‘Can the First Minister give us another word for a hummingbird’s beak?’
‘Not immediately, no.’
What was this? Had the Presiding Officer finally taken up my idea of turning First Ministers’ Questions into a general knowledge quiz? It’s unfair expecting Nicola Sturgeon to commit facts and figures about the NHS to memory. Maybe she’d have better luck with the first ex-Beatle to reach No.1 with a solo single.
Scottish Labour changes leaders like Elizabeth Taylor changed husbands and the press gallery had to squint to make sure Bamber Gascoigne hadn’t seized power in an overnight coup. No, asking the questions was Richard Leonard and he was interrogating the First Minister on her cruel regime of teaching children to read.
Quizmaster Leonard squawked: ‘The hummingbird’s beak question is one of the government’s standardised assessment literacy questions for 5 year olds. Little wonder Scotland’s teachers have told me how young and confident children are crushed by those tests. There have been reports of children being driven to tears.’
School sure has changed since my day. Most of us knew that a bird’s beak was called a bill and those who didn’t were too busy chibbing each other with compasses and flogging Space Raiders nicked from the tuck shop at half-price to care.
The SNP was sceptical. At mention of these ‘crushed’ mites, they let out a rupture of chuckling. The notion of young scholars sobbing into their packed lunch boxes provoked a wave of mock awwwww-ing from the Nationalists. The Curriculum for Excellence is focused on more practical knowledge. Who needs ornithology when you can translate Harry Potter into Scots by primary three? (‘Yer the wean o’ a spey-wifie, Harry!’)
Besides, the whole spiel sounded implausible. A Scottish classroom with a teacher in it? Come on.
It turned out Leonard had flummed up. The actual question was: ‘The hummingbird has a thin beak. What is another word for beak?’ and the answers were multiple choice: a) skin, b) bill, c) body. The SNP has run Scottish education into the ground but it’s hard to believe many 5 year olds had trouble answering that question. Maybe these were budding SNP MSPs and waiting for HQ to tell them the correct response or send talking points on how Brexit has made the UK a hostile environment for hummingbirds that want to migrate to Scotland for the great schools and quality of life.
It was a bit cheeky of Leonard not to mention this was a multiple choice question. He should really have given the First Minister a chance to ask the audience or phone a friend. It’d be nice for Shona to get a call that didn’t end with a health board being taken into special measures.
Standardised testing is the one thing this government is doing right and yet its Left flank is determined to portray it as a vicious campaign of educational Dickensianism. If you start assessing whether children can count and spell their names, isn’t the logical conclusion a return to the workhouse?
Sturgeon told Leonard: ‘We are determined, as I have said on so many occasions, to continue to raise standards in our schools and to close the attainment gap.’ She thinks the fact she’s made the same promise over and over again shows how dedicated she is, rather than how consistently she’s failed to deliver on the promise. Maybe we should have standardised testing for first ministers.
On the subject of beaks, Ruth Davidson wanted to know why criminals who break their home curfew don’t find themselves up in front of a judge. Sturgeon said we already had too many in prison and touted rehabilitation. This lot would give Freddy Krueger an electronic tag and tell him to think about what he’d done.
Neil Findlay tried to get her interested in bus services in West Lothian. God love him. You wouldn’t get this First Minister anywhere near a bus without six photographers and a spin doctor.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.