Is Sturgeon loath to look south to close the attainment gap?

After years of campaigning for Scotland to be further separated from England, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may be looking to mirror some of England’s policies in order to raise education standards. Earlier this week, Nicola Sturgeon promised to make improving the education system a priority for her Scottish National Party, with domestic issues now firmly on the political agenda with the May 2016 devolved Scottish Parliamentary election in her sights.

Critics are lining up to attack the SNP Government’s record in education following the publication last month of an official survey reporting falls in the last two years in the proportion of primary and secondary pupils doing ‘well’ or ‘very well’ at reading, while writing performance also declined in two of three age groups surveyed. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the largest teaching union in Scotland, said that the fall in literacy reflects the impact of Scottish government imposed cuts and entrenched poverty.

Nicola Sturgeon said it that while it was wrong to say Scottish education is failing, she acknowledged that there were too few people in Scotland going to university. Scottish Labour Education spokesperson Kezia Dugdale said that both teachers and young have been “let down by an SNP government in Edinburgh who for eight years have failed to give education the attention it deserves.” The Scottish Liberal Democrats education spokesman Liam McArthur said that the SNP have “taken their eye off the ball” because of the referendum and urged the Scottish Government to introduce the pupil premium in Scotland similar to provide additional funding to disadvantaged students to raise attainment.

SNP Education Secretary Angela Constance received criticism this month that the Party’s free university tuition policy was favouring middle class students and not the disadvantaged students the SNP claims to champion. Constance was forced to correct a claim made in Parliament that the Government had not cut student bursaries for disadvantaged students. Constance has also been chided by the EIS union for suggesting that teachers need to improve.

The Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson, said there was a need for a new system of primary testing so that schools’ and regions’ educational performance is compared earlier – implying that competition will lead to better results. Currently attainment is measured by a system of scientific sampling to track the performance of a proportion of pupils in primary school and the first two years of secondary school, rather than national tests at aged seven/eight and ten/eleven as are used in England.

This system was introduced by the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which was implemented in schools in 2010-11 under the SNP Government following a large scale review into education in Scotland led by the previous Labour Government according to The CfE, which was strongly backed by the EIS, was introduced to address three key goals of raising standards, closing the attainment gap between deprived and affluent pupils, and prepare pupils with skills ready for the rapidly changing economy. However, recent reports by Scotland’s Chief Statistician found standards of literacy and numeracy in Scottish schools had actually fallen since the introduction of CfE.

With CfE not having the expected impact, the Scottish Government may be tempted to sample some of the policies recently introduced in England to address similar goals with seemingly better outcomes. While Sturgeon would be loath to look south to follow England’s lead, the SNP may be tempted to introduce a form of pupil premium for children from deprived backgrounds, a policy of greater school autonomy to encourage educational innovation – which should be compatible within the CfE framework – and league tables to foster greater competition between schools and choice for parents, which have all had positive affects south of the boarder.

The big question is, if education really is the SNP’s priority for the foreseeable future, will Sturgeon be able to stomach considering English inspired policies for Scottish problems?