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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 7, 2023


Education and Skills Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by Jenny Gilruth on an update on education and skills reform. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament on next steps for education and skills reform. Members will recall that, in June, I paused the legislative programme that was originally scheduled for this year. I did that for good reason. My engagements with the profession during the past eight months have cemented my view that our education system has fundamentally changed since Covid. Rushing to legislate will not change that. Reform must mean better outcomes for our young people and adult learners. Reform also means that we must take teachers with us. I cannot change our systems without their skills and knowledge and, importantly, their buy-in.

Our education and skills system must work as a single system that is easy to navigate, with collective responsibility to deliver excellence for all. In 2021, the Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which independently reviewed and endorsed curriculum for excellence. That was followed by Professor Ken Muir’s report, the national discussion on education, the review of qualifications and assessment, and our initial response to James Withers’s review of the purpose and principles for post-school education, research and skills. I again thank the reviewers for their reports.

We all accept the need to move on from those reports with tangible action by setting out the steps which are right for our young people and adult learners. To that end, although today’s statement is largely focused on school reform, I confirm to the chamber that, subject to agreement, the Minister for Higher and Further Education intends to update Parliament later this year on our response to James Withers’s review on post-school education.

Reform must be more than the sum of its parts, and it cannot exist in a vacuum. The pandemic changed us all, and the impacts of Covid were arguably the hardest for our youngest citizens. We know that the number of young children in Scotland who are experiencing speech and language delays has increased since Covid. At 27 to 30 months, the proportion of children with a developmental concern in our poorest areas is more than double that of children living in our richest areas. Speak to any primary teacher today and they will tell you about the difference that has come about since 2020 in the young people whom they teach.

That impact was, of course, layered on top of an attainment gap during a cost of living crisis that has delivered the biggest fall in living standards since Scottish records began. That context has fundamentally changed the type of learning and teaching in our schools. It means that teachers are accommodating vastly different needs than those that existed only four years ago. I know that teachers are doing that already—it is what they do—but reform must recognise that shift and it must better support how the profession responds. If reform does not recognise the changes in our classrooms, whether they be in developmental delays, changed behaviour, communication or even attendance, it will not carry credibility.

This is not, therefore, about rebadging organisations. Reform has to be about systemic, cultural change that improves outcomes for our young people and better supports the professionals whom we entrust with their care. To that end, I confirm to Parliament some changes to the governance processes that I hope will bring greater purpose, while supporting a more holistic approach to reform across the portfolio.

I will chair a ministerial group that will advise on the totality of education and skills reform, recognising that it is one system. That will better reflect the totality of the reports that have been published this year, and pull together the opportunity for a joined up system. We will also establish an education and skills reform chief executive forum, to ensure that all the bodies that will be impacted by reform can engage collectively and directly with Government in support of our reform ambitions. Finally, I have been clear that teachers and educators must be directly involved in the governance, to help to deliver the change that is required, through those new bodies, and to ensure that the expertise from the profession drives improvement.

Reform provides us with a unique opportunity to better support the teaching profession and, in so doing, our children and young people. Members will recall that, in June, I announced a review of the impact of the regional improvement collaboratives, and I thank all those who have contributed, including members of the RICs. Since their inception in 2017, the RICs have increased the improvement and leadership support that they provide. Indeed, the most recent evidence suggests that around 17,500 practitioners and leaders across early years, primary and secondary settings have been engaged in regional activities in the past year. However, although their support was never intended to be universal, the number of staff and establishments receiving RIC support in the school year remains a minority.

I am clear that we must deliver a system that provides greater equity in access to improvement and professional learning support for teachers. Regional collaboration is important, and the RICs have helped to embed that culture in our local authorities. However, future Scottish Government investment will now be directed to initiatives that advance excellence in teaching in our classrooms, while looking to local authorities to build on those collaborative approaches.

To that end, I confirm that, for the next academic year, the Scottish Government will taper funding from the RICs and repurpose it to better support teachers in our classrooms. I have asked Education Scotland to review its regional structure, recognising the importance of strengthening the curriculum and professional learning.

I am clear that we have real strengths in Scotland’s education system. For example, one aspect that is close to my own heart concerns the subject specialisms that we have in our secondary schools. That attribute should be celebrated and better supported nationally; it is unique to Scottish education, and we should be proud of it.

In our secondary schools, we have a cohort of teachers who are passionate about teaching their subject. Our national support should build on the expertise that we already have in our classrooms, using that passion to instil the joy of learning that the national discussion spoke to.

There is no greater strength in our education system than excellent learning and teaching. It is crucial to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and I want all Scotland’s teachers to have the space, time and support that they need to develop their practice. I am particularly mindful of the cohort of teachers who learned how to become a teacher during the pandemic, which cannot have been easy.

We know that excellent teaching is already happening in schools across Scotland. Children and young people are achieving and the attainment gap is narrowing, but more must be done to support the profession. Being a teacher is a valuable profession. The new centre for teaching excellence will, therefore, fill an important gap in our national approach to education. It will help us to remain at the cutting edge of teaching practice by distilling research and evidence into practical support for teachers in our classrooms.

I anticipate that the centre will be hosted by a university, learning from the successful model of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, which is better known as CELCIS, and working closely with the Scottish Council of Deans of Education. Being hosted by a university, the centre will link the school sector with the university sector at national level.

Another strength of Scottish education is the independent General Teaching Council for Scotland, which oversees the professional standards that are required to become a teacher. By championing those standards, the new centre will strengthen support for the profession. Crucially, however, the centre must be designed with our teachers. Indeed, the centre needs to help school leaders and teachers to grow professionally throughout their careers. It will provide an opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities in the system, including those of the new education agency.

I recently met with teaching unions and professional associations to discuss more around the centre for excellence. That helped to generate some useful initial insights. Those have also been emphasised in the third report from the First Minister’s international council of education advisers, which I am pleased to confirm that we will publish today. The council states that we must invest in education professionals’ learning

“to address the changing needs of ... young people.”

Establishing the centre for teaching excellence directly meets that recommendation.

The third report from the international council provides a strong focus on improving teaching and pedagogy. The report helpfully synthesises the recent reviews that we have heard about, recognising that there are significant commonalities and that now is the time for implementation, improvement and reform. The international council’s report further supports the focus on improving teaching, professional development, collaboration and innovation.

Today also marks the launch of the consultation on the education reform bill. Building on engagement to date, the consultation sets out proposals to establish a new qualifications body, including the need for greater involvement of pupils, teachers and wider stakeholders in decision making. It also sets out ways to maximise the positive impact of inspection. I would encourage everyone to share the consultation, which is available on the Scottish Government’s website, as widely as possible in order to support that engagement.

Of course, changing the organisations that deliver our qualifications, support and inspection is only part of reform. Since the conclusion of the Hayward review in June, I have been seeking views on the recommendations pertaining to the national qualifications. We undertook a survey with teachers and lecturers on the report, which received more than 2,000 responses. Although agreement on the need for change was clear, there were varying views on next steps, and on the perceived appetite for radical reform.

In that context, I cannot ignore the challenges that our schools are currently responding to, and I must balance that reality with any reform of our qualifications system. With that in mind, I propose—subject to parliamentary agreement—to return to the chamber in the new year to debate the proposals fully. In the meantime, I will engage with Opposition spokespeople on the next steps, to ensure that we use any parliamentary debate to encourage greater support for political consensus.

I am conscious of time, but I want to place on the record my thanks to staff at Education Scotland and at the Scottish Qualifications Agency. I recognise the uncertainty that change brings. The Government has provided a commitment to no compulsory redundancies within the reform agenda, and I commit to fully engaging with both organisations and their respective trade unions, as I have already done.

To coin an expression, reform is a process, not an event. For every ardent supporter of radical reform tomorrow, there are 10 teachers telling me about the other challenges that they experience at the chalkface—challenges that Government needs to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and our trade union partners to resolve.

Covid turned our education system on its head. Overnight, our children were educated behind their screens. The role of the teacher, in that shift, is often forgotten.

We will have professional standards, supported by a centre for excellence that will join higher education with our schools and deliver the improvements that we need to see for our young people, and the teachers in our schools will be supported in the craft that they are trained in delivering.

I look forward to returning to the chamber next year to fully debate our qualifications system. As I do so, I will be guided by the most important principle of all: improved outcomes for our children and young people. That is the prize that reform offers us, and getting it right is absolutely essential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes, after which we will need to move on to the next item of business. Any member who wishes to ask a question who has not yet pressed their request-to-speak button should do so now.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. When we got the Withers and Hayward reviews about six months ago, the cabinet secretary said that she needed time to consider them and many other reports, some of which she has listed, before concluding on a way forward. I think that the Parliament understood that, given that the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland had said:

“confusion and frustration exist in the system due to the large number of external reports followed by the number of recommendations making progress unmanageable, swiftly followed by inactivity.”

I fear that there will be huge disappointment that today’s statement seems to promise more working groups, more discussion forums and probably exactly the sort of confusion and frustration that has been referred to. What might allay some concerns are precise and detailed answers.

With that in mind, can the cabinet secretary tell us who will sit on the ministerial group advising the cabinet secretary on education and skills reform and when precisely the group will report? Who precisely will sit on the education and skills reform chief executive forum, what are the forum’s remits and how much will it cost? Does the cabinet secretary believe that any current secondary pupils will sit assessments under the new qualifications and assessment system?

Jenny Gilruth

Liam Kerr touched on a number of different areas. I will start with the current context because that is really important. He spoke about the update that I provided to the Parliament back in June, on the plethora of different reports that I had on my desk when I was first appointed. I was keen to attempt to knit together a narrative linking those reports. I accept that we are not there yet, and I commit to the Parliament to work with my ministerial colleagues on developing that narrative further. Graeme Dey will come to the chamber later this year to give an update further to the James Withers review.

More broadly, the changes to governance that I have outlined today insert ministerial oversight into the process. It is hugely important that we are not working in silos and that there is a joined-up approach in the Government.

I hear the critique from ADES, which has highlighted the benefits of having a more systemic approach to curriculum review. That is hugely important, and I look forward to meeting ADES on Thursday this week at its conference.

More broadly, on governance structures, the chief executives of the relevant organisations will be represented in the forum. On the reform agenda, I will chair that group and provide direction on how we can tie the agendas together.

Mr Kerr asked a question about secondary pupils and their qualifications. I am not sure that I fully understood his question in relation to the Hayward review, but I would be more than happy to write to him directly.

In all that mix, I am conscious of what has been described to me as the growing appetite for radical reform and of the reality of my discussions and engagement with the profession, who say that there are challenges in our classrooms right now—whether that be behaviour, attendance or other broader issues in that realm—that the Government also needs to address. We need to be mindful of that current context as we move forward.

The approach that we are taking in relation to the education reform legislation is a truncated one. It is a short six-week period. It is important that we get that right, because things have moved on since 2021. Next year, we will move forward with the work to reform the bodies, to ensure that they better meet the needs of our children and young people.

I look forward to working with Mr Kerr on the qualifications issue, because that will be the next step following the change around the bodies and the question about whether we need to fully accept the recommendations that came from Louise Hayward’s review, which would be quite a radical change for Scotland's education system.

I echo the reminder from the Presiding Officer that we do not have any time in hand over the course of the afternoon, so we will have to have tight questions and answers, as far as possible.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I will do my best, Presiding Officer. I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

Reform has been on-going for some time, but all that we really know from today’s statement is that the Government has again delayed reform, that it has set up two new working groups and announced a centre in a press release, that the leaders of the bodies that need reform will lead the new ones, and that the Government has no new plans or next steps to tell us about. Meanwhile, the attainment gap is stubborn, classrooms are like pressure cookers, more and more young people feel unable to attend school and teachers are at bursting point with no reduction in contact time in sight.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm how what she has set out today will improve young people’s life chances while developing their knowledge, skills and attitudes, and how it will improve working conditions for teachers by increasing non-contact time and reducing class sizes? Can she give any reassurance that the new institutions will be any different to the old ones?

Jenny Gilruth

Pam Duncan-Glancy has raised a number of important points. Today’s statement about the consultation that was launched today to look at legislation is an important one. It is really important that we get that right.

The centre for teaching excellence is an opportunity to support the profession better. The member talked about some of the challenges in our classrooms right now: she said that our “classrooms are ... pressure cookers”, talked about teacher time and mentioned attendance. Those are the issues that I must deal with right now, by working with COSLA and our trade union partners, in order to alleviate some of that pressure.

The member’s point about class contact time is absolutely correct, which is why officials have commissioned the additional piece of work, which will report in December, to look at how we can deliver the reduced class contact time that will free up teachers. That is really crucial to developing better teaching practice and allowing teachers to have time and space to reflect on their pedagogy. The centre will have a key role to play in that and I look forward to engaging with the member, and with professional associations, to ensure that that new and additional support for the profession will deliver better-quality support to teachers, where they need it most, which is in our classrooms.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

We currently have inequality between outcomes for the children from our richest areas and those for children from the poorest areas. With that in mind, what role will the centre for teaching excellence play in reducing the poverty-related attainment gap?

Jenny Gilruth

Ruth Maguire has raised a hugely important point. Excellent learning and teaching are fundamental to closing the poverty-related attainment gap. We know from our work on the Scottish attainment challenge and through the people equity fund that additional organisations within our schools can provide lots of different skills, but we must also recognise the importance of quality learning and teaching in our schools and the role of the teacher in that regard.

It is recognised internationally that, along with leadership, the quality of teaching is a key factor in improving children’s and young people’s learning and outcomes within schools. We also know that research evidence shows that the quality of teaching is the most important lever that schools have to improve the attainment of their children and young people.

To answer the member’s question, I say that the centre will ensure that teachers and practitioners are better supported in delivering high-quality teaching in order to achieve the best outcomes for all, particularly those who are most impacted by poverty.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement, which I note says that

“teachers and educators must be directly involved in governance”,

that Scotland’s teachers must

“have the space, time and support they need”,

and that we must support

“the teachers in our schools with the craft they are trained in delivering”

Scottish Conservatives have been calling for some time for increased autonomy for headteachers, which would do all that, so how is the Government actually planning to achieve that? Does the cabinet secretary agree with our proposals about headteachers and our new deal for teachers?

Jenny Gilruth

I must confess that I am not familiar with Roz McCall’s proposal for a new deal for teachers, nor with the one about headteachers. However, I am perfectly prepared to engage with the member on that issue, because she makes a hugely important point.

Roz McCall spoke about the importance of engaging teachers in the process. I fully support that, which is why the consultation document that has been published today asks for direct feedback from teachers about how that can be better supported and accommodated within the new structures that will exist. We must use the professional expertise and knowledge of those who work in our classrooms to support the new organisations better. There is a real opportunity through reform, and particularly through the consultation process, to do just that.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Professor Ken Muir describes Scottish education as “complex and interconnected”. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that the consultation document gives confidence to external stakeholders that change will be co-ordinated across all education and skills bodies?

Jenny Gilruth

Michelle Thomson has made a hugely important point, and the link that she makes in relation to the “interconnected” and “complex” system that was cited by Professor Ken Muir is hugely important. Pulling together the outputs from four reports is particularly challenging and cannot be done in one parliamentary statement. That is why Mr Dey will be coming forward later this year, and why I intend to have a wider debate on that at the start of next year.

The measures that are set out in the consultation document allow us to unpick some of the opportunities, which a previous member alluded to, in relation to how we can better engage the profession in ensuring that we drive improvement across the reform process.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary talked about the launch today of the education reform bill. She will be aware of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the process that the Scottish Government is undertaking on that. Will she take this opportunity to confirm that she will use adoption of legislation under the reform bill, rather than amending UK legislation, so that it becomes UNCRC compliant when it is passed?

Jenny Gilruth

Martin Whitfield has made a really important point. I will just confirm that the bill is not being published today; it is the consultation document.

However, on the point that the member made about the UNCRC, I must put on the record that that work is being led by my colleague Shirley-Anne Somerville, so it is a matter for another cabinet secretary. However, I look forward to engaging with her on that point, because Martin Whitfield makes a strong argument in relation to that opportunity.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary highlighted the impact of the cost of living crisis. Does she share my concern that, as we undertake the reforms and do everything that we can to give our children the best start in life, the impact of decisions that are made at Westminster, which are pushing children and families into poverty, will continue to be felt in our education system?

Jenny Gilruth

Fulton MacGregor has made a really important point. We cannot divorce decisions that are taken at Westminster from the impact that they have in our classrooms. Before children have crossed the school gate, some of the impacts of those decisions are already felt in relation to those children’s upbringing, how their families have experienced the world, and the benefits that they might or might not be entitled to.

The Government has spent significant finance on mitigating the impact of UK Government policy decisions, whether that is the bedroom tax, for example, or the benefit cap more broadly. Over the past six years, that mitigation has included £733 million of payments through activities such as our discretionary housing payments and the Scottish welfare fund. Those are hugely important investments from the Scottish Government, but that money could have been better spent on core services including health, transport and, of course, education.

Willie Rennie joins us remotely.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Today’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report states:

“The need for change is clear and expectations are high”.

I am afraid that the education secretary’s statement appears to duck all the big questions. On skills reform, there will be a statement later this year. On qualifications reform, there will be a debate next year. The only thing that is new today is the abolition of the centrepiece of John Swinney’s reforms from the previous parliamentary session.

I recognise the pressures regarding behaviour, the attainment gap, attendance and so on, but those are reforms for the future and they will take time to implement. What further information is the education secretary looking for to enable her to provide the leadership that Scottish education needs?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Mr Rennie for his question, which went round the houses a wee bit.

Nonetheless, on the question how we can move things forward, the legislative agenda, as I updated Parliament in June, was delayed for a year. It is important that, before we take the legislation forward, we check where we are in relation to the roll-out of the new organisations. We have truncated the consultation process by six weeks, which is important. I hope that the member will help us in supporting engagement on the consultation document. It is important that we get it right.

However, I am conscious, as I outlined in my response to Liam Kerr, that the reality that our schools are facing at the current time is very challenging. I go back to the point that I made in my initial statement—that reform is a process, not an event. We have to take the profession with us. We need to make sure that reform is going to meet better the needs of our children and young people. That is what I am committed to and that is what the member will hear from me, in terms of leadership.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I welcome the decision on regional improvement collaboratives, in particular. For six years now, there has been a frustrating diversion of resources away from schools and classrooms, where they were really needed.

The cabinet secretary mentioned hearing from young people. Could she confirm that young people’s voices will not just be heard as part of the reform process, but that the new structures that are to be established will permanently embed a space in which young people’s voices are heard, and that they will be the voices of young people themselves, not just those of adults advocating on their behalf?

Jenny Gilruth

Some of the challenges that Ross Greer mentioned and alluded to in relation to the RICs are ones that I have heard being played back to me by the profession during my engagements in recent months.

In relation to the voices of young people, I look forward to engaging with young people directly on the consultation document in the coming weeks. We are having a round-table event to that end. The member’s point about embedding the learner voice is absolutely pivotal. It is among the recommendations that we have accepted as a Government, and it will be built into the governance process of the new bodies.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Following on from the points that were made in that last question, as well as discussing the involvement of pupils, the cabinet secretary spoke in her statement about “teachers and wider stakeholders” in relation to the consultation. Can she say anything more about harder-to-reach groups that she might be seeking to consult, including people with additional support requirements and, perhaps, families who are not very engaged at the moment?

Jenny Gilruth

I have done quite a bit of engagement in relation to additional support needs—in particular, in our schools. We know that more than a third of children and young people now have an identified additional support need. We are looking to engage directly with campaign groups on the issue, and it will be critical to embed those voices through the governance process.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

In your statement, cabinet secretary, you talk about more committees and more working groups being set up, but I contend that everyone is now looking for action. You said that you will engage with Opposition spokespeople on next steps to allow for greater political consensus, yet we are starting that exact exercise at the Education, Children and Young People Committee tomorrow. I find it extraordinary that you have made that decision in a vacuum.

Please speak through the chair.

That circumvents the committee process, rather than waiting for the outcomes and the evidence that will be taken. What were you thinking, cabinet secretary?

Please speak through the chair.

Jenny Gilruth

I am sorry, but I fail to understand Sue Webber’s question. I would be more than happy to attend her committee tomorrow, although I have not received an invitation. I am not sure about the decision to which she is alluding. The decision on legislation was taken in 2021, I think, and I took a decision in June to delay that legislation. Today, I have given an update in relation to the consultation. I am more than happy to attend the committee to talk to members about next steps and about reform more broadly, but the announcement today is not new, in terms of reform.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary has stated that the centre for teaching excellence will rightly be designed together with teachers. On collaboration, what role will local government play in the centre, given the role of councils in delivering education?

Jenny Gilruth

Mr Macpherson raises a really important point, because it is, of course, councils and not the Scottish Government that run our schools. It is hugely important that COSLA is part of the buy-in to the establishment of the new centre and that councils see a role for their own participation, with support for their staff.

My officials are setting up a series of engagements to hear from teachers and the wider profession, local government and national education bodies, in line with the commitment to co-design the new centre. We will, of course, draw on the expertise of teachers and practitioners in that process, and we will work with COSLA and colleagues across local government to ensure that the centre is designed with them. I met representatives of COSLA only yesterday to discuss the matter in a little more detail, and I have sought joint oversight of the centre itself by COSLA and the Scottish Government, working closely together. That fundamentally recognises their role in delivering education locally.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I did not have the advantage of seeing the statement ahead of hearing it, but I heard the cabinet secretary say something about taking resources and putting them on to the front line and into classrooms. I very much welcome that, and I appreciate that we need to listen to teachers and to act to support our teachers.

I wish to ask the cabinet secretary about the centre for teaching excellence that she announced at her party conference, and which she has mentioned today. How much of the functionality of the new body will be moved from Education Scotland? Once that has moved to the centre for teacher excellence, what will be left that Education Scotland will do? Is there scope—

Cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Stephen Kerr for his question. I miss Stephen Kerr: I used to enjoy debating with him on a regular basis.

The member raised a really important point about the need to listen to teachers. He knows that I spend a lot of my time in schools: I want to bring some of teachers’ frustration to the fore, but I want also to try to support them better. That is what the centre is fundamentally about.

In response to the member’s question, I note that this is not about Education Scotland. It will not have a role, to my mind, in relation to the centre itself, which is a new body. That is why I outlined that some of the funding will move from the regional improvement collaboratives to the centre itself. Of course, Education Scotland will itself be replaced through the reform process, which is quite separate from the centre for teaching excellence.

That concludes this item of business.