NICOLA Sturgeon has overruled her education secretary to insist it remains her goal to close the attainment gap between rich and poor school pupils by 2026.

The First Minister told MSPs she stood by the policy, which was announced in the SNP’s manifesto for the Holyrood election of 2016.

The party said it would deliver “significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade”.

However education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville last month said that there was no longer “an arbitrary date” for closing the gap.

With the gap widening during the Covid pandemic, she told Holyrood’s education committee: “I will not set an arbitrary date for when the attainment gap will be closed, particularly so close to the experiences that we are still having with the pandemic.

“We know that the pandemic has had an impact on attainment but, through the stretch aims and working with local authorities, we intend that they will be able to determine what can be done in their areas and what support is required from our national agencies.”

It led to the Scottish Government being accused of ditching a pledge Ms Sturgeon had previously asked voters to judge her on.

At FMQs, Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie said that in 2015 Ms Sturgeon had said she was putting her “neck on the line” for education, but now barely mentioned it. 

“The First Minister promised to substantially eliminate the attainment gap in a decade. Now, her Government says that it would be ‘top-down’ and ‘arbitrary’ to set such a date. 

“We have the First Minister setting a date and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills saying that it would be wrong to do so. The Government is all over the place on education. 

“Young people want to know why the First Minister has given up on them and on closing the attainment gap by 2026.”

But Ms Sturgeon denied there had been any change.

She said: “We have not done so. Let me quote the manifesto commitment at the 2016 election, which said 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. We are seeing progress.”

In a dig at the Tory-LibDem Westminster coalition of 2010 to 2015, she went on: “I am always mindful of the fact that I was the first member of my family to go to university. 

“I am particularly mindful of that when a Liberal Democrat questions me, because I benefited from free tuition, which this Government continues to protect and on which the Liberal Democrats have a shameful record.

“That is why, although there is still work to do, I am so proud of the fact that we are meeting our targets and increasing the numbers of those from the most deprived communities who go to university—something that the Commissioner for Fair Access described last week as an ‘unambiguous success’.”

Mr Rennie shouted out: “Success? You have got some brass neck.”

Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesperson later said the FM’s position was the definitive one.

Mr Rennie added after FMQs: “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.”