Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of leading a government that is “all over the place” after she and the Education Secretary made contradictory statements about when the poverty-related attainment gap would be closed.

Shirley-Anne Somerville suggested last month that she did not want to be tied to a fixed target for achieving the outcome. The SNP manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election commits the Scottish Government to supporting the substantial closure of the attainment gap "within a decade". 

Asked on May 18 if it was still the Government’s aim to eliminate the difference in education outcomes between wealthy and deprived pupils, Ms Somerville said “yes” but added: “I’m not going to set an arbitrary date on when the attainment gap will be closed, particularly so close to the experiences that we are still having with the pandemic.”

Only days later she appeared to U-turn, telling The Scotsman that the Government was still determined to see substantial closure of the gap by 2026. This was reiterated by the First Minister during FMQs on Thursday.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Let me quote from the manifesto commitment at the 2016 election. ‘That the Scottish Government would support the substantial closure of the attainment gap by 2026’. I stand by that. That remains the policy and the objective of the Government.”

Speaking later, Willie Rennie, education spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “This is no way to run an education system. Last month the Education Secretary was absolutely adamant that she would not set a target for closing the attainment gap. Today the First Minister said the old target still stands.

“Nicola Sturgeon used to claim education was her number one priority, but now the government doesn’t know if their key target even exists anymore.

“The attainment gap is getting bigger, not shrinking as the SNP promised. Tens of thousands of children deserve better. They need extra support after the disruption of the last two years, not a government that is all over the place.”