Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she is the only politician offering “serious leadership” for Scotland in Thursday’s crucial Holyrood poll – despite conceding her SNP had “not yet done enough” when it comes to dealing with the country’s attainment gap.
Ms Sturgeon had previously insisted that closing the gap in performance between rich and poor children in Scotland’s schools was her top priority in government, saying voters should judge her on this.
As Scots prepare to cast their ballots in the Holyrood election on May 6, the SNP leader said on this issue: “We have not yet done as much as I want us to do.”
Ms Sturgeon insisted progress has been made, pointing to “record numbers” of young people from deprived areas going to university, but speaking about efforts to close the attainment gap, she added: “It is not yet where I want it to be.”
But she said the SNP would do more to tackle the “driver of the attainment gap, which is child poverty” if re-elected to power for what would be a record fourth term in government in Scotland.
She said it was “unacceptable” that almost a quarter (24%) of children in Scotland are living in poverty – but said this was the lowest proportion of any nation of the UK, and added that her party had pledged to double the Scottish Child Payment, made to low-income families, taking this to £20 a week.
Speaking on BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show, Ms Sturgeon said: “We are not saying there are not big challenges to address in this country, but we are the only party doing the work and putting forward the plans to actually do that.
“And that’s the choice people have on Thursday, do you want to vote for parties that are vying for second place, openly saying they have got no plan for government, or do you want a serious first minister, and experienced first minister, that is leading a government that is serious about tackling the challenges.”
Ms Sturgeon, who said she would serve out the full five-year term if re-elected as first minister, added: “This country needs serious leadership because it is a serious time, and that is what I offer.
“It seems that I am the only one in this campaign offering that.”
She said she had “learned a lot” from the experience of leading Scotland through the coronavirus pandemic, saying she had the “experience that is needed to drive the country through the remainder of this and then hopefully to a better future”.
With more than half of all Scots now having had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and infection levels and hospital numbers falling, she said Scotland was in a “much better, stronger place than we have been all year”.
But she added: “There is still some tough times and some big decisions ahead and I believe I have got the experience now to steer the country through.”
Central to that is the issue of Scotland’s future in the UK, with the SNP arguing independence is necessary to ensure people north of the border are in control.
Ms Sturgeon, who has promised another referendum once the health crisis of coronavirus has passed, said: “Recovery is not separate to who takes the decisions and where power lies.
“If we don’t decide to take the longer-term recovery into our own hands, the real risk, just as was the case after the financial crash, is we have got another decade of Tory austerity.
“I have tried my best to steer this country through a Covid pandemic for a year. I will do that, every waking moment of mine will be focused on that for as long as it takes.
“But when we get over the crisis, it actually matters to our long-term recovery.”
She added: “It shouldn’t be me as an individual politician, no more than it should be Boris Johnson as an individual politician who decides Scotland’s future, it should be the people of Scotland, it is a basic principle of democracy.
“My focus though will be on continuing to steer us through Covid, and then yes, giving people the right to decide what kind of country do we want Scotland to recover to, and who should be in the driving seat.
“I don’t want Boris Johnson making the decisions about the country Scotland will become.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, however, said Ms Sturgeon had been “explicit” that “if she secures a Holyrood majority, she will hold a damaging and divisive referendum while Scotland is still reeling from the impact of Covid”.
He said: “This is beyond irresponsible. When our Scottish Parliament should be entirely focused on rebuilding and recovery, Sturgeon will plunge us into chaos and uncertainty.
“She talks about being in the driving seat – the problem is, she wants to drive our economy off the edge of a cliff.
“If pro-UK voters lend the Scottish Conservatives their vote on the peach-coloured party list ballot paper, they can prevent an SNP majority and stop another referendum.”