Liberal Democrats have set out plans to transform Scottish education in the next five years (you can read them here: scotlibdems.org.uk/education). By committing to raising income tax by 1p, we will be able to spend £475million more on education next year alone.
The biggest investment in education since devolution.
And what a difference this could make.
It could help redress some of the damage done to our college sector over recent years, by a government hell-bent on slashing budgets, jobs and places. 150,000 fewer places, representing 150,000 opportunities lost for those looking for the skills they need to get up and get on.
These extra resources could help reverse some of the savage cuts being made by John Swinney to Council budgets – cuts, let’s face it, that will dig deepest into education and children’s services at a local level.
There would also be an opportunity to deliver on the promises made by Ministers – under pressure from Liberal Democrats - in relation to early learning and childcare.
At present, rather than the promised 27% of two year olds from more disadvantaged backgrounds accessing free provision, a mere 7% are reaping the benefit.
South of the border, the figure is 42%.
That shortfall is unacceptable and does nothing to help address the pernicious attainment gap.
All the evidence shows that the interventions we make before a child reaches the age of three make the biggest difference.
Save the Children and others make clear that the foundations for the attainment gap are established in the earliest years, often before a child is even born. The longer this goes unchecked, the more deeply entrenched the disparities become and the more difficult, and costly, it is to turn the situation around.
For every £1 spent before a child is three, £11 is saved later in life. As well as helping close the attainment gap, there is an opportunity here to invest in our economy and the social well-being of our country.
That is why Scottish Liberal Democrats have placed such a high priority on targeting what resources are available on the early years and on those most in need.
It is an approach reflected in our consistent argument for extending free early learning and childcare to two year olds from the poorest backgrounds.
It is also why we have challenged the approach taken by this government in relation to its Attainment Fund.
Again, as I have done on many occasions previously, I welcome the additional resources that have been committed to this Fund.
However, the way Ministers have decided to spend this money is wrong.
Firstly, it was targeted at a mere half dozen Councils. After a public outcry, this was then extended to around 50 schools across the country.
Since then, more local authorities have been added to the list, to the point where the Minister now proudly boasts that 64% of disadvantaged pupils now benefit from funding.
Yet , eleven Councils – including Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeenshire – remain excluded. Children from poorer backgrounds in these areas, whose needs may be every bit as great as their counterparts elsewhere in the country – are deemed by this government as ineligible for support.
And they are not alone. Almost 30,000 children, it appears, are set to lose out in a postcode lottery entirely of ministers making.
The absurdity of the situation is summed up by Cochrane Castle and St David’s schools in Johnstone—two schools sharing one building, where one gets attainment funding but the other does not because they fall in different local authority areas.
And it’s not just the inconsistency between neighbouring schools but also between neighbouring streets in some cases.
How on earth this can be squared with the First Minister’s promise to close the attainment gap completely is anyone’s guess.
Assuming that the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary are serious in their intentions, they must recognise that funding should be based on the individual needs of the individual child – wherever they happen to live.
That is the underlying principle behind the Pupil Premium. It is working south of the border, thanks to Liberal Democrats. We want to see the same principle applied here in Scotland.
Initially, back in 2011, £430 was allocated per pupil. This has risen to £1320 per primary and £935 per secondary pupil this year. For looked after children, the figure is £1900.
For an average sized school, with average numbers in receipt of free school meals, this funding equates to £200,000.
Many schools use the funding for individual coaching, but other projects have included summer classes for pupils moving from primary to secondary school, motivational trips, ‘dads and sons’ football sessions and paying for transport to and from extra-curricular activities.
According to Ofsted in 2014, “The pupil premium is making a difference in many schools. Overall, school leaders are spending pupil premium funding more effectively, tracking the progress of eligible pupils more closely and reporting outcomes more precisely than before.”
The disparity between the outcomes – both educational and more generally – of those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers in more affluent areas is marked. It scars lives by preventing the potential of each and every individual being realised. It is also a drag on our economy and invariably a cost to society.
That is just one of the reasons why Scottish Liberal Democrats have taken the decision not just to prioritise education, but to prioritise the means of delivering the ends.
This would be the biggest investment in education since devolution. It could deliver transformational change. I hope the next parliament will have the courage to use the powers at its disposal to make that happen.
You can read our plans in full here: http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/education