Fact check: The STV Scottish party leaders’ debate

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

The second debate between leaders of Scotland’s main political parties took place just weeks before Scots cast their ballots in the elections.

The televised debate on 13 April featured Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar, Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie, making their pitches and questioning each other’s records and previous promises to the electorate.

The claims looked at by Ferret Fact Service related to education, health and employment.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP

We’ve employed over the lifetime of this parliament 3,000 more teachers. That’s not including the 1,400 during the pandemic

Nicola Sturgeon

The First Minister was examined by the other leaders over her government’s record on education, and made several defences of it, citing the number of teachers employed since the start of the current parliament.

Her claim that the government has employed 3,000 more teachers during the lifetime of this parliament is based on figures published in December 2020 by the Scottish Government.

The Summary Statistics for Schools publication shows that the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers employed across Scotland’s schools increased from 49,679 in 2015 to 52,672 in 2020, an increase of 2,993.

However, the report states that “additional teachers have been recruited in the 2020/21 school year to support the recovery of education following the disruption caused by Covid-19. These additional teachers are likely to be a major contributing factor to the increase in teacher numbers”.

This means that while the number of teachers in post since 2015 has increased by 3,000, a proportion of these have been hired to deal with the effects of Covid-19, rather than as part of a normal increase. Between 2015 and 2019, before the pandemic, there were 1,770 more teachers recorded, but more than 1,200 were recruited between the 2019 and 2020 statistics.

The SNP confirmed that 1,423 FTE teachers were hired by November 2020 to assist in recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While about 3,000 teachers may have been recruited during the current parliament, the 2020 teacher numbers are lower than they were in 2007, the year the SNP first won power at Holyrood. Since 2013, the year before Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, teacher numbers have increased by 2,882. Before the pandemic year figures, the increase was 1,659.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True

Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that her government had increased teacher numbers by 3,000, not including 1,400 drafted in to help with Covid-19 recovery is slightly misleading. While there are 3,000 more FTE teachers than there were in 2015, the statistical report notes that additional teachers recruited for the Covid-19 recovery are a “major contributing factor” to the significant increase in the 2020 statistics.

This claim is half true.

Douglas Ross,

We’ve seen, since the SNP got into power, 1700 fewer teachers in Scotland

Douglas Ross

The Scottish Conservatives leader attacked the SNP’s education record, citing the number of teachers employed by the SNP, but coming to a very different figure.

He claimed that since 2007, when the SNP first got into power in Scotland, there were 1,700 fewer teachers.

This is based on the same statistics that Nicola Sturgeon’s claim pointed to, the Summary Statistics for Schools.

His claim is based on the number of FTE teachers in Scotland in 2007 compared to the most recent figures, which came out in December 2020.

In 2007, the number of FTE teachers was 53,411. This was its highest point since devolution. Since then the number of teachers reduced year-on-year to a low of 49,521 in 2014. From 2015 to 2021 there has been a consistent increase up to 52,672. This is a reduction of 739 FTE positions from 2007 to 2020.

However, the Scottish Conservatives may be including early learning and childcare (ELC) teachers in its figures for the claim, which would mean a reduction from 55,097 FTE teachers in 2007 to 53,401 in 2020. This amounts to a decrease of 1,696.

Scottish Government statisticians have cautioned that the way ELC teachers were counted was changed in 2013, with local authorities revising data back to 2010 where teachers had been double counted. The report states that “teacher data before and after 2010 is not comparable”.

There has been a significant reduction in FTE early learning and childcare since 2010. In 2020, the number of teachers had more than halved from more than 1,500.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True

The claim by Douglas Ross is not quite right. While there has been a reduction in the number of teachers, the statistics that his claim is based on are not comparable when including early learning and childcare teachers. The number of ELC teachers has reduced significantly since 2010, but we cannot say by what number.

This claim is half true.

Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour

There are over 300,000 people across the country who earn below the Scottish living wage.

Anas Sarwar

Minimum wage levels are set by the UK Government.

Anyone between school-leaving age and 23 should be paid the minimum wage, which currently ranges from £4.30 an hour for apprentices up to £8.36 an hour for those aged 21 and 22. Anyone aged 23 and over should be paid the national living wage, which is currently set at £8.91 an hour.

According to the Living Wage Foundation, the national living wage does not take account of the full cost of living and as such is not considered to be enough to live on. The foundation asks employers to voluntarily pay their staff the real living wage, which is calculated each year by the Resolution Foundation and is currently £9.50 an hour. Employers who pay that level are accredited by the Living Wage Foundation.

Living Wage Scotland, which works in partnership with the Living Wage Foundation and is funded by the Scottish Government, accredits Scottish businesses that pay the real living wage. It says there are 1,900 accredited employers in Scotland and that Scotland has the highest share of accredited living wage employers in the UK at 27 per cent of the UK total.

A report issued by the Living Wage Foundation last November, found that in April 2020, 350,000 people in Scotland were earning below the real living wage. That was down from 398,000 a year in 2019. The organisation calculated the figures by analysing employment data provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Ferret Fact Service verdict: True

The claim that there are over 300,000 people earning below the Scottish living wage is accurate and is based on figures supplied by the Living Wage Foundation, which in turn are based on ONS statistics.

This claim is True

Patrick Harvie,

Last year your exams authority, the SQA, punished 75,000 mostly working class young people, lowering their school grades for no reason other than their postcode.

Patrick Harvie

All Scotland’s school exams were cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) came up with an alternative system to calculate results. This was based on teacher estimates, which were then moderated to take account of schools’ prior history of attainment.

The Scottish Government said that as a result of the SQA moderation process, around 134,000 pupils – a quarter of the total – had their grades adjusted. Of that number, just under 76,000 had one or more of their grades lowered from the estimated level.

As soon as the results were announced on 4 August 2020, concerns were raised that individual pupils in more deprived areas had been penalised because, in general, their schools had historically performed less well than those in wealthier areas.

Figures released by the SQA showed that for those living in the most deprived parts of the country – those in the bottom 20 per cent of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) – the Higher pass rate would have been 85.1 per cent based on teacher estimates. That was reduced to 69.9 per cent following moderation – a drop of 15.2 percentage points.

In the wealthiest areas – those in the top 20 per cent of the SIMD – the pass rate was reduced from 91.5 per cent to 84.6 per cent, a fall of 6.9 percentage points.

Education secretary John Swinney denied that poorer pupils had been disproportionately affected. However, on 11 August, he said in parliament that the SQA process “did not get it right for all young people”. He apologised directly to the “75,000 pupils whose teacher estimates were higher than their final awards” and said that all downgraded results would be withdrawn.

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson, who is also Scotland’s chief examining officer, said afterwards that the SQA would “change the previous approach to certification this year and instead award candidate results based solely on the estimates provided by schools and colleges”.

In an equality impact assessment published in December, the Scottish Government said the data showed that “for all levels of qualifications the changes in pass rates are larger for those learners in more deprived areas than in less deprived areas”.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: True

Figures published by both the Scottish Government and the SQA confirm that more than 75,000 pupils had their 2020 exam results downgraded following moderation last year. Their figures also show that pupils in the most deprived areas were disproportionately affected when compared to those in the least deprived areas. As the moderation process was based on schools’ previous performance, it is accurate to say that pupils’ grades were lowered “for no reason other than their postcode”.

This claim is True

Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrats

[Nicola Sturgeon’s] leadership has brought us an NHS waiting time guarantee that she promised would be in 18 weeks – everyone would be treated within 18 weeks. It’s been broken 380,000 times.

Willie Rennie

In 2007 the Scottish Government published its Better Health, Better Care action plan. It was launched by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her then role as Deputy First Minister and cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing.

As part of the action plan, the government promised that from November 2011 the maximum time anyone would have to wait for outpatient treatment following a GP referral would be 18 weeks. That promise is known as the Referral to Treatment (RTT) standard. It is up to individual health boards to ensure the standard is delivered, but the Scottish Government requires them do so for 90 per cent of patients. 

Data collected by Public Health Scotland (PHS) shows that the RTT standard was breached 1.1 million times between November 2011 and December 2020, although the figures are incomplete as they did not include NHS Grampian or NHS Lothian. There are also some differences in the way the numbers have been collated over the years.

Within that nine-year timeframe, a total of 8.4 million patients were referred for outpatient treatment, meaning that across the NHS the target was achieved for 87 per cent of patients.

A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats said that Rennie had been referring to the Scottish Government’s Treatment Time Guarantee during the debate. That standard, which was introduced in 2012, refers to inpatient or day-case treatments and states that treatment should be delivered within 12 weeks of an initial referral. 

PHS figures show that between December 2012 and December 2020, that target was breached 330,143 times. In total, 2.4 million people were treated as inpatients during that time, meaning the 12-week target was achieved for 86 per cent of patients.

The PHS figures also show that as of the end of December 2020 there were a total of 86,289 people waiting to be seen as an inpatient. Of that number, 54,327 had been waiting for more than 12 weeks. Although there is no guarantee that all of those people will need treatment, when the 54,327 is added to the 330,143 who did have to wait more than 12 weeks for treatment, that gives a total of 384,470.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True

Willie Rennie’s claim that the 18-week waiting time target has been breached 380,000 times is not accurate. The 18-week Referral to Treatment standard, which applies in an outpatient setting, has been breached over a million times since being introduced in 2011. The 12-week Treatment Time Guarantee, which applies for inpatients and those receiving treatment on a day-case basis, has been breached over 380,000 times since 2012. Although Rennie did get the number correct he confused the two different targets.

This claim is half true.

Cover image thanks to iStock/Bob Douglas

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