We on this side of the chamber welcome the debate, and today that is much more than the usual opening platitude. It is eight years since the Scottish National Party Government came to power and long past time when it should have woken up to the need to act on the achievement gap.
In fairness, the First Minister flagged that up as an issue that she cared about when she was elected leader by her party, but it has taken about three months for the Government to bring forward any action to Parliament. Still,
“joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth”,
as the previous First Minister used to like to misquote.
All of that matters so much exactly for the reason that the cabinet secretary outlined—that if there is any investment we can make in our future, collectively and as individuals, it is in education. If there is a path to the chance of a better life, it lies through education. If there is a silver bullet to slay the spectre of poverty, it is education.
George Washington Carver called education
“the key to unlock the golden door to freedom.”
He should know, given his journey from slavery to scientist.
Indeed, the idea of educational equality is woven through the very history of this nation, from the “Book of Discipline” in 1561 to the School Establishment Act of 1616 and the Education Act of 1633, which were passed by our predecessor Parliament to create and implement the idea of a school in every parish.
We like to tell ourselves that we gave universal education to the world and that we have the best schools anywhere. However, sometimes we are too complacent. The OECD report from 2007—I have a copy here—should have set alarm bells ringing then. It praised the strengths of Scottish schools, but said that
“Children from poorer communities ... are more likely than others to under-achieve, while the gap associated with poverty and deprivation in local government areas appears to be very wide.”
That is the not-so-secret shame of Scotland’s schools: who someone is, and how much their parents earn, will define their educational attainment and their life chances more than anything else.
The cabinet secretary pointed out that school leavers from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas currently do only half as well as school leavers from the least deprived areas. In truth, the situation has not been improving. Our PISA—programme for international student assessment—results show a decline in our relative international standing, and no real change in the attainment gap. The number of young people who are not in education, employment or training remains stubbornly high at around 30,000, and the Scottish Government’s survey showed that numeracy levels are falling at every level. This year, we will see the results on literacy.
The situation will not improve until we do something specific about it. We cannot close the attainment gap by raising attainment for all. The Government’s attainment fund is very welcome indeed, but the trick now is to spend it in ways that make a real difference. It cannot be spread too thin, or it will not work. It must be significantly targeted, especially at primary and pre-primary intervention, because we know that the pernicious gap in achievement is already significant at the age of five. It must include a major focus on literacy and numeracy; it must support the families of children at the wrong end of the attainment gap, because school is not the only answer; and it must raise the quality of teaching and leadership in those schools where pupils face the greatest barriers. In addition, it must provide particular support for looked-after children.
The Government’s announcement today contains much of those elements, which is to be welcomed. We are certainly willing to give the attainment fund a fair wind, but we simply believe that we need to do—and we can do—yet more. We have proposed that, when this Parliament gains power over income tax, we should choose explicitly to tax higher earners by reintroducing a 50p tax rate and to direct some of the revenue towards redoubling our efforts to end this stain of inequity on our society.
We propose to devote £25 million every year, and £125 million in the next session of Parliament, to attacking the attainment gap at its sharpest by focusing on those schools—perhaps around 20—at the very front line. We will focus not only on high schools, but more importantly on their associated primaries. All that will come on top of the four-year attainment fund.
Some of those schools will not be covered in the local authority areas that the cabinet secretary has announced today. In this city, for example, there are two or three schools that need that kind of support because they are at the sharp end of the gap. I taught in schools like those, and I make it clear that they are not failing. In fact, many of them are overperforming, and delivering improvements to young people’s life chances above and beyond anything that we might reasonably expect. As an ex-teacher, I know that they are the schools that we should look to first to see the best and most innovative and inspiring teaching and teachers. However, the barriers that are faced by young people in these schools are so great that they need more additional support to overcome them. Their families need more support, too, as do those who teach them.
That is why we propose to double the number of classroom assistants in the primary schools concerned, thus freeing up teacher time, and to introduce specialist literacy and numeracy teachers in those schools for parents as well as for pupils. We also wish a new chartered teacher scheme to be introduced to reward those who devote their skills, experience and career to changing lives in the classrooms at the sharpest end of the attainment gap.
The truth is that we will not resolve that in the four years of any attainment fund. We need an on-going, guaranteed and relentless effort. We will not succeed if we do not target pretty ruthlessly, at least for part of our efforts. Our proposals do not contradict the Scottish Government’s ideas; they complement them, doubling the resources for them from a different and new source of funding, to which we will have access soon.
There are some basics that the Scottish Government needs to get right. The problem is not helped by the loss of more than 4,000 teachers from our schools since 2007. It is not helped by schools closing and subjects disappearing because of teacher shortages. It is not helped by the disappearance of 140,000 students from our colleges or by the ending of successful schemes such as the schools of ambition programme for no good reason at all.
The cabinet secretary needs to get those things sorted. She could start by telling the Scottish Qualifications Authority to drop its ridiculous charging scheme for exam reviews, which discriminates in favour of private school pupils against state school pupils and in favour of those with engaged parents against those who do not have them. That is just one more barrier in the attainment gap, and the cabinet secretary could fix it today.