- The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick):
Good morning. I remind members to switch off all mobile phones and electronic devices.
The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-01134, in the name of Angela Constance, on raising attainment and ambition for all Scotland’s young people.
- The Minister for Children and Young People (Angela Constance):
I am delighted to open this morning’s debate. Apart from allowing me to outline the Government’s ambitions for all of our children and young people, it also gives me the opportunity to share a debate with Alasdair Allan for the first time in 20 years. I suppose that it is also the first time that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has let the two junior education ministers out to play.
The two core and inextricably linked aims of the education team in this term of government are to raise attainment and improve the life chances of Scotland’s children. At the heart of everything we do and of all our aspirations for our children is to ensure that we have happy healthy bairns who reach their full potential. The guiding principle for us all as parliamentarians in making decisions and expressing views should be that if something is not good enough for our own sons and daughters, it is not good enough for any child or young person growing up in Scotland. Educational attainment is the passport to social, cultural and economic prosperity and we are absolutely focused on the child’s needs throughout their learning journey from the early years to young adulthood.
I point out from the outset that in seeking to raise educational attainment we do not have a doom-and-gloom agenda. We have strengths and successes to build on. That said, I reassure the chamber that there is no room for complacency and when it comes to improving the life chances of our looked-after children I will not beat about the bush: the report card for all corporate parents at all levels of local and national Government says, “Can and must do better.” We also need to focus attention on reducing the gap between the lowest and highest attainers in education.
Although we can celebrate the fact that our education system performs well internationally; that we have excellence in higher education; that our 15-year-olds perform above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average for reading and science; that we have record levels of young people in further and higher education; that statistics and qualifications show that our young people are performing better than at any point in the past; and that—this is for Mr Macintosh, in particular—class sizes are at a record low, I reassert that there is still a job of work to do. That is why, among other things, the cabinet secretary Michael Russell has brought together a small group of headteachers with an excellent personal track record of raising attainment in their own schools across a range of circumstances. The group’s members will distil from their own real-life work experience what works to help our young citizens to be high attainers. It is crucial that we understand and share innovative practice and the group’s work will be concluded speedily.
I will also discuss the specific issue of looked-after children with the attainment group. Although I know that next week there will be a debate on permanence planning for looked-after children and that the Education and Culture Committee is holding a very welcome inquiry into the issue, I flag up to Parliament the learning hub. That is a strand of work that is being undertaken by the looked-after children strategic implementation group, which will oversee a variety of activities to boost and drive improvements in educational attainment.
Over and above our specific measures on attainment, how will we achieve systematic and radical change for our children, our country and our communities? For me, the starting point is the early years—the foundation years. When it comes to babies and very young children, including pre-birth, we will reap what we sow. If we are serious about giving our children the best start in life, we need to be serious about the fundamental shift both in philosophy and of resources into the early years, early intervention and preventative spend.
Apart from independence, preventative spend is the most radical and exciting agenda that the Government is pursuing. It cuts across all arms of Government, both local and national, and across universal and targeted services. This Scottish National Party Government has been brave and bold enough to grasp the agenda, despite the financial constraints that we are all living with.
I am currently finalising arrangements with local government and health partners in establishing the early years task force that will oversee a joint change fund of more than £270 million. That will be used to transform the lives of children and communities and to begin to unlock the potential of our universal services, whether in education or health, in prevention as opposed to cure, implementing that transformational change at a local level as envisaged by the early years framework.
Our wider programme of reform, including our legislative ambitions, is central to improving attainment. In essence, our future children’s services bill is about how to get all agencies to work together better in making smarter and quicker decisions for all our children.
I was struck by recent comments by Professor Buchanan, director of the centre for research into parenting and children at the University of Oxford, when she said that the job of universal services is to grow brains. I could not agree more. GIRFEC—getting it right for every child—and attainment go hand in hand, and improving attainment cannot be divorced from ensuring that children are safe, loved, happy, healthy, included and nurtured, have opportunities to play and are valued and respected.
There is a strong synergy between GIRFEC, the curriculum for excellence and the personalisation of services.
- Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD):
The minister will be well aware that there is cross-party support for what is set out in GIRFEC. She may also be aware that the Education and Culture Committee has received evidence on GIRFEC to say that, although the objectives are well established, the way in which it is working across local authority areas leaves something to be desired. Will she touch on those concerns in her remaining remarks?
- Angela Constance:
Liam McArthur is right that, despite the fact that Scotland is a small country, the implementation of the early years framework and GIRFEC is uneven. That is simply not acceptable. Although this Government is not about micromanaging health boards and local authorities, it is unacceptable that there are uneven outcomes and that children have different prospects depending on the part of the country in which they live. That is why we have a commitment to a children’s services bill and the focus on preventative spend, which goes hand in hand with GIRFEC and the early years framework.
I stress that working with and supporting parents is imperative. Parents are the first teachers and the biggest single influence on a child’s educational aspirations and attainment. Continuing our play, talk, read campaign is crucial, as will be the development of a national parenting strategy and ensuring good parental involvement and engagement in the curriculum for excellence.
Curriculum for excellence is being successfully embedded and implemented. It is the biggest educational reform in a generation, and its focus on deep and connected learning and continuous improvement will equip our children and young people with the skills for life, learning and work. New qualifications are being developed on time, and a programme is in place to support the workforce and leadership.
The McCormac and Donaldson reviews have highlighted that the quality of teaching is central to improved attainment, and the development of a reflective teaching workforce that is ready to innovate and share successful practice is key. I want also to stress the contribution of other professionals to the curriculum for excellence, in particular the community learning and development workforce, which will make a valuable contribution to the post-16 agenda.
Sixteen to 19-year-olds are an absolute priority for this Government. As the First Minister said, no young person should go through school only to become an unemployment statistic at the age of 16, and we will not allow that to happen. That is why, through our opportunities for all initiative, all 16 to 19-year-olds who are not in work will be offered a learning opportunity or a training place. We recognise that staying in learning beyond the age of 16 is a young person’s best means of improving their long-term job prospects, and our policies are working to support that.
We are driving long-term, systematic improvement through curriculum for excellence, 16-plus learning choices and the transition planning model for the senior phase of curriculum for excellence. That will ensure that all our young people have the necessary personal, financial and career advice, guidance and support to access and sustain an appropriate place in post-16 learning. Our post-16 education reform programme of those education and learning sectors aims to better meet the needs of individuals and employers in changing labour markets, whether through improving the learning journey or ensuring appropriate and sufficient provision.
- Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab):
I cannot disagree with the intent behind the minister’s words, but I question the actions that are being taken and the implementation. With regard to post-16 reform, how will the 20 per cent cuts to college budgets—following last year’s 10.5 per cent cuts—help to widen access?
- Angela Constance:
As Mr Macintosh well knows, this Government, through its work with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, will ensure that the £2 billion that we continue to spend on higher and further education and on the skills agenda will meet this Government’s priorities. Mr Macintosh is also well aware that this Government has given an assurance on student places.
There is much that we can do in the college sector. We want to equip the college sector to ensure that it is in a stronger position in this difficult financial climate. The college sector has not had any substantial change in terms of how it operates since Margaret Thatcher was in government. What I detect, from my meetings with and exposure to the college sector, is that there is a desire for reform and change and putting students very much at the heart of the learning journey.
- Ken Macintosh:
In the middle of that answer, the minister said that the Government is still committed to maintaining student numbers. Could she further clarify that point? Maintaining student numbers was a manifesto commitment. However, her colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, refused to repeat that commitment in the Education and Culture Committee the other day and said instead that the Government would simply meet demand. Meeting demand is not the same as maintaining numbers. Which is it?
- Angela Constance:
We are meeting our commitments and we will be doing the best by children and young people, starting in the early years and going right through to post-16 education. There is a job of work to do in the college sector. We will be listening carefully to students and to those who work in the college sector. There is a desire to change things; there is no desire for the status quo in the college sector.
The really interesting thing is that, over our two terms in government, we will have invested more than £4 billion in the funding of further education, which is £1 billion more than was invested during the two previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Administrations, despite the fact that their budget went up and ours has been slashed by £3 billion. We should celebrate that.
I am aware that time is growing short. I want to emphasise that children get only one childhood and we therefore have only one chance to get it right. With the golden threads of our work in the early years, the curriculum for excellence and the post-16 agenda, we will do all that we can to improve attainment and the life chances of all of Scotland’s children so that we can get it right for every child in every community.
That the Parliament supports the Scottish Government placing rich attainment at the heart of its approach to enable all Scotland’s young people to improve their life chances and fulfil their ambitions; agrees that for a young child this means giving them the best start so that their cognitive, social and emotional skills enable them to successfully enter and progress in school, and agrees that for a young person this means recognising and affirming successful learning and giving them a passport to future opportunities and that for Scotland it will deliver improved competitiveness and increased opportunity for all.
- Ken Macintosh (Eastwood) (Lab):
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate attainment and the achievements of our young people. This is the first chance in the current session of Parliament to discuss what is happening in our schools and the direction of the Government’s education policy. At any time, policies will be under development, but I am slightly alarmed that we seem to be moving from one policy to another without acknowledging the change or having achieved any of the goals. Specifically, we are moving from an emphasis on lower class sizes to one on teacher quality. I seek clarity from the ministerial team and a sense of the direction that is being taken to achieve the attainment levels that we all want.
We all agree that attainment levels are not high enough. I have no wish to play the blame game, and it is only fair to recognise the attempts of both Administrations. The aim of raising attainment was the key driver behind the reforms that Labour put in place during our time in office. It was behind the investment in the teaching workforce and school refurbishment and rebuilding, and it was behind the schools of ambition programme and our expansion of further and higher education. The motivation behind virtually everything that we did was to try to get more young people, particularly those from deprived and non-traditional backgrounds, to make the most of their abilities. In recent years, the work of Glasgow City Council in establishing nurture groups has been recognised as making a terrific contribution to tackling the lack of opportunity and underachievement.
We talk about the tradition of the democratic intellect in Scotland—the idea that the laird’s son has always sat down with the ploughboy—and we pride ourselves that we Scots have an altruistic streak that is slightly more prominent than in some other countries. However, let us not hide the fact that, even in Scotland, education has long been of greater benefit to those with greater economic means.
Whatever the attempts and difficulties that we faced in the past, I am more concerned about what we are doing now. In every year in which we were in office, slowly but surely, we reduced class sizes across the estate. The Scottish National Party was elected on a specific commitment to reduce to 18 the class sizes in primaries 1 to 3. I am afraid to say that there is no point in pretending that the Government came close. That flagship policy of the previous SNP Administration was based on the argument that the way to improve results and attainment is to invest in the early years. The argument is still used—the minister used it this morning when she talked about the importance of early intervention and preventative spend. We agree on that agenda, but the new policy on class sizes that was announced in this year’s budget is simply to keep teacher numbers in line with pupil numbers. In other words, no progress can be made in reducing class sizes or, if it is, it can be made only at the expense of rising class sizes in the upper years.
I understand the financial pressures that the Government faces, but education policies should not be based on funding decisions alone. The Government is either committed to reducing class sizes because it is the right thing to do, or it is not. Smaller class sizes in P1 to P3 either make a difference, or they do not. Most people who are listening to the ministers would believe that the Government has abandoned its policy on class sizes in favour of an emphasis on teacher quality. I do not necessarily disagree with that, but we should have formal recognition that that is the case. Education authorities, teachers and parents deserve to know what is happening in our schools and what the education minister expects.
Unfortunately, the rather half-hearted commitment to reducing class sizes has left a chaotic legacy. We have a legal class-size maximum of 25 in P1. We have guidance, which I believe is still in place, that class sizes should be reduced to 18 in P1 to P3. Most recently, an agreement was forced through—I repeat that it was forced through, otherwise local authorities would have had a less generous funding settlement—under which only 20 per cent of classes in P1 to P3 should be of 18. What a mess. In many schools, that has meant that, as a pupil progresses up the school, he or she is likely to go from a small class to a large one, to a composite class and then back again. It cannot be a good experience for any child to lose their peer group and to go up and down in that way.
The education policy reflects decisions that have been taken to cover political embarrassment. The only reason why we have the 20 per cent target was to try to give the SNP cover as it went into the recent election, but there is no logic to the policy whatever. The figure of 18 was pretty arbitrary in the first place and the 20 per cent target is similarly arbitrary. The whole adds up to a picture of confusion.
On top of those issues we have the success of the curriculum for excellence in primary schools, but there are huge question marks over its implementation in secondary schools. In particular, there are outstanding concerns over the transition from the curriculum for excellence to the examinable curriculum. How many times do we have to raise that issue in Parliament before we get some answers? I remind the minister and the chamber that one of the reasons for our introducing the curriculum for excellence was that, although those at the top do well—and for them exams can be quite a motivating factor—a huge group of young people are silently disengaged and a similarly huge group at the bottom of the system has very little prospect of getting any exam results at all. Those young people are at the centre of our discussion this morning and as they progress through secondary school, they can become increasingly disenchanted and quite difficult for schools to manage. In fact, I am slightly surprised that the debate centres so much on the term “attainment”, because I thought that we were moving away from solely assessing attainment to talk of broader achievement and fulfilment. Those are the terms of the curriculum for excellence.
Teaching and learning have to be about progression, but there is very little progression among that group of young people. If we are to improve attainment or achievement and make the most of curriculum for excellence, it is essential that we get its implementation right.
I have argued previously that, in my estimation, the McCrone agreement was one of the most important achievements of the last Labour Government. There are others who believe that we did not get as much return for our investment as we should have done, but we raised morale in the teaching profession, we reaffirmed our faith in teaching as a profession, we put an end to industrial discontent, and we reversed the withdrawal of good will for supporting out-of-hours working by teachers and far more. The net effect transformed our schools. The atmosphere in the staffroom and the classroom changed because we made it clear that we valued teachers.
If we are now making the argument that the quality of teachers is essential to improving attainment, the cabinet secretary and ministers have a duty to be a bit clearer about what the post-McCrone or post-McCormac settlement will look like. During the previous parliamentary session, all too often we heard the cabinet secretary saying that decisions are for local authorities and that local government is the employer. I absolutely accept that we have to work in partnership with the local authorities and that it is not for us to dictate to them, but the Government should not use that as an excuse to abdicate responsibility; it should set clear guidance about what is expected.
There is simmering discontent in our staffrooms, primarily because of pension changes but also because of anxiety over McCormac and the demands for teachers to become a more flexible workforce. Does the minister agree that supply teachers should be paid the cheapest rate possible rather than one befitting their experience? Will she oversee the end of the chartered teacher programme? That was a huge investment and a similarly huge commitment for many teaching staff. Would it not be more sensible to make the chartered system work rather than get rid of it altogether?
Perhaps most important, we are talking about raising attainment but time and again we are reminded that the background from which a pupil comes is the key determinant of how well they will do at school. We have this fantastically equitable school system that is recognised in all sorts of reports, from the OECD to this week’s Sunday Herald. Too often, however, our system fails to overcome the disadvantage of a home that has no books, perhaps no working parent, and perhaps no ambition for further or higher education.
Even when children and young people are encouraged to make the most of themselves, children from deprived communities are most likely to go to college, not university, and yet we are now reducing colleges’ funding by a further 20 per cent. The cabinet secretary has accepted that that will not help to widen access so why is the SNP Government doing it? If we wish to raise attainment, why have the minister and his Government decided to prioritise the old universities—institutions that are dominated by the already high-achieving middle classes? The post-93 institutions are being starved of resources and colleges are actually being cut.
- Angela Constance:
I remind Mr Macintosh that this Government has invested £4 million in activity agreements that have reached out to children who are furthest away from education and employment. This Government has invested in more than 300,000 training opportunities. That hardly sounds like a Government that is a bastion of vested interests in higher education. Should the member not just give up the ghost and welcome the fact that the Government has retained a higher education system that is based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay?
- The Presiding Officer:
Mr Macintosh, you can be assured that, following that very lengthy intervention, you will get additional time.
- Ken Macintosh:
Thank you very much.
My argument was not that the Government is in hock to vested interests; it was that it is taking a rather elitist approach to education. That is genuinely my worry. We are talking about attainment, but the decisions that the Government is taking—
- Angela Constance:
What is elitist about our leadership on and investment in the early years? We are the first Government to really grasp the nettle of preventative spend, which will radically change this country.
- Ken Macintosh:
If the Government were committed to early years intervention, we would be with it entirely, but the trouble is that the talk is there, but the £50 million change fund over four years will not even begin to compensate for the cuts to local authorities, which are the main providers of early years intervention. [Interruption.]
- The Presiding Officer:
Can we hear the member, please?
- Ken Macintosh:
Glasgow City Council, which has been trying for years to invest in nurture groups, is continually criticised by the Government for the work that it does. [Interruption.] The Government criticises Glasgow City Council constantly, and it is taking away far more from local authorities, which are the key providers of support in this area, than it is putting in. The idea that the flimsy £4 million in activity agreements somehow makes up for what the Government is robbing from elsewhere—[Interruption.] The minister constantly boasts about the Government’s promotion of education maintenance allowances, unlike the Government down south, but the SNP Administration has cut EMAs drastically. There is no more of the retention money in EMAs.
- The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning (Michael Russell):
Will the member give way?
- The Presiding Officer:
The member is over his time.
- Ken Macintosh:
The basic EMA is still there, but all the additional money to retain people has gone.
Schools of ambition have gone, colleges’ funding has been cut, EMAs have been cut back and local authorities—the main providers—have been hammered. I am not sure that the language, which we support, is backed up by the Government’s actions. I would like to hear from the minister, when he sums up, what other actions he intends to take.
I move amendment S4M-01134.3, to leave out from “supports” to end and insert:
“believes that more needs to be done to raise attainment and achievement levels among young people in Scotland; remains acutely concerned that even Scotland’s equitable school system fails to overcome socioeconomic deprivation for too many Scots; recognises the success of various initiatives, such as Glasgow’s approach in supporting nurture groups; believes that the Parliament can reach agreement on the importance of early intervention and tackling illiteracy, but, given the abandonment of the SNP government’s flagship policy on class sizes, calls for clarity on which Scottish Government policies will now be the key drivers in raising attainment and opening up opportunity for all.”
- Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con):
I will refocus attention on the subject of the debate. I do not think that there is a more important subject for debate than how we should raise attainment for pupils in Scotland.
I do not doubt that good things are happening, as the minister said. Scotland is a leading light when it comes to teacher training, we are leading the way when it comes to the process of pupil self-evaluation and there are imaginative developments in the early years, as well as signs of some improvements in attainment levels, so I am not prepared to share the view of some who write on educational matters that our schools are always seen to be struggling; neither am I prepared to accept, however, some of the Government’s extraordinary rhetoric when it comes to the reality of certain trends in Scottish education.
How extraordinary it is that, on a subject as important as attainment, we have such a benign Government motion that does not flag up the key policy directions. A wealth of excellent work has been done in the recent Donaldson, McCormac and Cameron reviews that has been given only passing mention this morning. We should be focusing all our attention on two important recommendations from those reports. First, we must ensure that we have the best teachers and headteachers in all our schools. Secondly, we must ensure that we can raise the motivation and aspiration of all our pupils from the youngest age.
As McCormac said in his report, we need to do far more to tackle some of the disturbing evidence from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education and from other countries, which makes for such sober reading. The fact that just over half of Scottish school leavers finish school without receiving a higher is nothing to be proud of, nor are the statistics on the extent of the attainment gaps that exist between geographical areas and socioeconomic groups, which were so brutally exposed in the Sunday Herald at the weekend.
I am very clear indeed that the evidence before us from those reports suggests that raising attainment is not all about money. If that were the case, we would be well ahead, because since 1999 we have doubled the amount of spending on schools, yet we have not seen comparable changes in attainment and, sadly, there has been little improvement in our performance according to international measurements. Although I believe that comparisons with other countries can be useful—and, in some cases, extremely useful—the most important measurement is often how much better we are doing against ourselves, and that is why we must be prepared to look at much more than just the efficiency of public spending on our schools.
I suggest that a combination of five things, if delivered together, will raise attainment levels among pupils—especially those in our most deprived communities who, for me, must be our priority. It is simply not acceptable to say that weaker local economies, or more disadvantaged communities, are necessarily an excuse for poor performance. Of course the challenge is greater—no one would deny that—but so, too, is the prize of being able to deliver better educational outcomes for those pupils.
Let us not be shy about telling the truth and being up front about what needs to be done. First, let us consider carefully not only the broad principles of the combined reports of Donaldson, Cameron and McCormac, but some of the small print too—because that is where some of the most important comments lie. They make it clear that, as well as increasing professional support for teachers, leadership in schools is crucial. I am talking not simply about the usual traditional concept of leadership, which most people think lies with the headteacher, but about leadership in our classrooms and among our pupils. The issue is competence—and confidence in that competence.
Let us not dismiss the concerns raised by Graham Donaldson when he said that too many young teachers have issues with literacy and numeracy, which has a major impact on their teaching abilities—even if many of them have many of the other talents that can help to make them outstanding teachers. The problem cannot be ignored, nor can the issue of literacy and numeracy at large, because it is nothing short of a disgrace that one in six pupils leaves school without being functionally literate. Although I think that there is genuine intent to tackle the problem, I still do not believe that we are doing enough to ensure that the best practice of teaching traditional methods, and testing accordingly, is more widespread—methods that in local authorities such as West Dunbartonshire and Clackmannanshire have produced better results, for weaker pupils just as much as for more able pupils.
Secondly, it is becoming patently clear that comprehensive education beyond S2 has failed. The one-size-fits-all approach is not working. It does not provide the flexibility and diversity that we need. Our system is too centralised and too overregulated. We need greater flexibility so that we can do much more to expand the vocational and technical training that this country so desperately needs.
There are more lessons to be learned from David Cameron’s review of devolved school management, particularly as he binds together the underlying philosophy of curriculum for excellence with the need to allow heads to have greater control over the provision that they make for their pupils. He points out that the curriculum for excellence is not compatible with the existing structure of school management. How much I agree with him on that point.
- Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab):
As a former teacher, I find Liz Smith’s arguments about the inability of the present management structure to connect well with curriculum for excellence extraordinary. Perhaps she would explain her arguments further.
- Liz Smith:
David Cameron put the argument across strongly when the Education and Culture Committee took evidence. The curriculum for excellence allows individual schools to have much more control over how they organise their subjects and over how they deliver education to pupils. Logically, that must allow us to devolve more management to schools. I entirely agree with that principle.
I will finish by combining some comments from the Donaldson report and the programmes of Teach First, which have worked so successfully in England, America, Australia and Germany, especially when it comes to helping pupils from poorer backgrounds and raising their aspirations. Donaldson makes it very clear indeed that he thinks that the teaching profession will have to be much more adaptable than ever before, and that it is time to attract a greater diversity of backgrounds into the teaching profession.
I do not take issue with the Scottish Government’s motion, except in that it is far too bland about the key points that will improve attainment.
I move amendment S4M-01134.1, to insert at end:
“, and believes that there are important recommendations contained in the recent Donaldson, McCormac and Cameron reports, which, when implemented, will raise standards in Scotland’s schools, deliver a school system that is much more responsive to the demands of pupils, parents and teachers and will provide greater incentives to turn around failing schools.”
- Paul Wheelhouse (South Scotland) (SNP):
Although members around the chamber might disagree about the means by which to achieve this, we as parliamentarians are all motivated by our strong desire to ensure that our beloved Scotland can be the best country that it possibly can be and a land of opportunity for all who live here. It should shame us all as politicians that in 21st century Scotland far too many people still have little opportunity to achieve their potential—we share that characteristic with other parts of these isles. Often those individuals are dismissed as failures when, in truth, it is previous generations of politicians who have failed them.
For far too many young people and their parents, life is a struggle and there is little real hope on the horizon to spark and fuel their ambition. Sadly, our young people can have their life outcomes determined at birth by where they live rather than by their own inherent talents and potential. As Save the Children has stated, breaking the link between growing up in poverty and poor educational outcomes is vital to achieving the goal of raising attainment and ambition for all our young people.
If we as a Parliament are serious about doing that, I invite everyone in the chamber to welcome and support the Scottish Government’s initiatives in relation to the Scottish futures fund. In particular, I welcome two elements of the fund. First, the youth talent fund will encourage the very best of talent in all parts of the country. It represents an investment in young people of £50 million, which will help to widen opportunities in the arts and creative apprenticeship programmes for the young, where job opportunities in their area do not match their generation’s enormous talent and ability. Secondly, the sure start fund, which will also receive £50 million, has at its heart a determination to transform the life chances of thousands of newborn Scots. The SFF therefore includes commitments to provide financial support for young people right through from birth to adulthood.
The Scottish Government has signalled a decisive shift towards preventative spending measures, which are about investing now to save money and reduce negative social outcomes later. Those measures will be of particular benefit to Scotland’s young people. In giving evidence to the Finance Committee yesterday, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Centre for Public Policy for Regions supported that shift and praised the Government for that brave decision. That is a view shared by the Labour MP for Nottingham North, Graham Allen MP, who stated in his evidence to the Finance Committee:
“As for where the balance lies, I do not wish to flatter the committee, but Scotland has achieved a much better balance than England.”—[Official Report, Finance Committee, 28 September 2011; c 105.]
I believe that Parliament should echo those sentiments and I welcome the Scottish Government’s wider investments in and commitments to young people. Some have been mentioned already: the spending review will fund a record number of 125,000 modern apprenticeships over the next five years; Angela Constance has mentioned the activity agreements; and the Government’s “Putting Learners at the Centre” paper, published in September, reaffirms the Scottish National Party’s commitment to young people. We have a long-standing commitment to do everything we can to lessen the risk and harm of unemployment for young people.
I know all colleagues across the chamber will also recognise the importance of Scotland’s colleges in delivering the training and skills to help our young people fulfil their ambition. Clearly, in these difficult times, the Scottish Government has been forced to make some difficult decisions, which I acknowledge will be a challenge for the sector. However, the college sector has always been a can-do sector and I hope that by enhancing existing interregional collaboration the colleges will rise to that challenge.
In light of Ken Macintosh’s animated intervention earlier on college sector funding, I want to expand on a point I made in the Finance Committee yesterday, when we heard from representatives of the CPPR and the RSE. It is true that over the period from 2011-12 to 2014-15, there will be a 13.6 per cent decrease in college sector funding in cash terms in Scotland—that is, a reduction from £545 million to £471 million—but the comparable decrease in funding for the United Kingdom Government’s spending in England’s college sector is from £4.3 billion to £3.2 billion, or a fall of 25 per cent in cash terms, even before allowing for the impact of inflation. In other words, the fall in spending on the college sector in England is almost double that in Scotland, despite an implied 25 per cent Barnett consequential.
- Ken Macintosh:
Does Mr Wheelhouse simply judge the success or failure of Scottish policies on whether they are better than English policies?
- Paul Wheelhouse:
No, indeed not. This debate has been characterised by reference to Scottish Government cuts and people need to recognise that, within a tight financial settlement, the Scottish Government has done more than comparable authorities in the British isles to protect spending on the college sector.
The Scottish Government has also made and fulfilled a commitment to plug the gap in university budgets left by the effective privatisation of England’s universities and the introduction of up to £9,000-a-year tuition fees. It is essential that young people are supported financially, whether they are in education or training, so that they can help the Scottish economy to flourish in years to come.
In contrast with the UK Government, the Scottish Government has committed to retaining the education maintenance allowance, as we heard earlier, so that young people do not leave education prematurely. We are also able to keep university tuition fees free for all Scotland-domiciled students and have proposed a minimum student income of £7000 per annum. Indeed, the latter proposal and the wider post-16 reforms have been warmly welcomed by Robin Parker, the NUS Scotland president, who said:
“Students across Scotland will be delighted that the Scottish Government has placed such a clear priority on improving student support and making access to education fairer.”
Given the challenging financial times for the Scottish Government’s budget as a result of reductions of £1.3 billion in Scotland’s block grant, we should recognise that the spending review demonstrates the solidarity of the Scottish Government with—I dare say—the wider SNP and Scotland’s students. Would we have wished to be able to provide even greater support to both colleges and universities? Undoubtedly, but the Scottish Government has delivered a better settlement than has been offered in England and we should recognise that.
- Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab):
A report that was published in the Sunday Herald last weekend, which has been referred to many times already in the debate, showed just how clear the link between attainment and poverty remains in the Scottish education system today. There is little doubt that inequality still mires our education system. From the early years through to university level and beyond, the socioeconomic status of our children is much more likely to determine their ambition and attainment at school, college, university and beyond. To propose that the situation is otherwise, as the motion unfortunately does in glossing over that important issue, is really to ignore the facts.
The gap in attainment between school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers cannot be overemphasised. The attainment of school leavers from the most deprived areas of Scotland is a staggering 65 per cent lower than the Scottish average and 137 per cent below that of the richest pupils in Scotland—this is today, in 2011, in our democratic and sophisticated country. Those figures are unacceptable.
Figures published just last week show that some children can be nearly 18 times more likely to attend university than those who live and are educated just seven minutes away. Everyone who read Paul Hutcheon’s report in the Sunday Herald would, I think, agree that it made for awful reading.
That postcode lottery is unacceptable and the achievement gap that it creates is worse now than it has ever been in the history of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, that was brought home to me when I read the Sunday Herald article, which talked about many areas in Scotland, not least Glasgow, and highlighted the attainment levels in my home city of Dundee. It pointed out that at one secondary school in Dundee that is not far from where I live, the progression rate on to university has actually dropped since devolution in 1999. That is extremely worrying and I hope that the minister will address it when he sums up.
When college budgets are being slashed—some principals reckon that the spending review cut to college budgets is 40 per cent in real terms—it is difficult to imagine the attainment of those from the poorest backgrounds and their aspiration for further education and training improving any time soon. With one in five leaving school to join the dole queue, we must ask what impact cutting college budgets will have on our poorest children’s prospects of developing the essential skills and knowledge to be competitive in the jobs market.
Perhaps that is a rhetorical question because, for many of those students, college represents the first rung on the ladder of upward social mobility. When colleges remain local and well-staffed, with a comprehensive curriculum, students can reach levels of attainment and ambition that will make them more competitive in the jobs market or, indeed, qualify them for university if they were not able to progress to that from school.
With that in mind, the Scottish Government needs to give concrete guarantees that colleges will remain accessible to students from the poorest areas in terms of not just proximity and physical accessibility but resources and student hours, numbers and places. We have pressed the Government on all those topics this week; now it needs to give concrete guarantees on them, as the Minister for Children and Young People suggested, and stay true to what was suggested in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto in May. In committee and in the chamber this week, guarantees on those have been undermined and, to my mind, now cease to exist.
Much of the work to overcome the inequalities in our education system must focus on widening access. The Scottish Government must work to reduce barriers at each level of higher education in order to facilitate greater levels of attainment for people from non-traditional educational backgrounds. Its measures must go beyond statutory obligations on university admissions towards raising the ambitions and aspirations of people from non-traditional educational backgrounds. It must tackle drop-out rates and the reasons why they are so high in some communities and universities in Scotland and why more higher education students in Scotland than their United Kingdom peers drop out. Whether that is done through a package of incentives or a dedicated Government unit for Scottish mobility, more must be done.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to putting widening access on the statute book and Labour members look forward to the paper on that legislation and to working with the Government to ensure that we have the most robust widening access policy in Europe.
- George Adam (Paisley) (SNP):
First, I apologise for my voice; I have man flu. As all the women in the chamber know, men have difficulty with dealing with a slight cold.
When I came to the chamber, I thought that we would all work together in discussing the important subject of raising attainment and ambition for all Scotland’s young people, as we can agree on the matter. Children and how they achieve things in life are important. However, having listened to the Labour Party and Mr Macintosh’s initial rant, I see that we cannot seem to agree. There is negativity about the future. How can you be negative when you are talking about education and attainment for all the children of Scotland? How can you not want to achieve that? I know that Mr Macintosh is in a leadership contest. Perhaps he thinks that, although, unfortunately, his UK leader does not know his name, he might make a name for himself by having a go at the SNP.
Mr Macintosh mentioned the funding decisions that have had to be taken on education throughout Scotland. I have heard the Labour Party talking about such decisions in the Renfrewshire Council chamber and the Parliament, but Labour offers nothing. It gives us non-stop negativity and no ideas of how it would solve the issues.
We live in very difficult times. Mr Macintosh talks about small, large and composite classes and children moving through the system. What education departments are you talking about? I do not know of any director of education or any educationist who would allow a primary school child to go through school in that way. What was said was complete and utter nonsense, and you do a great disservice to the professionalism of educationists in our local authorities.
- Ken Macintosh:
Is Mr Adam guaranteeing that, when a child enters a class of 18 in primary 1, he will stay in a class of 18 throughout his school career?
- George Adam:
I was talking about your idea that there would be constant change throughout a child’s primary school education. That simply will not happen in any school.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith):
Mr Adam, would you address your remarks through the chair, please? Thank you very much.
- George Adam:
I am sorry, Presiding Officer.
The performance of teachers plays a large part in strengthening education, and it is important that some of the McCormac ideals are considered, particularly in talking about leadership.
This is a difficult debate, and the minister was correct to say that we should consider our own children. I am a parent, as many members are. My child—James is no longer a child; he is 20—is on the autistic spectrum, but he was not diagnosed until later on in his academic life. If we had had the diagnosis earlier, James would have had an easier time in education, which became very difficult for him. I always approach debates such as this one from the perspective of a parent who wants what is best for their child. I agree whole-heartedly with the minister on that.
I offer Mr Macintosh a definition of “attainment”. It is the action or fact of achieving a goal towards which one works. That is exactly what we are aiming to do. “Ambition” is defined as a strong desire to do or achieve something, which is also important. If such definitions are not part of the debate, why are we here and what are we discussing?
In the previous session of the Parliament, the minority Government offered much. It increased free nursery provision by 20 per cent, increasing the provision of free nursery education to three and four-year-olds. More important, it provided £10 million to the early years early action fund—I could go on; the list is endless, but time is not.
We must look to the future, and it is unfortunate that the Labour Party says that it does not want to do so. There will be integrated inspection, through Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland. The new approach to children’s services inspections will be ready by 2012. The Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 will be implemented by September 2012. The establishment of the early years change fund recognises the effects of early intervention. The development of a parenting strategy is important. How often do we hear individuals—particularly grandparents—say, “I blame the parents”? At the end of the day, it might be a good idea to look at how we can make things better for everyone in the country.
Before I was elected as an MSP, I was a councillor in Renfrewshire Council—I still am—and all I heard was constant negativity about the council’s education department, although it is one of the best in Scotland. Labour constantly attacks but offers nothing in return.
We are living in difficult economic times but we must look to the future and be ambitious, not only for the current generation but for the generations that come after it. Our ambition should be never ending. We should ensure that all young Scots have the opportunity to develop and thrive in a dynamic new Scotland.
- Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab):
I am afraid that the tone of the debate appears to be sliding. No member need worry about making cheap political points when they follow George Adam—we witnessed a wee bit of a demise there.
Before he left the chamber, the cabinet secretary accused Ken Macintosh of making flimsy remarks about activity agreements. Here is the truth. The SNP’s budget for the pilot on activity agreements was £12 million across 10 local authorities, but the budget this year for rolling out the approach across 32 local authorities is £4 million. In the pilot, the figure was £1.2 million per local authority, but when the approach is rolled out there will be a measly £125,000 per local authority—one tenth of the money that was available in the pilot. How can you possibly apply the lessons from your evaluation of the pilot throughout Scotland and expect the same results? That is why Labour is so seriously concerned about your commitment to all 16 to 19-year-olds.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
Ms Dugdale, please address your remarks through the chair.
- Kezia Dugdale:
I am sorry, Presiding Officer. I get emotional about the issues; they are so important.
In its report in March, Skills Development Scotland said that the City of Edinburgh Council is the local authority with the worst record in Scotland on positive destinations for school leavers. I will share some of the figures with members. One in six children in Edinburgh leaves school without a positive destination, so is not in education, employment or training. In five schools in Edinburgh the figure is as high as one in four. Last year, 538 kids in Edinburgh had no education or employment to go to.
If members are not bored with the detail, I will go on to tell them that 61 per cent of those 538 kids were boys, 48 per cent had come from the most deprived parts of the city and 13 per cent were care leavers or currently in care.
It is interesting that 48 per cent of those 538 kids had good qualifications. I have been looking at the reasons behind that since I was elected and I have met dozens of organisations and groups in an attempt to get to the bottom of why the situation in Edinburgh is so bad. I have met every organisation from the Federation of Small Businesses to Rathbone and have learned that there are a multitude of reasons why that is the case. I will try to put those into two broad groups.
First, some kids cannot or will not go to university with the qualifications that they have because of the situation that they find themselves in—the places are not there or they do not have the money to go to university. There is such significant displacement in the jobs market that they are applying for jobs that graduates are having to apply for because positions do not exist elsewhere. What those people need is a strong economy that is full of job creation and a budget that protects college and university places. It is my view and the Labour Party’s view that the Government is failing in that respect.
- Mark McDonald (North East Scotland) (SNP):
Does the member not welcome the opportunities for all programme that the Government is introducing, which will ensure that people who leave school without a positive destination are given a guaranteed offer of either a training place or some form of employment?
- Kezia Dugdale:
I absolutely welcome that commitment, which was taken directly from Labour’s manifesto. My issue with it is the mixture of measures and how they are delivered. In my experience, activity agreements can be for a commitment of as little as two hours a week. I will go on to talk about a specific example that shows how we might fail our country’s youngsters if we apply the same policy to all those people who currently have no positive destination.
The second group that I want to talk about are school leavers who need more support, whose backgrounds are more troubled and whose pathway in life has been an issue of concern from the moment that they entered school. I would like to see more support for those kids, and I am pleased that the City of Edinburgh Council has this year allocated money to every secondary school to allow each school to find the employability training that it deems most appropriate for its kids. I commend Sue Bruce, the chief executive of the council, for taking such a strong lead on the issue. I only wish that the elected politicians around her had cared as much about it, as it is because of their failings that she has been left to pick up the pieces.
Just before the recess, I had the enjoyable experience of presenting awards to people who had participated in the Edinburgh challenge project, a joint initiative between Rathbone and Action for Children in Edinburgh that was about the redevelopment of King George V park, in Malcolm Chisholm’s constituency. Fourteen kids out of the 538 that I have mentioned were given six weeks to redevelop a park that they used to trash—they were graffiti-ing, smoking and drinking there. Through a six-week programme that was given a little bit of money, they rebuilt the park. The experience was amazing and taught them a huge amount about the working environment that they seek to be part of. I met a young guy called Lloyd, who, following his involvement in the six-week programme, moved to a work placement that is half paid for by Rathbone and half paid for by his local employer. Lloyd just wants a job. He hated school and he cannot go to college; all that he wants is an opportunity to work. He could not be a nicer, more ambitious guy. I want the best for him and an opportunity for him to get a job. Had Lloyd been given an activity agreement with two hours of contact time a week for a whole year, he would never have gained the experience that he gained in the park—six weeks of full-time work experience that allowed him to get a work placement.
I ask the Government to acknowledge that there are a multitude of ways of delivering on its policy commitment for 16 to 19-year-olds. If it just gives every kid who comes out of school with no positive destination two hours of contact time a week, it will fail them. In delivering on its bold promise, it must be in command of the detail and must recognise that the numbers simply do not add up to the ambition that it appears to have for young people in this country.
- Derek Mackay (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP):
I welcome the speeches of Kezia Dugdale and Liz Smith, who have brought to the chamber some issues and policy choices that are worthy of consideration—an approach that has been sadly lacking from the speeches of a number of other Opposition members in this and previous debates—so I welcome their thought-provoking comments.
The issue has been close to my heart throughout my time in politics, first as a councillor, then as the leader of a council and now as a parliamentarian. Attainment among our young people is of the utmost importance, and the SNP has a strong record on the subject. The Government’s actions in its previous term included increasing free nursery provision and taking early years action, which is, under the present ministerial team, being accelerated at a welcome pace.
However, it does not matter what we did in the previous term; we will be judged on what we do now, and I have enthusiasm for the Government’s programme. For example, the family-nurse partnerships initiative that is being piloted and rolled out is a welcome evidence-based programme. I will work hard to ensure that Renfrewshire is included in the next stage of that programme. In fact, I will not accept no for an answer, because we have such a good record on expanding on programmes such as triple P, which is not the public-private partnership, but promoting positive parenting. Triple P takes a whole-population approach, while the family-nurse partnership targets young mothers. That is essential to give young people the support that they require and to give their children the best possible start in life.
I welcome the inclusion in the Government’s legislative programme of a new rights of children and young people bill that will be compatible with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I also welcome the new integrated children’s services inspection to target the most excluded and the most vulnerable children. I support, too, the development of a parenting strategy. In the past, some people may have argued that that was a namby-pamby social work idea, but we know that it is absolutely necessary for many of our population.
I am a member of the Finance Committee; our utmost priority at the moment is preventative spending, around which there is a great deal of political consensus. I do not like Nike as a company, but I like its slogan: “Just do it.” Let us just do it on early intervention and early action on preventative spending. I am disappointed that Ken Macintosh described the sums involved as “paltry”. I do not think that £500 million over three years is a paltry sum at all.
- Ken Macintosh:
The word that I used was “flimsy” and I referred to the £4 million that was announced for activity agreements. Does the minister—I am sorry. I meant Mr Mackay. I was looking ahead, Mr Mackay. Does Mr Mackay agree that the £4 million that was found for activity agreements was taken from the mc2—more choices, more chances—fund that already existed?
- Derek Mackay:
Mr Macintosh, I am looking at trying to change lives with £500 million of preventative spend. That will have not only cost-saving impacts, but life-changing impacts and it should be welcomed. The Labour MP who is progressing early intervention projects in England and who is doing great work has been told that if he raises £10 million, David Cameron might match it. That would mean £20 million for early intervention in the whole of England. The Scottish Government is allocating £500 million. Does that not put into perspective the priority that the Administration attaches to early intervention? That sum is absolutely incredible in a time of financial reductions that are a consequence of UK Government decisions.
As I said, preventative spending is about not only cost-saving policies but about life-saving and life-changing policies. I know Ken Macintosh because, before I was elected to the Parliament, I appeared as a witness. He interrogated me in my role as leader of Renfrewshire Council and said that our record on class sizes in primary 1 to primary 3 was not good enough. You were right and I told you that we would take action. I am delighted to tell you that, due to that early action on class sizes, Renfrewshire Council now has the best P1 to P3 class sizes—18 or fewer—in urban Scotland. We have a record of delivery and have risen to the challenge.
- Ken Macintosh:
Will Derek Mackay give way?
- Derek Mackay:
I have only one minute left, Mr Macintosh.
Class sizes matter. I hear people describing teacher numbers as a barometer of success, but they are not. They are an issue, but success must be defined by outcomes: the educational attainment of our young people and their preparedness for work and for real life. That involves a whole-population approach that targets those who are most in need of support while recognising that we all have a duty to work together. The health service, councils, the third sector and even the private sector have roles to play in partnership working to ensure that we make the best policy choices for our country.
The school environment in which our children are educated also matters greatly. That is why the announcement at the SNP conference that a further 30 schools will be built or refurbished—adding to the incredible record over the past number of years—is welcome.
As politicians, we have a duty to the next generation. We should not only keep an eye on the next election and the knockabout that goes on in politics, but make the right policy choices so that the next generation has a fair chance and the best possible start in life. That is a commitment to which the Government will live up.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I respectfully remind all members to address their remarks through the chair. Thank you.
- Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con):
I am pleased to take part in the debate. I thank organisations including Save the Children and Barnardo’s Scotland for their useful briefings, which have helped to inform discussions. Barnardo’s Scotland is to be commended for highlighting looked-after children’s needs. It surely is not acceptable to any of us here that looked-after children’s attainment level in schools is five and a half times lower than that of all schoolchildren and that only 1 per cent of looked-after children go on to higher education, compared with 36 per cent of all school leavers.
I associate myself with the excellent opening speech by my friend Liz Smith. I will focus on the importance of rural schools and their role in helping to raise attainment and ambition. I was pleased to receive recently the call for evidence from the commission on rural education, which I sent to the many dozens of parents in Argyll and Bute who have contacted me in the past year as Argyll and Bute Council has proposed rural-school closure programmes that have outraged many people. I urge all those in my region of the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere across Scotland who value rural primary schools and who have opinions on how we can retain, protect and improve them, to make their views known to the commission before the call for evidence closes on 12 January next year. The commission provides an important opportunity for rural communities to have their say about a key part of their infrastructure and their future.
Part of the commission’s remit is
“To examine how the delivery of rural education can maximize attainment and outcomes to give pupils the best life chances, and to examine, where appropriate, how this can be applied more widely”.
If we accept the evidence that primary school attainment plays a much greater role in students’ potential 16-plus than does their secondary school education, it is clear that many excellent examples of the work that goes on in rural primary schools can be replicated elsewhere in the school system. I commend the pupils of Clachan primary school in Argyll, which is a small rural primary that was recently threatened with closure, for their success in the school’s being named joint winner of the prestigious best green school in Scotland award 2011. That shows that best practice can exist in the smallest schools as well as in larger ones.
Rural primaries often have educational programmes that specialise in the biodiversity that surrounds them. For example, the excellent Argyll project called rivers in the classroom brings aquariums into the classroom to teach children about many aspects of freshwater fisheries and aquaculture, which are both important parts of the local economy. I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning for coming to the renowned Dalmally agricultural show to present the first, second and third prizes for participation in that project to Dalmally, Kilchrenan and Inveraray primary schools. The project is a great way to teach children about the importance of clean watercourses, which are barometers of the environment’s health.
The available evidence indicates that remote rural primary schools have higher attainment levels than do other schools, that attainment in secondary 4 is higher in rural secondary schools and that pupils from the most remote rural areas are more likely to go into employment or higher education as school leaver destinations than are pupils from other areas. I wonder why.
Of course, rural schools often provide a range of additional services to the communities that they serve, including nurseries and crèches. Rural schools have wonderful diversity and much initiative is shown by their teachers. The Scottish Conservatives fully support rural schools’ role and wish the commission on rural education success in its deliberations.
I will say a word about the importance of sport and physical activity, including competitive team sports, in helping to improve pupils’ physical and mental wellbeing, which in turn aids attainment levels and promotes lifelong team spirit. Local access to facilities is therefore vital. I am grateful to Scottish Gas for its continuing support for the mid-Argyll community swimming pool in Lochgilphead. The funding has helped to secure the pool’s future, which is welcome as it provides a much-needed swimming facility for the children of mid-Argyll.
- Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP):
I am not a member of the Education and Culture Committee, although I know that a number of members in the chamber are. However, like all members and the public, I believe that it is important that we take forward the issues of attainment and confidence in our young people. Early intervention starting from a very young age is important.
I hear what Ken Macintosh says about the nurture groups that Glasgow City Council has provided. I agree that they are fantastic, and I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has also praised them. We do not always disagree on aspects of work that is done by councils. We did disagree with Glasgow City Council when, while other councils were reducing class sizes, it was the only council in Scotland that did not do that. I was disappointed about that, because nurturing and educating the kids of our country is one of the most important duties that we have as elected politicians. I agree with Mr Macintosh on certain aspects, but I cannot agree with him on others.
Both the minister and Derek Mackay mentioned parenting, which is critical in influencing how children approach not just education but their later years in life. I think the minister has got it right. She mentioned all-encompassing parenting classes. It is not a question of interfering, because it is a fact that many parents want to be looked at not as separate entities but alongside their kids, and to be helped to educate their kids.
I reiterate Derek Mackay’s point about early intervention. As far as I am concerned, early intervention is the key, particularly in the earliest years. That point has been made by John Downie of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and by Sally Ann Kelly of Barnardo’s Scotland, who said:
“It is only through effective early prevention work that we can avoid poor outcomes for Scotland’s children and young people in later life.”
If the acting director of Barnardo’s Scotland says that, I think that we are doing something right.
Statistics from the Scottish household survey show that parents’ satisfaction with their children’s education is high. When people were surveyed about schools and the attainment of their kids, more than 90 per cent of parents said that they were very satisfied with the education that schools provide. We may criticise certain aspects, but in some areas we are getting things right. I am not saying that everything is perfect, but things are improving. We have to work harder to push forward, but we are getting there and we are getting on with it. I am not asking for praise, but the Minister for Children and Young People and her team are working hard to push forward the education system in our country.
I want to veer away from the education aspect and look at other forms of attainment and ambition in a slightly different way. We could do with more positivity and encouragement, particularly from the Labour benches. I do not particularly want to be political, but I have to agree with my colleague George Adam. It is important that we encourage our kids, but if all that we get from politicians is negativity, it does not do much to encourage attainment and positivity. Perhaps members on the Labour benches should look at themselves—not just members who have spoken in this debate, but those who spoke in last night’s debate, as well. If we want to encourage our kids to be positive and to do well, we must lead by example. Constantly running them down does not work at all.
Of course, it is not just politicians or Opposition parties who are to blame; the media play a role in this respect. Not all young kids are bad; in fact, many contribute greatly to society. For example, I am proud to say that Glasgow is the only part of Scotland to have picked up the cudgel of the Co-operative Foundation-funded truth about youth programme, which aims to challenge people’s perceptions of young people and to make it clear that not everything about young people is negative and that they actually make a positive contribution to society.
Education is, of course, very important, but we must consider how young people are perceived in the media and by the general public. Indeed, more emphasis should be put on that in, for example, the good citizenship programme. Nevertheless, the fact is that young people sometimes get bad press. We are doing our best through education to ensure that young people can meet the challenges that face them, but perhaps certain people in the media and elsewhere should be educated in the good things that young people do. It is not all bad.
The debate has generally been good. Of course, we will never agree on everything, but it is important that we work together to ensure that our young people are encouraged to attain their full potential. If they cannot look to elected members for that, I do not know where else they can look.
- John Pentland (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab):
Liz Smith said that the motion was “benign” and “bland”. Indeed, it has been suggested to me that it was computer-generated from a data bank of warm but woolly stock phrases. Who could argue with prioritising attainment, improving young people’s life chances,
“giving them the best start”
to enable them to make “progress at school”; recognising success; and improving “competitiveness and ... opportunity”? All that is missing is a reference to apple pie and cream. What happened to the promises of concerted and definitive action on, for example, reducing primary class sizes? In her opening speech, the minister stood tall over her statement that class sizes are at a record low. However, I am sure she will agree that that record low is nowhere near the class size of 18 that was first promised to all Scotland’s children.
- The Minister for Learning and Skills (Dr Alasdair Allan):
Will the member give way?
- John Pentland:
No. I want to make progress.
I was also interested in the use of the phrase “rich attainment” in the motion. If members Google it, they will find that among the few results that come up those that are relevant to education mostly concern the impact of inequality, and point out that, for the rich, attainment is always greater. That might not be what those who drafted the motion wanted to refer to, but it is very true.
One of the main influences on a child’s chances of going to university is where they live. Since 1999, there have been some improvements; for example, the number of state-school pupils who are going to university has increased from 31 per cent to 35.7 per cent. However, for schools in deprived areas, that figure is often in single digits, while for schools in nearby better-off areas it can be over 40 per cent. Although Labour’s schools of ambition programme was addressing the issue and raising aspirations with clear measurable results, it was unfortunately not given the time that it needed to maximise its impact. Given that this deep-rooted problem cannot be tackled overnight and requires a long-term programme of action that is supported to fruition, it is a great pity that the Scottish National Party cancelled that initiative.
The cabinet secretary, Mike Russell, has recognised that progress has been made in the past 10 years. However, it is still the case that only 15 per cent of Scottish students come from our 20 per cent most-deprived areas. Mr Russell has declared that that inequality of opportunity must be tackled; he thinks that his post-16 reforms will somehow do the job. Statutory duties on universities to address imbalances smack not only of trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, but of passing the buck. As far as post-16 resources are concerned, there is an educational divide, and far from addressing the problem, the Scottish Government is making it worse.
Deprived areas may not supply as many university students, and that makes the college sector even more important to them. The college sector now faces 20 per cent cuts, on top of 10 per cent cuts last year. Will that do wonders for attainment? I think not. There will be fewer courses and students. How will that improve young people’s life chances? What a way to recognise the work of the likes of Motherwell College, which has a great record of success.
Even if Mike Russell does not force colleges to merge, how will struggling colleges cope with the impact of cuts on staff, students and courses without doing so? Is that what is meant by “improved competitiveness and ... opportunity”?
Alongside the problems of deprivation, we have groups that are particularly affected by barriers to education and employment. I am pleased to note the work that Motherwell College has been doing in conjunction with STV local and Action for Children, helping and encouraging young carers to take courses and explore careers.
Young disabled people also face obstacles. I note the finding in a report by Leonard Cheshire Disability that 40 per cent of young disabled people have been turned down or discouraged from progressing into further education, while 42 per cent do not undertake work experience.
To tackle poverty and provide employment opportunities for all, educational inequality must be addressed. We need to help all schools to be good schools, and we need to help all children to realise their potential, but we cannot do that without action that is targeted at the areas of greatest need—not in a “Here today, gone tomorrow” fashion, but with a serious long-term commitment to tackling the underlying causes of such problems.
What we have, however, is a chasm between the Scottish Government's rhetoric and reality. The reality does not raise aspirations and ambitions for all, does not provide the best start for all, and does not give the same opportunities to all. Our children and young people deserve better.
I say to the minister that it is time we had an education system that is fit for the 21st century, an education system that equips young people with the employability skills that they need to meet the challenges of the modern world, and an education system that does not condemn the life chances of those who find themselves in the wrong postcode area.
- Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP):
I want to focus on one particular aspect of the motion, which is the reference to attainment for all children. We have rightly concentrated on the life chances of children who are economically disadvantaged, but I want to talk about another group of children. John Pentland mentioned them, which I acknowledge and appreciate; they are children with disabilities.
If we are really going to get things right for every child, we have to realise that that includes children who do not have the same intellectual abilities as other children. They still deserve to reach their full potential, and they deserve a meaningful education that is purposeful, that builds their self-esteem and which equips them with skills for life as well as with qualifications.
Those principles are embedded in curriculum for excellence, and we all sign up to them. Successive Governments have made considerable progress in supporting children with additional support needs, in particular with the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, which was strengthened in 2009. That gave children with additional support needs and their parents the ability to demand more assessment, and it introduced more joined-up thinking between education and health authorities. However, it does not seem to translate in every case into schools and how pupils and parents experience education.
Last week, I attended a meeting to launch Enable’s report “Bridging the Training Gap”, which looked at how young people experience teaching for special needs. Enable’s young families support committee last year identified lack of understanding in some classroom teachers—not all—as being a major barrier to successful learning for children and young people. Enable did research that has resulted in the report that was published last week. It looked at how well teachers and learning support assistants are trained initially and through on-going professional development. It wrote to all the local authorities and universities that offer initial teacher education courses, and the findings were quite surprising and shocking.
No local authority in Scotland makes training in learning disabilities such as autism, dyslexia and Down’s syndrome mandatory. They offer many courses on additional support needs but, as they are defined in legislation, additional support needs can include all sorts of challenges, such as bullying and disrupted education. Those issues are addressed in training, but the specific needs of people with learning disabilities are not addressed in mandatory training. Further, although the Government’s legislation is advanced and encouraging, only nine local authorities provided copies of documents on Government policies and on parents’ and children’s rights. Another problem is that a lot of parents do not seem to know about commendable initiatives such as the autism toolbox and other laudable aspects of policy development that the Government has undertaken.
The picture is also patchy in university training courses. Eight universities in Scotland offer initial teacher education through bachelor of education courses, and they also offer—as part of those courses—general training for additional support needs. However, only three of the courses include specific learning disability issues as mandatory course content. The Enable report shows that the effect of that on parents’ and children’s experiences has in some cases been shocking. Children with Down’s syndrome have been left on their own because a particular teacher could not cope, with no attempt to get them the materials that they need, such as large-type books. Enable found that one teacher complained to parents that their autistic child needed to learn to socialise better, when most of us with even a cursory knowledge of autism know that the central challenge of autism is that autistic children are not able to socialise.
There are signs of considerable progress. The Donaldson report made 50 recommendations about teacher training, including a recommendation concerning the skills that are required to teach learning-disabled students. It is encouraging that HMIE’s submission to that report noted that student teachers identified that as a priority and said that they want to be better trained in that regard. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to implementing Donaldson’s recommendations.
I also welcome the legislation on the rights of young people and children and the proposed children’s services bill, which could help to entrench the rights that we have already established. However, the Enable report makes the point strongly that legislation is not everything and that legislation does not always translate into work on the ground. As the minister and Liam McArthur have said, local authorities’ putting policy into practice can be patchy.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
Can you come to a conclusion, please?
- Joan McAlpine:
Enable Scotland is calling for learning disability training to be mandatory for initial teacher training and on-going professional development. I urge all local authorities and universities to consider that seriously. Beyond legislation, the key problem is one of attitude, and we all need to think carefully about our attitudes to this specific group of children. Getting it right for every child means getting it right for every child, regardless of their intellectual ability.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I call Liam McArthur, to be followed by Marco Biagi, and I make a plea for six-minute speeches.
- Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD):
I welcome the debate and the opportunity to make a brief contribution to it. Although the amendment that I lodged was not selected for debate, I hope that members will understand if I focus my remarks on the aspects that I sought to highlight through that amendment.
The potential for the debate to roam far and wide has been amply demonstrated. Derek Mackay was absolutely right to commend Kezia Dugdale and Liz Smith for their speeches, and I think Joan McAlpine should be commended, too. I will concentrate on early years intervention, where a step change in priority, collaboration and support is urgently required; on the potential for the pupil premium to make a contribution to targeting resources where they are needed most; and on the concerns that arise from the budget settlement for Scotland’s colleges, given the responsibility that rests on their shoulders for helping to raise attainment and ambition among Scotland’s young people.
On the first of those areas, as I have said in previous debates, I welcome the Government’s commitment to an early years change fund, which is an approach that the Liberal Democrats proposed in our manifesto. All the evidence shows that we achieve the greatest value from the investment that we make in the earliest years of a child’s life and even prior to birth. That does not come cheaply, and it certainly does not provide a guarantee—such things do not exist—but it is the closest that we will get to a guarantee of securing the best possible outcomes for each child later in life.
Barnardo’s Scotland’s briefing for the debate makes the valid point that no intervention is more critical than that in relation to looked-after and accommodated children, which, as the minister alluded to, the Education and Culture Committee will turn its attention to shortly. The warning from Barnardo’s is stark: Scotland, as a corporate parent, is failing looked-after children. The minister was right to acknowledge that, although improvements have been made for some looked-after children in certain circumstances, the overall statistics are frightening. The problems are complex and the costs to society and public sector budgets are considerable. Nowhere is the notion of preventative spend better illustrated.
Although I support the ministers’ intentions in the area and agree that the national parenting strategy can play a key role, I am concerned that, notwithstanding Derek Mackay’s comments, the scale of the resources that ministers are bringing to bear will prove to be inadequate. Perhaps more accurately, I am concerned that there is a risk that the available funding will be spread too thinly across too many initiatives.
More could be done. Simply pointing the finger at Westminster might play to the gallery in Inverness, but it is rapidly running out of credibility elsewhere. As Jeremy Peat of the Royal Society of Edinburgh made clear to Paul Wheelhouse and his colleagues on the Finance Committee yesterday, it is time for the SNP to stop protecting every sacred cow in the herd. For example, Jeremy Peat added his voice to that of the Government’s advisers in advocating a rethink over the status of Scottish Water. Without compromising public accountability or even staff conditions, an estimated £1.5 billion in savings could be achieved by moving Scottish Water to a public trust. Just think what a proportion of that money, over and above the amount that has already been committed—which I acknowledge—could achieve in the interests of making the progress that we all want in improving early intervention. However, that requires political will.
So, too, would implementing, even on a pilot basis, a pupil premium in Scotland. Just because the scheme has been introduced by the coalition south of the border—thanks to the Liberal Democrats—that cannot be sufficient reason for the education secretary to reject it.
- Derek Mackay:
Does the targeting of smaller class sizes in areas of deprivation not have the same outcome as pupil premiums would have, in that resources are de facto directed to those who need them most?
- Liam McArthur:
That targeting can have benefits, but I have an issue with the blanket ruling out of even an exploration of the benefits that the pupil premium can deliver. The scheme will benefit some of the most deprived young people in England by allocating to schools £488 for every pupil who is provided with free school meals. Schools will then have the freedom to spend the money as they see fit, but they will be held to account for how it is used to support deprived pupils.
In answer to a recent parliamentary question, Dr Allan dismissed any suggestion that a pupil premium could play any useful role in Scotland and pointed instead to the EMA. However, the EMA is designed to encourage 16 to 19-year-olds to stay in education, whereas the pupil premium tackles educational disadvantage that is caused by poverty, which starts at a young age and widens later. On average, by the age of seven, children in poverty are two years behind their counterparts from better-off backgrounds. They never catch up.
As Douglas Hamilton of Save the Children Scotland has stated:
“To break this cycle of underachievement, children from the poorest homes must be given high-quality additional support”.
To that end, he highlights that the pupil premium can be used for one-to-one tuition, varied curriculum choices and extra support for parents to get involved. Rather than treat us to more of the pointless and somewhat puerile narrative that all Scotland’s ills derive from Westminster, it is time for ministers to give proper consideration to the calls from Save the Children and others for a pupil premium at least to be trialled in Scotland.
In relation to raising attainment and ambition for all Scotland’s young people, it is difficult to square the minister’s remarks with the 20 per cent real-terms cut that the Government proposes to make to college budgets in the next year. The £37.8 million cut next year is particularly swingeing and colleges are already warning about the effect that it will have on the number of places and courses that are available, the quality of provision, staffing levels and so on.
The effect will almost certainly be felt disproportionately by those from more deprived backgrounds. The NUS rightly points out the need to redouble efforts on widening access to further and higher education, but that and other Government commitments are seriously compromised by the political choices that ministers have made about college budgets.
There is still time to rectify the situation, even by reprofiling the cuts over the next three years. Savings can be made and restructuring is needed, but the cabinet secretary cannot simply ignore the concerns of the college sector, as he did at the Education and Culture Committee on Tuesday, by rubbishing the evidence from Scottish colleges and blaming everything on Westminster. The choices are his. Having been let out to play by the cabinet secretary, I hope that Ms Constance and Dr Allan will help him to make the case to the finance secretary that some of the Barnett consequentials arising from the council tax freeze south of the border should be used to soften the blow.
I entirely support the aspirations that are set out in the Government’s motion, but if we are to achieve them in the interests of all our young people, particularly those from poorer and more vulnerable backgrounds, the Government needs to match the resources to the rhetoric. I have identified three examples; I hope that Dr Allan will address them in his concluding remarks and that both ministers will reflect on them more fully following this useful debate.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
We are now extremely tight for time. I am afraid that any interventions will have to be contained within six-minute speeches.
- Marco Biagi (Edinburgh Central) (SNP):
There have been some thoughtful contributions during the debate. When we have education debates we often see the phenomenon of what we might call synthetic outrage, when members fall over themselves to disagree and criticise. However, we have heard a lot of statements of values and articulations of what matters to parliamentarians. Ken Macintosh at least started that way, but perhaps moved into the criticism-without-solution approach towards the end of his speech.
Kezia Dugdale has already talked about the Edinburgh experience. I do not think that she intended to run down the performance of schools in Edinburgh but my investigations have found that the gap that was mentioned in the Skills Development Scotland report comes from the fact that a disproportionately large number of pupils in Edinburgh go to private schools. As a result, if we simply look at the outcomes from the state schools, we see a picture that is disproportionate in comparison with other local authorities in Scotland. As the City of Edinburgh Council told me, if all pupils in Edinburgh were taken into account, Edinburgh would be fighting East Renfrewshire for the top spot in any national league table.
- Kezia Dugdale:
Will the member take an intervention?
- Marco Biagi:
I want to say one more thing about something that Kezia Dugdale raised so I will take her intervention in a moment.
Kezia Dugdale also made the criticism that the figures do not add up in relation to ambition. That is an interesting point and it perhaps shows a chink—perhaps she realises the nub of the problem, which is that we have received a very constrained financial settlement. If she is going to use her intervention to support her colleague Malcolm Chisholm in calling for further financial powers for the Parliament so that we can address such problems, that would be very welcome.
- Kezia Dugdale:
My point was not that I am oblivious to the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves; I am saying that Marco Biagi is, because SNP policies pretend to deal with them when they simply cannot. In his attack on my policies and position, is he seriously suggesting that the answer to Edinburgh’s school leaver problems is to send more kids to private school?
- Marco Biagi:
No. What I am saying is that we have to take into account the fact that, for better or for worse, a great many pupils in Edinburgh go to private school. Headteachers in my constituency have told me that they are particularly concerned that many of the high achievers move over into private education, whereas in other parts of Scotland, they would be counted towards state schools’ successes. That simply does not happen in Edinburgh. I do not want to diminish Kezia Dugdale’s points about the difficulties that learners from low-income backgrounds face, but let us not do Edinburgh down and use a false comparison to say that it is the worst performing authority in Scotland.
In my discussions with headteachers in my constituency and with schools that have catchment areas that go over into my constituency, I have found that the most important factor is the ethos of drawing in the extracurricular, whereby, under curriculum for excellence, essentially nothing is extracurricular.
Drummond community high school has an interesting initiative that involves Wednesday afternoons being thrown over to completely open character-building activities, in which every teacher participates. Craigmount high school—which is outwith my constituency but one of the feeder primary schools for which is in my constituency—has an interesting initiative for stretching pupils at the top end, which is called advanced advanced higher maths and involves bringing in an outside expert. That is perhaps another controversial issue, but it is certainly a way for that school to show a bit of creativity and aspiration in bringing out the extra from its student body.
That is not a nostalgic call for a return to schools of ambition. I have never seen any statistics that suggested that that scheme helped. A motivated headteacher and motivated staff developing creative solutions in the working of the school is far more effective than the relatively small additional effect of schools of ambition. As Fiona Hyslop said at the time, every school should be a school of ambition.
- Liz Smith:
Will the member take an intervention?
- Marco Biagi:
I am just coming to my final minute.
Similarly, schools of rugby is an initiative that was pointed out to me by Scottish Rugby. Jamie McGrigor made a point about the importance of team sports. Such schools can help bring out a team ethos for all pupils. WWF has highlighted one planet schools, another initiative that brings together pupils across a school. If schools are not involved in such all-school initiatives, they are not doing curriculum for excellence right.
I particularly welcome curriculum for excellence because, once it is fully implemented across all cohorts and all schools, it will allow us to break down a lot of the divisions that currently exist. That is why it was conceived and why it received cross-party support. If we look at the four capacities—successful learners, effective contributors, confident individuals and responsible citizens—they do not just describe the education system that I would like to see in this country; I think that a society that was made up of people who have those capacities would be an inspirational place to live.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott):
I call on Mark McDonald, to be followed by Claudia Beamish. You have a very tight six minutes.
- Mark McDonald (North East Scotland) (SNP):
I will certainly do all that I can to assist you in that respect, Presiding Officer.
John Pentland said that the only thing missing from the motion was a reference to apple pie and cream. That is missing because it would be entirely incompatible with the Government’s healthy eating agenda.
I say gently to the Labour Party that it is fine to complain that more funding is needed in certain areas. We heard from Ken Macintosh that we need extra money for our colleges. Given the proximity of Hallowe’en, he channelled the spirit of his colleague Michael McMahon—a scary prospect, I know—and told us that we needed extra money for local government as well. We hear regularly from Jackie Baillie that we need more money for health. Indeed, we hear regularly from every Labour spokesperson that we need more money in their area. If they can tell us where the magical money tree from which they would seek to take the money is, we will go and find it, get the money from it and put it into those areas.
- Kezia Dugdale:
Will the member take an intervention?
- Mark McDonald:
No, thank you.
However, we are operating within a fixed budget that has been cut by Westminster, and we must take tough decisions. At the same time, we must ensure that we deliver the opportunities that exist. As the cabinet secretary has emphasised, reform of the college sector is long overdue. It might be a case of making a virtue of necessity, but if reform in the college sector is accelerated as a result of the tight financial settlement, that might deliver some of the benefits that are required. If we look at some of the savings that have been achieved through reform of the college sector in the city of Glasgow, it is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that we could achieve significant savings across Scotland.
- Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab):
Will the member give way?
- Mark McDonald:
No. I have a very tight six minutes and I want to provide some positive examples. It has been a good debate for positive examples, and I want to look at different stages of some positive examples in my area.
My wife is a committee member of Dyce community centre, which is in the community where we live. It is holding its first ever under-fives week this week. It regularly holds an over-50s week, when the over-50s can sample what the centre has to offer. In the under-fives week, it is promoting a range of activities for children from kindergym to messy play to music and dance.
We often forget the quality that can be brought into children’s lives from engaging in such activities; we focus far too much on taking a hard-nosed educational view, but other kinds of activity for the under-fives are often vital in helping them to form early social skills and to move on into education.
We should not forget to focus on parents as well as children. During the under-fives week, there are also activities for parents. The community centre has set up support groups for things such as breastfeeding and post-natal depression, in an effort to assist parents and give them the support they need so that they can make a positive impact on their children’s early years. The Government and its agencies have a role to play in those early years, but we should never overlook the need to support the vital role of parents. Parents will also support each other in having a positive impact in the lives of their children.
I will now consider secondary education and collaborative approaches. My secondary school, Dyce academy, has long taken a collaborative approach, sharing with the former Bankhead academy and now Bucksburn academy higher and advanced higher courses. Children from each school can go to the other for those courses. Alternatively, courses can be run jointly by the schools. That can help many pupils who might otherwise struggle to attain the qualifications that they wish to, or which they require in order to get to university. That is especially true in some of the more niche subjects. I would not have been able to do sixth year studies in English had the course not been run jointly; there was not sufficient interest in my school alone. That collaboration has been running for a number of years, and perhaps other schools across Scotland need to consider working in such a way with neighbouring schools. Many members will know of similar examples from their areas.
I turn now to links between schools, colleges and universities—the final stage of the educational journey. A number of good examples exist in my area. The aspire north programme is a collaboration between universities, colleges and schools that tries to engage with pupils in S3 to S6 and to raise their awareness of the value of further and higher education, to encourage aspiration and build self-confidence.
There are also good partnership links between colleges and universities. The University of Aberdeen has built strong links with Banff and Buchan College and Aberdeen College, and there is the unilink programme between Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen College, offered on a two-plus-two basis—students can do two years of a college course and then go straight into third year at university. That helps to break down some of the barriers that exist to access to higher education for those who perhaps cannot make the direct leap from secondary school to university. They are given the opportunity to bridge the gap. Consideration should be given to the question whether such collaborative approaches can be replicated elsewhere in Scotland.
I regret the notion that Ken Macintosh introduced—that universities are somehow elitist institutions. That rhetoric belongs in the past. It does not reflect my experience of Scottish universities, or the experience of anybody I know. If the Labour Party is now defining universities as elitist, that may explain why Ed Miliband wants to close half of them.
- Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab):
As a former primary teacher and as someone who worked in the 1980s—that long ago—in a unit for disaffected teenagers who were excluded from mainstream schools, as someone who worked with the community education sector and the Workers Educational Association, as someone who was an Open University student, and, like many of us, as someone who has been a parent, I am pleased to speak in this debate.
I will focus on the threat to provision for students who are on the edge of education—and who could be lost to it—and on the threat to provision for post-16 rural students. I will also focus on some particularly vulnerable and poorly supported groups.
As other speakers have stressed, and as our amendment highlights, the connection between deprivation and low educational attainment has long been known and is still intractable. Recent research by the Rowntree Foundation
“demonstrates that barriers to achievement vary significantly among deprived areas as different factors combine to shape ambitions, and shows that the difficulty for many young people is in knowing how to fulfil their aspirations.”
The continuation of the education maintenance allowance will undoubtedly help support many students in their later years in school. However, the same research also tells us that
“better information is required to support young people in understanding how schooling, post compulsory education and work fit together.”
Let us for a moment turn our attention back to the four capacities, which Marco Biagi highlighted. As a former teacher, I have already seen the clear benefits of that approach in effecting change, particularly in relation to inclusion. Those developments should not stop at post-16; they should go on right through life—no other member has said that today.
Today the Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland working group is holding a conference in Glasgow on human rights education and active citizenship. Brian McGinley of the University of Strathclyde tells us:
“learning needs to be socially and culturally situated, over arched with values that are in keeping with the students’ understanding and aspirations. Educators need to find out what interests the students and then work co-operatively with them to agree the next steps which are both within reach and challenging for them.”
The Scottish Government’s aim to link education more closely with employers is positive, especially in relation to the development of opportunities in new industries such as marine renewables. Jim Sweeney, associate director of Motherwell College, highlighted a problem that has come to light. He said that he
“welcomes the focus on employability and better links with industry”.
However, he felt the problem for some of our more vulnerable young people is that those opportunities might come only after initial courses and that
“Cuts might prevent colleges offering this stepping stone and some young people will undoubtedly find themselves even further ... From the education or jobs market.”
On the question of protecting and enhancing opportunities for rural young people, there is concern that students from outlying areas will increasingly be unable to access a place at college. Motherwell College subsidises transport from rural areas in my region, which enables students from communities such as Leadhills in rural Clydesdale to be given every opportunity to access education and training. The speed and depth of cuts could put that in jeopardy.
- Derek Mackay:
On that point, does the member think that there is scope for more innovation? Not all places in post-16 education are in colleges, so perhaps the third sector could help by providing places in rural areas such as those that she mentions to ensure that the 100 per cent commitment on 16 to 19-year-olds is achieved.
- Claudia Beamish:
I take the member’s point, but when courses are running already and students are unable to reach the colleges that they should be attending because there is no rural public transport, that is a serious problem.
Many rural students benefit from the Open University and in South Scotland the OU has a relationship with Dumfries and Galloway College, but there are now concerns about that, too. Funding pressures have led the college to prioritise full-time provision, which reduces opportunities for students who need to study at lower levels of intensity. Most of the students tend to come from areas that are very close to the Crichton campus and the OU provision must be protected there and at other institutions.
I also want to focus our attention on vulnerable and underrepresented groups. Joan McAlpine mentioned disabled pupils and I want to highlight the situation for disabled students. The chances of those with learning difficulties are threatened by cuts to colleges. Project search at Motherwell College is one such example. Part-time courses for people with learning disabilities have been cut by a third according to the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability, which stated
“there is little evidence of alternatives”.
Will the minister consider that and guarantee protection for such groups?
Many are relieved by the Scottish Government’s commitment in the spending review to looked-after children and children in care. As I have not much time left to speak, I shall limit my remarks on the subject to saying that those young people deserve our commitment beyond childhood into adulthood. Although the minister’s points were reassuring, the problem is intractable and has gone on for many years, so we all look forward to action. Those young people deserve no less.
Evidence heard by the Equal Opportunities Committee highlights challenges faced by black and ethnic minority pupils, too.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I am sorry, you must close now, please.
- Claudia Beamish:
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I hope that the minister will consider supporting those groups, too.
I hope that the minister will consider the various points that I have made and that, in considering preventive spend, which is a stream that is available, she will be able to consider supporting some of the groups I have mentioned.
- Clare Adamson (Central Scotland) (SNP):
I am pleased to speak in the debate. I recognise that we are talking about not only education but a joined-up approach to how we deal with inequalities in our society. The Scottish Government is tackling the causes of inequality as never before. Our early years intervention work and the equally well strategy are geared towards improving opportunities for all Scotland’s children.
We must tackle the causes of inequality if we are to make any progress in those areas, and the previous SNP Administration had a good track record in relation to recognising some of them. It supported projects that encouraged play because it recognised the scientific research that shows that cognitive development in the first three years of life will define children’s outcomes. Preventative spend on early years will transform opportunities and outcomes for children across Scotland.
This is not just about our early years strategy. Curriculum for excellence focuses on the needs of children and their learning journey and is a stepping stone that will support and develop each pupil to enable them to achieve their full potential, carrying on into the opportunities for all programme for 16 to 19-year-olds. Curriculum for excellence also works hand in hand with GIRFEC to transform our young people’s opportunities and outcomes.
I will talk a bit about ambition, which has not been touched on much in the debate. Before I do so, I will address some comments made by earlier speakers. Jenny Marra and Ken Macintosh talked about college places in some detail. At a time when we face unprecedented cuts in the budget, they seem to believe that, while every other sector must rise to the challenge, the colleges that were preserved in aspic by Margaret Thatcher should remain as they are. Are they seriously suggesting that we should maintain places and teaching numbers that are not required for the 16-to-19 strategy? If so, that explains a lot about the economic chaos that the previous Labour Government left.
- Jenny Marra:
Will the member take an intervention?
- Clare Adamson:
No, thank you.
On class sizes, which John Pentland and Ken Macintosh referred to, Derek Mackay talked about how his local council was able to tackle that issue and make good progress on it. John Pentland was the finance convener of North Lanarkshire Council when it and Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council were the worst-performing councils in delivering class-size reductions.
Liz Smith described the motion as “benign”. I find that a bit curious. I remind members that the Government has a track record of delivering on commitments and achieving change in Scotland through the delivery of some of its policies. Far from it being benign, I regard the motion as transformational, innovative and inspiring.
Kezia Dugdale made a thoughtful speech. I recognise and share her concerns about people from deprived backgrounds entering further and higher education. However, she said that there was a monetary aspect to that, which I found quite ironic, given that it was her party and the Liberal Democrats who introduced—to their shame—the graduate endowment. Thank goodness the Scottish Government is committed to delivering free education.
I was at the SNP conference at the weekend, where I saw a presentation by a senior medical student who is involved in the University of Edinburgh’s pathways to education development programme. That outreach project is for schools that do not normally feed into the university and it tackles specifically people who are the first person in their family to go on to further education, developing a nurturing process to allow them to do that. It has been so successful that Universities Scotland has committed to roll it out. We ought to recognise the good work that is being done in that area.
On ambition, I am delighted that the Scottish Government has protected the youth music initiative, which gives children the support that they need to achieve their musical ambitions. I am delighted, too, with the new Scot fund, which will support sporting, entrepreneurial and creative skills in our young people. I am also delighted that £5 million of that money will create a hub in Glasgow to support the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, providing administration, rehearsal and studio space. That money is, of course, in addition to the money that has already been given to the Theatre Royal and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to develop their projects. However, Glasgow councillors will no doubt still say that Glasgow gets nothing.
I am glad that the Government has protected the festivals expo fund, which offers opportunities for talented young people in Scotland to showcase their wares to the wider world.
I have very little time left.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
- Clare Adamson:
I would like to see more ambition for women who are involved in stem projects and who work in technical areas. Again, we have a way to go on work on that.
- Liz Smith:
The debate has been very interesting.
We should be in no doubt that the motion is benign. I listened carefully to what the minister said at the start of the debate, and picked out from her speech seven key points about what is important. I do not think that any member has any problem with the importance of the early years, preventative spend, the health policy link, children’s services, including expanding the GIRFEC agenda, working with parents, the curriculum for excellence, and 16 to 19-year-olds, but the motion is benign in that it does not get down to the root-and-branch changes that have been recommended in some of the most recent reports that have been commissioned by the Government through painstaking efforts. Foresight has gone into those recommendations, which are on the Government’s table right now. We must take on board a lot of what is said in those reports, as they are manifestly about raising attainment, ensuring that we have good-quality teachers and headteachers in all our schools, and raising the aspirations of every single child in this country.
I do not agree with everything that Ken Macintosh said, but I agree that funding is not the main issue. It is about building on the first-class work of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, raising the professionalism of teachers across the board, and speaking about the uncomfortable truth that a very small minority of teachers should not be in our classrooms. It is about dealing with literacy and numeracy, moving on to a post-McCrone settlement that will find support among our teachers, and ensuring that the school system is much more responsive to the needs of pupils, parents and teachers rather than to the Government and quangos. It is about building greater flexibility into the system and being prepared to admit that the comprehensive structure has failed too many of our pupils when it comes to mastering the basic skills. Those are all serious issues that have been taken up by Graham Donaldson, Professor McCormac and David Cameron, and they demand serious answers.
Several members have rightly mentioned the importance of the early years. It is true that the early years are important, and it is right that the Scottish Government has acknowledged their importance and that that acknowledgement must be complemented by a range of policies to do with health visitors, nursery and child care, and disability care—Joan McAlpine mentioned that—and policies that will help to promote better parenting. Sandra White focused on that. As we know, there is a much stronger correlation between better attainment and children who grew up in a loving, caring and healthy environment.
I want to pick out Derek Mackay’s contribution, as he focused on policies that work. It is a lesson for all members that, whichever party we belong to, we should take up policies that work and that can demonstrate that they improve attainment. Derek Mackay referred to things that are happening in his part of the world in Renfrewshire and Glasgow. Those things have worked. The nurture groups have basically worked, and many of the schemes that have encouraged greater parenting involvement have worked. My colleague Jamie McGrigor referred to many initiatives in rural schools, where the use of the campus by the community and the increased involvement of parents in the school have worked. That is extremely important.
No member will be surprised to hear me come back to a policy of giving greater responsibility to headteachers and teachers in the classroom, which has been a substantial feature of the evidence that has been presented to the Government recently. We should consider the results of schools that have first-class headteachers and schools that were failing but have been turned around by their headteachers. As Marco Biagi said, the headteachers of those schools have thrown off the mantle of Government objectives and have done things for themselves. They have got results, and good for them.
I know that I will be criticised for ensuring that free schools are part of our policy, but I say to members who criticise the Conservative policy and argue that free schools are the privilege of the middle classes that that is not the case. In a third of cases in which the offer of free-school status has been taken up in England, the applications came from disadvantaged communities. The advantage of the pupil premium, which Liam McArthur mentioned, is that it provides an incentive. Free schools in England are working and parents are being attracted into the system.
The Teach First programme brings some of the finest graduates into schools to help some of the most disadvantaged pupils. I have looked at the programme in Germany, England, America and Australia, where it has turned around the results of many poorly-performing schools and given ambition and aspiration to children who perhaps previously had little of either. Surely that is what it is all about. I ask the Government to consider the programme carefully. Teach First is an important project and Scotland would be well advised to consider it. I accept that there must be guarantees that the GTC would have some oversight of registration.
Education policy in this country should be driven by what works, not by political ideology. I support the amendment in my name.
- Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab):
The debate has been wide ranging and it will not be possible for me to comment on all the speeches. I welcome the speeches from Joan McAlpine and Claudia Beamish and I apologise for missing some speeches that have been commended.
We are all united on the importance of raising the attainment and achievement of Scotland’s children and young people and I think that we are all united in a recognition that poverty and inequality are key factors in determining outcomes. I argue that there is failure, not of comprehensive education but in relation to the inequality in our society that comprehensive education seeks to address.
In 2007, the OECD highlighted the disparity in school performance between the poorest pupils and the rest as the biggest challenge that faces the Scottish education system. Although the Government’s lack of progress in the area can be criticised on a variety of grounds, such as the Government’s inability to balance the promotion of populist policies with the promotion of what works to address inequality, we acknowledge that the attainment gap stretches back beyond 2007 and that the devolution spotlight on early years is overdue.
The evidence is stark. At the age of 3, children from disadvantaged backgrounds start to fall behind their more advantaged peers, and by the time they are 5 they are a year and half behind on vocabulary. Socioeconomic circumstances are the defining factor in a child’s early development.
The identification of the problem is easy, but politicians still need to accept it to the extent that they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is, particularly in times of financial constraint, and argue that priority should be given to groups and individuals who do not or cannot speak up for themselves.
Labour’s amendment mentions the Government’s forgotten pledge on class sizes. In the previous session of the Parliament, the Government thought that class sizes were the central tool that could deliver the progress that we all want. The Government must be clear about its logic for replacing the approach with one that is based on a pupil-teacher ratio. Does it think that the new approach is a better way to deal with the challenges that we face? Even if the Government thinks that a reduction in class sizes is still the best way forward but cannot or will not resource such an approach, it must be bold and use the pupil-teacher ratio in a way that is meaningful and contributes to the sea change in achievement that we all seek.
Glasgow City Council was regularly pilloried in the chamber for not meeting the pledge on class sizes. However, its policy of providing smaller class sizes and nurture groups for children who need intense support might be the direction that the Government wants to take if it is serious about getting results. We need to balance the resources that we have and, if we are serious about addressing the impact of educational inequalities on some children and families, we must prioritise them.
The Government will argue that the draft budget does that in moving towards a preventative spend model. We all appreciate that this is a difficult budget, but there are political choices to be made and I am not convinced that the budget will achieve the sea change that is needed. The Scottish futures fund is £250 million over the lifetime of the Parliament and includes the sure start fund of £50 million. The three-year spending review, however, has allocated just £160 million of the futures fund, with £90 million being held back for the pre-election year. So we can expect around £30 million over three years from the sure start fund. We will also have the early years change fund, but it turns out that the Government’s contribution to those two funds is the same pot of money, with the rest of the money coming from national health service boards and local authorities. I do not question the commitment of those partners to deliver in that area along with the Government, but there are limitations on what local partners can contribute and it would be helpful to know what commitment the minister has received from those partners, who face the toughest financial settlements that they have ever had under devolution.
The strain will come in trying to achieve the shift on scant resources. Money will still have to be targeted at crisis support or more intensive support, and it will be difficult to commit money to projects that embed the kind of change that will ultimately prevent constant crisis management. I will give a brief example from my experience. A small organisation, Community Mums (Scotland), which was based in Methil, across from my old office, provided support to local families. Supported by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, it was a grass-roots, volunteer-led organisation. However, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust could not support it forever and it could not get other funding, so it closed. Some of the families that it supported moved on to other organisations, but those tended to be the families with more complex needs; the mums—it was mainly mums—who just needed a wee bit more support and guidance, such as they would get from a mum, lost the service. The organisation provided early support that prevented more complex problems, but it could not survive. Given the huge pressure on local authority budgets over the coming years, even with the contribution from the sure start fund, it does not seem likely that Community Mums could have survived.
Identifying the problems is easy, but the solutions are complex and wide reaching. Liam McArthur and other members are right to raise the issue of the college cuts that are proposed over the spending review period. I find it astonishing that, although Paul Wheelhouse strongly disagrees with the UK Government’s college cuts, he uses them to justify the Scottish Government’s cuts when it is making exactly the same choices.
A few years ago, I visited Westfield Nursery in Cupar, with the then minister, Adam Ingram. The visit focused on the nursery’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but I got talking to the staff about its relationship with Elmwood College. The nursery setting provided an opportunity, where appropriate, to talk to parents about their learning opportunities and to encourage them to think about college. There is evidence that the children of parents who continue education after school or who undertake education while parenting have raised ambition and expectation. A home in which learning and education are valued supports a child’s learning and growth. The planned college cuts will impact most on the mature learner and those studying for non-national qualifications; however, if they get the benefit of second chances, that not only improves their opportunities but contributes to their children’s first chances.
Sandra White talked about young people’s perception of others’ negativity. In recognising the importance of parenting, the minister will acknowledge that, for a small number of children, negativity in their own homes limits them. We need increased support for parents, as Susan Deacon recognises in her report, “Joining the dots: A better start for Scotland’s children”. She states:
“there are ways that we can work to break the cycle of poor parenting that is blighting the lives of many of our children.”
Raising the attainment and ambition of all Scotland’s children and young people should be a defining aim of the Parliament. There are challenges across the age ranges, moving through school, college and university as well as the employment opportunities and training that Kezia Dugdale focused on. However, if we do not get delivery in the early years right—if we do not ensure that all infants and young people get the proper support, encouragement and investment that they need to thrive and grow—we will approach all other life stages with our hands tied behind our backs.
It could be said that in the previous session the Parliament was dominated by the concerns of higher education. That sector was at the sharp end of debate and sometimes, even in the new session, it looks as though that might continue. Vulnerable children and their families do not have the influence or political organisation of those who are involved in the university sector. Maybe they should, but they do not present pledges for politicians to sign or documents that demonstrate their contribution to our economy, so it falls to us to make a serious commitment to address the deep-rooted inequalities that too often determine a child’s life chances by the time that they reach primary school.
The Government needs to be bold. The motion contains warm words; the “Joining the dots” report makes it clear that the time for warm words is over. We need concerted political and societal effort if we are to ensure that no child is left behind.
- The Minister for Learning and Skills (Dr Alasdair Allan):
This Government is about raising the expectations and ambitions of all Scotland’s young people. I emphasise that it is all of them: Scotland cannot afford to write off the ambitions of any individuals, communities or groups within its society. Approaches such as building new schools—as I saw this week with the beginning of the building of a new Auchmuty high school in Fife—and measures such as activity agreements that encourage and give confidence to young people who have not had opportunities during their secondary education or have become alienated from it all, play an important role in raising attainment and ambition, which are important to all Scotland.
That much was reflected in the tone of many thoughtful speeches in the debate. As we heard, improving attainment will encourage ambition in our young people. It will also enable them to develop the skills and capacities that are needed to fulfil their potential.
The Government’s priority is to ensure the best life chances for Scotland’s young people—to improve attainment and to do so by raising ambition. Members from all parties demonstrated that they understood that priority, although I think that Jenny Marra misunderstood it slightly. The Government is not saying that are no problems or that there is no room for improvement, but we are trying to be positive in the motion.
Positivity, apart from being a moral good in itself, is, as any teacher will tell members, much more likely to get results. Some of the Opposition members complained about benign motions; all that I can say is that benign motions may achieve more than malign amendments.
Ken Macintosh rightly made much of the importance of class sizes. They are part of a wider agenda for improvement. The Government will also focus on early years and embedding the GIRFEC principles. As members also rightly indicated, those principles have not been uniformly or universally applied. Ms Constance clearly indicated that the Government intends to put that right.
The successful implementation of curriculum for excellence is a subject in itself, as are post-16 opportunities, which are the subject of investigation by the Government at the moment, following the cabinet secretary’s pre-legislative statement on the matter.
Ken Macintosh made a point about class sizes. The fact is that the number of P1 to P3 children in classes of less than 18 is up 70 per cent. I realise that he may not want to give credit to the Scottish Government for that or to Derek Mackay for it in Renfrewshire, but it is a fact that cannot go unacknowledged.
As a minister with an interest in the tertiary education sector, I say to some of the Labour members in particular that the use of the word elitist helps no one. I say that because the Government clearly has a commitment to young people of all backgrounds. If that was not the case, we would not offer 25,000 new apprenticeships or guarantee 16 to 19-year-olds without work the opportunity of education or training. I am sure that, every time that somebody says that universities are elitist, a Scot from a less-than-privileged background will think, “University is not for the likes of me.” Can we please get beyond calling universities elitist?
- Ken Macintosh:
I say for clarity that the accusation is that the SNP is elitist—not universities.
Before the minister moves off class sizes, will he clarify the Government’s policy on that? Is the policy parked or abandoned? Is teacher quality now the main driver to raise attainment?
- Dr Allan:
As I believe was explained to Ken Macintosh only recently in committee, class sizes are substantially smaller than those under the previous regime. Continuing to bring them down remains the ambition and the work of the Scottish Government.
Every time we debate attainment, we talk—rightly—about the inequalities in Scotland’s society, which are reflected in educational opportunities. I am happy to and think that it is important to acknowledge the realities of those inequalities. Participation rates in tertiary education have improved for the second year running, but I would like them to improve more rapidly.
John Pentland was right to make a point about improving equality of access to our tertiary education sector for young people who are from less wealthy backgrounds. He said that schemes had been abolished. I remind him that the Scottish Government has created two new schemes with the aim that he described—the schools for higher education programme and a scheme for access to the professions.
Articulation is an important part of what the Government is trying to achieve. We are trying to ensure that we do not stick to rigid and outdated concepts about how people will end up in higher education, for instance. We must be much more flexible about allowing movement between different forms of education and genuine lifelong learning. One aspect that will support that approach and encourage equality of access to tertiary education is that the Government has made it clear that higher education will be free in Scotland.
Derek Mackay, who was endorsed by several parties across the chamber, made the point that—at the other end of the educational experience—early intervention is important, as are activity agreements. Claudia Beamish was right to highlight the needs of specific groups, including students from ethnic minorities. Claire Baker talked about the importance of early years. I can only seek to reassure her that, as the Government will fund the early years task force with in excess of £250 million, we should have confidence in what the Government seeks to do on early years. [Interruption.] I am being reminded to refer to what the Government and its partners seek to do.
As Ms Constance outlined, we will deliver improvement by focusing on early years. More than that, we will seek to ensure that young people have a rewarding and enjoyable education experience and that they enter their adult life ready to take full advantage of an increasing range of opportunities.
We know that those who face the most difficult challenges need co-ordinated support that delivers for them as individuals. That means collaborative working by the dedicated professionals who work day in, day out to inspire, support and nurture our children and young people.
We are embarking on a programme of change in early years, which will include vital work to develop a national parenting strategy, the roll-out of another phase of our play, talk, read campaign, the further expansion of early learning and childcare provision and the roll-out of work under the early years change fund. Through positive engagement with community planning partnerships and other partners, we are making progress across the country on embedding the GIRFEC principles. Through curriculum for excellence, we are supporting the development of key capacities and ensuring that our young people leave school with the skills, aptitude and ambition to fulfil their potential.
In coming months, much work will be undertaken not only on engagement on and support for the development of new national qualifications but on targeted support for the implementation of new work in primary schools, engagement with parents and a focus on attainment.
- The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick):
The minister must start winding up.
- Dr Allan:
I will gladly do so.
We must be ambitious for all our children and young people, but we must go further. We must work to support them so that they develop their own ambitions that are nurtured through guidance, professional know-how and a commitment to continuous education for all.
In conclusion, I merely say that we cannot accept Labour’s amendment due to its relentless negativity. Had the Conservative amendment not ended in two ideological words that write off many schools in Scotland, it would have been quite sensible. However, not for the first time, the Conservatives are captives of their ideology.