Scotland’s most deprived children.
And we have been here before. In 2015, the SNP proposed extending free school meals provision to all children in the first three years of primary. Again, the children from deprived backgrounds already had this entitlement, so the SNP was essentially extending it to wealthier families. And unsurprisingly the wealthiest families benefited the most. It was families with earnings like Nicola Sturgeon’s, earning circa £218,000+, who ended up making £330 a year savings.
Defending this upper-class welfarism at the time Nicola Sturgeon said, wealthy Scots “should get something out of the system as well”. And they did after 2015 Ms Sturgeon, they got £330 a year extra – meanwhile child poverty subsequently started rising and relative poverty rose automatically.
But that was merely £95m spent back then on extending entitlements to the wealthy. This election season Nicola Sturgeon’s new policy is the 2015s butched-up on steroids. She is proposing to spend a projected £230m extending the free school meals entitlements to even more wealthy households. Now all primary children will get taxpayer-paid free meals. So, if you are a low earning income taxpayer, you are going to be paying for the primary school children of MSPs, doctors, investment managers, stinking-rich capitalists (etc) to get free meals, as well as of course free bicycles, free laptops, free musical instruments, free music lessons and free school trips.
“Progressive”? I don’t think so; MSPs earn £64,470 per annum. Solving educational opportunities damaged by poverty? Again, I don’t think so. I do not know of any household ‘in poverty’ with individual earnings in that range.
We do not need middle class, or upper class welfarism in Scotland – but we do need support for the vulnerable. Sorry Nicola, I do not think making a virtue of ensuring the wealthy can get “something out of the system” is a priority for now.
But the rhetorical platitudes in the SNP election material continue. On page 62 of their manifesto, it boasts about the goal of “Raising standards and closing the attainment gap”. Again, a sentiment absolutely nobody can disagree with. But their pivot to boasting about the £750m Attainment Gap Fund ‘invested’ is interesting.
Nicola Sturgeon said in a speech to Holyrood on May 25th, 2016 “I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission, not just of this government or even parliament, but of the country as a whole.” A pity for the taxpayers that she ‘invested’ £750m only to fail. Audit Scotland describes the situation as follows:
- The attainment gap remains wide
- We need better education data
Audit Scotland stated on March 23rd 2021, “progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap between the most deprived and least deprived school pupils remains limited”. Five years. £750m. “Limited” progress at best, with, in Audit Scotland’s words, the gap being ”wider at higher levels of award,” in that “in 2018/19, the proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level 5 was 82.7 per cent for pupils from the least deprived areas, compared to 46.5 per cent for school leavers from the most deprived areas – a gap of 36.2 percentage points.”
But the scale of Nicola Sturgeon’s failure on education becomes even more exposed when that £750m ‘investment’ is placed in context. Audit Scotland reveals funding for education rose from £4.1 billion in 2013/14 to £4.3 billion in 2018/19. But most of this real-terms increase is due to the Attainment Fund. Audit Scotland sums up this lack of education investment: “funding for education has remained largely static”.
1. Largely static overall education funding. 2. Rising child poverty. 3. £750m spent with little if any progress made on closing the attainment gap.
Hmmn, If I were the First Minister, I would not be so quick to boast about that non-Attainment Fund. Especially when we consider the wider pattern of very real failure in education under the SNP – such as the shocking decline in ‘positive destinations’ for school leavers. Some 93.3% of 2019-20 school leavers were in a “positive destination”. Great, yeah? But wait…
The 93.3% figure is a decrease from the 95% recorded in 2018/19. In fact this represents the lowest figure since 2014/15. Plus, the drop has been felt in the greatest extent amongst – yep, you guessed it – those from the most deprived areas. The picture gets even worse if we look at the number of school leavers in employment. That has collapsed from 22.9% in 2018/19 to 16.2% in 2019/20.
But wait! Surely the pandemic is responsible for this?
The pandemic cannot be blamed for the fact that Scotland’s education system recorded its worst ever rating for maths, reading and science in 2016. Scottish schools have been under-performing under the SNP for years. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2015 revealed Scotland had fallen down the league tables for maths, science and reading compared to 34 other developed countries, and the UK’s other home nations. 2018 results are even worse.
I wonder why SNP Education Secretary John Swinney has subsequently pulled Scotland from global school assessments and hidden the latest PISA data from voters?
So, no progress closing the attainment gap regarding positive destinations.
And where the attainment gap has narrowed, it is perhaps for a truly terrible reason. The rate of decline in achievement among wealthier pupils has been greater than the rate of continuing decline among poorer kids. So while the attainment standards of poor parents’ kids have continued to decline the attainment standards of wealthiest parents kids have declined even more.
There are simply no winners from SNP education policies.
Tom Harris, former Labour MP and current Telegraph columnist writes, “In Scotland, a land which once boasted of having the best education system in the world, this is seen as progress. We’ll gladly settle for bringing the rich down instead of levelling up the poor.”
His point is vindicated by the fact the SNP withdrew business rates relief to Scotland’s private schools. Never mind these institutions produced some of Scotland’s top exam results. They exist outside of the control of the state, so the pupils going to them must be punished. Civic Scotland insists upon it under the SNP. Never mind that pushing these kids out of the private schools and into the state schools has not yielded any positive results on state schools’ performances. That was never the point.
Virtue signalling is the only point. Harvesting votes by sending out messages that suggest compassion, egalitarianism and helping the disadvantaged is the purpose. Screw the actual outcomes. There’s always another election when the SNP can again promise to correct the problems its politicians baked into the system by their own ill-conceived actions.
We need to look beyond the pleasing rhetoric of the SNP if we are to rescue Scottish education. Nicola Sturgeon might talk a good game, but her record is an utter disgrace. Failures admitted are not failures redeemed First Minister.