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Peter MacMahon's Politics Blog: Scotland... egalitarian or elitist?

A saltire flies above a Scottish crowd Credit: PA

If it's possible for a nation to have a collective self-view, Scotland's would be that it is an egalitarian country not afflicted by class divisions.

Or perhaps to be more accurate, a more egalitarian nation less afflicted by class divisions than other countries like....let me think now...well, England. This idea that Scotland is a country with social justice running through the national veins is not confined to the Scottish National Party.

In recent times you could have heard Labour, Liberal Democrat and even some Tories express some variation on this theme. Not quite wha's like us, but not far off it.

But it's worth asking if the evidence supports this attitude, which some might say is a national conceit. Three reports published this week cast doubt on that.

First, a survey published on Monday for the Scottish government found doctors' surgeries in the poorest areas of Scotland are getting less money per patient than those in wealthier areas.

Edinburgh University Credit: PA

Second, a report from Edinburgh University academics on Wednesday said there was no evidence the SNP's policy of 'free' tuition fees has increased poorer students' access to higher education.

Finally, a report out today by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 'Elitist Scotland' says the country's leading professions are dominated by those from private schools and elite universities. I'll post links to the stories reporting these reports at the bottom of this blog, for those who want to know more.

But together they present a major challenge to what might be called the egalitarian Scottish narrative, which has been adopted most recently by the SNP but is not unique to the Nationalists. Apologies for sounding a bit pseudo-academic there but you get the idea - that somehow Scotland is just a bit more 'prolier than thou'. The evidence - and all three of these reports are, they say, based on evidence - appears to suggest that Scots should not be quite so self-congratulatory.

Perhaps more important is whether these problems are acknowledged and what is being done about them. To be fair to the First Minister - and this blog always is - Nicola Sturgeon has accepted that there are inequalities in Scotland which need to be addressed.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveils her 2015 Christmas card at her official residence in Edinburgh, Bute House. Credit: PA

Ms Sturgeon is particularly concerned about the attainment gap between poorer and better off pupils in Scotland's schools. The First Minister launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge, backed by £100 million, to try to close the gap. Against opposition from the main teaching union, the EIS, she is pressing ahead with plans for standardised testing in schools, so that problems can be identified early.

Ms Sturgeon also set up a Commission on Widening Access to look at ways of getting students from less well off backgrounds into Universities. An interim report from the Commission, published at the end of last week, suggested that students from deprived areas of Scotland should be admitted to Universities with lower exam grades.

Some universities do this to some extent already though there are some academics who argue that this lets schools - responsible for getting pupils to exam standards - off the hook.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson during First Minister Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Credit: PA

Critics of the First Minister and the SNP tend to welcome these initiatives but question whether they do far enough. At First Minister's Questions today the Tory leader Ruth Davidson, said the free tuition fees policy was not working. Conservatives say the better off should pay back fees in some way after graduation. The trust of Ms Davidson's point - which chimes with the Edinburgh University report - is that scare resources should be focused on the less well off in society.

Some would argue that principle of targeting resources - redistributing wealth from better off to the poorer sections of society - should be applied to other areas of policy, the funding of GPs for example. On that specific subject Ms Sturgeon told MSPs today that the GP finding has already changed to that practices in poorer areas get £7.65 per patient more.

But more broadly she was not about to change on free tuition fees which she said was a " principle I hold dear". The First Minister is clearly not be for turning on that one.

But the question is whether under her leadership the SNP - if it wins the Holyrood election in May as polls suggest it will - take more more policy steps to make Scotland a more truly egalitarian country. Having interviewed the First Minister on several occasions since she took office my hunch is that she will.

Watch this space.

Story on GP funding.

My interview with Professor Shiela Riddell of Edinburgh University on tuition fees, as part of Wednesday's Representing Border.

Report on 'Elitist Scotland.

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