Since every notable authority on Scottish education highlights the overwhelming relevance of social and economic background to the educational achievement of students, the recently published figures showing a massive rise in the number of children living in poverty in Scotland make particularly bleak reading.
The annual Poverty and Income Inequality In Scotland report shows the SNP's policies in Holyrood have not only stymied progress but have also reversed the trend in improvement. According to the report, 220,000 Scottish children, an increase of 30,000 on the previous year, are living in relative poverty, in households with an income of less than £224.00 a week.
Many Scottish children emerge well from Scotland's education system but studies have shown that the huge disparity in the educational attainment between pupils from the richest and poorest background is wider in Scotland (although the 2012 Pisa survey showed the attainment gap in Scotland narrowing slightly).
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In 2007, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) into the quality and equality of schooling noted: "Little of the variation in student achievement in Scotland is associated with the ways in which schools differ. Who you are in Scotland is far more important that what school you attend, so as far as achievement differences on international tests are concerned, socio-economic status is the most important difference between individuals."
The complexity of the problems demands long-term strategic solutions. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would like us to think the problems would be solved if only Scotland split from the UK. That is absurd, not least because, as Gordon Brown pointed out last week, Alex Salmond's currency plan would plunge a separate Scotland into a colonial relationship: the Bank of England calling the shots on what Scotland could spend on its public services, and Scotland having no formal say in its decisions.
So, the situation in a separate Scotland, if anything, could be worse. That is not scaremongering but a statement of the obvious, unless crystal balls and palm readings are offering definitive answers. If the political will prevailed at Holyrood, the budgets that matter for less well-off students could be improved. It is reasonable to ask, first, why the SNP administration is not flexing every sinew to compensate for deprivation in the homes of Scotland's poorest students.
Secondly, why is it cutting education budgets in the areas most in need? According to Scottish Governmentfigures, in 2013, 29,000 young people aged between 16 and 19 were not in education, employment or training. Between 2007 and 2013 the total number increased.
The spend on Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), launched in Scotland in 2004 to provide financial support to young people from low income families, has declined dramatically in cash and real terms. Between the 2006-07 academic year and 2012-13, the total cash spend was cut by nearly £5 million, although EMAs still benefit 35,000 Scots. The number of students studying at Scotland's colleges was 238,805 in 2012-13, a decrease of 140,428 from 379,233 in 2007-08. There were fewer enrolments in colleges where students can enrol on more than one course. The cut was a result of of the Scottish Government prioritising full-time courses leading to a qualification at the expense of part-time courses.
Primary, secondary and pre-school budgets have been cut; secondary school budgets have all been cut. In 2006-07, real-terms expenditure on pre-school was £322,496,000. In 2011-12, it was £296,459,000. Most education experts agree that early intervention is hugely important, particularly for the most disadvantaged.
Yet the Scottish budget increased by 4.2% in real terms between 2006-07 and 2013-14. It is too easy to blame Scotland's ills on the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition thirled to severe deficit reduction at all costs. The Scottish Government is not helpless. It has established priorities, and that is fair enough. But a government in Scotland, or anywhere else, that offers benefits to those with plenty at the expense of the poor is hard to stomach.