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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, European Union Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Remembering Conscientious Objectors


Portfolio Question Time

Additional Support for Learning (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government whether children in Glasgow must demonstrate greater needs than those in other parts of Scotland in order to gain access to an additional support for learning school. (S5O-02639)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs. The legislation places a duty on local authorities to provide education in a mainstream school unless specific exceptions apply. In summary, those include: the education provided in a mainstream school would not be suitable for the aptitude and abilities of the child in question; mainstream education would be incompatible with the provision of efficient education for other children; and placing the child in a mainstream school would incur unreasonable levels of public expenditure. That applies across the whole of Scotland.

John Mason

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply. However, it appears to be easier for families in richer council areas, and for families who are perhaps better off and more self-confident, to argue their corner and to get their child into a special school.

John Swinney

The conditions and criteria that I set out in my original answer to Mr Mason apply across the country and are specified in statute. It is up to individual local authorities to make judgments, based on those conditions, on whether the educational needs of young people are being met. That should be the basis on which decision making is undertaken.

There are opportunities for parents, when they are dissatisfied with a local authority’s decision making, to pursue those issues through the tribunal process. I would encourage local authorities and parents to try to resolve these issues, but I accept that in some cases it is necessary for them to be resolved at tribunal, when all sides of the debate on the appropriate educational setting for a young person can be heard and resolved.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I put on record my personal thanks for the efforts that the cabinet secretary is making to assist with the families involved in the recent closure of the New School Butterstone. In the light of that and the comments about additional support for learning across the country, will the cabinet secretary undertake to have a formal review of the resources that are available for specialist education?

John Swinney

I am grateful to Liz Smith for her comments about the New School Butterstone. About 23 young people, as well as staff, are affected by the closure of that school. I see reports daily from each affected local authority about the progress that is being made on finding appropriate educational settings for the young people. That review work goes on daily. Progress has been made in some cases, but not in all, and it will take time to find appropriate placements for the young people.

It is important that we keep under active review the options that are available for the placing of young people outside mainstream education. Fundamentally, the law is clear—we should encourage mainstreaming. However, there are exceptions, which are specified in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000. In consultation with local authorities, I want to maintain an overview of the provision that is available, to make sure that there are options available to meet the needs of young people in such circumstances.

Mental Health (Schoolchildren)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to support schoolchildren with mental health issues. (S5O-02640)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government is working to strengthen child and adolescent mental health. We know that prevention and early intervention make a big difference in reducing the risk of developing mental health problems. We are working collaboratively to provide access to counsellors in schools. That will complement the spectrum of mental health services already being provided in schools, to ensure that every child and young person has access to emotional and mental wellbeing support in school.

We are also continuing to support local authorities to access mental health first aid training for key staff.

Gillian Martin

Will the cabinet secretary give an update on the commitment to having counsellors in every school and outline what impact that Government decision is designed to have on pupils and staff, particularly, as he has said, as a complement to existing pastoral care provision?

John Swinney

Work is actively under way to advance that commitment. We are working with key partners to identify the best use of resources, and we will publish a programme for delivery to ensure that the commitment is met. When we announced the programme for government, we said that we would set out a delivery plan for all the mental health commitments contained in it, and that work is under way.

One issue that we have to consider is how to ensure that that investment is compatible with arrangements that schools, using pupil equity funding, have already put in place as a consequence of their own decision making in seeing the necessity of strengthening the counselling services available to young people. That investment has been made in some parts of the country, and we must ensure that the Government’s commitment dovetails with and supports that approach.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

Between July and September, almost a third of children looking to access mental health treatment waited more than 18 weeks to do so, and fewer children were treated within the target time this year than in 2017. When will the Scottish Government take its responsibility to young people seriously and act to meet the needs of schoolchildren with poor mental health?

John Swinney

It should be pretty clear to Mary Fee from the commitments that were made in the programme for government that the Government takes those issues deadly seriously. The investment that was announced by the Government is in response to the very significant change in the pattern of presentation with regard to mental health issues. Mary Fee must be aware of that and recognise that as something that has changed dramatically in Scotland over the past few years.

Our focus is on early intervention and ensuring that we reduce the presentation of young people to child and adolescent mental health services, which I think that all of us would agree would be the best intervention. After all, the earlier that we intervene to support young people’s mental and emotional wellbeing, the better it will be for them. That is the agenda that the Government is pursuing; it is worthy of support, and I invite Mary Fee to do exactly that.

Developing the Young Workforce

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Education and Skills Committee report, “Young People’s Pathways: a progress report on Developing the Young Workforce”. (S5O-02641)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

We welcome the committee’s inquiry and will consider its findings and recommendations in detail. We are committed to increasing the number of pathways available to young people through the developing the young workforce programme, with a particular focus on improving outcomes for those who face additional barriers when moving from education to employment.

Lewis Macdonald

The minister will know that Aberdeen and Grampian have shown how much of a positive difference DYW can make through, for example, engaging with more than 400 employers and creating real opportunities for many young people in the region. However, he will also note the comment in the committee’s report that that is not happening in other places. Does he agree with the committee that a greater sense of urgency is required in rolling that out?

Jamie Hepburn

I detect no sense of a lack of urgency in rolling out the developing the young workforce programme, starting from the top. This Government is utterly committed to rolling it out across Scotland.

It is inevitable, but it is the case that, looking at this on a regional basis, some areas of the country will be further ahead than others. Aberdeen and Grampian in the north-east are very good examples, and there are other great examples of progress the length and breadth of the country. However, some areas are further ahead than others, and our task is to support the regional groups to ensure that they are learning from one another, learning from best practice and rolling out the programme as consistently and as far and wide as possible across the country. The Government is committed to doing that.

What is Skills Development Scotland’s role in contributing to the development of a skilled and productive workforce in Scotland?

Jamie Hepburn

It plays a critical role, in that one of the functions that it discharges is to contract for modern apprenticeships. We are, of course, committed to delivering 28,000 such opportunities this year as we move towards our target of 30,000 by 2020. Skills Development Scotland is also involved in the provision of new graduate apprenticeships as well as foundation apprenticeships in the school environment, and it is responsible for careers information and guidance. It is therefore critical to our developing the young workforce agenda.

Question 4 has not been lodged.

National Standardised Assessments (Primary 1 Pupils)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its response to the vote in the Parliament on 19 September 2018 opposing national standardised assessments for primary 1 pupils. (S5O-02643)

On 25 October 2018, I made a parliamentary statement announcing an independent review of P1 assessments. The review will consider all the evidence that is gathered and provide recommendations by May 2019.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

We voted in the chamber to end the national assessment of five-year-olds, yet still the Government persists, arguably in contempt of the Parliament. Will the Government halt the programme of national assessment of P1s immediately and for the duration of the review? Further, can the cabinet secretary give me a guarantee that the Government will attach no precondition to education funding based on delivery of the assessments, which is what it sometimes does in other policy areas, so that authorities that are considering abandoning the assessments unilaterally can do so without sanctions?

John Swinney

Where to start? I set out in great detail the views of the Government in relation to the decision that was taken by Parliament on 19 September. It is no secret that I did not think that the debate was driven by educational considerations and that I thought that it was driven by politics. It was clear to me in coming to that conclusion that, for a sustained amount of time, in local authorities that were led by the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Conservatives and—I stress this—the Liberal Democrats, there were P1 standardised assessments at which people did not bat an eyelid.

We must be careful that we do not take decisions based on political considerations in Parliament that might damage the educational journey of young people through our education system, because that would not serve young people at all well.

I have invited other parties to give their input into the independent review. I am grateful to the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Greens for providing me with input that I am currently considering with the chief inspector of education to ensure that we can build some broad agreement about how we pursue the consideration of the issue. I recognise that the issue divides opinion in Parliament, but I am determined to come to a conclusion that is in the interests of children and young people in Scotland.

I have two requests for supplementary questions. I ask members to make them quick.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

It does the cabinet secretary no good at all to impugn the motives of those people who believe that, in educational terms, the policy is inappropriate.

Given the current debate, the question of accepting the will of Parliament is important here and elsewhere. Will the cabinet secretary outline the basis of the advice on which he decided to push ahead with P1 testing while his group sets about seeking the evidence to justify it? Further, does he recognise that, to respect the decision of the Scottish Parliament and the views on the policy of many families and teachers, it would be more appropriate to suspend primary 1 testing, at least until his group reports?

John Swinney

I take entirely the opposite view. As we undertake this exercise, it is important that we build the evidence base for that to be the case. A further year of primary 1 standardised assessments will help us to inform that judgment.

On the first point that Johann Lamont raised, I reflected on the evidence that I have taken from, for example, directors of education around the country, and the views that I have heard from many teachers around the country who value the information—particularly the diagnostic information—that is available about the performance of primary 1 pupils, which then informs professional educational judgments about the next steps in the learning of young people. It is those judgments to which I attach a significant weight in my consideration of this issue.

How many Opposition MSPs have taken up the offer to consult on the details of the remit of the review of the primary 1 assessments?

John Swinney

As I indicated in my earlier answer, I have had information and feedback from the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Greens on that issue. I am reflecting on that evidence to help to formulate a more broadly based assessment of the exercise, so that we can come to an evidenced conclusion. That is an orderly way for me to respond constructively to the decision of Parliament.

Alex Cole-Hamilton had better get his submission in quick.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like to say two things. First, can we stop having private conversations across desks? Further, when I request quick supplementary questions, I mean it, because it disadvantages other people when folk go on.

Probationer Teachers

To ask the Scottish Government when the last review of how probationer teachers are allocated was undertaken. (S5O-02644)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Probationary teachers are allocated to local authorities through the teacher induction scheme on the basis of student choice and availability of posts. The allocation process has been in place since the inception of the teacher induction scheme in 2004. The teacher induction scheme on-going review group has an on-going role in monitoring the process, which it will continue to play in the period ahead.

Gail Ross

The current practice of telling schools in May how many probationers they will get in the following year is severely restricting some rural schools in deciding their pupils’ options forms and setting their timetables. Will the cabinet secretary consider changing the system so that schools can find out much earlier in the year how many probationers they are due to get, which will make it fairer and easier for pupils and teachers?

I recognise the significance of the point that Gail Ross raises, and I am happy to ask the review group to consider the issue.

Does the cabinet secretary understand why approximately 1,000 probationer teachers in Scotland have quit the profession in the past three years?

John Swinney

Obviously, individuals make judgments on whether they are comfortable in the employment choices that they have made. In the last census that is available, 88 per cent of probationers were in full-time employment after the completion of their probation period. That is a high level and it is much higher than it used to be. From that, I take it that many probationer teachers are motivated to make a constructive contribution to Scottish education. They are very welcome to do so.

Castlebrae High School

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will make money available for a new Castlebrae High School before the 2021 new school building cycle. (S5O-02645)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Through our schools for the future programme, the City of Edinburgh Council has been awarded more than £63 million towards the construction of four school projects. My officials met the local authority on 29 October to discuss its wave 4 investment programme. On 21 November, I announced the new £1 billion learning estate investment programme, and we will now work in collaboration with local authorities to identify priority projects for investment.

Kezia Dugdale

I am afraid that that does not address my question. Castlebrae high school hopes to start building next year, but it cannot do that if it has to wait until 2021 for additional resources. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether it should go ahead with the scaled-back version of the school using capital receipts from the land and existing money from the council, or whether it should wait for him to turn up with some cash in two years’ time?

John Swinney

Fundamentally, that is a question for the City of Edinburgh Council to decide. I point out to Kezia Dugdale that, when this Government came to office in 2007, only 61 per cent of schools in Scotland were in good or satisfactory condition. Today, that figure is 84 per cent.

I appreciate that Castlebrae high school wishes to invest in the school, and I quite understand that. However, the City of Edinburgh Council made some decisions, which had nothing to do with me and were the council’s to make, on the use of its capital budgets, which are extensive resources that are made available to the council.

Kezia Dugdale has to accept that this Government has made significant progress in improving the school estate. Actually, I gave the wrong figure just then—it is not 84 per cent of schools that are now in good or satisfactory condition; it is 86 per cent—it is even better than I thought. The Government is significantly enhancing the capital estate of our school buildings and, obviously, we will engage with the City of Edinburgh Council about the aspirations at Castlebrae.

Young People with Autism (Educational Provision)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve educational provision and experiences for young people with autism. (S5O-02646)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

We want all children and young people to receive the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. We are taking a range of actions, including updating the autism toolbox, to support those who work with children and young people with autism. I have considered the calls for action in the “Not included, not engaged, not involved” report and I am committed to ensuring that they are addressed in the action that is under way to improve educational experiences for children and young people with autism.

The cabinet secretary talked about the calls for action. Will he spell out which of the nine calls he supports and which he will implement with immediate effect?

John Swinney

As I explained in last night’s parliamentary debate, a number of elements of the calls to action have raised issues that are incompatible with guidance on these questions. For example, call 1 is about stopping

“the use of unlawful exclusions and inappropriate use of part-time timetables”,

but existing guidance completely opposes the practice that is recounted in that call. I am determined to work with local authorities to ensure that there is a greater adherence to the existing arrangements. If there is a need for us to change practice as a consequence of the calls to action, that is exactly what the Government will consider.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that there is a clear need for initial teacher education to include additional support needs and, in particular, neurodevelopmental disorders—a point that was clear in last night’s debate?

John Swinney

It is essential that initial teacher education equips teachers to support young people in our classrooms. It is very evident to me that there is a greater presentation of additional support needs, so it is therefore a necessity for not only teachers who are going through initial teacher education but those who are going through continuing professional development to be cognisant of the issues that Mr Johnson has raised and to ensure that that is reflected in the professional development of those who are charged with education.

Teacher Recruitment

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the reported problems with teacher recruitment. (S5O-02647)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

We have taken substantive action to recruit and retain teachers through the teaching makes people campaign, and we have created new routes into the profession. There are now more primary and secondary teachers than at any time since 2014, and the ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest since 2013. We also provide funding of £88 million per year to support councils to maintain teacher numbers. That has resulted in 543 more teachers in 2017 than in the previous year, which was the second consecutive year in which teacher numbers increased.

Liam Kerr

When I lodged my question, I intended to ask about the hundreds of teaching posts in the north-east that had to be readvertised because of the Scottish National Party’s chaotic workforce planning. The Press and Journal revealed yesterday the unbelievable pressure on teaching assistants and the 21,000 teaching hours that are lost because of stress, depression and anxiety. Given those shocking figures, it is hardly surprising that schools in the north-east cannot recruit enough teachers to give children the education that they deserve. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that my local schools are at breaking point, and will he finally do something about it?

John Swinney

As I recounted in my earlier answer to Mr Kerr, the Government has taken action in that regard through the campaign to recruit more teachers into the profession. The campaign has been successful, because we have 543 more teachers in our schools in 2017 than in the previous year.

Mr Kerr refers to vacancies in schools. A vacancy survey will be published shortly, so we will see what progress—if any—has been made in tackling vacancies. We will also see shortly whether any further progress has been made on the employment of teachers. Mr Kerr can obviously come back and ask questions about those issues when the up-to-date information is to hand. I assure him that, by designing new routes into teaching, promoting the profession and setting out the strength of Scottish education, we are encouraging more individuals to join the profession, as the data that I have set out demonstrates.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

Teachers are very clear that the only action that will address the teacher recruitment problem is a restorative pay increase for our teachers. Why, then, has the Deputy First Minister not ensured that an improved offer has been brought forward since the existing offer was overwhelmingly rejected?

John Swinney

We are in active negotiations with the teaching professional associations, and there was a meeting on Monday of the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers. We work closely with our local authority colleagues in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities who are discussing the offer that can be made to the teaching profession. When we are in a position to make an offer to the teaching profession, it will be undertaken as part of the SNCT process, in which the offer will be properly offered by the employers, who are COSLA, not me.

Funded Childcare (Nurseries)

To ask the Scottish Government what guidance it provides to local authorities regarding flexibility in the provision of funded childcare at nurseries. (S5O-02648)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced a duty on local authorities to consult parents and carers to inform how they make early learning and childcare available in their areas, to ensure that the provision of funded ELC in an authority area is flexible enough to allow families an appropriate degree of choice in deciding how to access the service. There is supporting statutory guidance to help local authorities to meet those duties.

Sandra White

I have met a number of nurseries in my constituency and lots of concerns have been expressed by providers and parents about the inflexibility of the hours that are provided by Glasgow City Council and the difficulties that that creates. Will the minister meet me to discuss the issues that have been raised by parents and providers in Glasgow City Council?

Maree Todd

Yes. I would absolutely welcome a meeting with Sandra White to discuss those issues. However, I reiterate that local authorities have a duty to consult families to inform the delivery of funded ELC in their areas. That should be reflected in the local authority’s expansion plan, which is produced every couple of years. Flexibility should be driven by local demand from families with regard to the nature and type of provision that they require, which should lead to a range of delivery models across the authority.

As I have done several times in the chamber, I again make it clear that our new funding-follows-the-child approach will put the power into parental hands. Any funded provider that meets the national standard and has a place available will therefore be able to be chosen by parents who want their child to attend nursery or education.

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

Although private sector ELC providers offer the greatest flexibility, they have been ignored in capital funding decisions. In a meeting with the minister yesterday, private providers said that the directors of education in the various local authorities have refused to open any dialogue with them. The minister insists that councils will eventually realise that the expansion cannot be done without private providers. With the deadline fast approaching, does the minister really think that that eureka moment will happen on its own? If not, when will she intervene to ensure that it does?

Maree Todd

As Alison Harris is aware from the meeting yesterday, I wrote to all councils in November to explain capital funding. I can report today—I have just seen it in the press today—that Moray Council has brought forward some—

We knew that yesterday.


We did know that yesterday.

No, we did not know that yesterday. Several local authorities are bringing forward packages and we will see progress on the matter

I reiterate that I do not like private conversations to be going on in the middle of questions.

Modern Apprenticeships (Stirling)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of modern apprenticeship places in the Stirling area. (S5O-02649)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

The published modern apprenticeship statistics for the second quarter of the year, which cover April to September 2018, report 225 new modern apprenticeship starts in the Stirling area, which is up from 212 at the same point in the previous year. Including those who are already undertaking an apprenticeship, there were 619 apprentices in training in Stirling as of 28 September.

I thank the minister for that helpful answer. Can he confirm what the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s apprenticeship levy has been on employers and apprentices in Scotland?

Jamie Hepburn

The most obvious impact on employers with a payroll of £3 million or more has been that they are subject to paying the levy. That happened without any prior consultation with them as to the likely impact. That includes the public sector in Scotland, which we estimate had to contribute £73 million in 2017-18.

Of course, the Scottish Government gets on with the job in Scotland and we are delivering more apprenticeship starts than ever, with a record 27,145 starts last year, which was up from 26,262. That is in contrast to the position in England, where, according to Department for Education statistics, there was a 24.75 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeship starts between August 2017 and July 2018 compared to the equivalent period in the previous year.

Primary Schools (Rebuilding)

12. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the successful rebuilding of the Clyde and Broomhill primary schools in Glasgow Anniesland, what progress has been made with the rebuilding of Blairdardie primary school. (S5O-02650)

I remind members that they should read the questions as they are written in the Business Bulletin.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Through our Scotland’s schools for the future programme, Glasgow City Council has been awarded over £5 million towards the construction of Blairdardie primary school. The new school will open to pupils in March 2019.

Bill Kidd

I welcome the Scottish Government’s prioritisation of ensuring that the children of Scotland are educated in high-quality, state-of-the-art buildings. Will the cabinet secretary outline how the Scottish Government plans to continue to deliver the best-quality school buildings for children post-2020, when the current funding phase of the schools for the future programme ends?

John Swinney

So far, we have supported the rebuilding or refurbishment of 117 schools across Scotland, and we have the lowest number on record of schools that are in unacceptable condition. That is a strong performance, and it has led to the Government announcing a new £1 billion learning estate investment programme, which will fund new and refurbished schools across Scotland after 2020. Dialogue on taking forward that proposal is under way with local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Apprenticeship Levy (Additional Apprenticeships)

To ask the Scottish Government how many additional apprenticeships have been funded by the apprenticeship levy. (S5O-02651)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

In 2017-18, there were 27,145 modern apprenticeship new starts in Scotland, which was up from 26,262 the year before. The increase was achieved in the context of a reduction in available public spending leeway in Scotland as a result of the introduction of the United Kingdom Government’s apprenticeship levy in April 2017. Due to the public sector liability for the levy, public spending leeway was reduced by some £30 million in 2017-18. Despite that, the Scottish Government continues to utilise the notional sum allocated to the block grant that is related to the levy entirely for employability and training-related activity. This year, we will support 28,000 modern apprenticeship starts.

Rhoda Grant

That seems an incredibly small amount, given the levy that is being charged. I have been speaking to many organisations that have expressed disquiet about the levy. Some pay in and get very little out; others cannot access the scheme at all because the age profile of their staff and apprenticeships does not fit the criteria. It is not clear who is actually benefiting from the levy. Will the minister sit down with those organisations and speak to them about how they can best use the levy to upskill their workforce?

Jamie Hepburn

I will sit down any time with any organisation that wants to discuss those matters with me—that is what I do. It is unfortunate that Rhoda Grant seems to be susceptible to the idea that has been perpetuated by the UK Government that the levy somehow brought forth a bounty of new money for the Scottish Government to spend—it did not. The money that came forward largely replaced existing expenditure; in fact, it was a new mechanism by which to raise the funding.

We are delivering more apprenticeships than ever before. We delivered 27,145 last year and it will be 28,000 this year, and we will deliver 30,000 by 2020. I have already made the point about the significant reduction in the number of apprenticeship starts in England, which was down nearly 25 per cent between August 2017 and July 2018. Given that the levy was predicated on the assumption of an uplift in the number of apprentices in England and was nothing to do with our policy in Scotland, and given that there is clearly a failure to increase the number in England, one might ask where that money in England is going. A cynic could argue that it is nothing more than a UK Government Treasury tax ploy.

Jamie Halcro Johnston can ask a short supplementary.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Following my letter to the First Minister about the hurdles that are faced by small businesses in accessing apprenticeships, the minister replied that he had met with the Federation of Small Businesses in July and that his officials would work with Skills Development Scotland to explore the scope to focus apprenticeship week on small business opportunities. Given that the next apprenticeship week is only a few months away, will the minister update the Parliament on what proposals have been made for it?

When I ask for short questions, that does not mean that members should just speak faster.

Jamie Hepburn

I will take that on board, Presiding Officer.

The dialogue continues. Apprenticeship week will come in due course. There is on-going dialogue between the Government, the FSB and SDS. I am clear that our small and medium-sized enterprises should benefit from apprenticeships, and they have that opportunity. I said that I am always willing to engage with the organisations that Rhoda Grant alluded to, and I will always be willing to discuss those matters with the FSB.

Brexit (Universities and Colleges)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to mitigate the impact on universities and colleges in Scotland of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. (S5O-02652)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

We are doing everything in our power to mitigate the damage of Brexit and to protect Scotland’s interests, not least by confirming that eligible EU students who start an undergraduate course at a university in Scotland in autumn 2019 will have their tuition fees paid for the whole of their course.

The simple truth, however, is that Brexit represents such a level of threat to our colleges and universities that we must be clear that no amount of mitigation will stop Brexit damaging our world-class institutions. We will, of course, continue to discuss those issues with staff and students in the sector, as we did most recently at a Brexit summit at the University of Glasgow. I will also lead a delegation to Brussels next week to strengthen relationships with European stakeholders and to ensure that Scotland’s voice is being heard.

Richard Lyle

Mike Kirby, the Scottish secretary of Unison, has said:

“In the massive risk register associated with Brexit, the interests of EU nationals working across ... education, and delivering quality public services, require to be front and centre.”

Does the minister agree that the senseless scrapping of important policies such as the post-study work visa will leave Scotland worse off?

Richard Lochhead

Richard Lyle highlights an important issue. In my previous answer, I said that the Government is committed to paying the tuition fees of EU students who will start their studies in 2019 for the course of their degree. Were we to depart the EU or have a bad deal under which we could not give out post-study work visas, we would be in the ludicrous position of not being able to have EU students contributing to Scottish society. That is why the Scottish Government has been vociferous in calling for the reinstatement of such visas. The hard fact is that departing from the EU will have a disproportionate impact on Scottish further and higher education, which is why this afternoon’s debate is crucial for Scotland’s future.

School Finances (North East Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the finances of schools in the North East Fife constituency. (S5O-02653)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Schools in North East Fife will be required to make the best use of the resources that are made available to them by Fife Council, which set an education budget of £337 million for 2018-19. That was an increase of more than £6 million on the previous year. Fife benefits from funding through the attainment Scotland fund, which is part of our £750 million commitment to help close the poverty-related attainment gap. In 2018-19, schools in the North East Fife constituency received £894,000 in pupil equity funding.

Willie Rennie

Can the cabinet secretary understand the anger among my constituents, given that not only are Fife secondary schools facing cuts of £1.2 million, when the Government says that education is a priority, but that almost half of those cuts are being imposed on three North East Fife schools: Waid academy, Bell Baxter high school and Madras college? Does he think that it is fair and reasonable for headteachers to face such dramatic cuts, given that education is meant to be a Government priority?

John Swinney

Willie Rennie raises with me an issue that is the responsibility of Fife Council. As I have indicated, Fife Council has increased its education budget by more than £6 million in 2018-19. The Government has no jurisdiction over distribution issues in Fife; that is a matter entirely for Fife Council.

The Government is making a direct investment in the education of young people, and it is closing the attainment gap in Willie Rennie’s constituency with the help of £894,000 of funding. I know from my experience of assessing the work that is being undertaken by schools in his consistency that that funding is making a significant impact on the wellbeing and attainment of young people.

Veterans (Skills Development Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how Skills Development Scotland supports veterans. (S5O-02654)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

Skills Development Scotland is a key member of the Scottish Government’s veterans employability strategic group, which focuses on improving employment opportunities and support for veterans in Scotland. In addition to ensuring that all its services are veteran friendly and establishing a veterans web portal, SDS is working with the career transition partnership on a pilot on the A96 corridor, which offers a guidance interview to service leavers that enhances the service that they already receive from the career transition partnership. SDS will continue to work closely with the partnership and Ministry of Defence delivery staff to ensure that those who leave the armed forces are aware of all the services that are available to them.

Maurice Corry

Early last year, the Scottish Government set out its plans for developing veterans’ skills in “The Veterans Community—Employability, Skills and Learning: Scottish Government response”. Does the Scottish Government have any intention of updating or checking the progress of those proposals?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes. The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans delivered his annual update to Parliament in September. The report is available for public consumption through the Government’s website. There will be continuous updates on the Scottish veterans commissioner’s work, including his recommendations on employability, and on the veterans employability strategic group.