FMQs: Education, Education, Education

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By Angela Miller

The main theme at FMQs was that of education, with both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson combining to attack the First Minister on the Curriculum for Excellence and Scottish Education as a whole.  

It began with an encouraging statement from the First Minister that Scotland had surpassed its 31% renewables target for 2011 and was in fact generating 35% of its energy requirements from renewables.  He added that this was an extraordinary achievement for Scotland.

The First Minister also explained that John Swinney had taken part in the COBRA meeting over the tanker drivers’ dispute and a later meeting would discuss contingencies in anticipation of industrial action.

Welcoming the ACAS talks and stressing that no dates had yet been set for a strike the FM took a swipe at the UK Government’s advice urging people to fill up containers with petrol, and added: “The priority is surely about avoiding the strike, not issuing unwise advice about gerrycans, I think more government preparation is what is required to promote calm and orderly behaviour in the population at large.”

Scottish Labour’s Johann Lamont moved on to her main question, new figures from the recent Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showing that 7 out of 10 Primary School children were meeting literacy and numeracy targets, while only 6 out of ten S2’s were meeting their expected standards.

In response, the First Minister pointed out that: “Firstly, these statistics show the dramatic, extraordinary effect of our Curriculum for Excellence in our Primary schools.”  He then corrected Ms Lamont by explaining that the 40% figure that she was alluding to was in fact that of the number of S2’s attaining the standards required for S3’s.

The Scottish Labour leader attempted to accuse Michael Russell of being both deaf to the wishes of teachers and of U-turning over policy, alluding to but not mentioning the 3.5 million funding and additional training package agreed with teachers last week.

A spokesperson for the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching said at the time: “The Cabinet Secretary has listened to the arguments presented and this package represents a significant and measurable investment which should allow schools to move ahead with greater confidence.”

Johann Lamont then went on to rather embarrassingly misread from her prepared sheet and found herself claiming that the Scottish government had missed their target “to give 2 hours of PE to children every day and a nursery school teacher for every child.”

Ignoring the gaffe and the ensuing laughter, Ms Lamont continued to press the FM for the answer she claimed he was not giving.  The First Minister replied “That it would be helpful to Scottish Education and to the chamber if Johann Lamont would try to take a balanced look of the statistics as he has detailed.  I am responding to Johann Lamont’s questions as best as anyone can interpret them, I’m not responsible for her not being able to ask the right questions.”

Then to Tory leader Ruth Davidson who picked up the education baton dropped by Johann Lamont.  In response to Ms Davidson’s own question, the First Minister clarified the point that the SSLN is the first time any such survey has been conducted in Scottish Education, and that conducting the survey is a sign of the Government’s commitment to drive up literacy and numeracy in Scottish schools.

He elaborated on the successes of the survey had pointed out in that 99% of primary 4 pupils and 98% of primary 7 pupils are performing up to or higher than the standard expected levels.  Referring to this achievement he said: “That strikes me as a substantially good and excellent performance,” adding that the EIS are strong supporters of Curriculum for Excellence.

Ms Davidson went on to attack Education Secretary Michael Russell over University Councils, cuts in college places and cited Professor Lyndsay Patterson’s complaints about the implementation process.  The feelling was of deja vu given that Johann Lamont had already ploughed the same furrow.

Having fielded much the same only moments before, the First Minister contented himself with quoting Professor Gordon Stobart from the Institute of Education, University of London, who had said: “Scotland has in the SSLN a resource that other countries can only envy.  National surveys area trusted way of assessing national stands. When the SSLN findings are then used to develop resources and support for teachers they are a powerful, formidable contribution to teaching and learning.”

Ms Davidson was left with a flea in her ear as the First Minister rather ferociously ended the exchange by claiming that Tories were in no position to lecture the Scottish government on competence.

The education theme remained as Labour’s Hugh Henry challenged the First Minister on colleges.  Mr Salmond defended his administration’s record by insisting the SNP remained committed to maintaining college places in 2012-13.

The FM was asked about the worrying situation at Dalgety Baywhere the MoD are being pressed to meet obligations and clean up radioactive contamination.  Mr Salmond explained that SEPA were currently working through the due process and that he did not expect the situation to merit a meeting with UK PM David Cameron.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie tried to play the Scotland Bill card and pressed Mr Salmond on the Scottish Government’s sudden change of heart.  What had happened to the SNP’s six “red lines” now that they had given the Bill their backing?

A point well made, but one that was turned around and jabbed back at Rennie when Mr Salmond reminded the Lib Dem front man that his own party had in fact promoted a Bill that had excluded their own policy on Crown Estates.

A typical FMQs with no real meat for the hungry journos.  Johann Lamont’s gaffes when attacking SNP pledges that in fact didn’t exist served only to highlight the Scottish Labour leader’s inability to make any headway in the cut and thrust of exchange.

Ruth Davidson seemed strangely happy to jump on board Johann’s education wagon but melodramatic delivery is no substance for searching questions, and the Tory leader is fast looking out of her depth in the world away from the BBC Scotland studios.

Willie Rennie chose poorly by providing the First Minister an opportunity to turn his attack back on him.