Scotland politics

Sturgeon defends education record over 'shameful' report claims

Image caption Nicola Sturgeon insisted that the attainment gap is narrowing

Nicola Sturgeon has defended her government's record on education after a report raised concerns about the attainment gap in Scottish schools.

The new analysis by the Sutton Trust identified "major weaknesses" in performance in sciences in particular.

Opposition leaders described the report as "shameful" and blamed "catastrophic failures" by the SNP.

But Ms Sturgeon insisted her reforms were "narrowing" the gap between pupils from different backgrounds.

She said the report illustrated the importance of initiatives like the attainment fund, which gives money directly to head teachers.

Researchers from the Sutton Trust think tank found a gap equivalent to more than two years in schooling for science, reading and maths between pupils from less well-off backgrounds in the top 10% of achievers nationally, compared to their equally clever but better-off peers.

'Major weaknesses'

The analysis used figures from the latest international Pisa tests - which Ms Sturgeon observed were actually carried out almost two years ago.

The report said Scotland had "few stand-out strengths" when it comes to the performance of the most able pupils, but added that "the gap between able advantaged and disadvantaged children does not stand out as particularly large or small relative to other countries".

It said: "There is no specific area where able children in Scotland really excel. The major weaknesses include a pronounced and sustained decline in able pupils' performance in science, equivalent to around a year of schooling, over the last decade.

"It is also below the median OECD country in reading and mathematics, while trailing behind the performance of able pupils in England in most subject areas."

Image caption Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the report was "shameful"

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the report had revealed "particularly shameful" findings on attainment and science.

She said: "We now see the consequences of 10 wasted years of this SNP government and the harm it has done to the life chances of our pupils."

Ms Davidson described the government's legacy as a "generation of Scottish children who are being left behind in the race for qualifications and for future jobs".

In response, the Ms Sturgeon acknowledged the report as an "important" one, but said the data it was using pre-dates her latest reforms.

Analysis by Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland political editor

To be absolutely clear, this is not new data. The Sutton Trust has taken the international Pisa findings, published in December, and matched pupil performance to household income.

They confirmed that there was a significant gap in attainment between the offspring of poorer and wealthier households. Again to be clear, the gap was greater in England.

However, unlike in England, they discerned that the brightest Scottish school pupils were scoring below the average in developed countries. There had been a notable decline in science.

Now it is possible to challenge the Pisa findings, to question their methodology, their sampling, their interpretation. It is equally possible to challenge today's analysis by the Sutton Trust, an organisation which campaigns on behalf of disadvantaged children.

Would the Scottish government follow that route? John Swinney's solemn demeanour during the opening question from Ruth Davidson made clear: they would not.

Read more from Brian

Ms Sturgeon said said: "It is an important report. It is one that aids our understanding of the challenges we need to address in order to tackle the attainment gap.

"I think it is important to note, though, that the Sutton Trust does not present new data. It is analysis of the Pisa scores that were published in December. Of course, the Pisa scores are based on a survey that was carried out two years ago.

"A survey that pre-dates the attainment challenge and pre-dates the reforms to our education system that are under way."

Ms Sturgeon said there are signs of a "narrowing of the attainment gap".

She added: "I want to see it narrow further and I want to see it narrow faster, which is why we are taking the action that we are doing."

Image caption Kezia Dugdale said the SNP was "leaving the poorest children behind"

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale also challenged the first minister on the report, saying it exposed "catastrophic failures" by the government.

She said: "Time and time again I have come here and argued that the SNP are leaving the poorest children behind. Now this report shows they are also holding the brightest children back."

Ms Dugdale recalled the first minister had said education would be the "defining priority" of her administration, but claimed that in power she is "failing a whole generation of children".

Ms Sturgeon pointed to additional cash going to schools as part of the attainment fund, which will see £120m given directly to head teachers.

The first minister said: "That is the kind of investment we need to see in our schools, the kind of investment that this government is delivering in our schools."

While she said politicians were right to ask questions about education, Ms Sturgeon also insisted they have "an obligation to get behind the reforms we are introducing".

She added: "Some of these reforms we see members on the Labour benches having initially backed them, but when they come under some pressure on them decide they don't back them at all.

"This Sutton Trust report underlines the importance and necessity of those reforms to education."

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