Having credibility as a Government that delivers on its promises will be crucial for the SNP to build support for a Yes vote in the referendum, especially now that it has made an ambitious pledge in its independence white paper to massively expand nursery education.
So it will not help its cause that figures released yesterday show it is failing to meet certain promises on driving down class sizes and improving young children's access to qualified teachers in nursery school.
On the face of it, some of the latest education statistics are fairly static. There have been no dramatic changes in overall class sizes, for instance, but the problem for the Scottish Government is that, six years ago, it promised certain dramatic changes and has not delivered. Not only that, but key indicators are going in the wrong direction. The party got elected in 2007 after campaigning hard on a promise to cut classes for P1-P3 to a maximum of 18 pupils, but now those figures are the worst they have been since the SNP came to power.
The recession has understandably had an impact and helps explain why the party dropped its P1-P3 pledge in 2009 but it has been keen still to be seen as the party of low class sizes. After abandoning the original pledge, the Education Secretary said 20% of pupils in P1-P3 should be taught in classes of 18 or fewer, but on that too there has been failure. The proportion of pupils in classes of that size is now lower than at any time since 2007. The Scottish Government's next move was to promise to maintain teacher numbers in line with pupil numbers. In fact, pupil numbers have gone up in the last year, while teacher numbers have gone down.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government's record on nursery education is coming under close scrutiny following its promise in the independence white paper to provide 30 hours of free childcare per week for all three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds. Ministers say they want children at nursery to have access to a qualified nursery teacher, but the proportion of children who do is actually going down, having dropped from 75.4% last year to 72.8% this.
The Education Secretary has rightly highlighted a drop in exclusions to their lowest level on record and a major increase in the number of pupils in buildings that are in good or satisfactory condition. There has also been a huge reduction in the number of P1s in class sizes of more than 25. The Government has done well on these fronts, but that does not change the fact that other much-heralded promises have been broken.
Labour also have a case to answer, as to why teacher numbers have fallen overall at Labour-run councils and not at SNP-run ones, but if the Scottish Government is going to enter into a blame game with local authorities, it must accept its share of responsibility. Councils are after all trying to fund services in spite of a Government-imposed council tax freeze. Voters can be sure that if there were uniformly good news, ministers would not be rushing to share the credit with Labour-run councils.
This is not the SNP's finest hour.
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