`I was expecting bold solutions. I didn't hear them'
Education has become the main battleground of Scottish politics after Labour's new leader accused first minister Nicola Sturgeon of mimicking her policies and challenged the government to back up its rhetoric on closing the attainment gap.
Kezia Dugdale used her first major speech in the job to talk up her socialist credentials, and later reiterated her willingness to boost education spending by increasing tax rates and ending charitable status for private schools.
She also offered an olive branch to Ms Sturgeon in suggesting that a cross-party "collegiate" approach might be essential in tackling the huge gap in attainment between Scotland's poorest and most affluent pupils, and praised the Scottish government's approach to the early years and childcare.
After her speech at Edinburgh College last week, Ms Dugdale admitted that she had been "nervous" when it emerged that the first minister would be speaking on education two days earlier ("Judge me on closing the attainment gap", TESS, 21 August).
"We know she's been to [high-performing schools in] Brooklyn, we know she's been to the East End of London, so I was expecting big, bold solutions," Ms Dugdale said. "I didn't hear them, I didn't see them - maybe they're coming in [next month's] legislative programme. I hope so, because I believe her when she says she's serious about this."
Ms Dugdale said the first minister had been forced to follow her lead on education, specifically by announcing a system of primary school testing when the Labour leader had already made a similar suggestion. Both women have underlined that they do not support such testing being used as the basis of league tables.
"I created the space that allowed Nicola Sturgeon to say likewise," Ms Dugdale told TESS. "Now, I guess you could call that almost a more collegiate approach and maybe we need to do what we need to do around educational inequality."
Ms Dugdale shared "a tremendous amount of common ground" with Ms Sturgeon on education, she said, but added that there was "one big difference - she's had eight years [in government] to do something about it".
Credit where it's due
There have been ill-tempered parliamentary exchanges between the two in recent months over the government's record on issues such as class sizes and further education college places, but Ms Dugdale said the government could be proud of one aspect of its education record: early learning and childcare.
"I think for the first time we recognise in Scotland that talking about childcare isn't a social policy.it's an economic policy," she said. "Because if you don't have access to affordable, flexible childcare, then women can't participate in the economy in the way we need them to."
But she accused the government of managing its pound;100 million attainment fund poorly by initially making allocations to only seven authorities. "I think Nicola Sturgeon recognised it was flawed in her speech.which is why she announced that she's going to extend it to another 57 schools," Ms Dugdale said.
Some bold ideas for improving attainment would cost little or nothing, the Labour leader added. She said these included her idea to suspend inspections for a year "to allow schools to focus on closing the gap between the richest and the poorest", and claimed that her proposal for raising the top rate of income tax rate to 50p could raise up to pound;100 million to help close the gap between rich and poor.
Ms Dugdale also backs the removal of charitable status for private schools. The 33-year-old recalled that when she was studying law at the University of Aberdeen, many of her peers came from the independent sector.
"I was conscious of the fact that, when I went to university, I was surrounded by people who had gone to private schools and had much greater connections, who didn't have to think for a second about how they were going to get an internship in a law firm over the summer months," she said.
That left her feeling "a bit alienated" even though she had a fairly comfortable childhood compared to pupils from some of Scotland's poorest areas: "If I'm finding it hard, I can't imagine what it'd be like if you'd gone to.Castlebrae [Community High School] here in Edinburgh.or Torry Academy [in Aberdeen] or Springburn Academy [in Glasgow]."