Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 12, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The next item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills.

As ever, any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. As you might expect, there is quite a bit of interest in this item, so I would make the usual plea for brief questions and answers to match.

Question 1, in the name of Stuart McMillan, has been withdrawn.

Open-plan Classrooms (Primary Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what it considers to be the educational impact of open-plan classrooms on primary school children. (S6O-01757)

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

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that the schools in their area, whatever their design, are capable of providing an appropriate environment for effective learning and teaching. Therefore, consideration of the educational merits of open-plan classrooms is a matter for local authorities.

However, as part of our school building programme, we gather feedback from schools and we have heard how pupils and teachers can benefit from the increased connectivity that open-plan environments can offer. It is also important to consider the impact of activities that could be seen or heard between spaces and the positive or disruptive impact that they might have on others.

Kenneth Gibson

Open-plan environments are perceived to benefit child social development, but they are much noisier and such an environment impacts adversely on learning. Studies have found that children in the noisiest open-plan classrooms had significantly lower speech perception ability and slower response times than those being taught in traditional classrooms. Open-plan classrooms are therefore not appropriate for young or sensitive children. For teachers, they can mean raised blood pressure, increased stress levels, headaches and fatigue.

What steps are Scottish ministers and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities taking to review the use of open-plan classrooms, or at least to improve the acoustics in classrooms to minimise noise and ensure that adequate learning can take place?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Although the design and operation of school buildings is managed by local authorities to best suit their individual needs and circumstances—particularly those of their specific pupil cohorts—as I have mentioned, as part of our school building programme, we continue to receive feedback from schools and, importantly, from those who use open-plan classrooms.

Our learning estate strategy, which was produced jointly between the Scottish Government and COSLA, makes it clear that

“Learning environments should support and facilitate excellent joined up learning and teaching to meet the needs of all learners”.

It is important to stress that those facilities need to work for all.

The strategy also emphasises that teaching and learning environments

“should support the wellbeing of all learners”


“meet varying needs to support inclusion”.

We will continue to have discussions with young people and with parents and teachers as we move forward our learning estate strategy.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The previous school estate programme was in 2009. The Scottish Government is responsible for the building standards technical handbook for non-domestic buildings, which calls on auditory investigations to take place for new buildings. Is the cabinet secretary confident that acoustic assessments are being undertaking in buildings where children in open-plan classrooms are being exposed to excessive noise?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is very important that we look into how we are developing our learning estate programme and at the work that goes on between COSLA and the Scottish Government as we develop the design process for that.

As we consider the programme, I would be more than happy to get back to the member specifically on how that works with the wider issue of building standards that he mentioned. If the member will forgive me, I will get back to him on the detail of that.

School Placement Decisions (Appeals)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether parents should have the right to appeal on school placement decisions. (S6O-01758)

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

Under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, decisions on school placements are the responsibility of the local authority. The views of parents should be taken into account.

Parents should also be informed of the options that are available to them to appeal those decisions. If an agreement cannot be reached, parents and carers have the right to make a placing request to a school of their choice. If a placing request is refused, parents have a right to appeal.

Rona Mackay

I am trying to help a constituent who has been told that her son, who is flourishing in a mainstream primary school, must go to an additional support needs school next year instead of to a mainstream secondary school with his friends and peer group. Will the cabinet secretary set out what right to appeal parents, carers and pupils have in a situation like that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Under the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000, local authorities have a duty to provide education in a mainstream school unless specific exemptions apply. Authorities are supported in those decisions by our guidance on the presumption of mainstream education.

I set out the routes to appeal in my initial answer. I would urge the member’s constituent to engage with the school and local authority to resolve their concerns. The constituent might also wish to contact Enquire, which is an advice service, to discuss the details of their situation.

If my original answer is not detailed enough to allow Ms Mackay to help her constituent, I would be happy to receive further details from her in writing, so that I can see whether there is additional information that I can give her on the right to appeal in the very specific circumstances of her constituent’s case.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

In 2022, there were more than 350 fewer primary school teachers than there were in 2021, and there were fewer teachers from the teacher induction scheme teaching in their post-probation year than at any time since the scheme began.

Key to restoring our education system to its world-class status is reducing class sizes. Why is the Government cutting teacher numbers when school pupils have faced so much disruption over the past three years?

Forgive me, but I am not seeing the relevance of that to the original question; however, I am more than happy to answer.

I would certainly agree, cabinet secretary. Keep your response brief, on that basis.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Certainly. Recruitment and retention of staff is, of course, a matter for local authorities. The Government has a commitment to ensure that we have 3,500 additional teachers by the end of this parliamentary session. Part of that process has been the provision of further funding of £145 million, which has been baselined to local government, to support the teaching workforce.

Autism (Support for Children)

4. Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what cross-government review it has undertaken of policies supporting children with autism, including any assessment of the links between autism and other conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (S6O-01759)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

In March 2021, following a review, the Scottish Government published “Learning/Intellectual Disability and Autism: Towards Transformation”. Our plan looks at the actions that are needed to shape supports, services and attitudes to ensure that the human rights of autistic people and people with learning or intellectual disabilities are respected and protected. The plan includes a range of actions across the lifespan, including actions related to education, restraint and seclusion, health, post-diagnostic support, social care and employment.

In September 2021, we published the national neurodevelopmental specification for children and young people. It sets out seven standards for service providers to ensure that children and young people who have neurodevelopmental profiles receive the support that they need. Those cover autism and ADHD.

ADHD affects 5 to 7 per cent of the population, and co-occurrence across neurodevelopmental conditions is the norm. We know from research that 50 to 70 per cent of autistic people also present with ADHD, and that 20 to 50 per cent of children with ADHD also meet the criteria for autism.

Miles Briggs

I thank the minister for that useful answer.

One of my constituents is a mother of two boys who were diagnosed with autism by NHS Lothian some years back. She has told me about how she has watched her boys struggle to function at school and in society for up to six years. She took her boys to get a private assessment for ADHD, after which both were diagnosed and given the necessary support and medication. That has helped to transform their lives.

Will the Scottish Government agree to review pathways and guidance to ensure that health boards across Scotland are taking a holistic approach to the assessment of children? Will the Government also ensure that health boards review cases from over the past five years of children who have been diagnosed with autism to offer them a chance for an assessment for ADHD?

Clare Haughey

I think that we are straying into territory that is under the portfolio responsibilities of my colleagues in health. I will ask the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care to respond directly to the points that the member raises about health board pathways.

However, I can say that Scottish Government policies take a wide developmental approach that is inclusive of people with a range of conditions, including autism, learning disabilities, ADHD and fetal alcohol syndrome. We fund the national autism implementation team as a key partner, and it supports us with policy development across health and social care, as well as in education.

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

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

It is understood that the impact of changes that occur in adolescence are more difficult for some neurodiverse young people to manage than for their neurotypical peers. What engagement has the minister had with neurodiverse adolescents and their parents to ensure that Scottish Government policies that are intended to support young neurodiverse people reflect the particular difficulties that are associated with that transition?

Clare Haughey

In line with the development of all policy that affects those with lived experience, the Scottish Government will engage regularly with service providers, children and young people and their families and carers, and with key stakeholders, in the development of pathways and service provision.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Multiple constituents have approached me, as parents, with their concerns about how schools are treating their child with autism and the impact that that has on their child’s mental health. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that children with autism are offered sufficient mental health support in school and that safeguards exist against poor practice?

As briefly as possible, minister.

Clare Haughey

Again, I think that that question strays into the territory of the health portfolio. The “Review of additional support for learning implementation: report”, which was published in 2020, set out a clear direction of how we can continue to build on our progress, and it made recommendations on how to improve the implementation of additional support for learning, which is vital for those young people.

We published our joint action plan with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland in October 2020, which set out the measures that we will take to implement those recommendations. Last November, we published our second progress report and an updated action plan, which highlights that 24 of the 76 recommendations have been completed and that the rest are under way.

I hope that that gives the member some reassurance about the work that is being done in the education portfolio, but, if he wishes to pick up on other areas that are covered by my colleagues in health, I am more than happy to get them to write to him.

Budget 2023-24 (Impact on Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact its draft budget for 2023-24 will have on schools. (S6O-01760)

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

We have protected councils in the most challenging budget settlement since devolution by providing more than £13.2 billion through the local government settlement, which represents a real-terms increase when compared to 2022-23 and supports the continued delivery of high-quality education for our children

In addition to that, our schools funding will impact the most important areas in relation to education delivery, attainment and tackling child poverty. For example, we are investing a further £200 million for the Scottish attainment challenge to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.

We are also providing funding to local government to significantly reduce the cost of the school day.

Murdo Fraser

Despite the largest block grant from Westminster in the history of devolution, the Scottish Government’s budget delivers real-terms cuts in funding for local councils, as the Accounts Commission has made clear in its report this morning.

In my region, Perth and Kinross Council is facing a £20 million budget gap in the current year, which could see teacher and child psychologist numbers cut and primary swimming lessons, all school-crossing patrollers, and breakfast clubs for underprivileged children scrapped. How can the cabinet secretary possibly defend a budget settlement that is leading a Scottish National Party-run council to take decisions such as those?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The council budgets are not set yet, and a variety of suggestions might come forward from officials, on which it will be for councillors to take decisions in due course. The numbers that I mentioned in my original answer are correct. We compare—as we do every budget year—the proposed budget to the allocations that Parliament approved in the previous year, and that shows the best like for like comparison of available funding at this stage in the budget cycle.

Murdo Fraser hears this every year: on this matter and on all aspects that relate to the budget, if he wishes more funding to be spent, whether in local government or directly in the education budget, he has to say where in the Scottish Government budget that money would come from, because it will be fully allocated—

Scrap the national care service.

There you go!

If the member wishes to see changes rather than continue to talk through my answer, he might start to write down fully costed allocations and propose them to the Deputy First Minister.

There are a number of supplementaries to this and subsequent questions. It would be helpful if members limited themselves to asking the questions and listening to the responses.

Natalie Don (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for her previous assessment. Schools are only one part of the multifaceted infrastructure of Scotland’s education system. Further to her original response, can she say how the 2023-24 budget will protect and enhance our whole education system, from early years through to lifelong learning?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Through the budget, I am continuing to invest in changing the lives of children and young people and learners of all ages. For example, we have the £1 billion of funding each year that is continuing to deliver 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare; we have agreed that £50 million should be allocated to the whole-family wellbeing fund, including preventative holistic family support; and, of course, we are investing £30 million in activities to keep the Promise to our care-experienced children. Those are just some of many examples that I could give of how we are improving our education system, from early years to lifelong learning.

Michael Marra—briefly.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has warned that the budget will result in significant reductions in teacher numbers across the country. The cabinet secretary is committed to recruiting 3,500 more teachers, despite the fact that 100 were cut in the past year. How many more of those teachers will be delivered this year?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Of course, in the current financial year, the Scottish Government provided £145.5 million that was baselined into local government to ensure that councils could change temporary contracts to permanent contracts. I am exceptionally disappointed that, despite that funding, we saw a reduction in teacher numbers.

I will continue to have discussions with COSLA on that area, but I repeat—very briefly, Presiding Officer—the same point that I made to Mr Fraser: if Mr Marra would like changes to be made and additional funding to be put into this or other areas, he can, of course, suggest where that money should come from.

School Inspections

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that schools are inspected regularly. (S6O-01761)

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

Each year, His Majesty’s chief inspector of education determines the scale and priorities of the inspection programme, in agreement with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Prior to the pandemic, Education Scotland strengthened its scrutiny functions and committed to carrying out 250 school inspections each year. This academic year, Education Scotland will meet that commitment. An estimated 500 school inspections would have been carried out if it had not been for the disruption caused by Covid-19.

As is set out in the programme for government, an education reform bill will be introduced to establish an independent inspectorate. A high-level operating model for the new independent inspectorate is being developed and will be shared with stakeholders and users early this year. That will set out how the inspectorate will operate effectively to provide the independent assurance of quality that our education system needs.

Daniel Johnson

The reality is that those steps have been inadequate. A freedom of information response that was published in September showed that 1,118 state primary and secondary schools in Scotland had not been inspected in a decade. In my local area, the picture is even worse: 10 schools have not been inspected in the past 10 years, and four schools have not been inspected in more than 10 years—indeed, one of them has not been inspected since 2006. In my area, there are three schools that will not have been inspected in the entire lifespan of Education Scotland. As we look to its successor organisation, can we guarantee parents and pupils that their schools will be inspected at least once in the time that the children attend them?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I set out in my original answer the impact that Covid has had on the carrying out of school inspections. A point that I hope will reassure Daniel Johnson is that inspections are not the only method of scrutiny, as schools and local authorities also have responsibility for evaluating performance. Indeed, as the provision of education is a responsibility of local authorities in Scotland, they have a duty to provide adequate and efficient school education. Under the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000, the local authority is responsible for improving the quality of education in the schools that it manages, with a view to raising standards.

School inspections are exceptionally important. That is exactly why we have the high-level target operating model that is being developed. I welcome any contributions that Daniel Johnson wants to make when we publish the model, but, again, I state that inspections are not the only way in which the Government, its agencies and local authorities can ensure continuous improvement in schools.

I call Stephen Kerr for a brief supplementary.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

That was just more complacency from the cabinet secretary. The reality is that 1,118 schools—nearly 50 per cent of Scotland’s schools—have not been inspected for 10 years. Are you not embarrassed, cabinet secretary? Tell us one thing that you are going to do now in order to rectify the situation.

You should speak through the chair, Mr Kerr.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I stated in my original answer to Daniel Johnson’s question, there was, of course, an impact from Covid in the fact that 500 school inspections that we would have expected to see did not happen. Pre-Covid, Education Scotland did a great deal of work to ensure that it strengthened its scrutiny functions and carried out more school inspections each year than it had done in many years before then.

It is important that we take the role of school inspections very seriously. That is exactly why we have a reform process that is leading to an independent inspectorate. I would welcome the constructive views of Mr Kerr and others on how we can ensure that that independent inspectorate is as effective and efficient as it can be.

Closing the Attainment Gap

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its progress in closing the attainment gap. (S6O-01762)

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

In December, we published the latest achievement of curriculum for excellence levels statistics, the 2023 national improvement framework and plan, and the stretch aims that each local authority has put in place for closing the attainment gap. Together, those set out the latest evidence on progress and our plans, shared with local government, for substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026.

There are promising signs that the attainment gap is, once again, beginning to narrow. However, there is more to do. That is why we will invest a further £200 million next year in the Scottish attainment challenge, as part of our £1 billion commitment this parliamentary session.

Graham Simpson

In fact, there has been no progress in the past five years.

In the aftermath of the Scottish budget, the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, Jim Thewliss, said that education cuts will see class sizes increased and subjects removed. How will cutting subjects and increasing class sizes help to eliminate—or “substantially eliminate”; that is the Government’s phrase—the attainment gap by 2026?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

For the sake of brevity, I will point to the previous answers that I gave in response to Murdo Fraser’s questions about the importance—[Interruption.] If the member will allow me to answer the question, that is exactly what I will do.

The issue around budgets has been discussed with Murdo Fraser and others. It is important that we look at the investment that is going into not only education but local government. We are taking steps to ensure that we continue to invest in our children and young people, and it is gravely unfair of the member to suggest that there has been no improvement.

For the sake of speed, I will give only one example. The gap between the proportion of primary pupils from the most deprived and least deprived areas who achieve their expected level in literacy narrowed from the previous year. That is important. We saw that in numeracy, as well. For both literacy and numeracy, the figures represent the largest single narrowing of the gap since data collection began in 2016-17.

As in other educational areas across the United Kingdom and further afield, Covid has had an impact. It would be wrong to suggest that that is not the case. However, we are seeing an improving picture within the ACEL statistics, and I would have thought that the member would welcome that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

In fairness, that was not a brief response, cabinet secretary. That means that I am not able to take supplementaries from either of the members who were looking to get in on that question.

We need to move on to question 8, from James Dornan, who is joining us remotely.

Scottish Government Education Priorities 2023

To ask the Scottish Government what its priorities for education will be in 2023. (S6O-01763)

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

Tackling the poverty-related attainment gap remains the priority for the Scottish Government, and it is at the heart of our ambitious reform programme, which aims to provide learners with the best opportunities to succeed. The priorities for Scottish education are set out in the 2023 national improvement framework, which was published in December 2022. They place the human rights and needs of every child and young person at the centre of education, alongside improving the health and wellbeing of children and young people, closing the attainment gap, improving attainment and skills, and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people.

James Dornan

I welcome the fact that tackling the attainment gap remains a key priority for the Scottish Government. I also welcome the news that Professor John McKendrick has been appointed as the new Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland. How will that appointment help to drive forward progress to further close the poverty-related attainment gap?

You should be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I, too, am delighted to welcome the appointment of Professor John McKendrick, who brings great experience to the role, and I look forward to working with him alongside my colleague Mr Hepburn. That is, of course, a very important role as we continue to see further success in the Scottish Government’s ambitions on widening access.

Sue Webber is next—a brief supplementary, please.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

Teachers are on strike—the first strike for 40 years. We have heard from countless teachers and the unions, who say that they feel ignored by the Government and that it is not fully engaged in the negotiations.

We also know that violence in the classroom is up, with more than 20,000 instances of violence against teachers and school staff in the last academic year.

Ignored by the Government and unsafe in the classroom—

Briefly, Ms Webber.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that ending teacher strikes and making teachers safe in the classroom must be a priority for education in 2023?

It is, indeed, a priority, and that is why further constructive talks are happening today.

Next is Beatrice Wishart—a brief supplementary, please.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

In terms of priorities for education, the Scottish Government made a commitment to replace Erasmus and to create a Scottish education exchange programme. Although repeatedly asked for in this chamber by colleagues, a date is still elusive. Wales made such a programme happen, so what discussions has the Scottish Government had with Welsh counterparts on that, and will the cabinet secretary commit to a timetable so that students know when they will be able to benefit from a learning exchange?

Cabinet secretary—as briefly as possible, please.

That is, of course, a Government commitment that we hold dear. Work is progressing on that and we will deliver on it within this parliamentary session.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. That concludes portfolio question time.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. You tried to fit in as many supplementary questions as possible, but you said that it became impossible largely because of the length of the ministerial answers. That is not unique to this question session. I ask for your guidance on what is being done to encourage ministers—including the First Minister—to shorten the answers that they give to the questions, which are becoming more concise.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank Mr Kerr for his point. As a former business manager, he will be well aware of the on-going discussions that there have been with business managers from all parties about the length of not only the answers but the questions.

In portfolio questions, we have seen evidence of both questions and answers not being brief, and all parties suffer as a result. I would impress this upon all members: in order to provide opportunities for as many questions as possible, the questions and the answers need to be as brief as possible. However, Mr Kerr, I think that attributing blame in one direction in this instance is unfair and inaccurate.

We will now move on to the next item of business.