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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Benefits of Independence, Education Reform Update, Business Motion, Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Great Bernera Community Land Buyout


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and responses.

Nursery Staff Recruitment Targets

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its nursery recruitment targets. (S6T-00781)

The Scottish Government does not set targets for early learning and childcare workforce recruitment.

Meghan Gallacher

In 2018, Nicola Sturgeon promised to recruit 435 additional graduates in nurseries to close the poverty-related attainment gap. Four years later, that target has not been met. New figures show that a quarter of posts are lying empty and more than 100 nurseries in the most deprived areas are missing a teacher. That is yet another Scottish National Party education failure. Why has that target never been met? Why have children in the most deprived areas been left without a nursery teacher?

Clare Haughey

Since 2017, the early learning and childcare workforce has expanded significantly. Since the ELC workforce expansion began in 2017, the number of graduates working in ELC with degrees relevant to the early years has increased by 52 per cent. That expansion meant that, by August 2021, every local authority in Scotland confirmed that they were able to offer 1,140 hours of ELC funding to all three and four-year-olds and the two-year-olds who needed that. That is great for the ability of families and children to access high-quality ELC that is delivered by a range of staff with different skills and qualifications, and it is a cornerstone of narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap.

Meghan Gallacher

I am astounded that the minister believes that the Scottish Government is doing a good job when our nursery sector is facing a staffing crisis. Nursery owners in the private, voluntary and independent sector have warned the Scottish Government that the expansion of free early learning and childcare is under threat. Pay gaps between local authority and private settings of around £1.40 an hour are causing nursery staff to leave the sector. The Scottish Government cannot continue to ignore those serious concerns. What measures will it implement to create equity between local authorities and the PVI sector? How will it address the staffing crisis?

Clare Haughey

Our collective focus throughout the 1,140 hour expansion has been on improving conditions across the private, voluntary and childminding workforce with regard to funded ELC. When ELC expansion began, local authorities were already paying above the living wage to their staff. The funding settlement reflects that. By contrast, our research indicates that around 80 per cent of staff who delivered funded ELC in the private and third sectors were paid less than the living wage at the time.

We have seen real progress since then, with our 2021 health check indicating that 88 per cent of private providers intended to pay the real living wage to all their staff by August 2021.

Public funding and Scottish Government policy can only effect a certain amount of change and, ultimately, business owners make their own decisions about their business models and salaries. That said, the Scottish Government has taken a range of actions to support the private and third sectors through the 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare expansion programme, including to support the recruitment of highly qualified childcare staff. We are taking a strategic approach to marking out the workforce requirements to deliver our existing and new commitments and we are taking forward a series of actions to support recruitment and retention across all parts of the childcare sector.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

It is excellent news for families that children are being offered 1,140 hours of early education and childcare. How many children who were offered that 1,140 hours have actually received it over the course of this year?

I know of a number of nurseries that have had to move to reduced hours to cope with staff absences because of a lack of resilience and staff shortages in the system.

As of January 2022, more than 111,000 children were benefiting from funded ELC—that is 97 per cent of eligible children.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am grateful to Meghan Gallacher for highlighting the Scottish Liberal Democrat research on this issue. At the current rate of progress, it will take 10 years to achieve a one-year target. No wonder the attainment gap is getting wider. Thousands of nursery children have been and gone without the benefit of the extra teacher that they were promised by Nicola Sturgeon. Given that she has just abandoned that commitment, which was made in 2017, how shall we believe any future commitment made by the First Minister in this chamber?

Clare Haughey

Teachers continue to have an important role to play as leaders and educators, alongside other degree-qualified ELC specialists supporting our youngest children on their learning journey.

Research shows that the best experiences for children are provided where there is a range of staff with complementary skills and higher level qualifications. We are proud of the continued growth in the number of degree-qualified ELC staff and those working towards degree-level qualifications.

Since the ELC workforce expansion began in 2017, the number of graduates working in ELC with degrees that are relevant to the early years has increased by 52 per cent; I hope that Mr Cole-Hamilton will welcome those statistics.

Pupil Equity Funding (Police Officers)

To ask the Scottish Government what immediate action it will take, in light of recent reports that nearly £2 million in pupil equity funding has been spent on police officers in schools since 2018. (S6T-00784)

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

Decisions on how to use pupil equity funding are taken by headteachers in an empowered education system. We trust schools and headteachers to know their pupils best, and to take decisions that are in the best interests of children and young people.

The majority of the £634 million in PEF distributed to schools is invested in approaches to improving literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing through the recruitment of additional teaching and support staff, family link workers and partnerships with third sector organisations.

Where there are projects involving Police Scotland in place, schools find those to be of great benefit. They are highly engaged in proactive and preventative work in communities with families, working alongside social work and third sector organisations. They are not policing in schools.

To be clear, the £2 million described is a very small proportion—just 0.3 per cent—of the pupil equity funding that has been distributed to schools across the 32 councils since 2017-18.

Willie Rennie

The education secretary really needs to cut the slopy shoulders act, because the pupil equity funding operational guidance that I have read—which I am sure that she wrote—that encourages this kind of spending says:

“Consideration should be given to how the school may want to work with community partners beyond education”,

so this is her doing. The Aberlour Child Care Trust, the children’s charity that made this discovery, wants to know what evidence there is that policing in schools will help children’s learning, so where is the evidence?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

For Mr Rennie’s benefit, I repeat that the police are not policing in schools, as I made very clear in my original answer.

Schools know their learners best. They are responsible for using pupil equity funding to undertake approaches that they think will best support their pupils to achieve their full potential.

It is very important that we look at how the money is spent. It is often spent on family link workers, for example, and in collaboration with those outside the school, including on youth work and family learning, and on approaches to reducing the cost of the school day.

I will give one example of how the money can be used and has been used in schools in Fife, where school holiday programmes have been targeted at supporting vulnerable and at-risk children, anti-violence programmes and transition programmes. The schools show an improved attendance rate, with early intervention in supporting children and families to avoid or limit criminal behaviours, and very much improved community relations. That is what happens when schools work with partners across the community, including—if they decide that it is necessary and appropriate—with the police. I think that some of the examples of that show that that has been working, as is shown from the feedback from headteachers.

Willie Rennie

The cabinet secretary presented no evidence. There is no evidence that policing in schools will help close the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026—or whatever the policy is this week—but her operational guidance still encourages that. What a slur on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have been branded as criminals by their Government before they have even had their first lesson. [Interruption.] It is the money that is supposed to follow the child—

Members! Thank you.

—not the police. Will the education secretary—

Excuse me, Mr Rennie.

—revise the operational guidance without delay—

The Presiding Officer

I am sorry, but the levels of noise in the chamber are wholly unacceptable. I could not hear a word that Mr Rennie said; neither, I am sure, could many others.

Mr Rennie, please continue.

Willie Rennie

Presiding Officer, I will say it again. Children have been branded as criminals by their Government before they have even had their first lesson. The money is supposed to follow the child, not the police. Will the education secretary revise the operational guidance without delay to prevent vital funds for education being diverted to fund police in schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Unsurprisingly, that has drawn great criticism from across the chamber. Mr Rennie may criticise the Scottish Government—Opposition parties may criticise the Government—but what he has just said is not a slur on the Scottish Government but on the headteachers who have chosen to use the pupil equity funding in that way. It is a slur on the teachers who have decided that they know their children best.

It is not often that I quote a Liberal Democrat conference speech, but I will on this occasion because Mr Rennie once said:

“I want teachers to be at the centre of how we make Scottish education the best”.

I presume that, in making that comment, Mr Rennie is saying that he wants education to be delivered by teachers.

However, here in the chamber, Mr Rennie is saying that teachers do not know best. Somehow, he knows best, without knowing any of the details of the projects that are involved. He is quite happy to come to this chamber and accuse teachers of making young people criminals. I hope that he goes away and thinks seriously about that. He need not apologise to me, but he needs to apologise to the teachers who have put the measures in place and to the pupils who they are there to serve.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

As someone with 30 years of experience as a teacher, I would like to celebrate the hard work of teachers and our young people in all their endeavours. I know from recent discussions with teachers and local police that staff are building relationships with the most vulnerable young people in our society and intervening early to build confidence and increase engagement with the curriculum, thereby increasing achievement.

Although it is a shame that Mr Rennie appears to have forgotten the commitment that he made at the 2020 Lib Dem conference to put teachers in charge, will the cabinet secretary assure the chamber that this Government is committed to empowering teachers to use PEF to best meet the needs of the young people in their schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We have heard from Kaukab Stewart another example of one of the projects in which schools have been reaching out and working directly with the police. Such projects have been shown, through constant positive feedback from staff and learners, to have made a difference, because young people have found that approach to be exceptionally useful. That approach can be used in a range of projects if teachers feel that that is the right thing to do. As the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I think that it is important that I do not just talk about empowerment but that I support it in practice. It is a shame that, rather than doing that, the Liberal Democrats have come here today to accuse teachers not only of the inappropriate use of funds but of making young people criminals. That is a sad and sorry state, even for Mr Rennie.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

The Education, Children and Young People Committee heard that pupil equity funding is being used to plug gaps in the budget—little did we realise that that meant the policing budget, too. Will the cabinet secretary take this opportunity to say that that practice is wrong? It might be, in her view, a small amount of money, but every penny that goes into education should be focused on teaching and learning. Can she not even agree with that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

A number of directors of education came to the committee to state, in response to questions, that pupil equity funding is additional funding and that they find that additionality important. That evidence from directors of education is on the record.

There is absolute support in the teaching profession for the use of pupil equity funding. Teachers feel that the funding is an important part of our empowered system. The Government is committed to an empowered education system; it is unfortunate that it seems that the Opposition parties are not.