Sturgeon squirms as education policy comes under attack

Sturgeon squirms as education policy comes under ATTACK

Nicola Sturgeon was yesterday left struggling to defend her government’s record on education against blistering twin attacks on declining school exam appeals and college places.

The first minister appeared uncharacteristically under pressure at question time in the face of the dual offensive from the two main opposition parties. Her government has been accused of cutting technical and vocational education “to the bone”, failing Scotland’s young people, and creating an exam system that favours private school pupils.

At First Minister’s Questions, Kezia Dugdale produced new figures showing that the number of exam appeals on behalf of state school pupils had plummeted between 2013 and 2014, when a charge for the process was introduced. The deputy leader of Scottish Labour said that the decline for private schools was far smaller because parents were paying the charge — an option not offered to those with children at state schools. This was later denied by the Scottish government.

“Parents of private school pupils can buy their kids a second chance, parents of private school pupils can put their hands in their pocket to help their kids, but state school pupils can’t,” she said. “It is no wonder that just the 220 kids from the poorest backgrounds in Scotland get the grades needed to make it to our top universities.”

Ms Dugdale said the results could be the difference between getting a place at university or losing out. “For disadvantaged kids, in particular, this can be a deal-breaker,” she added.

She said that the number of appeals from state schools fell by more than 55,000 between 2013 and 2014. For private schools, it fell by 1,500. She said the number of state schools appeals as a percentage of total exam entries fell by 77 per cent compared with 37 per cent for private schools.

Ms Sturgeon said that the appeals system was “right and proportionate in terms of appeals to give young people the best opportunity of fulfilling their potential at school” and this would be kept under review. “The first minister hasn’t got a clue,” retorted Ms Dugdale. At the briefing for journalists after FMQs, a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon was unable to explain why the number of appeals had declined so significantly.

It took the Scottish government until late in the afternoon to release a statement pointing out that the payment was not the only change to the appeals system. Students can no longer submit “a wide range of supporting material” — such as high-quality coursework — with their application and can, instead, only challenge their mark.

However, the SNP’s explanation did not fully explain the discrepancy between state and private sector.

“This was always expected to significantly reduce the number of appeals given that we have significantly reduced the grounds for appeal,” said a spokeswoman.

Earlier, Ruth Davidson had followed up the bruising exchange between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Dugdale by hitting the SNP on its cuts to college places. She produced figures showing that the numbers of students studying the vital science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects had dropped significantly since the Nationalists came into government.

She said: “When the SNP came to power there were over 86,000 college places in Stem subjects. The most recent figure is just 56,000 — a cut of 30,000 places in science, in technology, in engineering and in maths. This government is failing on science and maths, because they are college courses that lead to jobs and they have been slashed by a third.”

She added: “Our young people need the skills to compete, getting a decent job depends on it. So why is this government failing them?”

Ms Sturgeon said the most recent figures showed a 33 per cent increase in students successfully completing courses leading to recognised qualifications while the average hours of learning per student had also risen.

She added: “We have, as we committed to doing in our manifesto, maintained the number of places in Scotland’s colleges and the number of students achieving HNC/HNDs, which are qualifications both recognised and valued by employers, is up 36 per cent. The number getting degrees is up 121 per cent. I think that is to be celebrated.”