First minister grilled over pupils' subject choices

Nicola Sturgeon hits back by highlighting critical Michael Gove tweet and drawing attention to problems in English schools

Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister's Questions

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that secondary pupils' subject choices have not narrowed, despite political opponents highlighting evidence that appeared to show the contrary.

Ms Sturgeon also hit back after former Westminster education secretary Michael Gove took to Twitter to question education standards in Scotland, by drawing attention to problems in English schools.

First Minister's Questions opened this afternoon with interim Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw asking whether, in light of recent evidence, Ms Sturgeon would accept that pupils' subject choices had diminished.


Background: Claims about improving attainment 'not fully accurate'

Quick read: Subject uptake reduces across ‘entire senior phase’

Expert view:  Is Scotland’s curriculum really narrowing?

Long read: How one school drove up attainment of disadvantaged pupils with courses in everything from beekeeping to construction

Michael Gove: The Gove gang are back in business


She replied: "No, I don't."

She said that there was a three-year senior phase  and that judgements should be made about outcomes and qualifications at the point when pupils leave school. She also said that education secretary John Swinney would today be writing to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee with detail about the upcoming review of the senior phase.

Ms Sturgeon added that there was a higher proportion of young people leaving school with Level 5 (National 5 or equivalent) and Level 6 (Higher or equivalent) qualifications. 

"So that's the outcomes of our education system," said the first minister. "I know it doesn't chime with the picture of our education system that the Conservatives want to paint, but it happens to be the reality."

However, Mr Carlaw said he "should have known that denial would be the mantra of the first minister".

He said that she and Mr Swinney had for several months been "brushing off concerns as lacking any evidence", but "this week we learned the truth" after a freedom of information request by the Conservatives found civil servants advising the government in May that "there are, on average, fewer subjects taken by pupils now than was the case prior to the introduction of...the new qualifications".

Mr Carlaw said that this was not reflected when Ms Sturgeon spoke on the issue in June. He asked: "First minister, why did you and your education secretary mislead the Parliament?"

Ms Sturgeon replied that "that is not the case", adding: "There is a wider choice available to young people today, and actually that is borne out  by the statistics I have given to the chamber."

These showed that "a higher percentage of young people are leaving school with qualifications", whether the measure was one or seven Level 5 or 6 qualifications, or any number in between.

Ms Sturgeon noted that Michael Gove – who attended an independent boys' school in Aberdeen when growing up – had tweeted on this point yesterday. A few hours earlier another SNP minister, Brexit secretary Michael Russell, who was education secretary from 2009 to 2014, also tweeted in response to Mr Gove, who has made disparaging comments about Scottish education before.

Ms Sturgeon said Mr Gove's tweet was "interesting, given that he's a former education secretary in England, because actually the Sutton Trust looked at this issue in England recently [and] contrary to what he's saying about Scotland, he's actually more on the money if you look at the education system in England".

A survey by the Sutton Trust of more than 1,600 teachers in England had found that "47 per cent of school leavers had to cut back on subject choices because of Tory funding cuts", she said.

Mr Carlaw said: "Nicola Sturgeon likes to argue that it doesn't matter how many subjects a child studies at any given age – her claim has been [that] only the number of qualifications matters."

However, he added, "her own civil servants looked at that claim, too – they found that before Curriculum for Excellence was introduced,  pupils on average used to leave school with 10 qualifications at Level 5; now they leave with eight". 

Mr Carlaw said: "So even on her own preferred measures she's failing, and she knew that full well the last time she made that claim here."

The first minister said that Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith had said, in a recent Education and Skills Committee, that young people today had more choice than in the past.

"The fact of the matter is performance at Level 6 has improved, performance at Level 5 has improved [and] there are more young people attaining vocational qualifications now than ever before," she said.

Ms Sturgeon also pointed to "record number of school leavers in work, training or study".

She said: "That's the reality of our education system. Add into the fact that, whether at Level 5 or Level 6, the attainment gap is also narrowing, and people get to see how wide of the mark Jackson Carlaw actually is."

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