In a departure from the norm, this week’s First Minister’s Questions took place at 1.30pm on Wednesday, due to tomorrow’s Scotland-wide local council elections. Questions this week focussed on education, a 50p tax rate, and the so-called ‘rape clause’.
Questions were opened by the Scottish Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson, who asked why, between 2011 and 2015, did the proportion of children performing well in numeracy fall?
Nicola Sturgeon answered that the Scottish Government has acknowledged these statistics and has put in place the Attainment Challenge and the Attainment Fund which will help schools raise attainment.
Ruth Davidson responded by pointing out that the failures in Scottish schools “happened on your watch”. She then highlighted a report from the Sutton Trust which showed a decline in young people’s science attainment.
Ms Sturgeon replied that since the data was released improvements have already been made. She highlighted the fact that more young people are going into ‘positive destinations’ after leaving school. She accused Ms. Davidson of “doing a disservice” to young people and their teachers who are achieving record results.
Next, Labour’s Kezia Dugdale raised the issue of tax. She argued that the SNP have previously said that they agree with the 50p rate of tax, but they have voted against it eight times.
The First Minister replied that she does agree with the 50p tax rate, but will not implement it while the Scottish Parliament does not have the necessary powers to tackle tax avoidance. She pointed out that Labour want those powers to remain with Westminster, while the SNP want them to be devolved to Holyrood.
Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Green Party turned back to education, raising his opposition to standardised testing in schools, and the need for proper resources.
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged she and Patrick Harvie have disagreements about education policy, but said that she believes that there must be more rigour in assessments, which is why standardised testing is important.
Mr. Harvie replied that teachers are concerned that the standardised tests will be used to create league tables. He also called for more funding to address the fall in teacher numbers.
Ms. Sturgeon replied that Scotland pays a higher rate of tax than the rest of the UK already, and that in this financial year, local services will have an additional £400m in spending.
Finally, SNP MSP Emma Harper raised an STV interview by Ruth Davidson who had said that women seeking an exemption from the UK two-child tax credit policy on the grounds of rape have “only had to tick a box” to get tax credits. She asked if this is true.
Ms. Sturgeon replied that it was not the case and said that such a response from Ms. Davidson indicated a “complete lack of empathy”. She said that the policy is indefensible.