SOURCE WILL BE ANALYSING the repercussions of the varying inquiry verdicts later today, and I will do my own follow up after the vote of confidence. However, this stooshie in the ruling party has served to obscure the facts that should be dominating a “normal” election. Almost nobody is talking about it, but in the nearly seven years since the referendum of 2014, the Scottish Government has few real policy achievements to its name.
When Nicola Sturgeon took over as First Minister, she asked critics to judge her on the poverty-related attainment gap in schools. Reducing that gap was not some socialist pipe dream. Theoretically, the very notion that parental income determines your chances of future success should shock anyone who believes in the centrist liberal ideology of meritocracy. All the more so in Scotland, where the democratic intellect and “lad o’ pairts” myths shape our national amour propre.
Given this pretension, Sturgeon inherited a stark statistic. The gap between the richest and poorest pupils, measured as the proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level five, stood at an extraordinary 41.6 percent. We now have figures for 2018/19, before everything was thrown into disorder by the pandemic. It shows the gap sitting at 36.2 percent.
The Scottish Government’s own report painted a picture of qualified success. However, Audit Scotland’s report, released soon after, has darker hues: “Progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap between the most and least deprived school pupils has been limited,” it observes. “Progress since 2013-14 has been inconsistent. And there are large variations in local authority performance, with some councils’ performance getting worse on some measures. The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Similar impressions emerge from the teaching unions. Opposition parties, including the Greens (who called the figures “damning”), have been scathing. And Professor Lindsay Paterson, one of Scotland’s most esteemed educationalists, says, “Since Sturgeon became first minister, there’s been no improvement. She’s achieved nothing”.
Even before the pandemic, the gap was not closing across the board. In some aspects of literacy, it was actually increasing. Now, we can expect significant reversals, as the poorest pupils have reckoned with the challenges of disrupted home lives, limited internet access and lack of classroom attention during lockdowns. All of which reinforces the missed opportunities of the pre-pandemic years.
Many will continue to give the SNP the benefit of the doubt, because they trust in the project of independence. In a way, I belong in that camp. I will lend them my constituency vote, less out of conviction, more out of a paucity of alternatives and an increasingly exhausted desire to advance the progressive agenda of 2014.
However, there remains only limited signs that independence is seriously on the agenda next term. Under those circumstances, we cannot go another five years looking the other way, giving this Government a pass on everything because they are not the Conservatives. If they aren’t going to resolve the constitutional question, they must be judged on the domestic record. And for all their reputation for “competence”, and for all the inclusive rhetoric, the report card reads, “must do better”.
This does ultimately connect back to the debacle inside Scotland’s ruling party. In past months, criticism of the Scottish Government has been rife. Some of it has been justified, some of it wildly conspiratorial. But the thread of legitimate critique has been lost in factionalism and spats. This election thus risks failing to hold the Government to account, whether on devolved issues, constitutional matters or the absence of a viable platform for independence after the collapse of the Sustainable Growth Commission.