The First Minister’s Statement: Education and Progressive Alliances

In a statement entitled ‘Taking Scotland Forward’, the First Minister today outlined the Scottish Government’s priorities for the new parliamentary term. For those already initiated, much of the speech was simply a re-statement of SNP manifesto pledges; however, due to the absence of an overall majority, Nicola Sturgeon took the opportunity to seek consensus and to ask opposition parties to unite in order to improve the lives of young people and make progress towards “true equality of opportunity.”

Central to achieving this objective was education.

Education, Education, Education

The First Minister highlighted a number of actions she would take forward and a substantial proportion of her statement was focused on education and improving the lives of future generations from early years through to further and higher education. There was plenty of high-minded rhetoric: plans to transform childcare would be “the most important infrastructure programme of the parliament” and work to close the educational attainment gap would be a “mission” of the country as a whole.

Over the next few months, the First Minister will convene a major summit of education stakeholders on school reform and raising attainment. She was also keen to stress that she would not only listen to ideas from across the political divide but to those from overseas. Mirroring the Council of Economic Advisers created by Alex Salmond in 2007, Nicola Sturgeon announced that she would establish an International Council of Education Advisers, in which international experts would advise the government on improvements to the education system.

One might say that this relentless focus on the classroom chimes with Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ mantra when he set out his priorities for office in the 1990s.

John Swinney’s In-Tray

The new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills John Swinney requested “a bit of space and time” to begin to tackle the challenges in the education sector, yet that now looks as impossible as the crocodile and zebra questions which bamboozled Scottish pupils in the new-look Higher Maths exam last year.

John Swinney will have to bring forward a clear delivery plan to improve Scottish education before schools break for summer. On top of that, he faces considerable challenges in implementing the Named Persons Scheme, as well as addressing concerns on standardised testing and reforms to education boards.

Even for one of Scotland’s most seasoned and admired political performers, this is an almighty baptism of fire.

Progressive Alliances (Conservatives Not Invited)

One of most interesting aspects of Nicola Sturgeon’s statement was not necessarily what she included in her speech but who she excluded. Referencing the “clear progressive majority” in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister pledged to work across party boundaries, citing sensible policies from the Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrat manifestos. The First Minister deliberately chose to omit the Scottish Conservatives.

At the close of her speech, Nicola Sturgeon extended the theme of cross-party progressive alliances to her hope that Holyrood would unite against regressive Westminster policies such as the repeal of the Human Rights Act or Trident renewal. In essence, Nicola Sturgeon wishes to pursue progressive alliances inside Holyrood to further the Scottish Government’s agenda; and for these progressive alliances to unite against actions outside Holyrood’s control.

On the basis of today’s statement, any talk of a ‘rainbow’ parliament excludes one constituent colour: blue. But due to the realities of minority government, it will be interesting to see whether this exclusion holds, especially on the key issue of tax.