Jackie Baillie put the First Minister (FM) on the ropes today as she accused the Scottish Government of a drop in teacher numbers, college places and university places – particularly for the poorest students. In one of Labour’s best performances at FMQs in some time, Baillie said the FM’s report card on education would read: “Lacks attention, could try harder and can’t even grasp the basics”.
Before Baillie began her questions, the FM announced that the highly successful Glasgow Commonwealth Games came under budget by £25m. Opposition leaders will be sure to dig around this figure after it was reported that the ‘special reserve fund’ had to be accessed after the contingency fund dried up.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie, once again standing in for Scottish Labour’s next leader at Holyrood, attacked the Government’s education record. In her first wave of questions, she stated that since 2007 the number of school teachers had dropped by 4000 and EIS had reported to the Parliament that pupils had been sent home due to the lack of teachers. In her second and third wave, she told the Chamber that college places had reduced by 14,000 since 2007 and that there had been a drop of 3000 for those attending university from the poorest backgrounds, coupled with a 35% cut to student bursaries and 69% increase in student debt. All in all, Baillie sought to paint the Government as inhibiting those from the poorest backgrounds receiving a decent education. She called for the FM to take the Education Secretary with him when he departed. The SNP’s leader to-be kept her down on that one and backbenchers shifted uneasily.
The FM defended the Government’s record stating that the 2011 teacher-student ratio of 13.5 was still in place and on track and the Government’s schools building programme demonstrated the strength of their commitment. He reiterated that full time college places had been maintained and the Government had retained EMA and free university tuition in the face of Westminster austerity. The FM was staunch in his defence, but his slightly wandering answers and emphasis on attacking Labour’s record showed he knew he was on shakier ground in defending progress on education.
Ruth Davidson took a different angle on education. She quoted from Keir Bloomer’s book which read that Scotland had a tendency for self-congratulation when it came to education which had had a negative effect on reform. She questioned the FM on why he was so wedded to the idea of less autonomy for schools and why they always had to fall under local authority control. She demonstrated the drop in Scotland’s education sector internationally across a number of indicators including reading and numeracy standards. The FM criticised the Conservative’s plans in England on greater school autonomy whilst praising Scotland’s progress on nursery hours, in the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s university successes and the opportunity for further education presented by the Wood Commission.