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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2022


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time. On this occasion, the portfolio is education and skills. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, I invite them to press their request-to-speak button or type RTS in the chat function during the relevant question.

Teachers (Neurodiversity Training)

1. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to ensure that teaching staff across all local authority areas receive additional training on neurodiversity including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder. (S6O-01660)

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

We want all children and young people, including those who are neurodivergent, to get the support that they need in order to reach their full potential.

We work closely with partners, including Education Scotland, to ensure that teaching staff have access to a range of free professional learning and development resources. That includes the development of free learning modules, which are available via the Open University, on practice that is inclusive of dyslexia and autism.

On 30 November, we published our updated action plan on additional support for learning, which outlines the further work that we will undertake to ensure that teaching staff continue to receive training to support all children who have additional support needs, including those who are neurodivergent.

Rachael Hamilton

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will join me in welcoming the launch of Scottish Borders Council’s neurodiversity strategy, which is championed by our fantastic Borders councillors. Does she agree that that strategy sets an excellent precedent for how to improve our national curriculum for neurodivergent pupils, and will she explore ways of implementing similar plans across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing the work of the council to my attention. I would be more than happy to receive further information about what Scottish Borders Council has achieved, and what it hopes to achieve, in this important area. I, my officials and Education Scotland will be more than happy to see what lessons can be learned across the country, so I look forward to further correspondence on the issue, if Rachael Hamilton wishes it.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Young and neurodivergent constituents tell me that more additional training is needed, but also that a world of difference can be made by small changes to the school day, such as instigating one-way systems in corridors to reduce busy jostling—as many schools decided to do during Covid—and reducing instances of loud decorative classrooms that have overwhelming visual stimuli. Does she agree, and is she satisfied that that area is adequately covered in the autism kit for schools and that such things are being actioned?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much agree that listening to the views of young people is vital in this area, as in all areas. As the young ambassadors for inclusion put it in their vision statement, adults in schools

“should ask, listen and act, on what the young people say about the support that works best for them.”

Such a way of working with and involving children and young people is also set out for local authorities in the statutory guidance on the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004.

The autism toolbox sets out information on sensory differences and what approaches can be taken to support young people who are affected by them. It also provides links to tools such as the sensory audit for schools and classrooms. The autism toolbox working group is currently undertaking work to update the toolbox. That is due for completion in spring 2023. I would welcome any specific feedback from Fiona Hyslop and her constituents about what the working group should consider.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Next year, I hope, we will see a learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill, for which recruitment of a lived-experience advisory panel is under way. Does the cabinet secretary feel that the commissioner that it is envisaged will be in the bill will have a part to play in extending knowledge and experience to teachers and educationists across Scotland, when the bill becomes an act?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill is important work that is being undertaken by the Government. It is part of our programme for government. Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care, who will be taking forward that work, announced that the Government will carry out the scoping work on the remit and powers of the bill, including a commissioner that could result from it, during this parliamentary year. I very much look forward—as, I am sure, Kevin Stewart does—to working with colleagues from across the parties to make that very important piece of legislation as stringent and useful as possible.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Earlier this year, I visited, with the cabinet secretary, Touch primary school, where we saw the pioneering neurodevelopmental pathway project that is being trialled by schools in the area. However, I am still hearing from families in Fife who are desperate for that kind of multi-agency support for their children to be rolled out further.

Has the pilot concluded, what findings were gleaned from the trial and does the Scottish Government have firm plans to roll out that type of programme to other areas across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It was a pleasure to accompany Mark Ruskell on that visit, which was also undertaken by Kevin Stewart. Given that the project was a pathway project, it sits under health rather than education. I can perhaps ensure that Mr Stewart writes to the member with further details of where the project has got to and, importantly, the lessons that have been learned, not just for Fife but for across the country. I will make sure that Mr Stewart copies me in to that letter.

If Mr Ruskell would like further discussions on that with me or with Kevin Stewart, I am sure that we would be delighted to take that up, given the very useful visit that we had together.

University and College Union and Educational Institute of Scotland (Mandate for Strike Action)

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether a vote in favour of strike action by more than 80 per cent of members of the University and College Union and more than 90 per cent of members of the Educational Institute of Scotland is a democratic mandate for strike action. (S6O-01661)

I recognise that reaching such a threshold provides the legal right to strike under the provisions of the Trade Union Act 2016.

Richard Leonard

I thank the minister for that brief answer.

UCU members were on strike last week and the week before, with more action planned. EIS members are taking 16 days of strike action early in the new year. Today, members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers are taking part in strike action right across Scotland.

The cabinet secretary often speaks of a fixed budget. The Government does not have, and never has had, a fixed budget. The cabinet secretary speaks, as well, of unaffordability, but when will the cabinet secretary and the minister understand that what we really cannot afford is demoralised and undervalued teachers, more disruption to the education of our children, university staff on poor pay and precarious contracts, and a mediocre Government that is too indifferent, intransigent and inept to fund a fair pay settlement for the people who work in our universities, our colleges and our schools?

Jamie Hepburn

First, I note that the brevity of my answer was only a reflection of the straightforward nature of the question.

On what Richard Leonard said about the Scottish Government not having a fixed budget, I am bound to say that that is inaccurate. We are talking about this year’s funding settlement and this year’s pay settlement. In that respect, the budget was fixed last year, so we are operating to a fixed budget.

On the situation in higher education, I am in regular dialogue with unions and management alike, and I continue to urge them to engage with one another to ensure that they can successfully resolve their dispute. The Scottish Government does not have a direct role in those negotiations.

The Scottish Government’s clear position is that the offer on the table for teachers is a fair settlement and, above all, an affordable settlement. The Scottish Government cannot go further in terms of what is on the table. That is the fact of the matter.

Of course, the Scottish Government does have a seat at the table, so that was a disingenuous answer.

We do not, in respect of universities, which is what the minister said.

Stephen Kerr

I mean in relation to the schools dispute.

Pupils have had heavily disrupted education for the past two years, for reasons that we all know. Now, as we have just heard, that will continue into the new year. What contingency plans does the minister have in place to help and support pupils—particularly those who are in the senior phase of their education—to make up for that lost learning and prepare them for the very important exams that lie ahead of them in the spring?

Jamie Hepburn

First, let me correct Mr Kerr’s observation. When I referred to the fact that we are not directly involved in negotiations, that was a specific reference to higher education. I am sure that Mr Kerr understands that that is the case.

On the contingency that we have put in place to support young people, the fundamental point is that we need to ensure that young people get the support that they deserve. There is a range of measures in place, through remote learning and e-Sgoil, to support young people in the best fashion that we can support them, so that they can do the best they can in the exam period ahead.

Question 3 was withdrawn.

Neurodivergent People (Provision of Information in Easy-read Formats)

4. Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the education secretary has had with ministerial colleagues in relation to the automatic provision by public service bodies of easy-read formats to accommodate the needs of people who are neurodiverse. (S6O-01663)

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

I have had no specific discussions about the automatic provision of easy-read formats for people who are neurodiverse. All public bodies are subject to the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, including provisions to consider “reasonable adjustments” that take account of people’s needs and preferences in certain circumstances.

To strengthen that, as part of our current review of the operation of the public sector equality duty in Scotland, we are proposing a new Scotland-specific duty that seeks to ensure that inclusive communication is embedded proportionately across the work of listed authorities when they are communicating with the public.

The Scottish Government is committed to working with people who are neurodiverse to improve opportunities, outcomes and support. To that end, we will introduce a learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill.

Alasdair Allan

I am encouraged to hear about the work that the cabinet secretary proposes. As, I am sure, she will, does she appreciate that intervention of that kind is necessary to ensure that all public bodies realise that provision of material, whether it is in Braille or easy-read format, is essential to support the inclusion of all, and to ensure the equitable access of all to public services?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are proposing the creation of a new Scotland-specific duty that seeks to ensure that inclusive communication is embedded proportionately across the work of the listed authorities when they are communicating with the public. From December 2021 to April 2022, we ran a public consultation that contained a series of detailed and ambitious proposals for changes to the PSED scheme. Obviously, that would sit alongside the Scottish Government’s other work to embed inclusive communications across the public sector, including development of national standards, best practice and a system of monitoring the work’s effectiveness.

Of course, we will engage further with stakeholders to ensure that any revised regulations—and the implementation environment around them—deliver our goal of better outcomes for people who continue to experience inequality.

Question 5 was withdrawn.

Educational Improvement (Enhanced Data Collection)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is undertaking to enhance data collection for educational improvement. (S6O-01665)

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

The Scottish Government always aims to improve the availability, quality and consistency of data to extend its understanding of what works, in order to drive forward improvements in all parts of the Scottish education system. More recently, a consultation was launched in May this year, and the results from that will inform the 2023 national improvement framework and improvement plan.

Local stretch aims for improvement and closing the poverty-related attainment gap have been gathered as part of the Scottish attainment challenge and will be published this afternoon. I will make a statement to Parliament in which I will emphasise the collective ambition of local authorities to ensure recovery and accelerated progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. That data will provide a strong indicator of ambition and a baseline for improvement.

Stephanie Callaghan

Clearly, having useful, informative and up-to-date data is essential in driving improvements in education, especially as we look forward to reforms. How will enhanced data help to bring about improvements, specifically for learners in the senior phase of secondary education—secondary 4, 5 and 6 pupils?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Having access to comprehensive data enables schools and local authorities to analyse their performance within a culture of self-evaluation and reflection, and it enables Education Scotland to work with local authorities to provide improvement support. In order to support self-evaluation and improvement at the local level, the Scottish Government provides the Insight benchmarking tool, which helps schools to interrogate their data and use it to inform improvements and, ultimately, improve the outcomes for learners.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

At the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s meeting on 21 September, Derek Smeall, from Glasgow Kelvin College, raised concerns about how completion and drop-out rates are recorded in Scotland’s colleges. When the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Jamie Hepburn, appeared before the committee recently, he accepted that improvements are needed in that area. He stated:

“My ambition is to do it as soon as possible”—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 2 November 2022; c 17.]

If we do not have accurate data on that issue, we cannot make informed decisions. What work is the minister undertaking to fix the issues with the collection of data on completion and drop-out rates?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Work is under way on the issue. We know that there are particular issues that the system does not deal with adequately. For example, someone might have left their course early because they moved on to another destination. They might have begun a college course but, later on, went to university or, indeed, into employment. We are keen to work with the college sector to ensure that useful data is being collected, because our ability to improve what is happening in that sector follows from that. However, I am sure that the minister will be delighted to hear more from Ms Gosal on how she thinks we should improve the system.

Language Learning Policy (Implementation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of its policy, “Language Learning in Scotland: A 1+2 Approach”. (S6O-01666)

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

I can report that almost all schools now provide an entitlement under the one-plus-two approach. To date, we have invested nearly £37 million in successfully achieving a culture shift in schools, with more children learning languages throughout the broad general education than ever before. This year’s funding of £2.5 million is supporting local authorities and other partners to deliver professional learning for teachers, provide classroom language assistants and deliver school outreach projects. We will continue to consolidate that progress by ensuring that our approach provides the most appropriate access to language learning for Scotland’s young people.

Emma Roddick

I welcome the fact that the one-plus-two language policy has been rolled out in all secondary schools and the vast majority of primary schools. It is clear from last month’s debate in Parliament on protecting Scotland’s indigenous languages that the Scottish Government has a strong commitment to language education, but it is important that other minority languages such as British Sign Language are not forgotten about. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on progress on outstanding actions in the BSL national plan?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I fully agree on the importance of BSL as a language of Scotland and of making it available to young people to learn. The Government is working with Education Scotland, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages and others to promote BSL to local authorities and to ensure that teaching resources are available.

As for progress, we surveyed local authorities on language learning last year, and more than 100 primary schools reported that they were providing BSL as part of their one-plus-two offer. That is a significant increase on previous years, and it demonstrates that the investment that we made in improving language learning is delivering positive outcomes. I hope that, in the longer term, that approach will lead to improved understanding of BSL and of the deaf community and culture in Scotland, and we will continue our progress with the publication of the new BSL national plan for 2023 to 2029 next October.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

Will the Scottish Government review the one-plus-two language policy to bring it more in line with the European language framework, which will help Scotland to prepare for its return to the European Union as an independent member state?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member might know, the one-plus-two approach was based on the principles of the European Council’s 2002 Barcelona agreement, which called for countries to teach pupils at least two foreign languages from an early age. We will continue to look to European best practice as we consider the future of language learning in schools, but I am pleased that our overall approach aligns with European principles. Our approach supports young people in being more confident in communicating with one another as well as with people from Europe and, indeed, around the world, which is essential if they are to become global citizens and participate in our institutions.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Here is a reality check. Between 2018 and 2022, there was a 34 per cent decline in the number of entries in higher French and a 38 per cent decline in the number of entries in higher German, whereas in England, over the same period, there was a 5 per cent increase in GCSE French and a 12 per cent increase in GCSE German. The Scottish National Party loves to parade its European credentials, but what is the reality? The reality is that we are in a country where young people are being deprived of the opportunity to develop the ability to learn other languages and, through that, other cultures. Given those take-up figures for French and German under the SNP, is the cabinet secretary concerned that there has been such a dramatic decline in that respect compared with other parts of the United Kingdom?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I notice that, in this instance, Mr Kerr is quite happy to make comparisons between England and Scotland, and I therefore look forward to him not making any comments if I ever do the same in reverse.

I recognise the important point that Mr Kerr makes about languages. It is important to note that the cohorts that will have benefited from the full language entitlement in the 10 years of broad general education will not yet have progressed to the senior phase, so the full impact of the one-plus-two policy in terms of national qualification entrances and passes has yet to be seen. However, I recognise that there is more to be done in this area. Perhaps we did not get into it in the Conservative Party debate on education yesterday, but if Mr Kerr would like to put forward concrete suggestions and proposals about what can be done, rather than just criticising, I will be more than happy to receive them.

Early Years Sector (Staffing)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is doing to tackle the reported staffing crisis within the early years sector. (S6O-01667)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

Scotland’s childcare workforce increased by 7,750 posts between 2016 and 2021 to deliver our transformational investment in 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare. Unlike in other parts of the United Kingdom, the overwhelming majority of funded providers in Scotland pay at least the real living wage.

However, I recognise that, as is the case in many areas of the economy, there are workforce challenges in the childcare sector, and we are committed to working with the sector to address them. That is why we are working with our partners to develop a strategic framework for Scotland’s childcare profession. The framework, which we will publish in the new year, will set out priorities for action across key areas, including recruitment and retention of staff.

Roz McCall

The Scottish Childminding Association recently announced that 34 per cent of childminders have quit the profession since the expansion of funded early education and childcare in 2016. It warns that that figure could rise to a staggering 64 per cent by July 2026, with more than 10,500 childminding places being lost as a result. Two years ago, the Scottish Childminding Association warned that a workforce crisis was coming. Today, that crisis is here, and the association’s calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

How does the minister plan to not only stop the exodus of childminders from the profession but replace the 2,000 childminding businesses that are already closed?

Clare Haughey

We are committed to building a vibrant, thriving childminding sector and to promoting childminding, along with other roles across the early learning and childcare sector, as a valued and fulfilling career choice. We welcome the SCMA’s annual audit and the updated evidence that it gives us with regard to the involvement of childminders in funded ELC. We want to encourage more people into childminding, and we are working with the Scottish Childminding Association and other partners to address the decline in the childminding workforce—a trend that is mirrored elsewhere in the UK. We also want new childminding services to develop in areas with limited access to this form of ELC, and that is why we are supporting a recruitment pilot, led by the SCMA and partners, that aims to recruit and train 100 new childminders in remote and rural areas.

We have a number of supplementary questions. They will have to be brief, as will the answers.

I am sure that the Government will be taking a number of actions to ensure that Scotland has a sustainable childcare sector. For the benefit of the chamber, will the minister outline them?

Be as brief as possible, minister.

Clare Haughey

I will certainly try to be brief.

We are committed to supporting a sustainable, diverse and thriving childcare sector and, alongside maintaining a robust but proportionate means of monitoring the financial sustainability of the sector, we are providing support through providing the funding to allow councils to pay sustainable rates to private and third sector providers and to childminders for the delivery of funded ELC; legislating to continue the nursery rates relief scheme, which provides 100 per cent relief on non-domestic rates to eligible day nurseries beyond 13 June 2023; and progressing the actions that are set out in the financial sustainability health check, including funding pilot programmes of targeted business gateway support, which will be available to all childcare services.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I have been contacted by a number of deeply concerned constituents regarding the lack of early years care that is available in Huntly in Aberdeenshire. The minister might be aware that one of the providers in the town, Kiddie Winkles nursery, has announced its closure in the coming weeks due to the Care Inspectorate’s concerns about the quality of the building. So far, Aberdeenshire Council appears to be unwilling to plug the gap, and families are reporting that they might have to give up work in a cost of living crisis. Will the minister commit to working with the owners of the nursery and the Care Inspectorate to find a solution that will keep this vital service open?

Clare Haughey

Of course, Mr Marra will be aware that local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that every child can access a place, no matter where they reside. If Mr Marra wants to write to me with the details of that particular nursery, I will be happy to have my officials look into the difficulties that those parents are experiencing.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am sure that the minister is uncomfortable with the fact that one of her predecessors agreed that staff in private and voluntary nurseries are paid much less than their counterparts in council nurseries. What steps is she taking to close the gap with fair and equal funding, no matter where staff work?

Clare Haughey

I am sure that Mr Rennie is aware that our funding agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities allows councils to pay sustainable rates for funded ELC hours to private and third sector providers and childminders. The joint Scottish Government and COSLA guidance, which was published in May this year, is clear that rates should reflect up-to-date information on the costs of delivery, provide scope for reinvestment and enable delivery of the real living wage commitment.

Although the funding to providers in the third, private and childminding sectors is an important element of local authority ELC budgets, that funding must also cover a wide range of other costs. For example, as I said in response to Mr Marra’s question, local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that every child can access a place, no matter where they live, and they must provide services that would not be commercially viable for other providers.

For Mr Rennie’s information, on average, the funding to private and voluntary providers for 1,140 hours of funded ELC equates to between 33 and 45 per cent of their income.

I am going to have to set homework on the definition of “brief”. Brian Whittle should be very brief.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Are we sitting comfortably? To follow on from Willie Rennie’s question, the disparity in the salaries that can be offered to nursery staff in the private sector and those in the public sector is an issue. What can the Scottish Government do to try to prevent staff from drifting away from private sector nurseries to the public sector?

Clare Haughey

The recruitment and retention of a childcare workforce with the right skills, values and attributes remains a priority. Given the tight labour market, that is a key challenge. We have taken a number of actions to support recruitment and retention in the childcare workforce, including providing funding to local authorities to enable them to set local sustainable rates; working with the Scottish Social Services Council to invite those whose registrations have lapsed in recent years to rejoin the sector; providing resources to support recruitment to all parts of the sector; and working with partners on childminder-specific recruitment programmes.