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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Scottish Education System, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, #IWill Week 2022


Scottish Education System

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07111, in the name of Stephen Kerr, on the state of the Scottish education system. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is my privilege to move the motion in my name, which speaks to what I believe is the most important thing over which we have power in this Parliament—Scotland’s education system and the future of our children and our country.

I have said before in the chamber that the gift of a Scottish education is the most prized gift that Scotland can give to her children, and that our education system is central to our national identity. Our education system gives confidence to our young people to move forward. It thrives on innovation, sparks entrepreneurship and extends equal opportunity to all—which is the very definition of levelling up.

We have an educational tradition that makes us feel proud of our Scottishness, which is why you, Presiding Officer, should expect to hear strong words and emotion from Conservative members this afternoon about how our education system has been maltreated by the Scottish National Party. Its end-of-year report card reads, “Must do better”.

The Scottish Conservatives have education at the heart of our political philosophy because education must be a golden ticket for every individual to live the life that they desire to live. Equal opportunity to succeed in life is at the core of Scottish Conservatives’ vision of the Scotland that we want.

Inspirational teachers are crucial to education, and the Scottish Conservatives are standing up for Scotland’s teachers. I know how much I owe my teachers. Mr Mitchell, who was my history teacher at Forfar academy, fired my enthusiasm for history. Mrs Skinner, who was my English teacher, told us that, if we wanted to develop any kind of vocabulary, we should read The Times at least once a week. That was sound advice, indeed.

We owe so much to our teachers, but we also have a responsibility to them. For the first time in 40 years, teachers in Scotland are taking industrial action. They are frustrated. The teachers whom I speak to do not want to be on strike, but want to be in the classroom, doing what they trained to do and what they love to do—teaching our children.

However, they expect to be respected. They deserve to be treated fairly, and they have been waiting eight months for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to get serious. Shirley-Anne Somerville has made a total mess of the situation. She has blamed the teachers, she has blamed the unions, she has blamed local councillors and she has even blamed the United Kingdom Government. According to the cabinet secretary, the only innocent party in the dispute is herself. A situation that should have been resolved months ago is unresolved, and the buck stops with Shirley-Anne Somerville.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Stephen Kerr has not yet said whether a better pay increase should be offered, although that is what he is implying. I understand that teachers have been offered a starting salary of more than £35,000, which seems to be reasonable. Will the member put a figure on what he wants their salary to be?

Stephen Kerr

If I was at the negotiating table, the dispute would have been resolved months ago—[Interruption.]—but the cabinet secretary with responsibility to be at the negotiating table has failed to resolve the dispute and is intent on blaming everybody else for the dispute, including the teachers themselves.

Stephen Kerr did not answer the question. If he was at the negotiating table, what would he offer, and where would he take the money from in the education budget?

Stephen Kerr

I think that the cabinet secretary might have got things the wrong way round. She comes to Parliament to be held to account by the members of this Parliament. I ask her: what exactly is she doing to bring the teachers’ dispute to an end? That is far more pertinent than asking me what I would do. I ask, “What are you doing, cabinet secretary, to end the dispute?”

There have been nearly 75,000 reported incidents of violence or serious threat against teachers in the past five years, of which more than 20,000 were in the previous academic year alone.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In February, I raised in the chamber a survey that said that nearly half of our dedicated hard-working teachers in Aberdeen were considering quitting due to the levels of violence that the member has just mentioned. A fortnight ago, I raised the issue of teachers at Northfield academy deciding to take industrial action for the same reason. While he was researching for today’s debate, did Stephen Kerr come across any evidence that the Government is doing anything to help teachers in Aberdeen as a result of my questions?

Stephen Kerr

I think that my friend already knows the answer to that: there is no evidence of anything happening.

I will tell members what the current level of reported incidents of violence and threat amount to. There is an incidence of a teacher in Scotland being attacked or threatened every three minutes. By the time we finish this debate, 40 such incidents will have been recorded. Teachers who are striking at Northfield academy and Bannerman high school do so because they feel vulnerable, unprotected and unsupported by the Scottish National Party Government.

All that the cabinet secretary does is pass the buck. The SNP has cut deep into the resources of local government, and it is up to the SNP to reorder its political priorities, to properly fund resolution of the disputes, to end defunding of local government and to put resources back into the classroom.

There has been a 15.6 per cent cut in additional support needs teachers since 2012, despite there having been a 92 per cent increase in demand. Teachers are run ragged and are unsupported by the specialists that they need. What will the cabinet secretary do to protect and support our teachers? What will she do about discipline in our schools?

Will the member give way?

Stephen Kerr

I will not give way. I have taken a number of interventions.

The SNP is leaving many newly qualified teachers without jobs. Of nearly 1,800 probationers from 2012, only 400 had a permanent contract last year, and 400 were so scunnered that they had left teaching altogether. That is a tragic waste of talent. How on earth does the cabinet secretary think newly qualified teachers can get on with the rest of their lives or plan for their futures when they do not even have a permanent contract? How does that make teaching in Scotland the attractive career that we all need it to be? Why is the cabinet secretary not banging the table to fix the problem?

The SNP likes to pretend that it is succeeding on attainment by focusing on the attainment gap, but, writing in The Sunday Times in June, Professor Lindsay Paterson criticised the SNP’s approach and showed that the marginal gains in narrowing the attainment gap were only a reflection of

“a fall in attainment at the top end”.

It is not so much about levelling up as it is about levelling down. He also said that today we know

“less ... about the performance of Scotland’s schools than at any time since the 1950s”.

The SNP has taken us out of the international comparison tables on attainment—it is so reluctant to face reality that it simply does not measure attainment. Therefore, I ask the cabinet secretary to commit today to putting Scotland back into those international comparators so that we can learn how we are doing for our young people and our children.

The First Minister said that her neck was on the line and that education is her “sacred responsibility”. It is a shame that she did not even bother to turn up this afternoon for a debate on education, which is rare enough in the parliamentary timetable. However, it is no wonder, because what little data we have illustrates just how much the SNP is failing.

Fewer pupils at primary school are achieving the expected curriculum for excellence levels in reading, writing, numeracy, listening and talking than was the case in 2018. That is pretty much every subject area at primary school. That is not a debating point, or a matter to cover up or evade by dissimulation: it is a national disgrace and a scandal. Will the cabinet secretary tell us what she will do to address overall attainment in our schools, which has been made worse by her Government’s inaction?

Another critical challenge that we face is availability of subject choice across all parts of Scotland. We are falling behind on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with uptake of those subjects being at a five-year low. There has been a dramatic fall in the number of people studying modern languages, especially French, German and Spanish, compared with other parts of the United Kingdom. What is being done to recruit teachers in STEM subjects and modern languages? What is being done to promote and facilitate subject choice and to attract more pupils into those subject areas?

The First Minister decreed that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority are to be scrapped. No one, least of all the leadership of those bodies, whom I have ever spoken or listened to in those organisations seems to be at all prepared to accept that they have failed. Now—surprise, surprise—those selfsame people are designing the new system. Only the SNP could create such a Lilliputian scenario.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Does Stephen Kerr agree that it was disappointing to see in the Scottish Government’s announcement last week that the new body will retain awarding and regulation of qualifications? Where is the change and the hope for a better future?

Stephen Kerr

That is further evidence that the Government and the cabinet secretary do not listen. All the advice is to the contrary of what the Government announced last week.

What the cabinet secretary needs to understand is that being seen to do something is just not the same as doing it. I ask again: why are there 59 people on the reform delivery bodies—predominantly from the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and the SQA—but only three places for teachers? Why does that all sound vaguely familiar, like a game of musical chairs? Why is the cabinet secretary so afraid of new voices and new thinking in education reform? Did she even consider getting new people in?

Scotland needs teachers who are confident, held in high esteem and free to teach. It needs headteachers who are free to lead their schools and it needs pupils who are free to learn without disruption in the classroom. Scotland needs schools that inspire and uplift our young people to be all that they can be in life. If we get those principles right, we will succeed in vitalising our education system.

I hope that, when she stands to speak, we might see a cabinet secretary with some passion and reforming zeal, who will deliver an articulate vision of what Scottish education should be that goes beyond the normal SNP complacency and self-congratulation. Let us hear answers to the serious questions that I have asked in my speech and let her acknowledge the real challenges that we face. Then, let us work across Parliament to tackle them together.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that access to a first-class education is the right of all children; notes that teachers have been neglected and let down by the Scottish Government, that young people, from early years education to further and higher education, have suffered from failures in government, and that the people of Scotland have been let down by the undermining of an education system of which they were once proud; believes that, through badly-drawn reform, inaction and a failure to innovate, the Scottish Government has fundamentally undermined the education system in Scotland, meaning that action is required now to address these problems, and calls on the Scottish Government to urgently outline a new education plan with a focus on respect for Scotland’s teachers, opportunities for its young people and growth for the whole sector, so that education in Scotland can once again be the best gift for its children.

I call Shirley-Anne Somerville to speak to and move amendment S6M-07111.3, for around nine minutes.


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

Scotland’s learners, parents, carers and everyone who works in education have been through an extraordinary period over the past few years. They deserve our thanks and admiration for everything that they have achieved against the challenging backdrop of the Covid pandemic, the drive towards recovery and now the cost of living crisis.

Notwithstanding the significant challenges to our education system, I see first-hand examples, day in, day out, of teachers, childcare practitioners and lecturers who go the extra mile to support our children, young people and adult learners in their learning journey to ensure that they thrive and achieve positive destinations.

Scottish education is performing well and is continually improving, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the education workforce. Teacher numbers are at their highest since 2008, with the number of primary teachers at its highest since 1980. The pupil-teacher ratio is the best on record, and we have the highest spending per pupil within the UK nations. Moreover, the latest figures show that, at 93.2 per cent in 2020-21, we have more school leavers in Scotland in education, employment or training nine months after the end of the school year.

Progress is being made in closing the attainment gap and outcomes are improving. Scotland is the only part of the UK to offer the equivalent of 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare to all eligible children regardless of their parents’ working status, putting children first.

Internationally, Scottish education is viewed as high performing by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which recently reviewed and endorsed curriculum for excellence. Meanwhile, the 2018 programme for international student assessment—or PISA—study ranked Scotland among the top-performing countries in young people’s global competence.

Scotland leads the European Union in having the highest proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 who are continuing their education.

On the PISA figures, does the cabinet secretary not recognise that there is a long-term trend of decline in literacy and numeracy in our schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I recognise that we are continuing to strive to do better in literacy and numeracy. The achievement of a curriculum for excellence level—or ACEL—statistics, which are coming out next week, will show how we have dealt with the challenge of Covid and how we are moving to recover from it. We need to do more in that area, particularly because of the Covid pandemic, but I hope that we will see improvement. In any case, we will need to wait for the statistics to come out next week to see whether that is indeed the case.

We know that we can—and must—do better, which is why I have embarked on a wide-ranging and ambitious programme of reform. Even though we start from strong foundations, I know that there is no room for complacency if Scottish education is to improve and adapt to meet the challenges ahead. The world around us has changed beyond recognition over the past few years, and our learners and the people who support them deserve a system that is flexible enough to suit their needs.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

On that point, does the cabinet secretary not recognise the contention that people have made with regard to last week’s announcement that the new exam body will both award and regulate qualifications? Where is the improvement in that decision?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There is an important reason for that decision. Although I saw Ken Muir’s point and where he was coming from, we must recognise that, in effect, his recommendation would have meant accreditation being moved within Government to be delivered by civil servants. Accreditation must be independent of Government. When we looked at the detail of the recommendation, we saw that some of that independence would have been lost.

Therefore, as we move forward on this, my challenge to everyone in the chamber is this: how can we make this more independent of Government? How can we take on the challenge that Ken Muir gave us? Unfortunately—and I say this respectfully—we will have to do it in a different way, because, if accreditation had been moved with regard to the new agency, as was recommended in the initial report, we would have lost that independence.

Will the cabinet secretary give way?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

If Mr Rennie will forgive me, I will make a bit of progress.

With the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I co-convened the national discussion on a vision for Scottish education, providing an opportunity for everyone who is passionate about education to shape a consensual vision for the future. I hope that Mr Kerr took the opportunity to take part in that; I do not know whether he took up the invitation, but it was made to party spokespeople.

I have been humbled by the number of children, young people, early learning and childcare practitioners, teachers, lecturers, support staff, parents, carers and others who took the time to consider what they value about education in Scotland and to give their views. More than 5,400 responses were received, and 26,000 young people took part in online school assemblies, ensuring that the voices of learners will be at the heart of the reform.

However, although the national discussion is the biggest listening exercise that has ever taken place in education, listening is just the first step and, if we are to truly meet the needs and aspirations of our learners, we need to build a consensus for change. Therefore, although the national discussion will provide a compelling long-term vision for education, it is important that we immediately start to work towards that vision. As a result, when it is published next year, the vision will be accompanied by calls to action that set out short, medium and long-term activity, to allow us to start to bring the vision to life.

In October last year, it was announced that Professor Louise Hayward would lead an independent review of qualifications and assessments to ensure that our approach remains fit for purpose and to guarantee the best educational experience for learners. Understanding the views of everyone in the system will be vital in shaping the future of our approach to qualifications and assessments. Professor Hayward is engaging widely and a public consultation is under way. It is an important exercise, and I hope that as many people as possible will share their views. Professor Hayward will also consider carefully the views and ideas that have emerged from the national discussion and incorporate those, alongside her work, into a final report that I look forward to receiving next year.

The reform of our national bodies will ensure that our education system supports learners to thrive, providing them with the best opportunities to succeed. We are establishing three new national education bodies, and work is under way to design how those bodies will be structured. It is vital that the new national bodies reflect and deliver change in how our education system supports education staff and children and young people. For example, the independent inspectorate will be able to provide all those with a stake in education, including Parliament and ministers, with objective assessments and analysis of our system’s strengths and opportunities for further improvement that draw on a sufficient baseline of inspections.

Stephen Kerr

Does the cabinet secretary accept the criticism that has been levelled at those piloting the reform bodies that this is the same crew who were in the key positions in Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other bodies—and, indeed, in the Scottish Government? Where are the new voices? Where are the new ideas? I also recognise that the cabinet secretary is seven minutes into her speech and she still has not mentioned the pressing issue of the teachers’ dispute.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have on numerous occasions made very clear to Parliament my position on the teachers’ dispute. The last offer—the fourth offer—that was put to teachers was fair and affordable; the 10 per cent ask from teaching unions is unaffordable. Mr Kerr had the opportunity to suggest how the Conservatives would like to move forward with that and, funnily enough, he had absolutely nothing to say on the matter.

I will make the decisions about what happens in the reform process with regard to the national bodies, and I am determined to move forward with that. The target operating models that will be developed will, of course, be available to everyone for consultation before I make the final decisions on those matters.

For example, we will see a more accountable and more representative governance structure in the new public body that is responsible for education. We will see a new agency for education that will be about what teachers want rather than about what Government wants all the time. That is an important change that we will make.

There is also the consultation on our shared framework on the inspection of early learning and school-aged childcare settings, which is due imminently, and the work on the purpose and principles of post-school education. All of that, accompanied by the independent review of the skills delivery landscape, represents a package of reform, built around the national discussion, that will ensure that our education system is fit for purpose and fit for the future. Most important, it will have learners at its heart.

I sincerely hope that members from political parties across the chamber, particularly those taking part in today’s debate, took part in the national discussion. They were all invited along to meet our co-facilitators and to take part in a consensual way so that we could deliver policy together. As I have said, I certainly hope that they took that opportunity. Instead of there being statements to Parliament alone, this is an ideal time for people to get involved and seize the opportunity to work together in a national discussion. I hope that members have done so.

I move amendment S6M-07111.3, to leave out from “that access” to end and insert:

“that all children, young people and adult learners have the right to a first-class education; recognises that there is much to be proud of and to celebrate in Scottish education; commends the hard work of all staff and teaching professionals in Scotland's schools, colleges, universities and early learning and childcare centres, and welcomes the comprehensive programme of reform underway in Scottish education, which includes the National Discussion to shape the future vision for Scottish education, the independent review of qualifications and assessment, the establishment of a new independent inspectorate, a new national agency and a new qualifications body, plans to expand Scotland’s early learning and childcare (ELC) offer, the introduction of a new shared inspection framework for early learning and childcare (ELC), the development of purpose and principles of post-school education, research and skills, and the independent review of the skills delivery landscape.”

I call Michael Marra to speak to and move amendment S6M-07111.1.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Today, we are debating Scottish education with schools across Scotland closed as part of the first on-going national teaching strike in 40 years. That disruption and loss of learning lands on a generation that has already lost so much to the pandemic, the real impact of which the Government continues to refuse to quantify and for which a new response is deemed unworthy of countenance.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Does Michael Marra agree that the achievement of curriculum for excellence level statistics that will be published next week, and the work around the health and wellbeing census, allow us to look at what has happened and see what action needs to be taken?

Obviously, I have not seen those statistics. If the cabinet secretary wanted to talk about them in any detail, she could have brought them with her to Parliament today.

I could not. They are not published yet.

Michael Marra

Maybe the cabinet secretary has not seen them—let us wait and see what they say. I hope that there will be a statement on the statistics when they are produced and that we can have a debate in Parliament as a result, if she is promising that that discussion will happen.

Hear, hear!

It is with the business bureau.

There are three different conversations going on, which is two too many. Mr Marra, please resume.

Michael Marra

Strike action is a failure on the part of this Government. Its public pay plans and industrial relations are pitiful. They are characterised by bad faith and a lack of professionalism, which is illustrated by what was quite literally a last-minute offer—it was emailed to the Educational Institute of Scotland at 4.29 pm when its pay committee was meeting at 4.30 pm. That offer had sat on the cabinet secretary’s desk for three and a half weeks.

Nobody on the Labour benches dismisses the challenges of meeting public sector pay demands with inflation running at horrendous levels due to the grotesque economic incompetence of the Conservative Government. However, we should all expect those challenging negotiations—I understand that they are challenging—to be conducted professionally and in good faith. The cabinet secretary knows that a fair deal will have to be done, and the sooner that happens, the better for pupils across Scotland.

The warm words in the Government amendment about our teachers are not borne out in its actions, just as the list of working groups and reviews do not add up to a proper education policy that can transform the lives of our children and build the stronger Scotland that we need for the decades ahead.

In each budget cycle—we are in the depths of one right now—this cabinet secretary and her ministers comprehensively lose the argument for education inside this sclerotic Government. There have been cuts to school budgets, cuts to colleges and cuts to universities—and they comprehensively fail the test of leadership, too. Colleges are crying out for a decision of any kind whatsoever as to what they should be doing.

What do they get? A coherence review, to be followed by a statement of intent, to inform a purpose and principles plan—all impenetrable babble. What does it actually mean? I will translate: it means that the Government does not have a clue what it is doing.

That is illustrated by the fact that the skills review that is lauded in the Government’s amendment is happening only because Audit Scotland was utterly damning of the lack of any ministerial direction. The Government does not have a clue about what it wants to achieve. The core STEM subjects that will provide the bedrock for any future prosperity are in long-term decline, with dropping teacher numbers, dropping student numbers and dropping levels of attainment. The situation is urgent—that is happening now. Where is the response? Unfortunately, the issue has been filed under “Too difficult”.

The Government does not have a vision or a purpose for education in Scotland, so it is little wonder that the reform programme for our national education bodies that we have been discussing is collapsing into the rebranding exercise that we always suspected it would be. That process is being run by the managers of Education Scotland and the inspectorate and, of course, the SQA.

Maybe the cabinet secretary does not hear the young people of Scotland. I have been involved in the national conversation on a day-to-day basis—I have visited schools and spoken to teachers and pupils, and have engaged with them in the Parliament each time the opportunity has arisen. I can tell the cabinet secretary just how angry young people are about what happened to them over the pandemic. I am talking not only about the ones whose appeals for exceptional circumstances she chucked in the bin; I am talking about how they were all betrayed by their qualifications agency and by the incompetence of a Deputy First Minister who lurched from one mess to the next, time and time again.

Ken Muir was absolutely clear in his report, which we all said that we would honour, that public faith in the qualifications agency was of the utmost importance and that people must have confidence in the process and in the outcomes and the certificates that should be a passport to a better life. As Liz Truss learned to the cost of all of us, with any currency, confidence is everything. Ken Muir’s key recommendation to rebuild confidence was to separate regulation and accreditation from the awarding body.

Therefore, the cabinet secretary’s reaction, which she has laid out further today, is scarcely believable. Under pressure from the managers who are calling the shots, she bends to their will and refuses to take the key decision; instead, she backs the status quo and more of the same.

Will the member take an intervention?

Michael Marra

I will—in a second.

That betrays the same lack of understanding of what has happened that was displayed by her predecessor. They got it wrong—they got it all wrong, year after year, in the pandemic.

Stephen Kerr

I am astonished, as I am sure that other members will be, by the lacklustre speech that we heard from the cabinet secretary. Does Michael Marra agree that she seems to be a prisoner of the worst side of the Scottish education establishment?

Michael Marra

What I can say is that there is a real need for change. We must understand, as I think that everyone who looks at this in good conscience would understand, that the reform process that we are in cannot be a cosmetic fix. It cannot simply involve new logos being put on the business cards above the same old names. We cannot allow the new qualifications body to mark its own homework. The change must be real, and it could not be more needed.

Despite the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s calls, there has been no proper assessment by the Government of the impact of the pandemic, yet we see the consequences everywhere. Key groups of young people—pupils in P3 and P4 and in S2 and S3—are adrift, and teaching staff are struggling to cope. There have been riots in Kirkton in Dundee and Niddrie in Edinburgh and disruption across Scotland. Police have said directly that we have a cohort of kids who have lost years of structure and community, and love and care, as a result of lockdown and isolation. What have we had in response? There has been no concerted response and no support for our schools or colleges. We have heard not a word. Where is the plan?

Attendance is down across the country. Where is the plan to re-engage? East Lothian Council has started a programme with Edinburgh College to work intensively with families. What is the national response?

The future of this country depends on the decisions that our education ministers make. The greatest economic levers that are available anywhere are in their hands. We have a small window to make good the harm of the pandemic, but that window is closing.

I move amendment S6M-07111.1, to insert at end:

“; recognises that strike action by teachers continues across Scotland; calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that negotiations urgently progress to ensure a fair pay deal and minimal disruption to pupils’ learning; notes the widespread disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic to education; calls on the Scottish Government to urgently carry out a full assessment of the impact of the pandemic so that pupils, parents and teachers can receive the support that they need; notes the increased absence rate of pupils from Scottish schools, and calls for an action plan to aid re-engagement; notes the decline in the number of STEM teachers in secondary schools, and asks for an update from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills on what actions are being taken to reverse this decline, and believes that the Scottish Government should reform Scottish education by implementing the recommendations of the Muir report.”


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The poverty-related attainment gap is as wide as ever. Hundreds of teachers have been on zero-hours contracts for years on end and even more are leaving the profession for ever. We face an exodus of staff from private and voluntary nurseries because of Government-directed inequality of funding. There have been violent attacks on teachers. The number of pupils who are taking exams in STEM subjects is declining. There are big shortfalls in STEM teacher training recruitment.

Scottish universities are more dependent than ever on tuition fees from international students, despite the vulnerability that comes with global turbulence, and they are losing hundreds of millions of pounds of UK research funding. The skills landscape is still being reviewed five years on. The higher education minister has been criticised by Audit Scotland for a lack of leadership on skills. Colleges still do not know what Government wants them to do. By having Thatcherite national testing and league tables, the SNP is ignoring teachers, the Greens and this very Parliament. The SNP still has not learned that one does not fatten a pig by measuring it.

We had a Covid exams debacle that undermined the judgment of teachers and condemned poorer pupils. Pupil equity funding has been used to pay the police, and we have underresourced reform of additional needs. The SNP is keeping the SQA and Education Scotland in all but name—they will now even share the same offices.

To top it all, teachers are striking on pay for the first time in 40 years. The last time was when the Conservatives ran Scottish education—four decades ago. It was that long ago—even I was at school the last time we had a strike.

The SNP is bereft of ideas. The vision that the education secretary set out today was a rosy picture, but it was so far removed from reality and the daily experience of teachers and pupils in this country.

All of that has taken place since Nicola Sturgeon made education her defining mission. Once the pride of the nation and highly regarded across the globe, our education system has, in the past 15 years, been slipping down the international league tables. Now the First Minister has made it a whole lot worse. The flagship education bill was ditched and replaced by a basket of contradictory and knee-jerk measures. The First Minister put her most senior ally in charge of education; now, John Swinney is back in his old job. Education was her number 1 priority; now, Nicola Sturgeon hardly even talks about it.

It is a terrible record, but it is not the Scottish ministers who have lost out—a generation of young people have lost out, and the SNP should be ashamed of that record.

Members know that I like to be positive. [Laughter.] We need an alternative approach to the miserable performance of the SNP Government. So, what to do? We must start by valuing teachers with decent pay, better working conditions and trust in their judgment with a new McCrone agreement: the same one that reformed the profession under the last Labour-Liberal Democrat leadership.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The member mentioned teachers’ professional judgment several times. We are looking at a new national qualifications framework for attainment. How much should we move from exit exams to accreditation from teachers? Looking at that balance would be a positive, constructive contribution to make to this debate, rather than just offering soundbites.

Willie Rennie

It is hardly a soundbite to set out the atrocious record of the member’s Government. He should be ashamed that he supports the Government day in, day out. I want to take part in the debate and I am listening very carefully to the approach that is being taken. There are innovative ways through which we can change how we do exams and qualifications and the years at which they take place. That requires decent consideration, but that is not a replacement for a proper strategy on the Government’s wider responsibilities on education. We need to make the curriculum work with specialist advice and support for classroom teachers, which has been absent for years, since curriculum for excellence was established.

We must abolish national testing and reform exams and qualifications so that they match the curriculum. We must elevate the prestige of vocational qualifications, which we have tried to do for decades. We need to learn the lessons of Germany on those reforms.

We need to reform the age at which children begin formal education at school, in line with SNP policy—I seem to support SNP policy on that more than the SNP Government does.

We must create new national, independent education bodies, which have the trust of teachers because they are led by teachers, following the recommendations of the Muir review.

My colleague Beatrice Wishart would like the Government to explore making swimming a key part of the curriculum, just as has happened in England. That is incredibly important for our young people.

We must provide clarity for our colleges, with an urgent statement of intent that includes comment on their central role in training and retraining for the new, sustainable economy.

We must hold a national review of our universities and set a long-term, sustainable approach. We must create the new Scottish Erasmus without further delay, following the Welsh model—Taith—which is up and running and offering opportunities for young people.

We must reform the funding for early years, to ensure that all staff are paid fair and equal wages, no matter who their employer is.

Those are all positive proposals for our future. Liberal Democrats believe that education is the great leveller, the opportunity provider, the economic driver and the society maker. That is why we need a Government that prioritises education—rather than the miserable record of the past 15 years. Let us have a change, with a new vision and new leadership.

I move amendment S6M-07111.2, to insert at end:

“; acknowledges the hard work done by teachers, support staff and all those working in Scottish education; affirms that this work must be properly valued, with teachers given fair pay and provided with better working conditions; believes that national testing for primary one pupils must be scrapped; further believes that pupil equity funding must be used to close the poverty-related attainment gap, not fund the police; considers that colleges urgently need strategic direction from the Scottish Government; further considers that universities need a national discussion to address current threats; takes the view that staff in private and voluntary nurseries deserve fair pay, and believes that Scottish education must be a new national priority to make it the best again.”

We move to the open debate. Speeches of six minutes, please.


Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

When parents send their children to school, they want three things. First, they want their children to be able to read, write and count properly—and I will not let anyone tell me that that is old fashioned. Secondly, they want good-quality discipline, and, thirdly, they want their children to have a well-rounded education, inside and outside the classroom. Of course, all that depends on good-quality teaching.

I do not think that any of that is too much to ask, so, when Nicola Sturgeon told education leaders on 19 August 2015 that education was her number 1 priority, I agreed with her. I agreed even more when she reiterated that commitment six months later and told us that a new education bill was forthcoming, which would promise greater devolution to schools. Maybe—just maybe—the collective findings of the Donaldson, McCormac, Cameron and Bloomer reports into Scottish school education, which were all carried out between 2011 and 2016 by experts in their fields, were beginning to sink in.

Those reports had found that Scottish education, despite all the things on which it could pride itself, needed to be shaken out of its complacency and moved on. Incidentally, the Howie report had said exactly the same thing, two decades earlier.

Of course, the reports had appeared around the same time as the OECD, the Scottish survey of attainment, the programme for international student assessment—PISA—Reform Scotland and Scottish Government statistics had all produced compelling evidence that Scottish attainment was flatlining and—worse—that the attainment gap between rich and poor was widening, thereby disadvantaging large numbers of young people, which was fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of good Scottish education that had once been renowned around the world.

Let us be clear. The principles of that Scottish education articulated well with curriculum for excellence, as set out by Peter Peacock.

I was even more encouraged in 2017, when Nicola Sturgeon proclaimed that, as part of the programme for government:

“A new education bill will deliver the biggest and most radical change to how our schools are run”.—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; c 13.]

In an article in Scotland on Sunday, Nicola Sturgeon went as far as to say that the London model of cluster schools was worth looking at, because it was delivering good results for more disadvantaged pupils.

John Swinney, reflecting on the poor performance of a particular local authority, told us that

“the status quo is not an option.”

What on earth went wrong in the SNP high command? Why, after the successive tenures of Fiona Hyslop, Mike Russell, Angela Constance, John Swinney and, now, Shirley-Anne Somerville, and after all the professional advice that we have received, are we failing to deliver better outcomes?

For me, it comes down, mainly, to three things. First, teachers have been significantly undervalued as key professionals. At the time of his review, Graham Donaldson had interesting things to say about that, particularly as he noted that too many teachers were reporting that they felt uncomfortable about gaps in their professional training. Of course, it does not help when the number of cases of verbal and physical assault is soaring, as Stephen Kerr has said.

Secondly, the Scottish Government has shown an extraordinary unwillingness to properly reform the education agencies. It should not just rebadge them—Michael Marra made some excellent points on that—or move the deck chairs around a bit, but properly reform them to reflect the support that is available to teachers. No one can argue that Education Scotland and the SQA have had a happy history in recent times. Indeed, when I was on previous education committees for a substantial number of years, hardly a parliamentary term went past without committee members’ attention being drawn to significant problems in the agencies that meant that teachers felt remote from and frustrated by those agencies. That can never be a blueprint for a successful education system.

Thirdly, I want to mention lack of rigour, which comes back to the structure and delivery of the curriculum. Back in 1992, Professor John Howie reflected on the abiding strength of the breadth of Scottish education in relation to English education, but he also wanted to see a European-style baccalaureate that introduced much more depth and rigour to assessment in the Scottish system. We should have listened more to what he said.

The Scottish Government, through Mike Russell, attempted a Scottish baccalaureate, but it never took off, because of its weak structure and poor uptake by Scottish pupils. Part of that issue has manifested itself in the problems of subject choice, which was debated many times in previous Parliaments on the back of Professor Jim Scott’s work. In one of those debates, John Swinney told me that, if we counted the subjects that are on offer in Scottish schools, we would find that we have more now than we had before. He was right if he used that accounting method, but he cannot deny that subjects in arts, social sciences and science have been very badly squeezed, which has brought about further difficulties in the curriculum.

It is all very well having good skills—they are important—but, if people do not actually know things as well, those skills are not much use. There is no getting away from the fact that the quantitative and qualitative evidence tells us that Scottish schools are stuck in a rut when it comes to raising attainment across the board. That has happened on the SNP’s watch for a very long time, and the longer that the rut persists, the more it shows that there is a fundamental problem.

Far too many children remain functionally illiterate, which is a major concern to employers, and that is despite more public spending per pupil. However, it is not about the money; it is about the system. We have a huge opportunity to get our education system right. We need an all-round vision for Scottish education that will not only suit the economy but promote a fair-minded and ethical society in which pupils and teachers are valued for who they are. We need an education system in which every individual is encouraged to reach for the stars, and we need schools of ambition in which, every step of the way, we promote excellence rather than the lowest common denominator, which is far too often the trademark of education policy.

I remind members that speeches should be up to six minutes long.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I always welcome the opportunity to debate Scottish education in a constructive spirit, but I must reflect on the unremittingly negative approach of the Tory motion. There is such a lack of acknowledgement of the excellent work that is done by teachers, the incredible achievements of pupils around the country and the international standing of our further and higher education institutions. One must assume that the goal of such a motion is not to improve but to undermine, and not to support or sustain but to insult and injure.

As recently as 8 November, Stephen Kerr said in the chamber:

“We have one of the best-educated populations in the world”.—[Official Report, 8 November; c 79.]

He went on to say that we have always been at the forefront of innovation and development, but that is surely as a result of Scottish Government policy. I am not angry but very disappointed in the wording and tone, among other things, of Mr Kerr’s motion.

Will the member take an intervention?

Kaukab Stewart

I am going to crack on for a little bit.

Education—in Scotland and the UK—is facing huge challenges, which have been made worse by soaring inequalities, the continuing effect of the pandemic, the appalling state of the UK economy and the devastating effect of inflation on Scottish Government budgets. No government can or should evade responsibility for delivering for its citizens but to ignore the context that a government is operating in, or the success that is being achieved in the face of it, is unacceptable.

The OECD values the Scottish education system highly, describing the curriculum for excellence as

“a holistic, coherent, and future-oriented approach to learning”.

Other countries are adopting that approach because of the value that it delivers. We must also remember that, across the board, exam pass rates have increased this year compared with the most recent exam diet in 2019, including A-grade passes; skills-based qualifications are close to the highest-ever figure; positive destinations for school leavers stand at 93.2 per cent; and nine out of 10 headteachers agree that improvements have been made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap despite the impact of the pandemic.

Michael Marra

The member rightly cites the challenges of the pandemic, to which I do not believe there has been any kind of coherent response from the Government, but does she recognise the long-term decline in PISA outcomes for reading, mathematics and science that Scotland has faced for a decade under this Government?

Kaukab Stewart

I recognise that the poverty-related attainment gap is incredibly stubborn and requires measures that consider poverty as a whole, with social policy and health policy working with education.

I make no apology for listing policies that the Scottish Government has implemented to mitigate the effects of Tory austerity on education—

Will the member give way?

Kaukab Stewart

I will continue.

The policies include attainment challenge funding of more than £1 billion over this parliamentary session; 1,140 hours of quality early learning and childcare; the roll-out of digital devices for every schoolchild; the expansion of free school meal provision; an increase in school clothing grants; and investment in the school estate. [Interruption.]

On the day that this year’s exam results were published, I read a tweet from my colleague, Michael Marra, who wrote:

“Congratulations to all young people receiving results today. Whether celebrating or slightly down at heart please know that there are endless possibilities out there for you.”

He went on to say:

“Your achievements are also masking real problems in our education system.”

I would suggest that young people’s achievements, far from masking problems, reflect their own efforts, the quality of our education system and all those who work within it. I would further suggest to Mr Marra that the “endless possibilities” that he refers to reflect the Scottish Government’s commitment to making higher education free for young people, supporting our colleges sector and delivering foundation and modern apprenticeships.

Will the member give way?

I will.

Briefly, Mr Marra.

Michael Marra

Does the member not recognise that the young people who are achieving those qualifications are doing so in the context of a decline in the number of teachers under this Government and a compression in the number of subjects that they can choose in their schools, as well as the huge impact of the pandemic? That is the context that I was talking about and the challenge in Scottish education policy to which this Government refuses to rise.

That was quite a long intervention.

Kaukab Stewart

The member knows fine well that we have the highest number of teachers that we have had for many years—since at least 2019, I believe.

Turning to our higher and further education sector—

Will the member give way?

I am going to carry on. [Interruption.] Presiding Officer, I will continue in the face of—

Ms Stewart, on the basis that the previous speaker went 45 seconds over their time, I will give you the same courtesy, so you have 45 extra seconds.

Kaukab Stewart

I am very grateful for that, Presiding Officer.

In 2020, the University of Glasgow was named Times Higher Education university of the year. It is currently in the top 100 in both Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds world rankings. This year, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which is in my constituency, was also ranked as one of the world’s top destinations to study the performing arts in the QS world rankings. It came 5th out of more than 15,000 university programmes at more than 1,500 universities.

The City of Glasgow College has retained its STEM-assured status for the next three years, having once again met and exceeded the UK STEM Foundation’s rigorous accreditation criteria.

Having started at the chalk face myself—

Ms Stewart, you need to bring your remarks to a close.

Kaukab Stewart

I do not want to finish without pointing out that I sympathise with teaching unions in their pursuit of a pay claim. I know that nobody wants to strike, and I urge all parties to work to find a compromise that is sustainable and fair.

I offer the Scottish Government—

Ms Stewart, I have been very generous; you must conclude.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, because I regularly raise issues about our current approach to education—not least with regard to education’s recovery from the impact of Covid, through my work on the Covid-19 Recovery Committee.

Scotland is governed by two Governments. The Scottish Government has direct responsibility for education—I will come on to talk about that—but we also have a Government in Westminster that has, in the main, direct responsibility for the economy. Therefore, having read the motion that was lodged by the Tories, I must say that I am surprised that they have done so without at least acknowledging the impact of failed Tory austerity on education, and of the current crisis in the economy that was made in Downing Street and is wreaking havoc on public services, including education.

Liz Smith said that it is not about the money. I respectfully disagree. The briefing that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities sent out today is very clear about what the detrimental impacts will be on education if the cuts that are currently proposed go ahead.

If extra spending per pupil has always gone up, why is it that we are not improving the attainment level, if it is not all about the money?

Alex Rowley

I will come on to talk about that, but I have an example about class sizes. Last year, I put in a freedom of information request to Fife Council about the number of children in classes, which showed that some classes were way over the maximum. The data from Fife Council showed that local primary schools have 412 classes with more than 25 pupils in them and 136 classes with more than 30 children in them. When my granddaughter was at school and was struggling with maths, we spoke to her teacher about it and she said that the class had 32 children in it, so she just did not have time.

The Educational Institute of Scotland has been calling for class sizes to be cut for years and it is right to do so, but that would cost a fair bit of money at a time of further Tory austerity, which we face because the Tories tanked the economy. They have a bit of a nerve to come here and point the finger at one Government when, clearly, both Governments are responsible, and given the level of cuts that have been made.

It is a fact that, during the austerity years, the SNP disproportionately cut the amount of funding that went to local authorities. Given that about 50 per cent of local authority budgets go on education, it is hardly surprising that cuts have been made. When I was the leader of Fife Council, cut after cut was made as a direct result of the cuts that we faced from the Scottish Government, which had been passed on to it by the Tories.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am grateful for the opportunity to give some local government finance statistics. They show that local authorities spent £6.4 billion on education in 2020-21, which was up from £6 billion in 2019-20. That was a 6.8 per cent increase in cash.

Alex Rowley

It is about having the ambition to improve education. I believe that education in Scotland has gone backwards, and I have heard that at first hand fae the communities that I represent, but the cabinet secretary just shook her head and did not acknowledge that that is the case.

Children who go through the primary school system and then go to secondary school lacking basic skills in numeracy and literacy have been let down. They are deemed to have failed at every step of their way through the education system, and will come out the other side unprepared for the world of work. They then have to take low-paid, low-skilled jobs. I believe that the cabinet secretary’s amendment does not acknowledge that.

The Government must address the teachers strike. A question was asked earlier about how that would be paid for. It is about priorities; the Government chose to prioritise other things over local government funding in the past. We cannot continue with the strikes that are damaging the education of children who have already been damaged by the effects of Covid. It is the cabinet secretary’s responsibility to find a solution; she cannot run away from that. Our children need to be in schools, getting an education, and it is the cabinet secretary’s role to address that.

I will make some points about STEM, which I have raised with the cabinet secretary on a number of occasions. In 2011-12, the percentage of pupils who were achieving a higher in mathematics was 24.1 per cent. That fell to 22.6 per cent in 2018-19. In biology the percentage fell from 12 per cent to 10 per cent, chemistry went down from 13 per cent to 12 per cent, and there were similar trends in geography and other subjects. We have to acknowledge that there has been a failure in STEM subjects.

I make that point not to criticise, but to say that, if there is a problem, we need to understand what it is in order to fix it. I say to the cabinet secretary that we have a problem in Scottish education. We need to address it; self praise will not achieve that. She should acknowledge the difficulties, work with other parties and let us get the problems sorted.


Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

In preparing my speech, I was slightly tempted to opt for a lazy cut-and-paste approach, because it is not so long ago—69 days, to be precise—that we last debated education in the chamber. So much for education debates being a rarity.

When I read the Conservatives’ motion, it genuinely felt like groundhog day, because it bears considerable similarity to Stephen Kerr’s opening speech at the end of September. In contributing to that debate, I praised the approach that was being taken by the Education, Children and Young People Committee as a genuine cross-party endeavour to interrogate the condition of our education system in a balanced way, giving credit where it was due and criticism where and when it was merited. I bemoaned the lack of a similar approach being adopted in the chamber where, regrettably, oppositional politics overtakes an offering of measured and balanced analysis. I acknowledge that Alex Rowley’s contribution stands in contrast to that.

As I said then and repeat now, on education as in other things, the Scottish Government is not perfect. Yes—sometimes SNP members need to acknowledge that: the cabinet secretary has acknowledged the need for improvement. However, nor is a motion such as we are debating warranted. By treating education as a political football, politicians let down those who are seeking the best from education—be they parents, pupils or professionals.

It is interesting that my contribution back in September secured a ringing endorsement from none other than my good friend Stephen Kerr. He said:

“I completely take on board the message that he”

—that is me—

“imparted in his speech.’’—[Official Report, 29 September 2022; c 99.]

Well, that Damascene conversion to adopting a considered and reasoned approach did not last long, did it? Here we are, less than 10 weeks on, and we are debating a motion that reads like a rant. That is in marked contrast to the positivity that I pick up on when I visit schools across my constituency. Of course, things are not perfect in education; there are challenges to be faced and changes that need to be made. However, there is much to celebrate in our education system.

Stephen Kerr

Graeme Dey makes a fair point, as usual. However, in my speech, I laid out what the problems are and asked what I think were reasonable and serious questions about serious issues, and I ended with a call for us to unite to work together. That depends on the Government’s willingness to accept that there are challenges and problems that we should work on. We continually get nothing but self-congratulation, which does not create the right environment for a debate in the chamber.

Graeme Dey

If that is how Stephen Kerr interprets his earlier contribution, he is no loss to the diplomatic corps, that is for sure.

As I said, there is much to celebrate in our education system. Over the past few months I have visited a large number of schools in my constituency, and the ethos and spirit in those schools is in marked contrast to the depressingly negative Conservative motion.

We have heard a lot of negativity today, but let us look at something else. In 2007, when the SNP came to power, just 61.6 per cent of Scotland’s schools were in good or satisfactory condition. The most recent available figures show that that number has risen to 91.7 per cent. That is a fact. In Angus, the amount is 94 per cent. We would all agree that good-quality teaching environments for our kids and our teachers are important. I have seen enormous progress being made in my constituency. In fact, Forfar academy—Stephen Kerr’s old school, which serves some of my Sidlaw constituents—now has a brand new community campus and, at long last, we are in the planning process to give Monifieth the state-of-the-art secondary school that it deserves.

Let us be clear: the credit for those advances does not rest with the SNP Government alone. Those builds and others before them were delivered in partnership with local authority administrations of various political colours. However, I say to Opposition members that, if they are going to criticise the SNP Government’s record on education, they should at least recognise at the same time the success stories, which include bringing in excess of 1,000 schools up to an acceptable standard.

We must also recognise that, just as credit for those advances is due jointly to the Government and councils, responsibility for delivery of school education—and, therefore, the accompanying credit or criticism—is also to be shared. The Government might set the strategic agenda, but local education departments and individual schools deliver it. If schools and councils are, rightly, praised for positive exam performance, it surely follows that, when things are not going well, responsibility for that also lies at their doors. I contend that that is specifically the case with regard to threats and violence that are directed at teachers and reporting of those events.

Although my speech has been largely focused on schools, I recognise that there is a bigger picture. I am pleased to serve on the Education, Children and Young People Committee, which has, in addition to the work that it has done over recent months on considering progress around the attainment challenge, been looking at challenges that face universities and colleges. I suspect that there will be future opportunities to explore those topics in the chamber. I look forward to that and hope that we can do so in a measured and balanced way, setting aside the theatre that too often overshadows genuine interrogation of matters here.

In conclusion, I say to Opposition members that their criticisms of the performance of the Government on aspects of education would be more credible if they could occasionally bring themselves to acknowledge the many positive achievements. Their demands for money for education, in all its guises, at a time when the Scottish Government is under such pressure, would also carry some credibility if, once in a while, they would identify where the funding could be sourced from.

In the case of the Tories, a dose of self-awareness would not go amiss, either, given their woeful mismanagement of the economy and the impact that that has had on the financial position that the Scottish Government finds itself in, with all the implications that that has for education.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

First, I declare that I have a daughter who is a secondary school teacher. If we are going to be thorough, I should also say that I have a daughter in third year at secondary school.

I am delighted to be back in the chamber debating education—a subject that, as many members know, I believe links directly into my previous portfolio: health. I have often said that I think that education is the solution to our health and welfare issues.

I have listened to the cabinet secretary and her colleagues, but I have to say that they are hiding from reality. Let us pause and reflect on what teachers tell us that they are having to deal with at the moment. They are way overworked, they are so bogged down with administrative duties that many have to work on into the night, they are short staffed and they are having to deal with a growing mental health crisis in the classrooms. Many teachers are going off with stress, heaping even more pressure on staff. It is a vicious circle that the Scottish Government does not want to acknowledge.

I spoke to a concerned teacher who said that the unprecedented numbers of pupils who are presenting with poor mental health is so high that they are worried that they will miss a sign, which will lead to a tragedy. That is a dreadful cloud for teachers to have to work under.

Education used to be the Scottish Government’s number 1 priority. “Judge us on education,” said Nicola Sturgeon. By any measurement, however, this Government is failing our teachers and our pupils. We start from a position of having 815 fewer teachers than there were when the SNP came to power. Nineteen per cent of teachers are on a temporary contract, and that figure has risen steadily from 12 per cent in 2012.

I would like to discuss the opportunity to reset Scotland’s education system so that we deliver skills and opportunities based on future needs. Given our 2045 net zero target, delivering on the economics of environment and climate change is important and it should be a priority. The green economy should be embedded in our education system but, on examination, we find that that is not the case. Scotland has some of the best wind resources in the world—there has been much discussion of that recently—but, in relation to the development of the technology, our wind turbines are imported and the servicing skills for those turbines are far too often imported, too.

Why are we not leading the world in the development of such technology? Given Scotland’s long and celebrated engineering heritage, how can the Scottish Government justify importing so much of the green energy technology and skills that are needed for us to hit the 2045 net zero target? Why are our schools and colleges not properly resourced to deliver those skills?

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry report “Manifesto for Clean Growth”, which was published in 2021, notes that shortages in green skills present the biggest challenge to clean growth, and given today’s scathing Climate Change Committee report, which notes the lack of any progress by the Scottish Government on its climate change targets, perhaps it is about time that we started considering outcomes instead of creating soundbites.

In my region, engineering apprenticeships are readily available, but there is a lack of take-up, which means that companies are required to search overseas to fill apprentice places. Why do our pupils feel that they cannot fulfil those important roles?

It would not be right for me not to mention the importance of extracurricular activities. I often note that a big difference between private schools and state schools is that, if I walk past a private school, I notice that the pupils are tripping over cellos and hockey sticks. There is the same level of teaching and teachers, but those pupils have more opportunities. Scottish Conservatives would close the attainment gap by offering those opportunities for all. When will the Scottish Government work out that it is failing because of inequality of opportunity?

I say to the member that the statistics show that, in private schools, the teacher to pupil ratios and, indeed, the support teacher to pupil ratios are far smaller than they are in our schools.

Brian Whittle

Alex Rowley is absolutely right, but private schools also provide an awful lot more opportunities outwith the standard curriculum, which broadens the education system.

In the previous parliamentary session, the SNP said that education would be its main priority but then promptly dropped its education bill from its programme. That bill would have provided an opportunity to reset our education system for the future and to develop the skills and resources that are needed to deliver on our children’s ambitions. Instead, we have a teacher shortage, with teachers stretched to capacity; we have an underfunded further education sector; and we have a Scottish Government that is unable to join the dots and link future job demands to educational output.

If we want to tackle Scotland’s poor health record, we should invest in education. If we want to grow our economy and deliver a more prosperous Scotland, we should invest in education. If we want to tackle welfare issues or criminality, we should invest in education. If we are to succeed, surely education must mirror the job requirements of the future, with resources to match.

Education is so much more than maths and English. It is about life skills, creating enthusiasm, showing our young people what is possible, pushing back boundaries and inspiring people. Our teachers could do all of that if the Scottish Government would let them. It should let teachers teach, give them the tools and support them, because they deserve to do what they are trained to do. Is it not about time that education was finally made the Scottish Government’s priority?


Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I will speak to the Scottish Government’s amendment but, as a preamble, I advise members that, many moons ago, I was a secondary teacher of English. I am notorious for my pedantry. I correct those who say “less” instead of “fewer” or “disinterested” instead of “uninterested”—I will give lessons later.

Incidentally, I went on strike in the 1980s, when inflation was running at above 23 per cent. I was married to an assistant head, and I had two sisters who were primary teachers—one on Orkney and the other in Ayr. Our generations of teachers continue, as my niece is a deputy head of a primary school. I therefore have high regard for the profession, and not only as a parent and grandparent. I have became accustomed to having my ear bent on all matters from those at the chalk face.

Although we obviously disagree on many aspects, as is evidenced by the motion and amendments, I think that we all agree that all children, young people and adult learners have the right to a first-class education, and we commend the hard work of staff and teaching professionals in Scotland’s schools, colleges, universities and early learning and childcare centres. That hard work was particularly tested during Covid, which proved the dedication of the profession. Teaching was adapted and moved online, individual teachers went to households to provide lesson materials, and staff kept schools open, exposing themselves to Covid in doing so.

I will now speak about how important education is in helping children to make the most of their talents in a comfortable environment and, in particular, helping the least well off. The mantra is “closing the attainment gap”, but in my book it is about closing the poverty gap. In 2022-23, Midlothian has received £174,000 or so in pupil equity funding and Scottish Borders has received £225,440, with more to come in successive years. That money supports qualifying children from primary 1 to secondary 3.

However, there is support even before that, starting with pre-school. The first intervention is the baby box, which is delivered to all who request it and is filled to the brim with high-quality items. Its percentage take-up is in the upper 90s, and it demonstrates the value of a child in tangible terms from the very start, because education starts at birth.

There is then the provision of 1,140 free hours of nursery, and we move on to free school meals for all P1 to P5 pupils and free bus travel for all under-22s. I say “free”, but those are choices that the Scottish Government has made about expenditure in order to provide as level a playing field as possible for young people. A hungry child will have difficulty with learning. With free bus travel, children have chances to access out-of-school activities, which are all part of education in its wider sense. Tuition fees were abolished in Scotland, whereas in England a student, if they are not well-heeled, will leave with almost £30,000 in debt at the end of a three-year degree course.

Why should we focus on poverty in an education debate? It is because, although schools and teachers will do their utmost for every child, if a child is living under stress in their household because of poverty and shortages of food and warmth, it will be hard for them to learn. That is why the Scottish child payment, which is now £25 a week for every child under 16 in a qualifying family, is so significant, and it is even more so when it is combined with the other Scottish benefits that I have listed. Some £84 million has been paid out since the payment was introduced.

If the Tory UK Government was to reinstate the £20 per week uplift to universal credit, that would give Scottish families a further £780 million, thereby lifting 30,000 children out of poverty. I ask members to think about the difference that that payment would make, bearing in mind that most people who claim universal credit are working, and the fact that it would ease the financial concerns of households and children.

We also need to have decent school buildings, which is not easy in a time of raging inflation that impacts on, for example, materials. In the Borders and Midlothian, three new secondary schools are on the cards at Galashiels academy, Peebles high school and Beeslack, just outside my patch. However, none of those schools will be built under the disgraceful public-private partnership or private finance initiative routes, which were introduced by the Tories and unhappily continued in Scotland under Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They have left councils carrying millions of pounds of debt, with the most costly borrowing possible.

In 2021 alone, the cost of those extravagant contracts to Midlothian Council was £11 million, or 12 per cent of its education budget. In Scottish Borders, the most recent figure is £9 million, which represents 8 per cent of the education budget. That is money wasted.

I will finish where I started, with teachers. In the current harsh economic climate, which has been exacerbated by Tory mismanagement, Boris, Truss and Brexit for starters, I understand the demands for pay rises. As members in the chamber are aware, teachers know that the Scottish Government has a fixed budget—it was fixed when inflation was around 3 per cent, not 11 per cent—and that increased salaries mean cuts elsewhere. I therefore hope that a middle ground will soon be found.

I note that Stephen Kerr would not answer the simple question of how much should go to the teachers and from which budget. His contribution—I think that it is appropriate to say this in a debate on education—was

“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

That is a quote from “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5. I thank Ms McGuffie, circa 1960, who is still fondly remembered for compelling us to learn all of Shakespeare’s soliloquies.


Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The widespread disruption to education as a consequence of the pandemic cannot be underplayed, and the impact of that continues today. Schools reopened, but challenges of attendance and engagement remain, with impacts often most keenly felt by the most disadvantaged groups. We have also seen falling teacher numbers, regular reports of challenging behaviour in classrooms and increasing demands being placed on teachers and school staff.

During the pandemic, I urged the then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to commit to an equity audit when pupils returned to schools, to identify where most support was needed so that that could then be delivered. The audit highlighted particular negative impacts for early primary pupils and for those moving from primary to secondary—both key transition points in a child’s education. It also revealed that higher numbers of pupils from less advantaged backgrounds were showing regression in literacy and numeracy.

The Scottish Government has a responsibility to ensure that the additional gaps in learning that stem from the pandemic do not result in further disadvantage or widening of the attainment gap, by providing immediate support measures and addressing the underlying causes of poverty.

Our amendment calls for a further assessment to be made

“of the impact of the pandemic so that pupils, parents and teachers can receive the support that they need.”

In some ways, the debate has moved on from the pandemic, but its impact on young people and children will last for a long time. We cannot underestimate that impact or forget about it. It is clear that, beyond the wider consequences of Covid, there are particular impacts on young people and children in schools, and we need targeted action to address those. Absence rates continue to be a challenge and we need a re-engagement plan to be put in place.

The equity audit also highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children. Although I note the inclusion in the national discussion on education of a question on support and care for young people, we need the provision of services that are related to mental health and to emotional and social wellbeing to be increased now.

I recently asked the Scottish Government about access to school counselling services. With around 12,000 children and young people accessing such services in the last six months of the past year, the demand for them is clear. Those valuable services are often delivered by counsellors on fixed-term contracts. We need certainty for them and for the pupils they are supporting that the funding will be continued. Such services are an example of why we cannot develop, support or look at education in isolation. Education must be connected to other policies and budgets, and school counselling services are a good example of how that can be done. We need a guarantee that the funding support that is provided through the mental health strategy will continue next year.

Alongside the on-going impacts of Covid, the current cost of living crisis is also being felt keenly in our schools. NASUWT carried out a survey in autumn in which 65 per cent of respondents said that more pupils were coming to school hungry; 58 per cent said that more pupils did not have the equipment that they needed for lessons; and 55 per cent said that more pupils’ families were unable to afford a school uniform.

Christine Grahame has spoken about the bigger picture and the economic levers that need to be used, and the cost of living crisis extends beyond schools and education. Specific action must be delivered through schools to address that so that the situation does not further deteriorate or have a negative impact on young people’s education. We cannot have children going to school without the food, clothing and materials that they need.

I recently visited Fair Isle primary school in Kirkcaldy to see the community shop that it has set up in response to the increased cost of living that parents, carers and pupils face. The shop is run by staff and parents, with donations coming from local businesses in the community as well as from larger retailers, and it aims to provide clothing, cleaning products and food for free or for a small donation. It is a really good example of the community and the school coming together to provide support to families—support that people can access without judgment. It demonstrates the need for such support, as well as the valuable role of schools in providing for families beyond education.

The significant declines in literacy and numeracy that we have seen pre-dates the current crisis and the pandemic. Teacher numbers have fallen significantly since the SNP took office, and the impact in a number of key subject areas is clear. Teacher shortages put further pressure on existing staff as well as limiting subject choices for pupils, which can have a knock-on effect on options for future study or work. In STEM subjects, we have seen a drop in teacher numbers of more than 500 since 2008, with impacts on the number of pupils who take those subjects. Those subjects are critical for our major industries, which are already facing skills shortages. Brian Whittle raised those issues, and my committee—the Economy and Fair Work Committee—consistently hears that message about skills shortages.

We need to ensure that our schools offer the qualifications and skills that are needed to grow key sectors in our economy, but that cannot be done if teachers are not in place. We are also seeing a fall in the provision of language courses, and there are questions about how we can deliver the future skills that are needed for a sustainable economy that is based on green jobs.

We need to put in place a coherent skills strategy that works with education pathways to deliver the skills that our economy requires, as well as providing the opportunities and capacity for people to reskill and upskill throughout their lives. Lifelong learning used to be a touchstone of this Parliament, but the contraction in the college sector has really brought an end to that ambition.

With further strike action tabled, the Scottish Government needs to act quickly to resolve the situation with teachers and provide them with a better pay deal so that further disruption to education can be avoided. If we truly value those workers, they deserve more than kind words; they deserve improved pay and conditions that recognise their vital role in society.


Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Teachers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, politicians, engineers, architects, journalists, civil servants, advisers, consultants, farmers, producers and people in just about every other occupation or job that exists in society today share one common need in these times, in this century, and that is the need to be able to communicate in writing, and to do so with reasonable speed and accuracy.

To reach our true potential, that ability can be developed only really by acquiring the skill of keyboard technique, or touch typing as it is known, and employing that marvellous invention from 1868, the QWERTY keyboard. It has been around for more than 150 years—I have mine here, Presiding Officer—and, as I am sure all the well-educated and intelligent members in this particular audience know, it is called that because the first six letters on the top of the three rows of letters are Q, W, E, R, T and Y.

Fifty years ago—I remember it well—very few people were required to touch type. In fact, it was really only shorthand typists, who would often type a letter that was dictated by their boss. Incidentally, the typist’s skill was probably far superior to his. In those long-forgotten male chauvinist days when women were expected to do the menial work that was, in fact, highly skilled, typing was the exception and not the rule, and very few people had that skill. However, now, everybody is expected to be able to communicate in writing.

The cabinet secretary has probably heard my plea to her today several times, because I am like a cracked record. I must pay tribute to her, as we had a very pleasant meeting in which she courteously listened to what I had to say. However, I have not quite got there yet. As we know from the story of Bruce and the spider, persistence often pays off. In fact, as the American President Calvin Coolidge once opined,

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.”

I therefore make no apology for persevering with my attempts to persuade her.

My plea is that we introduce, perhaps as a pilot in one education authority—I know that the director of education in Highland is not unsympathetic to the idea—a properly supervised training programme to teach our young people how to acquire this skill. I submit that, perhaps more than any other skill that I can think of, the skill of touch typing would equip them for the rest of their working life—in my case, it has been more than 45 years—to perform to their absolute maximum potential and produce work at up to three times the speed of those who have to hunt and peck for the right keys.

The skill is called “cognitive automaticity”—I am not very keen on jargon, but I thought that I would try to impress members with my knowing such a phrase. Cognitive automaticity is the skill of doing something automatically, without thinking about it. I did not mention that phrase to show off that I knew it, but to make the point that when someone can touch type, they do not need to think about how to write—their whole mental focus is on what they want to say, which means that their mental attention is not diverted from the primary task of focusing on what they are trying to achieve.

As colleagues might recall, I raised that point when I was on the Education and Skills Committee, and the response of what I would call the education establishment was somewhat underwhelming—I do not want to be too negative, so I will just leave it at that. Its first argument against my point was, “Oh well, voice technology will replace that”. I say that it will not, because you need a written record of things. Voice technology does not work very well at the moment and, although it might work in the future, it will never replace having a written record. Its second argument was that kids could learn to touch type by themselves. I say that they cannot—they might think that they can, but they cannot and do not, and, if they do, they do not learn it properly. All that is required is 15 to 25 hours of supervised training—15 to 25 hours is an investment for the next 45 years.

There is evidence from Holland that kids who learn to touch type perform better—I will not read out the quote because I do not have time. The British Journal of Educational Psychology—not my usual reading, but nonetheless—states that kids who do not learn how to type perform less well. The absence of that skill is damaging to children’s education.

I thought that I would just change the mood of the debate today, and I hope that I have done so.

Will the member take an intervention?

I do not think that I have time.

I am afraid that the member is just winding up.

I am very sorry. I would have taken it, but—

I will talk to you later.

That’s a date, as they say.

I commend touch typing to the cabinet secretary, and I hope that she will seriously consider what I have had to say.

Thank you, Mr Ewing. I never thought that I would have to reprimand you for waving your keyboard around as a prop.


Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I fear that my contribution might be a bit jarring after the last one.

I am somewhat grateful to the Conservatives for having given us the chance to debate education today, but I have to say that their motion is a complete waste of Parliament’s time. This was an opportunity for Stephen Kerr to dazzle us all with his grand vision for Scotland’s schools—either to put forward an alternative to the Government’s reform agenda or to detail what specific shape he thinks those reforms should take.

Instead, we are debating a motion that is full of relentless negativity and not a single proposed solution. Bizarrely, the one demand in the motion is for the Scottish Government to bring forward an education plan. From Mr Kerr’s opening speech, we get the impression that he has hardly noticed that the biggest set of reforms in at least fifteen years is under way: Education Scotland is being reformed; a new independent inspectorate is being established; the Scottish Qualifications Authority is being abolished completely and a body that is fit for purpose is being set up to take its place; an independent review of qualifications is taking place and is due to report this spring; and a national discussion covering the curriculum for excellence and everything that surrounds it is taking place. That is a major package of change—the most significant one since the new curriculum was introduced.

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Ross Greer

I will take an intervention in a moment, but I want to make a bit of progress.

The Tories agree with plenty of that, or at least they used to. By last summer, we had achieved a consensus among all parties on the need to replace the SQA and establish an independent inspectorate. I know from six years of sitting on Parliament’s education committees that the underperformance of Education Scotland has long frustrated MSPs of all parties, who have agreed on the need for change there.

I recognise that we disagree significantly on the future of exams, but previous Conservative education spokespeople have certainly had thoughts about the changes to the curriculum that they would like to see—short of the frankly cynical calls to scrap curriculum for excellence entirely. Why, when there is so much opportunity for all parties to shape those reforms, are we debating a motion that makes no proposal, other than to demand that the Scottish Government do something?

Will the member give way?

I feel that I should take Mr Whitfield’s intervention first, but I will then take an intervention from Ms Smith.

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful to Ross Greer for giving way. Does he not agree that the new SQA is going to mark its own homework? That was one of the great challenges that the existing SQA made with regard to the proposals that the Government announced last week.

Ross Greer

I am grateful for that intervention, because that was one of the recommendations in Ken Muir’s report that I personally struggled with the most. I made my hesitation about endorsing that recommendation clear to the Government and to Mr Muir, and that was for the reasons that the cabinet secretary has set out. If we were to split the functions and have one function sit within the new Education Scotland, it would, in fact, sit closer to Government. It would not have the independence that we desire for it.

I have not seen any suggestions that that accreditation function should sit in an entirely independent body somewhere else. If both of those functions are going to be set within the same body—the qualifications agency that has greater independence from Government—we need to look at how we create silos or separation between those two functions so that they are both sufficiently separate from Government but also from each other. We have that opportunity through the reform process.

Liz Smith

I am grateful to Mr Greer. I think that I remember—the member will correct me if I am wrong—that, on three occasions when the Conservatives lodged a motion on education, the Greens, Labour and Liberals voted with us, because they were concerned about SNP education policy. What has happened to that ability to persuade ministers now?

I can give you some of that time back.

Ross Greer

I appreciate that, Presiding Officer. Ms Smith is quite right. In the previous parliamentary session, we were deeply concerned about SNP education policy. That is why, off the back of the SQA shambles in 2020 in particular but also since then, we—not just the Greens but others—have managed to persuade the Government to take a different path. Collectively, the Opposition parties in the previous session forced the SNP to withdraw an education reform bill that would not have addressed the challenges in education.

However, we are now seeing a series of reforms that Ms Smith will know that I have campaigned for for a long time, particularly around reform of exams and assessments and particularly around the replacement of the SQA. We are now seeing a reform package that is much closer to what the Greens have been proposing over many years than what we saw in the previous parliamentary session.

I will take exams as a specific example. The Greens are looking forward to the results of Professor Hayward’s review early next year. That process is a direct result of our intervention in the 2020 SQA scandal. We did not think that it was good enough to simply restore the grades and move on, essential as it was to do that.

The 2020 incident and the comparative data sets that we have from pre-pandemic years versus those alternative models in each pandemic year made it clear that there is a deeper problem in our qualifications system—one that some of us had been pointing out for many years. Why does the traditional, high-stakes, end-of-term exam model—the one that we have used since the Victorian era—result in such a wide attainment gap between those from the most and least deprived backgrounds, whereas models that base grades on evidence that is generated through continuous assessment or teacher judgment result in a far narrower gap?

I have never believed that the high-stakes exam model was the most accurate or useful way of assessing a young person’s knowledge and abilities. Those exams always felt more like tests of how quickly someone could write things down or how much memorised content someone could recite on cue. Of course, they also leave young people vulnerable to having their course in life being thrown off by a single bad day, whether that is due to sickness, lack of sleep the night before or any other reason.

However, we now have a data set that strongly suggests that that model also contributes to a wider attainment gap than would otherwise be the case. That should not come as a huge surprise, because there is plenty of evidence to show that young people from the most deprived backgrounds are more likely to experience a chaotic household situation and thus be more at risk of the kind of disruption that would hamper their ability to achieve their best at the one opportunity that is provided by the high-stakes exam system.

Continuous assessment models, on the other hand, are better able to recognise a young person’s true knowledge and abilities through the generation of evidence over time, so that no one incident can scupper their chances of getting the grade that they deserve.

Of course there are challenges in our education system, and the Government is trying to solve them. Take as an example the publication of the “Additional Support for Learning Action Plan”, which includes commitments from the Greens’ manifesto. The Opposition does not need to agree, and it absolutely should scrutinise these reform plans, but, when no alternative is provided, I cannot come to any conclusion other than the fact that the Opposition does not take itself particularly seriously.

I am greatly relieved that the Tories seem to have no plan to replace this SNP-Green Government. If they had a plan to replace us, I assume that they would have a plan to implement their own policy agenda, but they do not seem to have one. This Government, on the other hand, does have a plan. Reform is under way, despite the challenges, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of those reforms.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

As Brian Whittle did so, I should perhaps likewise declare an interest, as I was a secondary school teacher for around 10 years before being elected to Parliament.

I will say a little bit about the poverty-related attainment gap, which has been spoken about. We should first of all remind ourselves exactly what we mean by that, as it has been lost a little bit. It is about children from lower-income households and families who are experiencing the day-to-day grind of poverty not having their skills, abilities and talents fully recognised and accredited in Scotland’s education system. Tackling that attainment gap is based both on what happens in education, which I will return to, and on how we support families living in our communities blighted by poverty more generally.

Although child poverty levels in Scotland remain far too high, it is reasonable to acknowledge that they remain clearly lower than those in Conservative-controlled England and Labour-controlled Wales. That is a fact. It is easy to see why, because there is a clear Scottish Government commitment to tackling child poverty.

Let me provide a few examples. There is, of course, the groundbreaking Scottish child payment, which is now £25 a week for children in households on qualifying benefits. To date, £84 million has been put into those households since it was established. There is no rape clause and no two-child limit—it is simply about getting them the money. We should also remind ourselves in Parliament that the call from campaigners was for £5 a week and not £25 a week—let us remember that. Mr Rowley made a point about how we direct resources. We could of course take that £84 million and give it to local government or the national health service, but it is a direct resource commitment to the poorest families in Scotland, which I support.

We could also mention the school clothing grant. National minimum standards of £120 for primary school children and £150 for secondary school children now apply. I could also go on and talk about free school meals, which I was proud that the Parliament acted on when I was elected in 2007, and which I was keen to see extended.

I will also look at what happens in schools. It is worth noting resources in schools, where we could of course look at teacher numbers, which have risen for six years in a row. They are up by 885 on the previous year and we are on track to deliver our commitment to recruit at least 3,500 teachers and 500 classroom assistants. That was backed by investment during Covid of £240 million, and then an additional, permanent, baked-in £145 million to make many posts permanent.

Does Bob Doris recognise that those numbers are still below the level that they were at in 2007 when he was elected to this Parliament and when this Government took office?

Bob Doris

I am happy to reflect and look at the numbers. Mr Marra is right to try and make that point. However, I point out that the teacher pupil ratio is at almost record levels. That is also a key point, which I think Mr Marra fails to recognise.

I will comment a little bit on progress on attainment levels. The number of 18-year-olds from the most deprived backgrounds being offered a place at university is at a record high; it is up 32 per cent since 2019—the last year that there were exams. We also know that 93.2 per cent of pupils who left school in the last year went on to positive destinations. The record high was 93.3 per cent. That is good going. At St Roch’s secondary school, in my constituency, the figure was 100 per cent. I pay tribute to that school, which is in a particularly deprived area.

If we look at exam results for 2022, progress was made—albeit not enough, which I readily accept. At national 5 level, the gap between those at the highest and lowest income levels shrank from 17.1 per cent to 14.6 per cent. At higher level, it went from 16.9 to 15 per cent. I say again that that is not enough, but it is progress. In fact, given that we have faced a global pandemic for two years and disruption to education, we might have anticipated that the figures would have worsened, not improved. That is therefore a significant achievement, which Stephen Kerr and the Conservatives want to wish away in this debate.

The Education, Children and Young People Committee recently published a report on the Scottish attainment challenge, which was a constructive approach to addressing inequalities in schools. That constructive approach may have been due in part to the new convener of the committee, Sue Webber, who is here. It would, of course, be impolite to mention who the previous convener of the committee was, but I am sure that Mr Kerr could inform Parliament if anyone is interested.

The evidence that the committee heard during that inquiry was really interesting. At an event in St Roch’s, we heard from representatives of schools in Glasgow and the west of Scotland about their concerns that a lot of the good work that had been done in addressing the poverty-related attainment gap might be ditched because of issues with securing those gains during the global pandemic and its impact on Scottish education. They told us not to ditch the reforms but to stick with them.

In the time that I have left, I want to say a bit about further and higher education. The commissioner for fair access said that our success in relation to access to further and higher education was unambiguous and that we had exceeded our target for 16 per cent of entrants to higher education to come from the most socially deprived backgrounds by 2021. I am rushing a little because I know that I am running out of time. We have a fantastic track record, but I have concerns, and I want to put those concerns on the record.

Sixty per of all young people from the Scottish index of multiple deprivation 20 group who have a first-year place at university got there through a further education route, but further education—as every other sector does—faces a flat cash settlement.

You need to conclude, Mr Doris.

Bob Doris

I am worried about the implications for the community work that colleges do, their courses and their staffing, and the onward consequences for making further progress in addressing the attainment gap and getting young people into higher education.

I do not have the answer to that, but I have—

You need to conclude, Mr Doris. I must ask you to sit down.

I call Murdo Fraser, who joins us online.


Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

As others have done, I should declare an interest, because I am married to a primary school teacher.

The duty of educating our young people is one of the primary functions of government, and one of the ways in which we should measure the effectiveness and success of a Government is how it performs that function. As our motion makes clear, in too many respects, the SNP Scottish Government has been failing our young people. Scottish education was once regarded as being the envy of the world but, in recent years, we had been slipping down the international league tables, until the SNP Government decided to withdraw us from many of the international comparisons, which means that we can no longer track that.

As Willie Rennie reminded us, today and tomorrow, secondary schools across Scotland are closed as a result of strike action—the first such action in a generation. That means that young people in senior school, some of whom expect to sit their prelims for highers or nat 5s in just a few weeks’ time, will experience further disruption to their education. We face the prospect of further strikes into January, when those prelims will be sat. We must remember that we are talking about young people who, because of Covid, have already suffered long interruptions to their education.

The strikes are ostensibly around the issue of pay, but there are many other issues that affect teachers, who feel undervalued as a profession. I am particularly concerned about the growth of violence in the classroom. There were nearly 20,000 recorded attacks on schoolteachers last year—that is a 10 per cent rise on the figure for 2018-19, which was the last full year before Covid. In aggregate, since 2017-18, there have been almost 75,000 recorded physical or verbal attacks on teachers. That is an extraordinary statistic.

Earlier, Stephen Kerr said that there was an attack every three minutes. He was half right, because there will not be an attack every three minutes in schools today, because many schools are closed because of the strikes.

No one should have to go to their workplace at risk of physical or verbal attack, but that is the reality that faces too many teachers today. In the words of the former EIS president, Heather Hughes, as quoted in The Herald in June,

“violent incidents are happening more and more in our schools because young people and teachers are not getting the support they need to prevent them from happening”.

She went on to say:

“teachers often feel unsupported when reporting these issues. All too often they are made to feel that the blame lies with them and not with the lack of support for young people who are expressing their frustrations over the lack of appropriate help”.

In 2021-22, the number of attacks on schoolteachers rose despite a record number of pupils missing more than 50 per cent of the school year because of Covid. In addition to the bare statistics, which are bad enough, we hear anecdotally from teachers just how serious the problem has become, with a concern in some quarters that Covid-related interruptions to education have changed the culture in the classroom, making unacceptable behaviour more of a norm.

We see the outcome of that manifest in the fact that, just last month, teachers at Northfield academy in Aberdeen, feeling unsupported by the education authority, voted to strike over school violence, as Liam Kerr reminded us earlier. In Glasgow, teachers at Bannerman high school voted to hold 12 days of strikes in the run-up to the Christmas holidays over violent and abusive pupil behaviour. It is a problem that is only going to get worse.

It is clearly unacceptable that teachers are being put at risk in that way. It is no wonder that some are leaving the profession and some are taking early retirement. We see in the strikes that are taking place a manifestation of the unhappiness that teachers have with their lot.

The situation does not impact just on teachers. A teacher having to devote a large proportion of their time to trying to deal with a disruptive pupil means that the others in the class do not get the support and attention that they deserve.

The situation cannot be unrelated to the staggering decline in the number of school exclusions since the SNP came to power. In 2007-08, there were 39,717 exclusions in Scottish schools. In 2018-19, the last year before Covid, that had fallen to just 14,990, which is a drop of 25,000—an incredible 62 per cent. I cannot believe that that reduction reflects improving behaviour in the classroom. Indeed, all the evidence suggests the opposite. Instead, what we are seeing is the consequence of a top-down policy to reduce the use of exclusion as a management tool. That drive to reduce the number of school exclusions simply means that there are more disruptive pupils being kept in a classroom environment when they should be put elsewhere. We need to consider whether an agenda of mainstreaming those who have serious behavioural issues is appropriate or whether some alternative provision should be made for them.

We cannot go on as we are. Attacks in schools are reaching a crisis point, and that is something that the Scottish Government has to address. Otherwise, we will see yet more industrial action from frustrated teachers, as is already happening.

There is a dismal air of complacency about the Government’s approach to education. That needs to change, and, in the debate the Scottish Conservatives have set out the improvements that need to be made. The SNP, with the backing of the Greens, will win the vote this afternoon, but in so doing it will let down teachers and pupils across Scotland, who deserve so much better.

John Mason will be the final speaker in the open debate.


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I believe that Scotland still has an excellent education system. Our universities have no tuition fees for students and we have a high percentage of young people going to university. There has been considerable progress, with more people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, and we certainly want that trend to continue.

We have some tremendous universities.

Will the member give way?

John Mason

Let me get into this a little bit more.

In recent years The Times and The Guardian have ranked St Andrews as the top university in the UK, which is no mean achievement.

Stephen Kerr

Mr Mason has fallen into the trap of the idea that university is what education is all about. There is a huge disparity of esteem between all the various routes that a young person can take in life. Let us not put a premium on universities; let us back our young people when they choose other options as well.

John Mason

I was about to go on to say that. The very next line in my speech is: having said that, apprenticeships are a great route, too, and are definitely a better option for some young people. Perhaps some schools have overemphasised going to university as the only measure of success, and we probably need to redress that imbalance.

There is also still an issue with relatively few women going into certain careers, such as engineering and other STEM areas. One figure that I saw recently said that only 25 per cent of students in such subjects are women. In addition, relatively few men are entering primary teaching, childcare, and the wider care sector.

Colleges, too, are a key part of our education system. I am pleased that we have three colleges in Glasgow: City of Glasgow College, Glasgow Kelvin College and Glasgow Clyde College. The Kelvin and Clyde colleges, in particular, have a strong reputation for drawing folk in who are further from the education system. I was at a Kelvin College graduation recently, and I was struck by the incredibly diverse range of students. There was a real mixture of ages, ethnic backgrounds and social backgrounds.

It seems to be much easier now to move on from college to university. That step was often fraught with difficulty in the past.

I accept that there are issues with funding for colleges, as Bob Doris hinted, and with whether we have struck the right balance when it comes to sharing resources between schools, colleges and universities. The colleges certainly feel that they are treated as the poor relations. The last time I looked at the University of Glasgow’s accounts, the university had £1,000 million in its reserves. A university like that is incredibly rich—richer than the Scottish Government—compared with the colleges and newer universities.

I think that schools are turning out more rounded young people than was the case in days gone by. When I was at school—I am declaring an interest—the sole measure of success seemed to be academic, and many of us lived in fear of our teachers. When I visit a school nowadays, it seems to me that there is a much healthier relationship between teachers and pupils, on the whole, and more of a sense of working together to achieve the best outcomes.

Will the member take an intervention?

John Mason

I am sorry; I have already taken one.

Denominational and Catholic schools also have a valuable place in our education system. Of course, there must be common standards across our schools, especially when it comes to examinations, but it is good that parents are involved and can choose, to some extent, the ethos of the school to which they want their children to go.

Will the member give way?

John Mason

I am sorry; I must carry on.

We must not underestimate the importance of parents and parental involvement. I remember a headteacher telling me that the school that he led was almost like two schools. On one hand, there were children whose parents were enthusiastic about their education, and who engaged with the school and got involved in homework and so on. On the other hand were children whose parents were not really involved.

At least one school in my constituency has used PEF money to try to build up relationships with families. We need to do all that we can to help and encourage pupils who do not have parental support, but we have to accept that there is a limit to what a school can do if the parents are not engaged.

That is where families with an African or Asian background who come into an area can be a big boost to a school. Often in such cases, the whole family is highly committed to education, and highly motivated students can give a lift to the whole school, encouraging young people who are perhaps less self-motivated.

While I am talking about schools, I want to say how much I appreciated having Maureen McKenna as Glasgow’s director of education. Her replacement, Douglas Hutchison, has a hard act to follow. Also, I very much welcome the development of a new Gaelic-medium primary school in Calton, in the east end of the city.

We cannot talk about schools without looking at teachers’ pay. The Labour amendment calls for “a fair pay deal”, and the Liberal Democrats also called for fair pay. What exactly do they mean by that? Scottish teachers are being offered £35,000 once they are qualified, which I understand is some £7,000 more than equivalent teachers would be offered in England and is the third highest in the G7 group of wealthy nations.

Does the member recognise that, in Scotland, teaching is a graduate-only profession, unlike in England?

John Mason


There is a question of fairness, too. Teachers are a hugely important part of our society, but so are other local council workers. How could it be right to give teachers a substantially bigger rise than their colleagues in other parts of local government get? I have not even mentioned affordability. Higher pay deals to match inflation might well be deserved by many people, but, in effect, such deals mean cuts to services in local government, the national health service or elsewhere.

Let us not overstate the weaknesses and understate the achievements of our education system, as I fear that some of our Opposition parties are doing.

We move to the closing speeches.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

This has been a fascinating debate, in which members have been passionate about what is probably the most important thing in any person’s life: their first few years in education. It is a time when people can hope and dream about becoming anything—an astronaut, a footballer, a nurse or a pilot.

Our education environment and the professionals who work in it—not only the teachers, but those who help out in the classroom and the dining hall and who pick pupils up when they tumble in the playground and get a bloody knee—keep young people’s positivity and imagination going.

Brian Whittle

Does Martin Whitfield agree that, to be able to keep that passion going, we have to be able to see it, and does he agree that, when we reduce the teaching of sport, art, music and drama in schools, we take opportunities away from our children?

Martin Whitfield

The member has stolen my commendation of his contribution. Let me take a moment to say—with the greatest of respect to Liz Smith—that education is about more than being able to read, write and count, essential though those abilities are. It is also about the experience of drama, art, music, dance, physical education and sport, whether your team wins or does not win. It is about going from being the last person who is selected in the playground to being the first. It is about discovering that the soft skills that you practise with your friend groups can keep you out of fights and can offer better empathy. That is an essential element that I fear gets lost in much discussion about our young people’s lives.

Young people have suffered major disruption to their learning because of the pandemic, and teachers are striking. They are fighting for a better pay deal, and it is the SNP Government’s responsibility to be at the negotiating table. It is one of the very few negotiations at which the Scottish Government has a seat; it should use it. The Government should take the lead on finding a way to reconciliation. That is what negotiation is about.

We have heard the claim that education is this Government’s priority, but there are serious failings at every level. The attainment gap is stubbornly wide, whether you call it an attainment gap or a poverty-related attainment gap, and it is growing. Our colleges, as many members have said, feel neglected, and are facing the prospect of massive staff cuts.

Our students are having to drop out of university because they cannot find anywhere to live. That is what we are offering our young people, who are our hope for the future.

Listening to members’ contributions has been interesting, and some have been very positive. As Alex Rowley rightly pointed out, there has to be recognition of where there has been failure and where more needs to be done. It does not matter whose fault it is; what the Scottish Government will do to make it better is what is important. It will find cross-party support for ideas that can be implemented to improve young people’s experience of education.

I was grateful that my intervention on the Government’s opening speech was taken, because there is concern that by not splitting the two roles that I mentioned, the SQA will be marking its own homework. I was interested to hear the idea of properly separating the two roles, so I would love to hear the cabinet secretary’s view on how that will be achieved.

I will mention Brian Whittle’s contribution, because it led to the discussion about the role of—I will say this very carefully—culture and sport in young people’s lives, and because of his call to reset skills priorities in relation to what the country will need in the future for the green economy and achievement of net zero. We need to provide those skills, and we need to provide for our young people and older people being able to gain those skills, so that we can drive the economy forward.

I will mention Claire Baker’s contribution in relation to the equality audit, because that was the first time that we saw the damage that Covid has done to our young people. She was right to say that although many adults have moved on from Covid, the reality for young people—those who were at the start of their primary school experience or earlier, who might not even have been able to name the challenge, through to those who had moved on to high school—is that Covid has caused massive challenges that are not being addressed.

I am aware of young people who have to travel by taxi between schools to get the range of lessons that they need, particularly in modern languages. In 2022, it is a tragedy that young people who are passionate about foreign languages must find their own way to learn.

I want to pause in the short time that I have left to mention Fergus Ewing. I was severely disappointed that he was not able to take my intervention on touch typing, because it would have been lovely to hear at what age that skill should be acquired. He discussed the automaticity of touch typing, which is what exists in handwriting. When people learn to write, they just write. It does not hold back their ideas or their imaginations. That relates to the gap that exists and the challenges that some young people face in attaining skills.

We have large classes, and teachers are pressured in the classroom by individuals who take up a huge amount of time. That is a cry for help from those young people, so we need to facilitate support for that.

This has been a fascinating debate, but there is so much more to be done. I urge the Scottish Government not to fear the criticism that it has heard today but to accept it and to come forward with proposals that will find cross-party support—because “Education, education, education” is the single greatest gift that we can give the young people in our population.


Shirley-Anne Somerville

There has been, I suppose, a mixed range of speeches today. Unfortunately, the speeches from the Conservatives in particular—with perhaps the exception of Brian Whittle, to be fair to him—have had one thing in common: a lot of noise but no substantive policy proposals about how we might take things forward. There is a great deal in the Conservative motion but no genuine attempt to set out how we might move forward with policy on education.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will make some progress then take some interventions in due course.

There has been a great deal of challenge to the Scottish Government to be open to new ideas and to be ready to listen to others. We have just had the national discussion: the biggest debate on Scottish education for 20 years has just closed. I am happy to stand corrected by any party in the room, but I do not think that they took part in it. The co-facilitators met Opposition members and we had an opportunity to build a consensual mission. Instead, what we have once again from the Tories is a focus on “SNP bad” and very little else.

Liz Smith

I would be happy to send the cabinet secretary copies of the representations that I made in response to previous calls from the SNP for our views. I think that my colleague Jamie Greene did the same when he was education spokesperson and I know that Pam Gosal has, as well. Does the cabinet secretary accept that we have made representations?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I accept that Liz Smith played a constructive role when she was education spokesperson. I wonder whether Tory members support curriculum for excellence—as I think Liz Smith did in her time—or are still for scrapping it, which has been the more recent policy. I will look back on Tory policies of the past; it is a bit difficult to know what their position is, particularly on key aspects of curriculum for excellence that are viewed very positively by the OECD, for example.

A number of speakers, Kaukab Stewart being one of them, spoke about positive destinations for our young people. She was quite right to do that. She rightly pointed to the results and said that they are not only a credit to our young people but are a fundamental function of our education system—an education system that is doing its best to support our children and young people at a time of great difficulty.

Alex Rowley was right to point out—although the Tories did not like it—the impact of Tory austerity and the impact of the cost of living crisis right across Scotland. It is important that we recognise what schools can do, but the context in which they are working is made more difficult by levels of poverty, which is a point that I will come back to, if I have time.

It is also important that we celebrate what is right in Scottish education. There is higher spending per child in education in Scotland than there is elsewhere in the UK. Almost 130,000 leavers have received SQA results in the past year and we have the best-educated population in Europe, according to the most recent Eurostat data. Provision of 1,140 hours of ELC is being rolled out. I could go on, Presiding Officer, but I will attempt to take another intervention.

Liam Kerr

I find it staggering that the cabinet secretary has yet to deal with the points about violence that were brought up by Stephen Kerr, Murdo Fraser and me. What, precisely, has the cabinet secretary put in place since taking up her post that will reduce physical and verbal abuse, given that it is not a new problem?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I was going to talk about that later, but I am happy to talk about it now.

Everybody in the chamber who raised the matter was right to do so, because no teacher—no person, in fact—should go to any place of work and suffer physical or verbal abuse. It is for schools and councils to decide what action should be taken in each case, because councils are the employer. However, I met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ education spokesperson last week to discuss what more the Scottish Government can do to help. I would have been at another meeting about the matter with COSLA and other stakeholders this afternoon, had it not been for work on this debate. I hope that that demonstrates that I would have been spending time on the issue, but am delighted to be here discussing another Tory motion on education.

We have to look at another issue very carefully—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but, if Conservative Party members do not like what I am saying, they should feel free to intervene rather than chunter from a sedentary position.

A number of comments have been made about teachers’ workload. We have commitments to reduce class-contact time and to have more teachers—we have a commitment to have 3,500 more teachers by the end of this Parliamentary session. On mental health, we have committed to having counsellors in schools. There are 1,000 more teachers in our primary schools than there were before the pandemic.

Christine Grahame and Bob Doris rightly pointed to the aspects of and challenges related to poverty. Those are very important, and we need to look at them. The Scottish Government, in conjunction with local government, is determined to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap, but it is a real shame that the Tories seem to be doing their level best to undermine that mission and to make it more challenging, given the state of the economy and society at this time.

It would be remiss of me not to reference Fergus Ewing’s speech. Persistence pays off. I admire his tenacity and appreciate his on-going discussions with Highland Council. I look forward to seeing how those develop.

John Mason rightly pointed out many aspects of Scottish Education that we should be proud of, and mentioned the importance of all of them: universities, colleges and apprenticeships—

Will the member take an intervention?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I apologise. I need to move on.

I pay particular tribute to colleges such as Kelvin College for the fantastic work that it does, and I acknowledge the important role that denominational schools have in our society.

There are a number of aspects of Scottish education that we should be proud of, and for which we are internationally commended. It is disappointing that, once again, we heard very little about that from the Tories. I recognise that we can improve, which is why we had the national discussion, but it is a shame that no one in the Tories seemed to notice or take part.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Earlier this year, life as I knew it changed forever when I became a first-time mum. I will never forget the moment that I met my daughter or how she instantly became the most important person to me and my immediate family. It has to be said that being part of the parent club is genuinely one of the best feelings in the world.

I have been so fortunate to be able to spend the last few months learning how to become a mum. As we know, there is no step-by-step manual because every baby has a different personality and milestones, but I am looking to return fully to my MSP role in January 2023.

Before I get into the premise of today’s debate, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their well wishes; my constituents, who have been understanding of my maternity leave; and, of course, my fantastic office team, who have gone above and beyond to keep my office running smoothly.

Every child in Scotland should have the same opportunities in life, regardless of their postcode or family dynamic. As we have heard this afternoon, every MSP in the chamber agrees with that, although there are stark differences in policies and in how we believe Scotland is performing compared with other countries.

My colleague Stephen Kerr correctly outlined the importance of giving every child a golden ticket to a first-class education. He also raised serious concerns about the violence and threats that our teachers face daily in their classrooms. Those concerns were echoed by Murdo Fraser but not by the cabinet secretary until other members prompted her.

When we discuss education issues, it does not help that we have a Scottish Government that refuses to listen to experts, academics, parents and Opposition politicians when they raise genuine concerns about the state of the education system. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that most of my contribution will focus on the Scottish Government’s flagship policy of providing every child in Scotland with 1,140 hours of free childcare. I feel like a broken record when it comes to that policy, but, if I did not have a vested interest in childcare before, I certainly do now.

When the Government introduced the expansion of the existing childcare policy, the SNP said that it would deliver three main benefits. First, children’s development would improve and the poverty-related attainment gap would narrow. Secondly, more parents would have the opportunity to be in work, or to be training or studying. Thirdly, the policy would increase family resilience through the improved health and wellbeing of parents and children.

I will start on a positive note: in principle, 1,140 hours is a good policy. The First Minister hailed it as transformative, and it has the potential to give children the best possible start in life because it removes the financial burden on parents, who often struggle with the cost of childcare. That is especially true for working mums, as many choose to pause or stop their career progression to start a family. I do not believe that, in 2022, a woman should have to choose between her career or having children. The onus is on the Parliament to give them the tools so that they can do both successfully.

As it stands, the early learning and childcare policy is not working. It is my view and, indeed, the view of many in the early years industry that the policy’s aims will never be achieved should the Government continue to ignore the crisis that has emerged in the early learning and childcare sector. It is not enough to simply have a good policy idea without having the willpower and determination to see it through.

As Brian Whittle said, we have an opportunity to reset Scotland’s education system. Since my election to the Scottish Parliament and during my time as a councillor in North Lanarkshire, I have been in direct contact with nurseries in the private, voluntary and independent sector. They have told me on several occasions about the deep-rooted problems with the 1,140 hours policy. Those include the financial inequality that exists between PVI and local authority nurseries; a staffing crisis and the loss of childminders; parents not obtaining their first, second or third choice of nursery setting for their children; and PVI settings closing as people cannot afford to run their business—

Michael Marra

I appreciate the topic that the member is raising, given the problems in Huntly, in my region, where a notice from the Care Inspectorate has resulted in the closure of a nursery and where the council is not stepping up to take up the weight. Does she believe that the Care Inspectorate needs to do more with the Government to ensure that there is provision when it finds that a nursery has to close?

Meghan Gallacher

Absolutely. I will touch on that point later in my contribution. Levels of bureaucracy are created through the mountains of paperwork, and there are cross-boundary issues due to councils not working collegiately to deliver funded childcare.

Will the member take an intervention?

Meghan Gallacher

I would like to continue. I will take an intervention from the minister later, if that is okay.

What used to be a healthy, competitive market between PVI nurseries and local authorities has now resulted in councils being the kingmaker, leaving many PVI nurseries in a checkmate position. The PVI sector has fought tooth and nail to try to make the rate process fair, but when the funding structure that is set by the Scottish Government and COSLA allows local authorities to pay ELC staff 30 to 50 per cent more than staff in funded PVI settings receive, with 65 per cent of PVI nursery fees being controlled by the 1,140 hours policy, we can see exactly where the problem lies.

The National Day Nurseries Association has said that low or static rates principally mean a real-time cut in funding for settings and threaten the existence of some nurseries.

Excuse me, Ms Gallacher. I ask members who have just come into the chamber to desist from low-level muttering and to respect the fact that someone is contributing to the debate.

Meghan Gallacher

I am very grateful, Presiding Officer.

The NDNA has also said:

“the rates that are given are not sustainable since they are not keeping up with inflation, but also with rising economic and living costs. Nurseries are finding it more and more difficult to meet the cost of delivery, which could result in the potential loss of smaller settings.”

The issue with the 1,140 hours policy that really gets me angry is that, under it, a child in a private sector nursery appears to be worth less than a child in a local authority setting. No child should ever be worth less or more when it comes to getting the best possible start in life.

The SNP Government is fully aware of the problems, but there is yet to be any update provided to Parliament on how it intends to fix the policy or make it fair for all partners. While the SNP remains silent on the issue, nurseries will continue to close.

Will the member take an intervention?

Meghan Gallacher

I said that I would take the minister in a little while.

A business will not survive if it is not able to identify and correct issues relating to its model, and I do not see why the Scottish Government should be exempt from acknowledging the problems that the PVI sector experiences daily. It is not as if the issue is not reported time and again in the press. As recently as this week, The Herald reported a case study of a childminder losing their income because of the need to complete paperwork, as the sector is in crisis. She revealed that she is losing in excess of £600 a month as she has to commit a full day each week to complete paperwork—time that she is not paid for. The childminder blamed the excessive level of lost income on the bureaucracy that I mentioned earlier, and said that it is having a huge impact on her business. She said:

“We can’t do paperwork when we’ve got children in our care ... I absolutely love the job I do. I love watching the children develop and being a key part of that but what I am in effect doing is paperwork for a job I love, but I’m not being paid for it.”

That childminder is not alone.

What has become clear to me is that—as we heard from Liz Smith, who gave the timeline of failings—the Scottish Government has been in power for so long that it has lost the will and desire to fix its failing policies.

The SNP often tells Opposition politicians that we do not come to the table with any solutions. Therefore, for the benefit of the cabinet secretary and others, I will offer solutions that will make the 1,140 policy fair for local authorities and the PVI sector. I am happy to give way to the minister on this point, with regard to the fixing of the funding formula. Will she commit to a review of the funding formula to make it fair for the PVI sector and local authority nurseries?

I think that offering to take an intervention when you have 15 seconds to go is—

It is a yes/no answer, Presiding Officer.

Clare Haughey

The member will perhaps remember that I met her to talk about this issue prior to her going on maternity leave—and in that regard, I welcome her back to the chamber and offer my congratulations. It is very nice to see her.

We work closely with the representatives of the PVI sector, including the Scottish Childminding Association, and I am more than happy to meet the member again and update her on all the work that has been going on while she has been taking care of her little daughter.

Meghan Gallacher

I will take that as a no.

I understand that I must conclude my remarks, so I will just say that today we have heard damning reports from members across the chamber. It is about time that this SNP Government got a grip of our education system for the benefit of our children in Scotland.