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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 6, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio questions, and the portfolio today is education and skills. As ever, I make a plea for succinct questions and answers in order to get in as many members as possible.

West College Scotland (Greenock Campus)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with senior management of West College Scotland to discuss the college’s Greenock campus. (S6O-03532)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

As the member knows, because he accompanied me, I visited West College Scotland on 6 July last year, when I met the college principal, the chair and staff and discussed a number of issues, including the campus. I have since met college principals and chairs in a number of forums, including as recently as Tuesday this week. The specific matter of the Greenock campus is not one that I can recall coming up in the intervening period, but such conversations would, of course, be for the college and the Scottish Funding Council to have.

Stuart McMillan

As the minister is very much aware, the Finnart Street campus in Greenock is past its sell-by date and needs to be replaced or to have significant investment. I understand that the preference is to have a new building to replace it, but I appreciate that budgets are tight, with the capital grant from Westminster having been cut. Can the minister outline the current Scottish Government position in relation to the future of the Finnart Street campus?

Graeme Dey

I am obviously aware of the issues at Finnart Street. The Funding Council last engaged with the college regarding its estates plans, including on managing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—on 6 March. The SFC is currently developing a college infrastructure investment plan and, as part of that work, it is asking each college to provide up-to-date baseline information on its estate in order to establish a robust understanding of the entirety of the college estate.

Additionally, we are working on a revised asset disposal process, so that colleges can sell unwanted land or buildings and retain a significant proportion of the value realised to invest locally. In taking up that enhanced flexibility, however, colleges should be thinking creatively about how to maximise the value of their estates through innovative approaches, including the exploration of collaboration and shared facilities.

Additional Support for Learning (Presumption of Mainstreaming)

2. Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to address any issues regarding the implementation of the presumption of mainstreaming, as set out in the recent Education, Children and Young People Committee report on its inquiry into additional support for learning. (S6O-03533)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I welcome the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s report on additional support for learning, and I am grateful to everyone who contributed to the committee’s inquiry and gave evidence to inform that important work.

Education authorities have a key role in delivering provision for additional support needs, and it is therefore important that we engage fully with our key partners who work with us to deliver education before responding.

I made a commitment to the committee to pause our work on a progress report and an updated ASL action plan while we consider the recommendations from the committee’s inquiry. I will provide a formal response to the committee by 10 July, at its request, and I will then publish an updated action plan in the autumn of this year.

Michelle Thomson

I have been contacted by a number of constituents in recent weeks regarding placement requests that have been considered, then refused, by the local authority. One of the frustrations of my constituents that is highlighted in the committee’s report is the lack of information that is provided in refusal letters, as well as the lack of information for parents as to how their children’s learning and support needs would be accommodated in mainstream education. The committee’s report recommends that the code of practice and the ASL action plan be updated to require local authorities to

“clearly set out to parents and carers the grounds for refusal”

and, crucially,

“what support is being made available to their child”.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that she will work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other agencies to ensure that those updates are made swiftly?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for her interest in the matter. Those frustrations were voiced in the committee inquiry’s evidence sessions, of which I took cognisance. I have been keen that we in the Government listen to the committee’s findings and reflect them in our updated ASL action plan. To that end, I was clear in my own evidence to the committee that there is a need to provide more clarity for parents and carers, particularly in relation to the placing requests to which the member alludes. The action plan has a very strong focus on improving the consistency and visibility of our communications on ASL policy and the legislative position, which will address the points made by the member. We are also committed to refreshing the ASL code of practice, and work is on-going in that area, too.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

This morning, I visited CALL Scotland at the University of Edinburgh and had the opportunity to see the fantastic work that it does. A particular concern that it shared was the fact that none of the 76 actions in the ASL action plan is on inclusive digital learning, and it mentions assistive technology only once. The Doran review made recommendations on that 12 years ago. I understand that the Government is focused on the Morgan review, but it would be a lost opportunity if the Doran review were shelved. What is the cabinet secretary doing to ensure that inclusive digital learning can happen in every school where it is needed? What reassurance can she give to CALL Scotland that inclusive digital learning will remain a key part of her response to the intolerable circumstances that pupils with additional support needs face?

Jenny Gilruth

Pam Duncan-Glancy has raised a really important matter in relation to the role that digital technology can play, particularly in supporting those with additional support needs in our schools. I am more than happy to write to her on the specific point that she has made.

It is important that the Government listens to the findings of the committee’s inquiry. We had hoped to publish the ASL action plan in advance of the committee’s report, but I paused that so that I could listen to the committee’s challenge on that. It is important that we do that.

I will write to Pam Duncan-Glancy in more detail about digital learning. She is correct to say that the ASL action plan is predicated on the Morgan review, which was published more recently, in 2020. However, it is important that we do not lose the learning from the Doran report.

Children Missing from Education

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has reconsidered collating information on the number of children who are “missing from education”, in light of its reported failure to do so to date. (S6O-03534)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

“Children missing from education” is different from persistent absence. That measure relates to children of compulsory school age who are not on a school roll and are not being educated otherwise.

The current approach in Scotland is that someone who is deemed to be “missing from education” would be a welfare concern, and that should be followed up by local authorities, in line with their statutory requirements for the delivery of education locally. However, I continue to consider further the need for national-level data on the matter. To that end, I have requested further detailed advice from my officials on the legalities of gathering further data of that nature. I will update Liam Kerr in writing on that point in due course.

Liam Kerr

I am very grateful for that, and I look forward to receiving that update, but I am disappointed that the issue has not moved on since I first raised it before Christmas. Does the cabinet secretary agree that one of the key ways to tackle child poverty is through education? If so, should the Government not be moving heaven and earth to collate that information and remove any of the barriers to its collation so that solutions to help children who are missing from education can be found?

Jenny Gilruth

I absolutely agree with the sentiment behind Liam Kerr’s question. Of course, the law in Scotland is slightly different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is one of the reasons why that data measure is not currently captured in the same way in Scotland as it is in other parts of the UK. However, there is an urgency here.

Last year, I undertook greater information collection in relation to persistent absence. We now have the new measure. That data set was introduced in our data for the first time this year. It is important that Liam Kerr recognises that, because we have seen an uptick in persistent absence, particularly post-pandemic, with young people not engaging with the formal education system.

Liam Kerr has raised a hugely important point. I have more detailed data on the legalities involved, which I will write to him about later today. I hope that I can put that on the record to update the rest of Parliament.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for confirmation of the welfare issue that arises from that lack of data. How does she intend to comply with article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child next month, when the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Act 2024 becomes active law in this country?

Jenny Gilruth

I am more than happy to write to Martin Whitfield about the specifics of his points on the UNCRC. It is important that our actions in Government marry up the requirements of that legislation. I will take official advice on that matter, but I imagine that our approach would need to be in line with the UNCRC’s requirements.

Universities’ Activities (Palestine Conflict)

4. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any discussions that it has had with universities across Scotland about how public money is used, including in relation to any activities that may impact the on-going conflict in Palestine. (S6O-03535)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The requirements that institutions are expected to comply with in return for public funding are set out in the Scottish Funding Council’s financial memoranda for colleges and universities. The Scottish Government regularly meets the SFC and Universities Scotland to discuss any issues of importance, including how we can work together to manage public spending to ensure that public money is fully focused on delivering a wellbeing economy.

The Scottish Government’s position on the conflict in Palestine is clear: we call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire by all sides. We expect universities, as autonomous bodies, to have in place measures to safeguard students and staff, and to continue to build interfaith relations on campus.

Maggie Chapman

The minister will be aware of several Palestine solidarity camps on campuses across Scotland. Supported by Aberdeen University Students Association and folk across Aberdeen, the encampment at the University of Aberdeen is calling for the university to divest from all investments relating to the arms industry. No money intended for education should be used to fund war, directly or indirectly. Until it fell at dissolution, the university was using the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, which is anti-BDS—boycott, divestment and sanctions—legislation, as an excuse for not divesting.

I ask the minister to confirm whether the Scottish Government stands by its policy note from 2014, which states:

“Exploitation of assets in illegal settlements ... is likely to be regarded as constituting ‘grave professional misconduct’”.

Does he therefore believe that no institution in receipt of public money should be financially engaged in Israel?

Graeme Dey

I am aware of the campus encampments and fully support their right to freedom of expression.

On the procurement policy note that Ms Chapman raises—I hope that she will realise that procurement is not my area of expertise—the substance of that note remains unchanged. Ms Chapman is correct to say that that means that the exploitation of assets in illegally occupied territories may constitute grave professional misconduct for the purposes of procurement legislation.

Equally, it is true that any decision to exclude a bidder from a procurement process must be taken on a case-by-case basis, be proportionate and be compliant with our international obligations in relation to procurement and trade.

Education (Modern Foreign Languages)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will increase the take-up of modern foreign languages in schools. (S6O-03536)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government is committed to language learning in our schools, which is why, since 2013, we have provided local authorities and third sector partners with funding of more than £50 million to support the implementation of the one-plus-two languages approach. A 2021 survey of local authorities confirmed that pupils across Scotland are now learning languages from primary 1. That is an important change since the policy was introduced 10 years ago.

We continue to promote the uptake of modern languages through the support that is provided to schools by Education Scotland and the funding of the University of Strathclyde, which hosts Scotland’s national centre for languages.

Jamie Greene

In the long distant past, when I was at secondary school, more than 12,000 of my fellow Scots studied a higher modern language. By 2003, that number had dropped to 8,000 pupils. Ten years later, it was 7,000. Last year, just 5,500 students did a modern language at higher level. That is no coincidence, because we have lost more than 500 language teachers in the past decade.

I studied two languages at higher level, which is a bit of a luxury these days. This is a Government that proclaims to be international and outward looking, so how did we let things get so bad in Scotland?

Jenny Gilruth

When the member and I were at school in the dim and distant past, the curriculum required us to study a language up until the end of secondary 4. It was mandated. The challenge that the member puts to me today is about the level of mandating that the Government has in the curriculum. I discussed that with the Education, Children and Young People Committee earlier this year. I will come to the chamber shortly to update Parliament on the Government’s response to the Hayward review.

Let us look at some of the more recent statistics on languages uptake. We have seen entries in the senior phase in national 4 and national 5 increasing between 2022 and 2023, and entries at higher level have remained relatively stable. Entries for the modern languages for life and work award at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 3 and 4 have quadrupled since 2013. Across SCQF levels 3 to 7, entries to all languages qualifications increased by 3.4 per cent between 2022 and 2023. There are signs of progress.

I accept the challenge from the member, and I hope that he also accepts that the wider challenge to Scotland’s curriculum is whether we need to go back to a system that mandates languages learning to a certain level.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The opportunity to study and to go on exchanges abroad is an immense benefit to learning a foreign language, no matter when someone is studying that language, whether it is at school, in the past, now or in the future. However, Brexit has robbed many young people of that opportunity, and the Erasmus+ programme has been axed. Meanwhile, Labour and the Conservatives have rejected the European Commission’s proposals that would have made it easier for young people to study in the European Union up to the age of 30.

What steps is the Government taking to support students who wish to undertake study and exchange abroad?

Jenny Gilruth

Exposure to native voices and the opportunity to enjoy the cultures of different countries are hugely beneficial for language learners. That is why the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the popular and successful Erasmus+ programme was so self defeating. Its replacement, the Turing scheme, is much less effective because it helps fewer students and does not help staff at all. In addition, it does not enable overseas students to come to Scotland.

In 2023-24, the Government has piloted a re-established scheme to explore the opportunities that Erasmus+ provided us with. Although that project will not be able to deliver the full benefits of the Erasmus+ programme, it will support student and staff exchanges and help to develop stronger partnerships between educational institutions.

Violence in Schools (National Plan for Action)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the national plan for action announced in November 2023 to tackle violence in schools. (S6O-03537)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

As Ms McCall will be aware, since I made the announcement in November, I have been working with members of the Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools to develop the national action plan. The plan has been informed by representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Directors of Education in Schools, Education Scotland, the main teaching unions, educational psychologists, and parents and carers organisations. As I confirmed when I met Opposition spokespeople in April, my intention was that the plan be published in late May or early June. However, as the member will be aware, we are currently in a pre-election period, as a result of which I am currently considering officials’ advice on publication timescales.

Roz McCall

As the cabinet secretary alluded to, we are now six months on from the announcement of the plan. However, we are no further forward. I accept that there is a general election going on, but I am still receiving emails that highlight rising instances of violence in classrooms across Fife. A constituent who is also a secondary school teacher got in touch with me recently to say:

“Two of my colleagues have been verbally and physically assaulted in the last couple of days. It is clear that there is a significant problem within all Fife schools at the moment ... pupil indiscipline and the abuse faced by staff is the worst I have ever experienced.”

Given the First Minister’s statement earlier this year that we need to focus on

“what can we do, rather than what can we write down”,

what action will the Scottish Government take to address the issue now? Will the cabinet secretary agree to look at this particular case with me?

Jenny Gilruth

Roz McCall has taken a keen interest in those issues over a number of months, and I commend her for that. On the specific challenge in Fife, a new director of education has recently been appointed there—I know that as a constituency member for part of Fife. I am more than happy to work with Ms McCall on that issue.

The behaviour action plan is part of the solution, but we are talking about achieving fundamental cultural change in our schools. Action plans in themselves do not drive the change that we need. Although they will help to give impetus at national level, we need to see cultural change in our schools in the form of changed behaviour and relationships following the pandemic. I commit to working with the member and meeting her on that.

Prevention of violence is always preferable to mopping up its consequences. What work is the Scottish Government funding to support schools in the prevention agenda?

Jenny Gilruth

The member is right to highlight the role of prevention. That is why, this year alone, we are investing more than £2 million to implement the violence prevention framework to help to divert people from violence. That framework is supporting the Medics Against Violence school education programme to deliver strong anti-violence messages to pupils. It is also supporting mentors in the violence prevention programme to train 1,000 young mentors to provide gender-based violence prevention sessions in schools across Scotland. We will report on the implementation of the framework later this year.

Proposed Learning Disabilities, Autism and Neurodivergence Bill (Discussions)

7. Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, as part of its cross-government support for learning disabilities, autism and neurodiversity, what discussions the education secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding how its proposed learning disabilities, autism and neurodivergence bill will help people into work. (S6O-03538)

The Minister for Children, Young People and The Promise (Natalie Don)

The proposed learning disabilities, autism and neurodivergence bill aims to ensure that the rights of neurodivergent people, including autistic people and people with learning disabilities, are respected, protected and championed. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills supports the bill and the Scottish Government’s on-going work in that area. Officials will continue to explore wider education and employability policy and practice to further support people with learning disabilities and neurodivergent people to access fair and sustainable employment.

Kevin Stewart

I want to know how the Government will ensure that there is a holistic approach across Government—education, health, social care, skills—to create opportunities to allow LDAN people to work. How do we garner the voices of lived experience to get all of that right for people?

Natalie Don

Mr Stewart raises some really important points. A range of policies across Government holistically support neurodivergent people and people with learning disabilities. Those include employability actions under our no one left behind delivery plan, Skills Development Scotland’s work with schools to support young people with additional support needs, and our fair work action plan.

Scottish ministers have also committed to introducing Scotland’s first national transitions to adulthood strategy to ensure that there is a joined-up approach so that all young disabled people can experience a supported and positive transition to adult life. It is an absolute priority to continue to embed the voices of lived experience in our work through public engagement and consultation.

As we have a wee bit of time, I will call Pam Duncan-Glancy for a supplementary.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank you for your indulgence, Deputy Presiding Officer.

The minister is right to point out the importance of transitions for this group of people. Will the minister say, on the record, whether the Government is considering that elements of the transitions to adulthood bill could now be part of the LDAN bill that the Government will bring forward?

Pam Duncan-Glancy will be aware of the most recent update that I have provided on the transitions strategy. I would be happy to update her on the exact points in relation to the LDAN bill in writing.

Free Music Tuition in Schools

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide further details of how it is working to ensure free music tuition to pupils in schools across Scotland. (S6O-03539)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Government has transformed instrumental music tuition in Scotland’s schools by funding councils to eradicate unfair music tuition charges. This year alone, we are providing £12 million to local authorities to support the continued delivery of free instrumental music tuition as part of the record funding of more than £14 billion that has been provided to local authorities in the budget.

The most recent instrumental music survey, which was published in December 2023, shows that the number of pupils participating in instrumental music tuition is at a record high since the survey began.

Foysol Choudhury

Several councils, led by different parties, have cut funding to music lessons, so the Scottish Government’s funds cover the whole cost of lessons rather than just the removal of fees. Councils have control of their own affairs and deal with tight budgets, but can the cabinet secretary outline how a new Scottish education agency will ensure that there is equal access to music tuition across all of Scotland, so that the postcode lottery of music provision does not return?

Jenny Gilruth

I alluded in my original answer to the record levels of funding that the Scottish Government is providing to local authorities at the current time. Part of that funding is, of course, the additionality that we are providing to help provide free music tuition across the country.

Foysol Choudhury’s broader point about the new education agency is an interesting one. I will come to the Parliament to bring forward the legislation, which was introduced yesterday, in due course.

Some of the differences in educational delivery across the country is a matter for members all across the chamber, because our local authorities are entrusted to make the right decisions at local level for the children and young people in their care. However, there is an opportunity to look at greater parity of esteem across the board, irrespective of subject choice. We will need to look at music in further detail through education reform.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

As I know from personal experience, music education is a wonderful way for children to explore creativity and it can open up avenues into careers in the music sector. However, thanks to Brexit, we have witnessed the music sector being torn apart due to lack of funding, opportunities and freedom of movement.

How has Brexit’s impact on the music sector impacted the likelihood of students pursuing music education, and what more can we do to support them?

Jenny Gilruth

We can do a number of things to support them. One of the underpinning aims of the culture strategy is to ensure that those who are motivated to realise their aspirations to have a career in the creative sector are equipped with the skills for success. That includes the promotion of creative subjects at all stages of education and learning, and the demonstration of clear pathways that enable people to succeed.

Brexit has put in place significant new barriers that have had a negative impact on opportunities for creative practitioners, particularly in relation to their work internationally. That is why we are calling on the United Kingdom Government to rejoin Creative Europe and are urging it to engage positively with the European Commission’s proposal to open negotiations on youth mobility.

That concludes portfolio questions on education and skills. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change position should they so wish.