Would Scotland be better if government was run from Edinburgh rather than London? This is the SNP’s central proposition, but it’s not hypothetical. For 16 years now, public services have been run from Edinburgh – and so, if Nicola Sturgeon’s premise is correct, Scotland’s schools and hospitals should be pulling ahead of England’s under superior localised management. In fact, the reverse is true. Scotland on Sunday today has a powerful editorial about the problems of NHS Scotland but this morning, Andrew Marr interviewed Nicola Sturgeon to ask her about education – specifically the way in which the poorest are suffering most under the SNP.
He started by asking her why the poorest are twice as likely to go to university in England than in Scotland.
The numbers are not directly comparable, she said – which is true, but doesn’t explain the gap, or why it’s growing. So what, Marr asked, is going wrong in Scotland? She had her rebuttals ready, but they weren’t very strong. “The number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university is rising” she replied – yes, but as The Economist pointed out recently, it has risen by just 0.2 percentage points, to 26.8 per cent. In England the share of kids from poorer families at university has risen from by 2.2 points, to 33.1 per cent.
This is encouraging news for England – another example of the progressive nature of David Cameron’s reforms. Private schools have now started to close, facing better-than-ever competition from reformed state schools. The idea of £9,000 fees sounds unappetising, but in England a third of the fees are used to help improve access to university for those who need it most. English universities are now empowered to do, to a limited extent, what American universities do: promote meritocracy by taking redistribution into their own hands. Charge the rich, help the poor. It’s now working in England. But in Scotland, an ideological commitment against is denying poorest students the help they so badly need.
All of this will become an ever-larger embarrassment to Nicola Sturgeon, who really didn’t like Andrew Marr confronting her with such figures. Surely, he asked her, she’d accept that standards amongst the poor in primary schools are “shocking, and getting worse.” She replied that she does not want ‘rest on our laurels’. But where, exactly, are these laurels? As more and more Scots are beginning to recognise, they don’t really exist.
PS: Sturgeon repeated the well-worn trope that the poorest have suffered the most under David Cameron’s austerity. In my paper review earlier on in the show, I said the reverse was true: since he came to power the poorest have done the best, and the richest the worst. The precise opposite of what you normally hear. And here’s the proof – not a picture any PM should be proud of because there as so many losers. But it shows that the richest, not the poorest, have had the worst of the Cameron era so far:-