Scottish Liberal Democrats have opened a debate in Holyrood calling for a pupil premium to be introduced in Scotland, on the same day leader Willie Rennie MSP announced the party’s plan for the biggest investment in education since devolution.
This afternoon education spokesman Liam McArthur moved a motion in Holyrood on the introduction of a pupil premium in Scotland to help enable every child fulfil their potential and close the attainment gap.
The English pupil premium, which was introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government, has closed the attainment gap by 5% in English primary schools in just three years.
This morning Mr Rennie unveiled progressive tax plans to raise £475million a year for Scottish education by adding one pence to each income tax rate. This funding would be used across four key priority areas, including the implementation of the pupil premium.
Read Mr McArthur’s full speech in Holyrood here:
Presiding Officer, since the turn of the year, there have already been various debates on education.
I make no apology, however, for using Liberal Democrat time this afternoon to return to this subject.
Education is the key to unlocking the potential of each of us as individuals; It lies at the heart of what we aspire to be as a society and determines our success as an economy.
It is, as I acknowledged in previous debates, an area where Scotland has traditionally excelled, and still today there are many aspects of our education system that are genuinely world class.
Equally, however, the warning signs are there that in some areas trends are going in the wrong direction and, for far too many of those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the education system is failing them.
The recent OECD report, I think, captured this picture very well. It offered signs of encouragement, but also confirmed that we are seeing falling standards in literacy and numeracy, while the gap in attainment between the rich and the rest remains wide and largely untouched.
A leading educationalist told the Education Committee this week that “if we are not careful, we could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”.
Scottish Liberal Democrats agree, which is why we are prioritising education – and the proper funding of education – over the next five years.
Ministers will argue that this is what they are doing. However, too often their actions lack ambition or a willingness to put their money where their mouth is.
No better example of this can be found in the expansion of early learning and childcare and the establishment of an Attainment Fund. Both worthy in themselves, but under-resourced, under-delivered and, in the case of the Attainment Fund, poorly targeted.
Meanwhile, savage cuts to council budgets of £500 million—the very councils that have to deliver our school education – and an obsession with Thatcherite national testing in primary schools seem consistent with a determination to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Of course, SNP Ministers never tire of lecturing other parties on the need to offer alternatives. To make clear what will be cut to pay for such proposals. This despite the fact that the same SNP Ministers appear able to conjure up cash for pet projects whenever the mood – or the news cycle – dictates and despite running an underspend of hundreds of millions of pounds.
But the challenge is not an unfair one. So let me respond.
Unlike the SNP, Scottish Liberal Democrats are determined to use to the full the powers of this parliament to make a difference in education. Demanding more powers without having the courage to use those powers smacks of posturing, Presiding Officer.
And with those powers we can make a real difference on education.
My colleague, Willie Rennie, set out, earlier today, plans to transform Scottish education in the next five years. 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 £ 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, Presiding Officer, 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.
I thought Iain Gray summed up the absurdity of the situation very well in a recent debate, when he talked about Cochrane Castle and St David’s schools in Johnstone—two schools sharing one building, where one gets attainment funding but the other does not.
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.”
Similarly, the National Audit Office noted last year that “Early signs are that the pupil premium has potential”. When one considers how reluctant auditors are to hand out praise – as I’m sure the Minister would accept – this verdict seems almost effusive.
Are there areas that need improvement? Yes. Will it take time for this approach to demonstrate its full value? Probably.
But is it already delivering results in closing the gap in attainment at primary and secondary levels in England and does it merit being rolled out here too? Absolutely
The Minister’s spin doctor was busy earlier in the week dismissing this idea as unfunded – not true – and unproved – again, not true.
Presumably this spin doctor is less open to embracing new ideas than the First Minister and Ms Constance declare themselves to be.
The argument that the pupil premium could be used by schools for purposes other than tackling the gap in attainment is fatuous. The same could be said of the Attainment Fund, but schools would be required to publish details of how money is spent and are accountable to Ofsted – or Education Scotland.
I welcome – though do not support - the Labour amendment. Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but I genuinely welcome the fact that Labour too support the principle of targeting funding on the needs of the individual child. I know this is something that Labour peer, Lord Adonis – a fan of the pupil premium – argued for very strongly.
Meanwhile, the Tory amendment claims this was all Dave’s idea. I would question that and certainly the political drive behind the pupil premium came from Liberal Democrat Ministers in the previous UK government.
Nevertheless, again I welcome the support of Liz Smith and her colleagues – though I think clarity is needed as to how the Tories propose to fund such an approach north of the border. I’m sure Ms Smith will cover this in her remarks, which I look forward to.
So it seems that the SNP are now the only ones advocating an area based approach rather than one based on the needs of the individual child. That is a shame but it won’t stop Scottish Liberal Democrats continuing to argue for a more effective and well-funded approach.
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 today, 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.
I move the motion in my name.