Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Patient Safety), Ventilation in Schools, Point of Order, Scottish Land Commissioners, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, World AIDS Day 2021
- Portfolio Question Time
- Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Patient Safety)
- Ventilation in Schools
- Point of Order
- Scottish Land Commissioners
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- World AIDS Day 2021
Ventilation in Schools
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-02326, in the name of Michael Marra, on action on active ventilation in schools. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons now.15:58
I am pleased to bring this important debate to the chamber today. On examination of the facts and the overwhelming weight of the data, Labour considers the area of school ventilation to be a serious policy failure by the Scottish Government to date, because of the number of Covid cases in schools and school closures, which are stubbornly difficult for the Government but physically dangerous for the population.
At its most visible, the debate could be said to be about children who sit shivering in our schools, unable to learn, or teachers who are freezing in their classrooms, unable to teach—but not just today or just this year. Too many children are sitting at home, because their classes or schools are closed due to outbreaks of the virus. That comes after lockdowns and missed education, the impact of which on young people the Government steadfastly refuses to research, quantify or understand.
Scotland’s Covid infection rates are highest among the under-15s, and seven-day case rates are at more than 400 per 100,000. The circulation of the virus among schoolchildren seeds the virus into other settings and, increasingly, across Scotland, cohorts are missing class time and schools are having to shut in order to manage the risks. Labour is absolutely clear that we must maintain education in schools. The damage that has been done so far to the prospects of our next generation is already far too great. To maintain school education, we must use every strategy possible to make our schools as safe as they possibly can be.
In the summer, after more than a year of disruption and several months of Scottish Labour making the case that better ventilation in classrooms was needed, the First Minister announced that there was to be a ventilation inspection programme, backed by £10 million of funding for remedial action. What happened next was not a ventilation programme but CO2 monitors being installed in some—but far from all—classrooms, with a non-existent methodology on how they should be used, resulting in wildly different thresholds being set, all to fill in massive spreadsheets that were sent back to rot on a desk in the Scottish Government’s offices. What followed was, by the minister’s own words, “very limited” action beyond moving some furniture out of the way of windows and chipping off some paint.
Last year, teachers were told to open the windows. This year, a wee alarm goes off in the corner of the classroom telling teachers to open the window. What happens if the window is already open when the alarm goes off, Lord only knows. I will give way to the cabinet secretary right now if she can tell us by what criteria classroom air quality was judged and the pass and failure rates of the 41,000 inspected classrooms.
Clearly, local authorities are using different monitors, so they will have different criteria, but certainly the expert advice is that a CO2 concentration of around 800 parts per million indicates that a space is well ventilated and that 1,500 parts per million, if regularly sustained, could be an indication that a space is poorly ventilated. That would be an issue that would need to be looked at locally, depending on the monitor usage.
That is a wide variety—between 800 and 1,500 parts per million. One could pick a figure in between, as many councils have had to do. There was no answer in that intervention about the pass and failure rates of the 41,000 inspected classrooms. We have asked, time and again, for Government to produce that answer. We have put in parliamentary questions, but it has not been provided. There has been no real inspection programme. It has been a useless pretence to get the Government through questions in the chamber, resulting, by the cabinet secretary’s own admission, in no action.
Research from Harvard University shows that the use of portable air purifiers can reduce transmission rates of airborne viruses by 50 per cent. The use of high-efficiency particulate air filters can remove up to 80 per cent of airborne virus. Scottish Labour’s proposals follow examples of international best practice and call for the resourcing of the installation of two air filters in every classroom in Scotland. That is the best route to providing robust active ventilation that will better protect health and, by limiting the spread of the virus, minimise potential further loss of time in schools for our children. It is the correct approach that the Government should back tonight, and it should fund it in the budget.
We know that Covid is with us to stay and teachers are beginning to wonder whether this is now simply going to be the reality of Scottish winter months. I know that the Government is committed to expanding outdoor learning, but I would suggest that there are better ways to go about that than by bringing the Scottish winter indoors. Are we going to be in the same position a year from now? The Government needs to start building the pandemic infrastructure that we require for domestic vaccine production, regular mass vaccination facilities and their staffing, a public health system that works, an international vaccine contribution worth the name and, starting today, buildings that can help keep our children, our teachers and our education staff healthy.
In the short term, the advent of the omicron variant reminds us what anyone watching carefully has known for a very long time: a single-track strategy of high vaccination rates—for that is what the whole of the United Kingdom is now pursuing—cannot get case rates down sufficiently to prevent mass circulation and further variants. We must have a track and trace system that works and, vitally, ventilation in our public buildings.
That the Parliament notes with concern that case rates for COVID-19 continue to be highest among under-15s with seven-day case rates over 400 per 100,000; considers that reducing transmission of COVID-19 in schools will be crucial for reducing levels of the virus across the country and that the lack of proper ventilation is a worry for young people, teachers and parents; recognises that Scottish Government ministers have repeatedly failed to publish information on the rate of failure and criteria for their ventilation inspection scheme, which inspected 40,100 of 52,000 learning spaces between August and October 2021; agrees that, especially during the winter months, there is a need for more active ventilation in schools, and calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that local authorities have funding available to install at least two HEPA filters in each classroom in Scotland.16:04
The safety of children and young people, and, indeed, all education staff remains our absolute overriding priority, particularly as we approach winter. Ventilation is a key line of defence, along with vaccination, face coverings, good hand hygiene, regular testing and surveillance. When the omicron variant is causing great concern here and around the world, we must be vigilant and ready to take any action that is necessary.
It is true that, as the motion sets out, case rates among under-15s remain high. To minimise disruption to learning and teaching, it is vital to make best use of all the mitigations that we know are effective.
As Michael Marra’s motion highlights, ensuring that all learning and teaching spaces are adequately ventilated is vital—that much we agree with. Ventilation remains one of the most important ways of reducing the risk of airborne Covid transmission and keeping our schools as safe as possible. That is why the Scottish Government has worked closely throughout the pandemic with the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, expert bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities to put in place and update national guidance on ventilation and CO2 monitoring in schools.
We have allocated significant funding—not just the £10 million that Michael Marra mentioned but £90 million of Covid logistics funding, which was provided earlier in the pandemic and included support that many local authorities used to improve ventilation. That was added to by £10 million of support to ensure that all local authority schools and all day care of children services had access to CO2 monitoring.
About 22,000 CO2 monitors have been purchased, and all the initial CO2 assessments of learning, teaching and play spaces in Scotland are now complete. The programme of assessment was led by local authorities, with support from Scottish Government officials and the Scottish Futures Trust. They worked collaboratively to align best practice.
Wherever possible before the October break, every learning, teaching and play space had to receive an initial assessment for at least a day under normal occupancy conditions, so that readings were properly representative. The approach was to continue in line with the local authority’s monitoring strategy thereafter. That exercise was an important step forward for our understanding of ventilation across the learning estate, and we are grateful for the hard work that was put into completing the initial assessments, which drew on the criteria for acceptable CO2 levels that are set out in Scottish Government guidance.
The full operational detail about the outcome of assessments, including the number of spaces where concerns were identified, is held at a local level. I have explained that to Michael Marra in the past. However, local authorities have been asked throughout the process to provide overarching feedback on the extent to which CO2 levels have exceeded the thresholds that are set out in the guidance. As I said in my intervention, those levels align with expert advice that, in general, regular readings of 1,500 parts per million indicate a need to take action and that in areas of high aerosol generation—where, for example, physical education or loud singing is being undertaken—levels of 800 parts per million should be used as a benchmark.
Is the cabinet secretary confident that, where stubbornly high levels have been identified, action has been taken locally? Has she been reassured?
We continue to seek and receive reassurances. It was reassuring to receive reports that only in relatively few cases were the recommended CO2 levels exceeded and remedial action was required. I recently put that point in writing to the Education, Children and Young People Committee.
When issues are identified, it is—rightly—for local authorities to focus their remedial efforts. Michael Marra pointed to the fact that little action was taken, but that is because local authorities took the level of remedial action that they deemed to be required.
The minister said on the record that “very limited” action would be taken. Essentially, the recommendation is to open a window. Does she expect us to be in such a position next year? Will she do something to prevent us from being in such a situation next Christmas?
As I said, what I have done and will continue to do is listen to the experts. I encourage Michael Marra to read in great detail the expert evidence that was given to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee and to seek the reassurance on what experts have said about the importance of natural ventilation.
Actions were taken on CO2 readings that were above the levels that are detailed in the guidance. Action included repairing windows, identifying inappropriately occupied spaces and locating people in other spaces. Very occasionally, additional fan systems have been required when no other ventilation was available. Such work continues, and we recognise the particular challenges over the winter period.
Our guidance makes it clear that schools need to reassure people about the temperature of classrooms. It is important to take into account levels of ventilation and appropriate temperatures.
We will listen closely to the evidence on air cleaning devices. However, I again quote the Health and Safety Executive, which has said that the units
“are not a substitute for ventilation.”
I will continue to listen to the expert advice and continue to be open to change if the expert advice requires that.
I move amendment S6M-02326.1, to leave out from “considers” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Government’s Guidance on COVID-19: Reducing the Risks in Schools is informed by expert advice, including from the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues and the Health and Safety Executive; recognises that, while only one of a range of mitigations that are in place, this guidance requires local authorities to work with schools to ensure good ventilation and access to CO2 monitoring, and sets out clear criteria and strategies to help achieve this; notes that the Scottish Government has already provided £90 million to support schools with Covid logistics, including ventilation, with an additional £10 million provided to undertake CO2 monitoring in the learning estate; commends local authorities for the work they have done to date to ensure that 100% of all learning, teaching and play spaces across Scotland have received an initial assessment using CO2 monitors, with any required remedial action being undertaken in line with guidance; thanks Scotland’s school unions for the constructive role they have played in raising the legitimate concerns of their members in relation to the importance of ventilation; welcomes the ongoing feedback and engagement with local authorities, unions and other relevant stakeholders on current ventilation guidance and its implementation, and further welcomes the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to monitor and update school ventilation guidance, should that be required, in line with the latest scientific expert advice.”16:10
I am grateful to my Labour colleague Michael Marra for bringing this debate to the chamber and giving Parliament the time to discuss the issue. We will support the Labour motion at decision time, because we think that it sends a strong message to the Scottish National Party Government that it is time for it to step up and do more.
I read the cabinet secretary’s amendment carefully and I have listened carefully to what she has said so far. Although I recognise that some action has been taken and that ventilation is only one measure among many mitigations, we cannot support an attempt to downplay the on-going challenges that our schools and, therefore, our teachers, support staff and pupils are facing. I did not find the cabinet secretary’s response to my intervention particularly reassuring. If we are not even able to say that the most basic of remedial actions have been taken and that the Government has followed up on them, it does not seem as if we are really on top of the problem.
I agree that keeping windows open where possible is important but, for many of our smaller schools—including many of the schools in my constituency—that also means ensuring that their heating systems are up to scratch and that local authorities and schools are supported with the considerable additional heating costs that they are likely to incur.
Will the member reflect on the question that I put to the cabinet secretary, which was whether we will be in this situation next year? With regard to the schools in his constituency that he mentioned, does he think that it would be acceptable to find ourselves in the same position next Christmas, with kids freezing in classrooms and no active ventilation?
I agree with that point. The sad thing, which I was going to come to later, is that we should not be in that position this year, either. I am not a “Game of Thrones” fan, but I know that other people have been caught out when they have said, “Winter is coming.” However, that is true—it is coming, and we have known for a long time that we were going to be back in this situation, and the events of the past week have shown that, sadly, many of the challenges around Covid-19 are not going to disappear even if we get on top of case numbers and drive forward the vaccination programme.
In that light, it would be sensible to put in place some of the measures that we are discussing as a precaution, even if we think that, on balance, we might be in a better place next winter. Our young people deserve better. Their education has been disrupted and we owe them an attempt to get the basics right, which means delivering the most proportionate and most straightforward measures. That is something that every party in this Parliament should be able to get behind. It might not be the total solution and it might not provide all the answers, but it is certainly worth giving it a try. If it provides parents, pupils and teachers with some reassurance, it would be money well spent and an investment worth making.
I suggest that what might also give reassurance to parents, staff and young people is if we listen to the expert advice that is given to us by, for example, those who appeared before committees and did not in any way suggest what is now being suggested in the motion. The proposal in the motion is not based on what the Health and Safety Executive or experts who came before the committee suggested. Why do we not reassure people by listening to the expert advice that the Government is getting?
My understanding of the advice is that no one has said that those measures would not be an improvement; they have said that they are not the full answer. There is scientific evidence for their efficacy and, therefore, we are talking about an addition to what is happening—it is a belt-and-braces approach. That is better than just telling schools that all that they can do is open the window, when we know that there are spaces in our schools that are badly ventilated. In many other areas of our society and economy, improved mechanical ventilation forms part of the response not just to Covid but to the challenge of generally improving air quality. The ideas are worth looking at again.
This debate highlights many of the worst qualities of the SNP Government. It is a Government that makes announcements and believes that that is the job done, that fails to understand the magnitude of the issue, that offloads responsibility and blame on to local government and that is unwilling to admit when its policies have not worked. It is a Government that is not willing to listen to ideas from elsewhere in the chamber.16:14
I thank Michael Marra for being so assiduous on the issue of ventilation in schools. Today’s debate will help us to flush out many of the issues at the heart of the discussion on ventilation. Our knowledge and understanding of the virus have evolved over time, and the Government’s response has evolved, too. The Government’s approach on ventilation must also evolve, because the current one-size-fits-all approach is just not good enough.
Given that we have a range of school buildings—from Victorian ones and 1960s builds to modern designs—the performance of each school differs, but the Government’s policy is very limited. Using CO2 monitors and opening windows are the only tools in the box. The Government’s new business fund for ventilation permits businesses to make applications for the purchase of mechanical air purifiers. The cabinet secretary might wish to tell us the science that backs up the Government’s support for that grant funding, while it dismisses such devices for schools. I would be very interested to hear what the cabinet secretary has to say on that.
We have made it clear that, if areas in schools cannot be ventilated appropriately, they should not be used, or alternative methods can be used. I said that in my opening remarks, but I am happy to clarify it.
The science therefore does support the use of air purifiers, despite the cabinet secretary’s constant dismissals. The message to schools is clear: their options are opening windows or using CO2 monitors. That is the bulk of the activity. [Interruption.] The cabinet secretary says quietly that other options are available, but those are clearly discouraged, because I do not know of any circumstances in which air purifiers are being widely used by schools. If air purifiers are good enough for businesses—that is stated explicitly in the guidance for businesses, but not in the Government’s guidance for schools—surely they should be good enough for schools. Schools should have the tools in the box available to them.
If we look around the world, we see that the advice is clear. The Irish Government’s expert group on ventilation said that stand-alone high-efficiency particulate air filter devices might be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation. In Canada, the Calgary Board of Education has made the same recommendation. In Australia, the independent OzSAGE group has recommended that HEPA filters be used. The use of such filters is encouraged in those countries, but it is discouraged in this country.
In this country, scientific advisory group for emergencies member Catherine Noakes, a professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, advocated the use of such filters when improved ventilation might be needed. However, the Government guidance is a straitjacket on schools, limiting their options and the tools in their box.
Schools should have the funding available to do what is right for their circumstances. Instead of the limited guidance that is available, it should be explicit that schools have the option of using HEPA filters. Such filters have so much credibility that the UK Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care are running a £1.75 million pilot scheme in Bradford to assess the most effective use of air purification technologies in schools. The UK Government is going much further—it is actively looking at providing solutions for schools—whereas the Scottish Government keeps suppressing the options for schools.
Please close, Mr Rennie.
We, too, have a duty to go further. We know that the omicron variant is posing greater threats to us, so the Scottish Government needs to step up, evolve its position and ensure that we do the right thing for our schools.16:19
We are now almost two years into the pandemic, yet the only advice that we can offer children and teachers who are freezing in school is to wear outdoor clothes inside. When we were children, we were always being lectured about wearing our coats inside, because, we were told, we would not get the benefit when we went out. Children today deserve to live their lives in the same way.
We knew many months ago that the pandemic was here for the long term. The Scottish Government should have acted then to protect the health of our pupils and staff. It is not reasonable to expect teachers to open a window, crank up the heat and make believe that that is appropriate ventilation for a school. We are facing rising fuel bills, which is putting a strain on local authority budgets. Pupils who have missed so much school already are facing rising Covid numbers in their classes. We have an education system that is in disarray and is failing our young people, and the attainment gap is widening. It is crucial for children, especially those living in difficult circumstances, to get to school. School is often the only place where children can be warm and have a hot meal; for some, school is their safe place. For some children, putting extra clothes on to keep themselves warm inside the classroom is simply not an option. Their clothes are worn and they are fast outgrowing them. There is no money at home to replace their clothes, far less buy warm clothes for a cold and draughty school. Imagine being cold and hungry at home and then coming to school and being even colder. How can young people learn in those circumstances?
Last winter, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar immediately doubled the clothing grant for low-income families to help them to buy additional clothing. The Scottish Government should have done that. Furthermore, this summer, it should have been working on the supply of adequate air purifying equipment to schools in order to keep children and teachers safe and warm this winter. It is normal in Scotland that we have cold weather and storms in the winter. In my constituency, we have seen the impact of storm Arwen on our schools. The pupils and staff of Wick high school had a lucky escape when a huge chunk of the wall was blown off. This is a new Scottish Government flagship school; sadly, it was not built to cope with winter weather. Schools must be safe and built to withstand winter weather, and they must be places where our children can thrive.
Low winter temperatures are already hitting us hard, and children cannot reasonably be expected to learn while sitting in the cold. It also puts their health at additional risk, because we know that the cold weakens immune systems, so low temperatures could lead to a rise in Covid cases. The Scottish Government must not forget that schools are workplaces, which must adhere to health and safety guidelines in the same way as other workplaces do. The Scottish Government has put £10 million into schemes to improve ventilation in schools, but it is not enough. We know that no two schools are the same: some children are in brand new buildings, while some are still learning in portakabins.
As Willie Rennie said, last year the Scottish Government created a £25 million business ventilation fund. That was the right thing to do, but will it now provide adequate funding for ventilation in our schools for our children? The Scottish Government must act now to keep young people safe and warm so that they can learn. Children should not have to wait for another year.16:23
There can be no question but that ensuring the safety of children and young people, as well as all educational staff, is of paramount importance to everyone in this chamber. I therefore welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I thank Michael Marra for raising this important issue and Shirley-Anne Somerville for the amendment.
The debate highlights the need to follow the best Covid advice and to work together to implement mitigations at pace and consistently across Scotland. Anyone who has taught in schools knows only too well that creating a safe and healthy environment is paramount. School staff are well aware of how to create and maintain safe environments, because those are the foundation of the health and wellbeing that are necessary for learning and teaching. It makes learning fun, lively and sociable for children and young people.
I taught throughout the pandemic, and I keep in regular contact with educational colleagues, so I have some understanding of school environments. Only this morning, at the Education, Children and Young People Committee, we heard about examples of CO2 monitors being installed in classrooms, connected to wi-fi and monitored by teachers and centrally by department officials. We know that that is happening, although not necessarily in every council.
The same evidence from the NASUWT said that CO2 monitors are not available in many classrooms. They are held centrally and appear occasionally. What kind of evidence are teachers getting as to when they should follow the instruction to open the window?
I thank Michael Marra for that question. I was about to go on. I have already said that there is excellent good practice. Councils need to share that best practice with each other to make the most of the £10 million Scottish Government funding that they have already received.
I note the comments of a few members, including Willie Rennie and Rhoda Grant, on the variance of school buildings. Had councils not been saddled with Tory-inspired and Labour-backed private finance, we would have modernised schools and we would have more revenue in the education budget for councils to go even further. Promises that were made at that time to provide schools that were meant to be fit for the 21st century failed to include CO2 monitoring.
How does Kaukab Stewart explain to my constituents in Dumfries who are sat right now in the high school why, when her Government has been in power for 14 years, that building is not wind and watertight? Surely, that is not acceptable.
I can remember standing at a hustings 20 years ago, talking about the private finance initiative. I was a teacher and I was accused of trying to take away new buildings from schools. I said at the time that we were mortgaging our children’s future, and that is exactly what we have done. In Glasgow alone, 10 per cent of the education budget is still paying for PFI mortgages.
We can build a co-operative approach to working out solutions. With council officers, teachers and education representatives working together in the spirit of a fair work approach, we can ensure that necessary adaptations are made to our school estate and implemented to meet the inevitably ever-changing health and safety guidelines as we respond to Covid.
It is welcome to hear from education representatives such as Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who reported that a survey of his members found that
“in the majority of schools, our members feel that ventilation issues have been addressed.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, Date; c 4.]
As members know, the Scottish Government’s guidance continues to be informed by the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, as well as the Health and Safety Executive.
Please could you close, Ms Stewart?
I have spoken to colleagues, teachers and headteachers alike, and I have to say that, in the majority of cases, I concur that mitigations and adaptations are taking place.
Thank you, Ms Stewart.
I thank our colleagues in the education sector for their continuing hard work.16:28
I am grateful for the chance to contribute to the debate. The unmistakeable truth is that, although we have made good progress in our battle against the pandemic, the virus is, sadly, still very much with us. With extended school closures and mask mandates, along with banned sports days and nursery graduations, the pandemic took its toll on children’s education and mental health. Sadly, it continues to do so even today. We need to learn to live with such happenings. Therefore, we need to be better prepared.
The virus is here to stay, and, with winter fast approaching, we need to take a proactive, not a reactive, approach to the issues that our schools face right now. Later on, it will be far too late. In order to combat the transmission of the virus, good ventilation is needed in every classroom in every school in Scotland. The advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues recommended that greater emphasis be placed on ventilation by keeping windows and doors open as much as possible. That advice was repeated as pupils returned to classrooms, but it is not ideal, given the low temperatures during the winter months. Although measures to improve ventilation are only one method of mitigation in schools, they are an increasingly important one, which can keep our schools as safe as possible.
Scottish Government ministers repeatedly failed to publish information on the rate of failure in, and the criteria for, their ventilation inspection scheme. Once again, it has taken the Opposition parties to draw attention to the issue. The Scottish Government has given £10 million to local authorities in addition to the £90 million for remedial action, such as dealing with CO2 monitoring exercises, but there must be significant investment to ensure long-term protection for pupils and staff.
We cannot overlook three important issues. First, without adequate ventilation systems in classrooms, children will continue to take the virus home to their parents and elderly relatives. Secondly, our children’s mental health must be at the heart of future Government strategies. Last but certainly not least, the attainment gap is wider than it has been in any year since 2017—a staggering 22.1 per cent gap between the most-deprived and least-deprived pupils in A grade attainment levels.
We must do everything that we can to ensure that an entire generation of children is not lost as the Covid generation. We need a proactive, long-term approach to living with the virus, not a sticking-plaster approach, which we all know the SNP is good at. Will the SNP Government still be using Covid as an excuse for its mismanagement of Scottish education in 10 years’ time?
I am glad that the motion has been brought before the Scottish Parliament, and I am delighted to back it. The infrastructure that supports our children’s education is just as important as the education itself. That goes for the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and other staff as well. This is our chance to put it right.16:32
The issue is important, and I thank the Labour Party for bringing it to the Parliament for debate—I mean that genuinely.
As other members have said, there are already many mitigations in education settings throughout Scotland, such as the continued use of face coverings in communal areas and secondary classrooms—I was glad to hear the UK Government recently follow our lead on that; a continuing focus on good ventilation and good hygiene; regular asymptomatic testing for school staff and secondary pupils; and continuing surveillance and outbreak management in partnership with local health protection teams.
I understand that, in North Lanarkshire, where my constituency is, extensive guidance has been published in line with the national guidance and that a toolkit has been prepared to ensure that the following areas are covered: social distancing protocols; the use of personal protective equipment and face coverings; public transport versus school transport; catering and cleaning arrangements; drop-offs, staggered starts and walking buses; the movement of pupils around school; curricular arrangements and timetabling; and arrangements for shielded staff and pupils.
As a dad with a child at school and one at nursery, I can confirm that many of those measures are in place. Masks at school gates and staff wearing face coverings are pretty standard now, as are staggered drop-off and pick-up times. Indeed, there was a mini celebration in our house when we got the 9 am start slot this term as opposed to the quarter to 9 one at the end of the previous term. I am sure that many members—I am looking particularly at Neil Gray—will appreciate that those extra 15 minutes are vital in the morning in a house full of kids.
Will Fulton MacGregor give way?
I will not, just because of the amount of time that I have. I have some things that I want to say.
The Scottish Government has allocated an additional £10 million to local authorities to ensure that schools and childcare settings have access to CO2 monitoring. I am aware, from a freedom of information request, that North Lanarkshire Council purchased and distributed 1,000 CO2 monitors in September, spending £85,000 on them. That seems like a necessary spend.
I am not against the use of HEPA filters. Willie Rennie made a compelling case for them, but the Government has made it clear that we need more research. The door is not closed to that. For now, I think that it is sensible to open more windows, especially those at a high level, and to allow greater flexibility in the clothing that pupils wear during the winter months. As much as people might disagree with that, I think that those are sensible mitigations.
I also think that we are missing an opportunity to do something fundamentally different. That has not been talked about much today, but it is the point on which I want to focus my contribution. How often have we talked about building back better from the pandemic? What does that mean for each sector? In education, why are we not radically increasing the use of outdoor learning? We know that being outdoors is safer and lowers the risk of Covid. We also know that it is good for young people. That seems to me to be a win-win.
The Government will say that it is promoting outdoor education—it is, and some of the work in early years settings is fantastic. However, I do not think that we are going far enough in schools yet. Even giving all children an extra hour outdoors might radically reduce the risk to the population, as well as improving outcomes for young people.
I know that now is maybe not the most popular time to say this, but the weather is not an excuse. In the previous parliamentary session—I think that it was in 2019—I met representatives of the outdoor kindergarten sector in Norway. Some areas of that country have freezing temperatures and no daylight at certain points in the year, but their children are thriving in an outdoor-based education model.
I ask the Scottish Government to be bolder, to consider other such models and to go further. We must ensure that our legacy on the other side of the pandemic is not just about the use of high-tech air filters, giving vaccines to children and wearing masks in classrooms, as important as all those are at this time. We have to take a radical, evidence-based approach to education that has safe outdoor learning at its core.16:36
I thank Michael Marra and the Labour group for bringing the issue to Parliament for debate. I have raised the issue a number of times in the chamber, including with the First Minister and the education secretary. I am a little bit confused about what Labour wants to achieve. I will come back to that later. However, this has been, and continues to be, a useful opportunity for us to air the issues.
We first discussed ventilation in schools more than a year ago, when there was something approaching a return to normality after the first period of lockdown. I led a debate on the safety issues that school staff and pupils were facing. Iain Gray moved an amendment to my motion to insert a request that the Scottish Government investigate
“the possibility of resourcing improvements to ventilation in the school estate”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; c 31.]
Months then passed before any significant progress was made on the issue across the country. Some local authorities did not wait. I think that it was Kaukab Stewart who gave the example of a network of CO2 monitors in schools in North Lanarkshire, which is an area that has demonstrated best practice in that regard.
The Scottish Government’s announcement of £10 million of funding for CO2 monitors and an inspection regime generated activity from the local authorities that had dragged their heels for six months or longer. Although I entirely understand the supply and other logistical issues that authorities faced, the timescales in which the work took place were just not good enough.
CO2 monitoring can usefully take place only when classrooms are at normal capacity. Therefore, it could not take place over the summer holidays. That should have resulted in a drive to do as much monitoring as possible before schools broke up at the end of June. Staff and pupils should have returned to schools in August with the required ventilation improvements and monitoring systems in place. Instead, it was early November before all inspections had taken place and the monitoring equipment that had been purchased with the £10 million fund was fully deployed. That is not good enough. I have no doubt that that contributed to the spike in infections among young people in late August and early September.
The part of the Labour motion with which I struggle is on inspections. Inspections have now taken place, monitoring equipment is now in place in every school and various improvements have been made.
Will the member give way?
I am just about to cover the point on which I think Mr Mundell wants to intervene. I ask him to intervene again if he feels that I have missed it.
If Labour’s motion had been lodged in June or August, when I was regularly raising the issue in the chamber, I would have completely understood that. If it had been lodged in September or October—after my party had entered Government, in case members think that I am implying something about that—I would have still completely understood why. However, in speaking to staff unions in recent days, I do not think that the motion matches where the concerns are now.
However, I say again that I think that Labour is right to have brought the matter of ventilation for debate, because there are still issues. As the Education, Children and Young People Committee heard this morning, there is a gap between guidance and reality when it comes to accessing CO2 monitors. A teacher technically having access to a monitor because it has been assigned to many classrooms, including the one that they use, is not the same as their being able to deploy one whenever they feel that to be necessary.
The Government amendment notes that the guidance requires local authorities “to ensure” that schools have access to CO2 monitors. Will the cabinet secretary expand on that in her closing remarks? I understand the tension between producing guidance—
Will the member give way?
Yes—I think that I have time.
Apart from provision of a CO2 monitor in schools, the only available mitigation measure is to open a window. Does Ross Greer think that we should still be in this situation next year, with freezing cold classrooms while we maintain a case rate of 400 per 100,000 in the under-15 population in schools, because we are doing nothing more to sort the situation?
Give your answer in closing, Mr Greer.
No; of course I do not think that we should be in the same situation this time next winter, but I also do not think that all the responsibility for that lies with the Scottish Government. Local authorities will have a year in which to make necessary improvements.
To expand on the point about guidance, I note that I understand the tension in producing guidance that is specific enough to be effective but flexible enough to be applicable in a variety of settings. However, I wonder whether a minimum ratio of mobile monitors to space that they are assigned could be considered.
Another area of concern that teachers have reported to me in recent weeks is poor dissemination of the guidance to all school staff. Again, I would appreciate the cabinet secretary clarifying what the Government believes its role is in relation to ensuring that the guidance is reaching front-line staff. A number of times in recent weeks I have heard of instances in which staff are simply unsure of what they should do when a CO2 monitor indicates that the level have been breached.
Thank you, Mr Greer.
On that point, I will close.16:41
I rise in support of the motion in Michael Marra’s name.
As Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for public health, it is clear to me that more active ventilation in our schools is crucial to our continued efforts to reduce transmission of Covid-19, and that thus far action by the Scottish Government on that has been lacking.
Society expects public health measures to be front and centre in ensuring that buildings such as schools are safe for pupils and staff, and in ensuring that we have confidence in environments that are used day in and day out not only for learning by our young people, but for wider community use and our civic life. Rigorous systems are in place around water, sanitation and hygiene—now we must invest in systems that provide long-term and robust active ventilation across all our school estates. Indeed, as we have heard many times in the debate, we cannot be in the situation next year or the year after of having to open windows.
It is clear that we cannot tackle Covid-19 with a one-track strategy. We need a basket of measures, in line with an overarching public health approach. Vaccinations are incredibly vital in protecting people’s health, but vaccines alone are not enough. Science has shown repeatedly that proper ventilation is one of the most effective ways of preventing infection, due to the aerosol nature of Covid-19. We must have safe environments for our young people to learn in. That is why the motion advocates that there be at least two high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters in each classroom. As we have heard, they have been employed elsewhere in the world, and the Government has advocated their being placed in other settings.
It is clear that the work that has been undertaken to date by the Government has not been sufficient. The CO2 monitoring that the Government has persevered with has no standardised approach. It has a methodology that the Government has refused to share, and its implementation was delayed, anyway. The Government has done nothing apart from cling to the incompetent approach of relying on CO2 monitors alone, which I believe has wasted money and time and has brought us no closer to a long-lasting solution. It has also done little to inspire confidence in young people, parents and staff. Confidence in our public buildings and in the places where we live, work, learn and play is crucial, as I said earlier.
This morning, I received a copy of the results of survey work that was done on a wellbeing group of almost 400 teachers from across Scotland. Thirty-one per cent of them reported that they still have no CO2 monitor, and 30 per cent have one that is shared throughout the school building. Of the teachers who said that they have access to a CO2 monitor, 10 per cent have had it for only one day. Many teachers reported that opening the windows is their only means of ventilation—although teachers often teach in rooms that do not have windows. Of 102 teachers who had a CO2 monitor, 11.8 per cent reported that it is frequently red and 43 per cent said that it is sometimes red. Those teachers have also reported classrooms being “uncomfortably cold”, as we enter some of the worst of the winter weather.
Although on paper opening windows is an attractive way to achieve ventilation, it is not working in practice. Not only are classrooms and learning spaces freezing, Covid cases are still rising, so clearly there has not been enough action.
Pupils, parents and staff deserve better, and so do local authorities, which are struggling to get things right in a variety of buildings and spaces. I declare an interest, as a serving councillor in East Renfrewshire Council.
The money that has so far gone to local authorities for monitoring has not been needs based. Instead of funding what is really needed, the money has been mainstreamed, with no clear methodology for allocating it. It is clear that we require a strong public health approach, with consistent funding and implementation. It is time for urgency from the Government; 20 months into the pandemic, it is clear that young people, parents, staff—
Please close, Mr O’Kane.
—and local authorities deserve better.16:45
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, which, at its core, is about the importance of protecting young people’s education. We know that even though young people are unlikely to become seriously ill from Covid, every day of school that young people miss due to the virus does yet more damage to their education. Given the lengthy periods of school closures that young people have already had to endure, further potential losses of education are unacceptable.
As with many aspects of the pandemic, those who are from the most deprived backgrounds are most likely to be affected. In this case, it is the children from the most deprived backgrounds whose education is most likely to be affected by Covid. When schools reopened last year, analysis found that the percentage of the most deprived children who had been off school was double the figure for the least deprived children. Around 4 per cent of the most deprived pupils were affected for Covid-related reasons, compared to a figure of 2 per cent for the least deprived pupils. There is often a school attendance gap between the poorest pupils and those who are most well-off, and Covid has resulted in that gap growing wider.
All that demonstrates the importance of ensuring that school settings are made as safe as possible. On that issue, the Scottish Government has a rather mixed record. The introduction of asymptomatic testing for teachers last year was much welcomed. However, regular testing of school pupils, which should have followed on from that, did not arrive until much later.
Similarly, on ventilation, which is the topic of the debate, the Government has failed to take definitive action, despite concerns having been raised repeatedly for months. One teachers union has indicated that the Government’s guidance on ventilation consists of nothing more than telling schools to open windows. We have heard that schools should have had CO2 monitors much earlier, and the guidance on those is still causing concern across the school estate.
Of course, it is true that some evidence suggests that school environments are relatively Covid safe, in terms of community transmission. However, that evidence predates the alpha and delta variants, and we do not know how the new omicron variant will work. Given that much more evidence is required before we know about ventilation and the preparation that is required, it is important that the Government takes action and does not fail our pupils and schools.
This time last year, the Scottish Government was facing numerous calls on school safety. There were calls for more testing and for a national strategy to protect school staff who have chronic or underlying health conditions. Parliament even debated and passed a motion on that this time last year, but not much action has been taken since then.
If we fast forward to today, a year on, we see that the evidence has changed, but we are still spending parliamentary time debating the SNP’s failures to keep schools as safe as possible. We want our schools to be safe and our pupils to be protected. We have already seen changes in the virus and changes in what is happening. It is important that the Government listens to the evidence and to Parliament, and that it takes action to ensure that the virus is not given yet another opportunity to damage young people’s education.16:49
This is an incredibly important debate, and it is absolutely right that the issues that are raised in the motion should be discussed. As the motion rightly points out, Covid-19 transmission is currently highest among under-15s. That is in part a testament to the success of the vaccination programme in other age groups. It is also a consequence of the fact that schools are busy places that are filled with people who have as yet not been vaccinated although, as the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice develops and the roll-out of the vaccine proceeds, that may change.
Youngsters have a sense of invulnerability that comes with youth, and perhaps have less concern about the implications of catching the virus, which means that we need to mitigate the risk of transmission as much as possible. The baseline protections must be adhered to at all costs, because the alternative to mitigating that risk is that we shut schools again.
Anyone with any delusions about what the response to such a decision might be should look at the comments on the Facebook page of The Courier this morning. I have no idea whether any consideration is being given to closing schools early for Christmas, but it was mentioned in a post by The Courier and the response from parents was, “Absolutely not; kids must stay in school as long as possible”. I agree.
Everything about the global response to the pandemic is about balance—for example, keeping the protections that are needed to prevent the spread of the virus while enabling people to live their lives as normally as possible. Closing schools would have massive implications for parents’ ability to work and further impacts on children’s educational and social development.
Does Jim Fairlie agree that this is one of those balances? This is an extra measure of protection and an extra resource that we can provide to schools. Is that not a good thing?
I would say that it is something else. We have lots of measures in place, including vaccination, masks, hand washing and keeping parents out of schools. Those things help to make sure that we control the virus, but we need to keep schools open, and to do that we need to mitigate the risk of infection as much as possible.
There is no doubt that increased ventilation is one of the most important ways of mitigating the risk of infection, and on the face of it opening windows and doors is one of the most simple things to do. However, there is a balance to be struck between ventilating schools and classrooms by opening windows and doors, and having comfort and safety, which is particularly relevant now that we are firmly in winter. Appropriate solutions depend heavily on local factors, including building design, location and prevailing weather conditions. Some school buildings have been designed to allow for swinging open doors but others have not. Age and condition are factors in school buildings—for example, some have windows that were painted shut years ago.
There are no easy fixes, and practical decisions about how to implement and improve ventilation are best left to local decision makers, which is why I have a problem with the prescriptive element at the end of the motion. Insisting on a baseline of at least two HEPA filters in each classroom in Scotland sounds good, but it might not be the most appropriate approach or the most sensible solution for an individual school.
The use of a CO2 monitor is one of the most important ways of ensuring that ventilation in a room is sufficient. I am on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee and we have taken evidence about ventilation on various occasions. Surprisingly, experts keep coming back and telling us that the best thing to do is to open windows. That is very simple, but I know that it would cause problems. Fulton MacGregor made a good point about allowing kids to get outdoor learning experiences; this is an opportunity to develop that sort of stuff.
Ventilation in our schools is an important mitigation. I will leave the last word to Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who said:
“Ventilation is critical as we go into the winter. We have made good progress recently and there is stronger consensus on the importance of ventilation.”
Please close, Mr Fairlie.
Importantly, he went on to say:
“in the majority of schools, our members feel that ventilation issues have been addressed.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 25 November 2021; c 4.]
We move to the closing speeches.16:53
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am a serving councillor on North Lanarkshire Council.
The debate has highlighted the need to deliver urgent improvements to ventilation facilities in our schools. Members have repeatedly raised concerns about the inadequacy of ventilation systems in public buildings, but despite those warnings, little action has been taken by the SNP Government.
The pandemic has changed how young people are educated, including how school buildings are used. Teachers and pupils need proper ventilation to help suppress the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Although the Government distributed £10 million to local authorities to improve ventilation, which is of course welcome, we have yet to see exactly what adjustments councils have made. That is despite the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stating on 13 July that
“Ventilation and the implications of airborne transmission are, increasingly, key parts of our decision making.”
She also stated that she would
“keep Parliament updated on our work on ventilation.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2021; c 36.]
The minimal updates that Parliament has received from the Government outlined a delay in funding to local authorities, and the cabinet secretary even admitted that the action that Scottish councils have taken to improve ventilation in schools has been small, in the main. Such statements do not fill teachers, parents or pupils with any comfort or give them the knowledge that their schools are properly ventilated. As Oliver Mundell rightly said, the Scottish Government has failed to understand the magnitude of the issue and has shifted the responsibility on to councils, leaving them to go it alone.
I want to touch on some of the contributions to the debate. Michael Marra reminded the chamber of the risk that our young people face by not having good ventilation. The exchange between Mr Marra and the cabinet secretary regarding the adaptations that councils have made was interesting, as it suggested that the Scottish Government does not have further ideas beyond windows and CO2 monitors. Willie Rennie outlined that the UK Government and others are looking beyond the basics for solutions, and he was right to say that we must do the same.
Pam Gosal mentioned the importance of mental health and of ensuring that our buildings are fit for purpose. Ross Greer said that better guidance would allow councils to prepare and that measures could be outlined more effectively—the Scottish Government should look into that.
Fulton MacGregor mentioned the measures that North Lanarkshire Council has taken. I welcome his willingness to look at other measures to improve educational experiences for young people and I agree that the Scottish Government must be bolder when it considers adapting school buildings.
The SNP has had every opportunity to provide members with an update on the ventilation fund roll-out to reassure parents and pupils that the issue of pupils’ safety is at the forefront of the pandemic response, which would have allowed discussions to take place before today’s debate.
Given the recent news of the new omicron variant, the Scottish Government must get a grip on this on-going issue. It is not good enough for the Government to tell the Parliament that it has tried to improve ventilation by giving councils funding when it did not follow that up by providing members of the public with confidence that a young person who attends school is learning in a safe environment.
The SNP’s failure to understand the importance of ventilation in our schools has meant delays and no real understanding of the progress that local authorities have made. Teachers, pupils and school staff deserve to be able to work and learn in a well-ventilated environment, safe in the knowledge that the Government has acted to introduce measures that will help to prevent the spread of the virus.
I urge the cabinet secretary to get a grip of the issue and to provide much-needed reassurance that our schools will be properly ventilated as we continue to navigate through the pandemic.16:57
We can agree that everyone in the chamber wants to make our schools as safe as possible. We have a great deal of consensus on the issue, and I would like to work on that basis. However, I admit that it is sometimes difficult to listen to the Conservatives, who have suggested over many months that, despite the Government’s cautious approach, we should take away the mitigation measures that are currently in place in schools.
I have carefully considered what Labour’s motion says and listened to what Labour speakers have said today, but I reiterate that it is not what experts are advising. I invite Labour members to read the evidence from the COVID-19 Recovery Committee and look at what SAGE and the Health and Safety Executive have said on air filtration devices, which are to be used only where natural, mechanical ventilation cannot be improved and which should never be used as a substitute for efforts to improve ventilation.
The Scottish Government is not an outlier on this issue; guidance in England and Wales is also clear that natural ventilation is necessary. We are taking an evidence-based approach to policy making and listening to the experts.
Of course we will keep our guidance under review and we will always look at evolving research on the issue, as every Government rightly should. The current guidance is based on available evidence, which supports a primary focus on improving natural ventilation, with CO2 monitoring helping to identify areas of concern. Indeed, the Health and Safety Executive guidance on air cleaning devices said that those units
“are not a substitute for ventilation”
and that people should think about prioritising
“any areas identified as poorly ventilated for improvement in other ways before”
“about using an air cleaning device.”
How does that marry with the point that has been raised in the debate that these devices have been made available to other parts of society and the economy? Why are schools any less deserving?
I have laid out the evidence that we are listening to on the issue. Our guidance makes it clear that schools do not just need to look at ventilation; they also need to ensure that appropriate temperatures are being maintained. The guidance refers to all applicable regulations on that—the guidance on that is there for everyone to see.
In relation to areas of local concern, should there be any, unions sit on the workforce issues group, which is chaired by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and have been specifically asked to give specifics—in confidence if required—and none has been given. I reiterate the point that my officials made in those meetings: if any union has specific concerns that have not been sorted out at the local level, we are more than happy to look at them—in confidence if necessary—to ensure that people have faith in what is happening.
A great deal of winter planning is being done, and we are working with local authorities on that. We are also looking at on-going monitoring to ensure that we have a suitable longer-term strategy in place for the monitoring and assessment of ventilation. Ross Greer’s point about potential ratios of monitors to space is, I understand, one approach—among others—that is being discussed and will continue to be looked at.
If the advice on ventilation and what needs to be done changes, consideration will be given to that, but I point out that nothing in Labour’s motion relates to the evidence that is coming up. We are looking at taking an evidence-based policy approach to what the experts are suggesting. I am keen that we work together to ensure that our learning, teaching and play spaces are safe and well ventilated, and we will continue to be informed by that expert advice and analysis, while making improvements where necessary. I am committed to working across the chamber on the issue, but let us do it on the basis of the expert evidence. I will gladly work with Labour or any other party to ensure that if there are improvements to be made, we will make them, building on the progress that we have already made, to ensure that schools are as safe as they can be.17:02
It is a great pleasure to close the debate. It has indeed been a debate, with interventions and questions and answers and considerations, which has been good to see.
A number of speakers have highlighted the importance of the motion, which is about the safety of our children, the staff, and the parents when they go into our schools. Schools are playing a dual role at the moment. From an economic standpoint, they need to remain open for the parents, as some speakers so rightly pointed out. More importantly, however, schools are the steady rock for our children, where they can feel confident and safe, warm and well fed, and they can develop as we need them to, as we owe it to them to enable them to do, as they grow up.
There are two important elements to the debate that have been skirted around to some extent. First, CO2 monitors are one part of solving a ventilation problem; the other is just to open the window. The CO2 monitors do nothing about Covid. They do not measure Covid in the classroom. CO2 monitors measure carbon dioxide. They have existed within our buildings for a significant number of years. Indeed, if we go back to 2018, when the consultation was taking place on amending school building regulations, a number of respondents, particularly from local authorities, replied that a direct correlation is seen between good ventilation and effective teaching and learning. Concern was also expressed that, in many new schools, CO2 levels were higher than recommended.
There is an enormous amount of evidence to show that those children who complain of headaches in the afternoon, or complain just before lunch that the classroom is stuffy are not learning. The CO2 monitors are pointing out that there is a fault in the amount of air that needs to flow in and out of an environment for a young person to learn. Indeed, the regulations require two complete changes of air within a classroom every hour. The problem is one that predates Covid. For a significant period of time, we have owed it to our young people to improve their learning environment. It was interesting to hear that that process has started, but with regard to the inspection criteria, it was right of Ross Greer to point out the differing levels of advice that are being provided.
The other area that I am concerned about is the use of CO2 monitoring results throughout the day, particularly in high schools. Because a classroom will sometimes be empty, unsurprisingly, the CO2 buzzer will not go off. However, the readings from the empty room are still used to calculate the average that is used to ascertain whether the level of particles in the air is within the 800 to 1,500 parts per million range.
I was grateful to the cabinet secretary for pointing out that the figure is 800. Dr Patrick Roach, who is the general secretary of the NASUWT, pointed out that there is still confusion at local level about whether the relevant level is 800 parts per million or 1,500 parts per million. The cabinet secretary was right to say that the full operational data is held at local level, but that is a disappointment. If it were held at central Government level, the Government could assess how many of our classroom spaces were falling short and it would have a far better idea of the extent of the problem that is challenging our children, our teachers and our support workers, as well as those who provide lunches, in being at school.
It was a joy to hear a number of the speeches, and I apologise for not having sufficient time to raise several of the points that I would have liked to. However, I want to highlight Rhoda Grant’s comment that poverty is a real problem for children in school, particularly with regard to the advice, “When the buzzer goes off, open the window.” One teacher told me that sometimes the advice is, “If the buzzer goes off and the windows are open, if you hold it outside the window for a bit, it’ll go off and you can go back to work.”
The issue of the poverty that exists for some groups of children was also highlighted by Alexander Stewart. It is the most deprived children who have suffered during this time, and it is them whom we owe the most.
Our motion is important and it raises important issues. It does not offer a completely different way of solving the problem; rather, it seeks to put another item in the armoury of those who are trying to keep our children’s school classrooms safe. The quality of school buildings is perhaps an issue that we should look at seriously in future. I am not sure that the answer is to throw pupils outside to experience forest learning in December. That can and should come, but it needs to be planned for.