FMQs Review: A Right Racquet

With the three main party leaders tweeting to one another about the Andy Murray match this morning, political commentators have been delighted to be able to throw in a series of tennis puns into their FMQs reviews (see above).

Given the big subjects of the week, such as exploration of shale gas, woman’s prisons and the continuing crisis in the oil and gas sector, it must have been a surprise to the First Minister that Kezia Dugdale decided to lead on education.

Why, the Labour leader asked, was it the case that nearly half of all Scottish pupils would be sitting the older Higher exams this year, despite assurances last year by the Scottish Government that the majority would be on the new Curriculum for Excellence system. What had gone wrong?

Dugdale has recently begun to take FMQs away from the expected discussion topics and look at smaller, less considered topics. This has several strategic advantages. Firstly it defies expectations, and prevents the First Minister from using the rehearsed points which they would want to make. Secondly it helps to move political discussion into new territory.

For her part, Strugeon recovered reasonably well, pointing out that this was a transitional year, giving schools the ability to phase in Curriculum for Excellence. She made the commitment that duel exams would not be permitted next year.

Dugdale changed tact, and went onto the exam appeals process. She asked the First Minister about the rates of appeals from private and public schools, the latter being paid from council budgets, and the former being able to be paid for by the children’s parents. Did she know the rates of appeals?

The First Minister, perhaps with a sense of frustration said that “consistency clearly is not Labour’s strong suit this week.” Unfortunately it was clear that she did not have the figures and so chose to go back to the issue of duel exams by way of a line or two of those pre-prepared comments on fracking. Dugdale supplied her with an answer, which was that appeals from state schools had dropped by more than 75 per cent.

She then sprang her trap. Could the First Minister tell her if the rate of appeals from private school children had fallen at a faster or slower than those from state schools?

The First Minister claimed to be surprised that Labour had chosen to focus on this matter, and had finally got hold of some figures she could throw back, with higher exam passes now being at their highest ever.

Clearly not dissuaded from her line of questioning Dugdale gave the First Minister another answer –by claiming that the proportion of appeals from privately educated pupils was now double the rate of those from state schools.

The First Minister reverted back to the old faithful when placed in a tight corner. Comparisons with Labour (close to eight years out of Government) showed that the percentage of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas had risen under the SNP.

Ruth Davidson didn’t seem to be in the mood to discuss one of the expected topics either, but the First Minister got in before the questions started with a comment about the inaction of the UK Government on oil and gas.

Davidson chose instead to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses in Scotland, asking if the number of students risen or fallen under the Scottish Government.

Everyone, including the First Minister, had a decent idea of what the answer to this question was going to be. Instead of the aggressive approach Sturgeon had taken with Dugdale, she instead went back to the consensus line, saying that she would be happy to work with the Conservative leader to discuss any concerns that she may have.

Davidsons answer was no less concerning than that from her Labour opposite. She claimed that there had been a 30,000 cut in STEM places. She followed up asking why the Scottish Government was letting down students who wanted to study in these fields.

Trying hard to stay in the spirit of consensus and to the sounds of laughter from the Labour benches, the First Minister said she would be happy to look at the figures quoted and get back to Davidson. She then listed a series of achievements within the college sector which demonstrated where growth had happened, but it all seemed too little too late.

During FMQs Andy Murray won his game. The First Minister must have been wishing some of that magic had been in the Chamber.

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