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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 2, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question, or type “R” in the chat function.

Swimming Lessons

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to encourage local authorities to provide all primary school children with the opportunity to access swimming lessons. (S6O-01948)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We have been working with Scottish Swimming, Education Scotland, sportscotland and Scottish Water to pilot bespoke interventions and approaches within local areas to provide opportunities for more children to become confident, safer and competent swimmers. I recognise the importance of ensuring that all children have equal opportunities to access swimming lessons, regardless of their families’ social or economic circumstances. Therefore, inclusion is central to our approach, and there will be a specific focus on targeting areas within quintile 1 of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation.

Fulton MacGregor

In a recent poll of more than 1,000 people in Scotland, 93 per cent of respondents agreed that all children should learn to swim, and 90 per cent agreed that learning to swim is an important part of every child’s education. What further action does the cabinet secretary think that local authorities—including mine, North Lanarkshire Council—can take to ensure that every primary school pupil goes to secondary school having had the opportunity to learn to swim?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

A number of local initiatives are in place across Scotland that help to promote learning to swim. The Scottish Swimming learn to swim framework, which seeks to help children become safe and competent swimmers by developing a consistent structure and set of quality standards for lesson providers, is delivered by 37 partners in 162 pools across Scotland. The framework is already delivered by the main community learn to swim providers in 25 out of 32 local authority areas, and it is also provided in a further two local authority areas, albeit not by the main community learn to swim providers. Progress is being made within two further local authority areas towards delivering the framework in 2023. The active schools network also plays an important role in supporting local swimming clubs to link to schools.

There are a couple of supplementary questions. They will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

According to Scottish Swimming, more than four in 10 children leave primary school in Scotland unable to swim. We all know the positive impact that swimming can have on physical and mental health. We all understand about the ability to swim promoting inclusion, about learning away from the classroom and about swimming being an important life skill. In fact, I would include the ability to swim in relation to the attainment gap. Councils are at breaking point and are being forced to consider the most extreme budget cuts, including cuts to free swimming. Does the cabinet secretary agree that ensuring that our children can swim is an investment? What more will the Scottish Government do to make sure that all children get that opportunity?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Whittle raises an important point about the physical and mental health benefits of swimming. In my original answer to Fulton MacGregor, I pointed out the importance that the learn to swim programme places on ensuring that children who are from the most deprived communities in Scotland in particular are able to take swimming lessons. We are determined to continue to work on promoting equality of access.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

My constituents, the Spiers family, have been campaigning for better water safety in Scotland for the past seven years, following the tragic death of their son Christopher in the River Clyde in 2016. Even competent swimmers can be vulnerable to injury or death in the water. Does the Scottish Government agree that more engagement with local authorities is required in order to establish easy access to water safety training and education across Scotland?

As briefly as possible, please, cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank the member for bringing up that important expansion of the topic. Water safety education and drowning prevention are exceptionally important. It is not just about having confident swimmers but about the dangers of cold water shock, for example. That is also included in the work that Water Safety Scotland and Education Scotland are continuing to do.

Colleges and Universities (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether current funding for colleges is fair, when compared to the funding received by universities. (S6O-01949)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

The Scottish Government values the tertiary education sector, with each part making a crucial and unique contribution to Scotland. The 2023-24 budget allocates nearly £2 billion to colleges and universities, which continues the trend of a year-on-year increase of that budget in cash terms.

The college sector has been allocated an increased resource and capital budget of more than £30 million for 2023-24, at a time when public finances are significantly constrained, which demonstrates our commitment to the sector. The college sector resource budget will be increased by 3.8 per cent compared to this financial year, and as compared to a 2.5 per cent uplift for universities.

John Mason

I agree that both colleges and universities are very important. However, some—not all—universities are sitting on considerable reserves of money, while some colleges are really struggling and are trying to reach the hardest-to-reach people, both younger and older, in our communities. Does the minister not think that we should perhaps be reskewing the funding a little bit away from universities and towards colleges?

Jamie Hepburn

As John Mason recognised in his question, the position across universities is not entirely uniform, so we must make sure that we continue to support our universities to be sustainable.

In relation to the core of John Mason’s question, I refer back to the figures that I just gave. We have given the tertiary sector a £46 million resource uplift this year, which we have weighted towards colleges: there is £26 million for colleges and £20 million for universities. If we consider the capital allocation, the increase for colleges is a direct result of our taking the decision to shift some of that resource from universities. We are undertaking what we can to make sure that we sustain the sector.

There is a lot of interest in the question and a number of members wish to ask supplementaries. I want to get them all in, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

The minister talked about additional funding for colleges but failed to mention that colleges need that money to support additional rounds of voluntary severance or to potentially reduce the risk of compulsory severance—the situation is that bad. Can the minister guarantee that any additional funding will be flexible and for colleges to use at their discretion? If he cannot do that, will he tell the chamber what his spending priorities for the funding are?

Jamie Hepburn

Pam Gosal referred to the additional resource. We are in a period where we need to look ahead and ensure that our college sector is responding to the priorities of our society and economy. That is what that resource is there to do. We are also engaged in a wider discussion about how we can empower and provide more flexibilities to the college sector more generally, so that colleges can continue to respond within the resource that they have already been allocated. That is my key priority for college resource.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

College principals are acting today on the basis of a real-terms cut, because the £26 million in funding that the minister is talking about is not available to them and they do not know what they are allowed to use it for. It is caught between the Scottish Funding Council and the Scottish Government, and there is no clarity. Can the minister today provide clarity on what that money can be spent on?

Jamie Hepburn

That money will be spent on exactly what I have just said—on making sure that the college sector is able to continue to be responsive to the needs of local communities, our economy and society. The precise application is a matter of discussion with the SFC, and I expect it to be engaging fully with colleges in that regard.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister is talking rubbish. That money is not available for colleges. The reality is that, 20 months on from when the Funding Council did its review on the future of the sector, he and the Government still cannot decide what they want from the sector. When is he gonnae make his mind up about the colleges?

I do not even understand what the basis of that question was.

You are kidding! You do know.

I have set out quite clearly what our priorities are in relation to that resource. I will leave it to others to decide who is talking rubbish.

Curriculum for Excellence

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the continuation of the curriculum for excellence. (S6O-01950)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Curriculum for excellence continues to help equip pupils with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for learning, life and work, as demonstrated by the fact that a record high number of young people were in work, training or further study after leaving school last year. Moreover, the gap between school leavers from the most and least deprived areas who are in work, training or further study is down to a record low.

However, we are not complacent, and every curriculum should seek to evolve and improve. That is why we are progressing an ambitious package of education reform, including taking forward curriculum-related recommendations made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Professor Louise Hayward’s work and the national discussion.

Annie Wells

New research conducted by the University of Stirling found that, under curriculum for excellence, there has been a decrease in the number of national qualification entries in secondary 4. Curriculum for excellence was meant to broaden a child’s education, not narrow it. What has gone wrong? Is the cabinet secretary concerned that a child’s educational experiences have significantly narrowed?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Curriculum for excellence is about broadening the experience in schools. Although we will give the findings in the Stirling report detailed consideration, it is encouraging to see, for example, how many young people have taken advantage of the breadth of choice that is now available in the senior phase, such as qualifications to do with skills for work and foundation apprenticeships. It is not just a matter of comparing the data that relates to qualifications and qualification structures, but a matter of looking at the widened opportunities that we have outside Scottish Qualifications Authority exams, as well as foundation apprenticeships, as I said.

Karen Adam, who joins us remotely, has a brief supplementary question.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I welcome the update from the cabinet secretary. Just this week, new statistics have shown that attainment numbers for positive destinations are at a record high, with more than 95 per cent of school leavers in education, employment or further training three months after leaving school. Although that is testament to the hard work of our teachers and young people, does the cabinet secretary agree that the figures also prove that this Government is delivering in education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Karen Adam rightly points out in her question, there was exceptionally good news in the statistics around positive destinations that came out earlier this week. I think that that is testament to the exceptionally hard work of our teachers, support staff and young people, and it very much demonstrates their record and our continued focus on delivering for Scotland’s children and young people through education.

The next question is from Pauline McNeill, who also joins us remotely.

Student Rental Accommodation (University of Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support Glasgow students in student rental accommodation, in light of the reported proposed rent increases by the University of Glasgow. (S6O-01951)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

As autonomous institutions, universities are responsible for their operational matters, including the rental costs of student accommodation. However, I expect them to take into account the current cost of living crisis and to set rents accordingly.

In addition to tuition fees and a range of living costs support, we are supporting students directly by providing £16.8 million in hardship funding in the current academic year for higher education students who are experiencing financial hardship. We are currently exploring options to further support students in the 2023-24 academic year.

Pauline McNeill

The minister will be aware that, in a report by the National Union of Students Scotland, purpose-built student accommodation has been described as “appalling” by the president, Ellie Gomersall. The report found that the average rent for that accommodation

“has increased by 34% since 2018”,

and that a quarter of students who were sampled in the report could not pay their full rent on one or more occasion.

This has become a real problem, and rent increases of 9.5 per cent by the University of Glasgow seem incredibly harsh. If I have understood the minister’s answer, he is hinting very strongly that he also thinks that that is wrong.

In view of that, and in view of the fact that private landlords can increase rents by only up to 6 per cent, does the minister believe that the 9.5 per cent increase is unfair to students, that the Scottish Government should legislate to cap high rents in student accommodation in the private sector, and that a modern, fair Scotland would do that?

Jamie Hepburn

We are undertaking a review of purpose-built student accommodation right now to consider a range of questions, and the issue can be considered as part of that activity. Fundamentally, I very much agree that it is incumbent on every institution, whether it is a private provider or an academic institution, to consider the position of students and the affordability of rents, particularly in the context of the current cost of living crisis.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

In Scotland, 12 per cent of students have experienced homelessness and others have been forced to live in makeshift accommodation. At the beginning of this academic year, the University of Edinburgh converted a common room into makeshift accommodation to house students on a short-term basis.

What guarantee will the minister give to first-year students enrolling in Scottish universities that they will be able to access student accommodation?

Jamie Hepburn

The Scottish Government is not a direct provider of student accommodation but, again, I expect every institution, when it offers a place to a student, to take very serious account of the ability of that person to accommodate themselves adequately for the coming year. It is incumbent on institutions to do that.

Budget 2023-24 (Education and Skills Provision in Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Scottish Budget 2023-24 will have on education and skills provision in Glasgow. (S6O-01952)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government’s education and skills portfolio will provide more than £4.2 billion in 2023-24 to help to improve the life chances of our children, young people and learners of all ages and to support everybody to reach their full potential.

Through the local government settlement, we will provide Glasgow City Council with £1.54 billion of revenue to fund local services, which is an important contribution that we can make to its delivery of education.

As part of this settlement, Glasgow City Council will receive nearly £16.5 million to at least maintain the numbers of teachers and support staff at current levels and to continue to ensure that there are places available on the teacher induction scheme for probationer teachers who need them.

Glasgow City Council is due to receive more than £7.5 million of strategic equity funding to support education recovery and tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Schools in Glasgow will receive more than £23 million in pupil equity funding, which will empower Glasgow’s headteachers to improve the educational outcomes and wellbeing of children affected by poverty in their schools.

James Dornan

As we approach Scottish apprenticeship week, will the cabinet secretary join me in recognising the crucial role that apprenticeship schemes play in providing positive destinations for young people, in my constituency and across Glasgow? As we celebrate this year’s achievements, can she say what progress has been made in aligning work-based learning opportunities to support the important transition to net zero for future generations?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Supporting Scottish apprenticeship week is very important. It is an annual celebration of the success of the Scottish apprenticeship scheme. Our priority is to ensure that apprenticeships are of high quality and lead to sustainable employment opportunities.

We know that the climate emergency will require enormous societal change, and we are exploring how we can effectively integrate sustainability and green skills into the apprenticeships programme through climate emergency skills action plans.

I am going to take a supplementary question, but in doing so, I remind members that this is a question about education and skills in Glasgow.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am looking at it from the point of view of the Scottish budget proposal. Last week, in the Education, Children and Young People Committee, the cabinet secretary revealed that £123 million would be taken from the education and skills budget for 2023-24 to pay for the teachers’ deal. What will be cut from the education budget, and how might that apply to Glasgow?

Here we go. Day, in day out, we get a demand—normally in a point of order from Stephen Kerr—that I do more to solve the teaching pay dispute—

Would you like a point of order?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

However, when we say that we are making progress—which, I have to say to Roz McCall, will actually require funding—we are criticised for doing that.

As the Scottish Conservatives keep demanding that we solve the pay dispute, they must bear in mind the reality that it will cost money, which will have to come from somewhere in the Scottish education budget. If they start to have a serious discussion about that, I will start to take their questions and proposals on the teachers’ dispute more seriously.

What? Oh!

Baby Box Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of baby boxes—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, Ms Roddick; could you resume your seat, please?

Mr Kerr, please refrain from shouting across the front benches; cabinet secretary, please do not respond.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of baby boxes that have been distributed since the scheme began. (S6O-01953)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

At its heart, Scotland’s baby box scheme strongly signals our determination that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should get the best start in life. Our universal baby box programme, the only one in the United Kingdom, opened for registration on 15 June 2017, and delivery of baby boxes nationwide began on 15 August 2017 for all babies born and resident in Scotland.

I am delighted to say that, since then, we have distributed a total of 250,560 baby boxes to families across Scotland, providing essential items for the first six months of a newborn’s life.

Emma Roddick

I thank the minister for her response. I welcomed the news of a few days ago that a quarter of a million baby boxes have now been delivered across Scotland. Will the minister outline what she sees as the benefits of ensuring that all expectant parents across Scotland have access to essentials for their newborn, regardless of their circumstances?

Clare Haughey

Preparing for a baby’s arrival can be one of the most exciting but also one of the most nervous times for a family. Scotland’s baby box supports parents by giving them access to essential items, as well as important practical information on how to support their new arrival.

As well as practical support and items that are designed to have a positive impact on parent and child interaction, our baby box provides a financial saving of over £400 per family through the items provided. In the current cost of living crisis, that is making a huge difference to families across Scotland.

Curriculum for Excellence (Subject Choice)

7. Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent study by the University of Stirling, published on 20 February 2023, which showed that the curriculum is narrowing under the curriculum for excellence, with a reduction in the choice of school subjects. (S6O-01954)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of the report. It states that, under the curriculum for excellence, a growing proportion of school leavers are arriving at positive destinations within three months of leaving school, which suggests that the implementation of the curriculum for excellence is having a positive effect on student outcomes.

In terms of curriculum choice, the senior phase is designed as a three-year experience, in order to offer greater personalisation and choice for learners. What matters most is the collection of qualifications, awards, skills and experiences that a young person leaves school with, not the subset of qualifications that they achieve in one year of the senior phase. The record high number of young people who were in work, training or further study after leaving school last year is a reflection of the success of the curriculum for excellence, which continues to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for learning, life and work.

Martin Whitfield

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer and for her previous comments and her continued focus on education.

Marina Shapira and Mark Priestley’s report, “Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations: Exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people”, might have made difficult reading. I quote their blog post on its findings, which says:

“the research provides ample evidence that a great deal of curriculum making is driven by a need to fulfil external demands for the right kinds of data, particularly relating to attainment.”

Further on, they say:

“It is a cause for concern that some curriculum making practices have negative consequences on subsequent attainment and transitions, predominantly affecting young people from less-advantaged backgrounds. These social justice issues are particularly ironic—and alarming—given the government’s policy focus on closing the gap.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that by narrowing the choices that are available to our young people, we are doing a disservice to efforts to close the poverty-related attainment gap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is a very welcome report. I met Professor Priestley to discuss it recently, and I also had the pleasure of attending a lecture that he gave on it in Glasgow.

He raises a number of challenging points, not just for the Government but for our agencies and local authorities, and we are taking those very seriously.

One item that I will touch on in some detail, if I can, Presiding Officer, is around data. It is important that we collect data, but as I have discussed with Professor Priestley, we are at one with him about the importance of gathering it for the right reasons. We collect data, for example, on why children are not attending school to ensure that we are providing the support to schools to provide the support to the young people to get them back in. It is done not in order to hold them to account, but to support them.

That is a very important point, and there is a lot more that we can do on that within the national improvement framework. I give it as an example of the work that we are taking forward very seriously with Professor Priestley, who of course sits on our Scottish education council.

Mr Whitfield read out some quotes, but there are several positive comments in the report. For the sake of time, I will not go into them in detail, but I am sure that the member is well aware of them.

I am very grateful. There are a number of supplementaries. I will try to get all of them in, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I note the absence of data in this study on any impact on neurodivergent pupils. Does the minister agree with me that it is extremely important to collect that data, to ensure that we include and understand the experiences of pupils with additional support needs?

Respond as briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Absolutely. When it comes to the collection of data, it is important to ensure that we are genuinely appreciating the needs of pupils with additional support needs—Stephanie Callaghan mentions neurodivergent pupils, but of course there are other pupils within the additional support needs category. We are absolutely determined to collect that data, for example, through the pupil census.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Deputy Presiding Officer, first, let me apologise for my outburst earlier. I never thought that I would see the day when a minister, in any Parliament, would say that they were not going to answer a question seriously—that they were not going to give the matter in hand serious attention—

Could you turn to your question please, Mr Kerr?

That is contempt of this place. Deputy Presiding Officer, let me make it clear—[Interruption.] It is contempt of this place, if a minister says—

Mr Kerr, do you have a question?

I do have a question, Deputy Presiding Officer, but I want to make it clear that that sort of comment from a minister is surely not acceptable.

Mr Kerr, could you ask your question?

Stephen Kerr

The University of Stirling report is, indeed, uncomfortable reading. It ought to be very uncomfortable reading for the Scottish National Party Government, because in essence, the report says that we are letting down pupils by narrowing their subject choice—

Question, please.

—and limiting their opportunities in life. Therefore, I say to the cabinet secretary, teachers are working hard—

Question, please, Mr Kerr.

Stephen Kerr

I am coming to the question. Our teachers are working as hard as they can. They cannot work miracles. The cabinet secretary and her predecessors have failed a whole generation of Scots. Should not the cabinet secretary apologise for the SNP’s—

Cabinet secretary.

—appalling record on education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am more than happy to check the Official Report, but I think that what I said was that I was not taking Mr Kerr seriously in some of his retorts on the teachers’ pay dispute. When he comes to discuss the report that has been produced by Professor Priestley, he is quite right: it should be challenging reading. The entire point of us having a reform process is to ensure that we celebrate the successes that we have—something that Mr Kerr does not do—but also challenge ourselves to improve, which is something that Mr Kerr can also have a think about.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

We know that delivering a robust curriculum is key to providing our young people with opportunities as they move forward in life. With that in mind, how will the Scottish Government continue to deliver on its commitments to raise attainment and substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Our commitment to the substantial reduction and elimination of the poverty-related attainment gap stands strong. That is exactly why we have more than £1 billion-worth of expenditure going into the Scottish attainment challenge over the current parliamentary session. As the results have shown, attainment is now showing a real improvement, particularly in our primary years.

Question 8 was not lodged, so that concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business.