In August 2015, less than a year after succeeding Alex Salmond as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon stood up in Wester Hailes Education Centre and delivered a speech that, whether she realised it or not, would come to define much of her time in office. She pledged to improve education standards across the country and promised to make available the necessary data to measure progress towards that goal.

“Let me be clear,” she said. “I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

A few months before that fateful speech, official national literacy data had revealed that the number of pupils ‘working well or very well’ at their expected level of proficiency was falling for primary 4, primary 7 and S2.

A year later, numeracy stats revealed a dramatic decline in performance levels amongst primary 4 and primary 7 pupils. S2 levels, which were already worryingly low, remained static.

Having promised to let us judge her on her record, Nicola Sturgeon’s government set targets for ‘closing the gap’. These were published in December 2017 and set specific goals for the government to achieve by both 2019/20 and 2024/25.

There are eleven ‘key measures’, with each corresponding to a specific set of targets, and four of them are focused on literacy and numeracy levels.

In primary schools, a literacy attainment gap of 22 points in 2016/17 was to be reduced to 17 points by 2019/20, while the numeracy gap was supposed to fall from 18 points to 13 points in the same period.

For secondary, the 2016/17 literacy gap of 14 points was to be cut to 11 points by 2019/20; at the same time, the intention was to reduce the numeracy gap from 15 points to 12.

According to the government’s own targets, the gap in all four metrics would then fall to just 5 points by 2024/25.

Due to the Covid pandemic, data could not be collected in 2019/20, while only primary school data was collected in 2020/21. However, the latest data – which the government claims shows record levels of achievement with some of the lowest gaps on record – shows that the government continues to fall a long way short of the promises that were made.

Of course, some may point to the Covid as the major reason for this apparent failure, arguing that Scotland was on-track to make much better progress before the small matter of a once-in-a-century pandemic had an understandably negative impact and slowed the pace of improvement.

The available evidence does not match such assertions.

The Herald:

In the three years leading up to 2019/20, the attainment gap for primary school literacy fell by just 1.3 percentage points, but would have had to drop by a further 3.7 percentage points in order to meet the government’s initial target.

At the same level, the numeracy gap fell by 1.2 percentage points over the first three years, resulting in a requirement for a subsequent 3.8 percentage point drop in a single year to meet the targets.

For S3 literacy the gap fell from 14 points in 2016/17 to 13.8 points in 2018/19, suggesting that a further decline to 11 points by the following year was unlikely.

S3 numeracy probably represented the government’s best chance of meeting at least one of its own targets for 2019/20, but doing so would have meant a 1.5 percentage points decrease in a single year – the same as had been achieved in the previous two years combined.

There is no doubt that the pandemic had an enormous impact education both in Scotland and around the world, but claiming that Covid prevented the government from meeting its targets on closing the gap is, at best, wishful thinking. To believe that they’re going to achieve the 2024/25 targets, or that this was ever going to happen, is closer to delusion.

But then the whole thing was always more about an ongoing political circus than any serious attempt to transform Scottish education for the better.

The attainment gap is simply what social inequality looks like when viewed through the lens of schools and education data. It is primarily a product of socio-economics, not poor pedagogy, and no amount of fiddling with the statistics or pressuring teachers to improve the spreadsheets was ever going to change that. Isn’t it, therefore, unfair to judge a politician, or a government, on their ability to the impossible?

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Under normal circumstances that may well be the case, but there’s a key difference here: nobody forced Nicola Sturgeon or her party to make promises that they couldn’t deliver in pursuit of political advantage. Perhaps they really didn’t realise that what they were planning would and could never work? Or maybe they knew fine well, but calculated that the political advantage of making the promises would outweigh the long-term reality of breaking them? Either way, the consequences have been real.

What’s more, nobody has forced Humza Yousaf or Jenny Gilruth to recycle all the same rhetoric we’ve heard for years, or to spin stats in the same sorts of ways. They could have been the adults in the room, accepted the obvious and multiple failures of the Sturgeon era, and set about making things better – but they didn’t. In the end, politics is still politics, and it seems to matter more than pupils do.

That being the case, judging the SNP on its ability to ‘close the gap’ as promised isn’t just perfectly fair – it’s absolutely necessary.

And on their own terms, using their own measurements, they have very clearly failed.