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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


Education Reform Update

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

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


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

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Parliament on the Scottish Government’s education reform and improvement agenda. I will cover a number of areas, including our forthcoming national discussion on the vision for Scottish education, the creation of three new national education bodies, the independent review of qualifications and assessment that Professor Louise Hayward has been asked to lead, and the development of a set of purpose and principles for the post-school education research and skills system.

As have other education systems across the world, the Scottish education system has been tested by the pandemic. In many ways, it has shown itself to be resilient, creative and adaptive. However, the pandemic has presented big challenges and it is therefore right that, collectively, we take the opportunity to reflect and reform.

We start from strong foundations. Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom to offer 1,140 funded hours of early learning and childcare to eligible children. Our school pupils are benefiting from more teachers. Teacher numbers are at their highest since 2008 and are the highest, per pupil, of any United Kingdom country. More than 93 per cent of school leavers have progressed to positive destinations in education, employment or training.

On tackling the attainment gap, we are making good progress, too. A record 16.7 per cent of university entrants in 2021 came from backgrounds that were in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas according to the Scottish index of multiple deprivation.

Scotland has a highly educated population. It has the highest proportion in the UK of adults with tertiary-level education. At the heart of our reform programme is pride in the skills, talent and commitment in our education system, with a recognition that we cannot stand still, that change is needed and that reform is necessary as we look to the future. That is a message in Professor Ken Muir’s report and one that we hear from across the sector.

I have made clear my determination to deliver change, but that is something that Government cannot and should not deliver alone. Professor Muir highlights in his report that education policy and services are best developed when they are informed by the practice and experience of those people who use and deliver them at every level. We want to bring the widest possible range of voices and views into the room.

I am sure that the chamber will agree that it is our children and young people who hold the biggest stake in our education system, and I am determined that they will be heard just as strongly across our reform programme as they were in Professor Muir’s report.

We know the incredible work that teachers, school staff and practitioners do to support learners and we will continue to draw on that experience and expertise through our engagement with professional associations and more widely. We will be proactive in engaging with all those who have a stake in the continued success of our education system—delivery partners, trades unions, equality and human rights organisations, Gaelic medium and Scots language sectors, practitioners working at every level, employers, the youth work sector, parents and carers and their representative organisations, and wider communities. It is also important that the agenda for education reform is far reaching and covers the span of our lifelong learning journey.

I have committed the Scottish Government to holding a national discussion to establish a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish education. Those people who work in the sector and many in the chamber will recall the national debate on education, which was held in 2002 and led to the creation of curriculum for excellence—a curriculum that last year’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development independent report found

“offers an inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education”.

Two decades on from the last national debate on Scottish education, the time is right to discuss our vision for the education system. That discussion is for everyone, and I have written today to education spokespeople from all parties in the chamber to invite them to take part. Professor Muir has challenged all of us to work together to establish a consensual vision for education that can genuinely put the learner at the centre. I sincerely hope that we all rise to that challenge, including today.

We might not agree on everything, but that should never stop us from finding common ground. The Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, our local government partner, will co-convene the national discussion, which will launch in the new term.

Local government is the statutory provider of education and any truly national discussion has to be a joint endeavour. I am grateful to COSLA for its support for the national discussion and look forward to working with it in the coming months.

I am pleased to inform Parliament that Carol Campbell, who is a professor of leadership and educational change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Dr Alma Harris, who is emeritus professor at Swansea University and professor at Cardiff school of education and social policy, have agreed to co-facilitate the national discussion.

Both professors have extensive experience of educational change, leadership and school improvement, as well as a strong understanding of the Scottish education system through their work as members of the international council of education advisers. They are committed to ensuring that the discussion engages widely and reflects the views of those to whom we need to listen most—our learners. It is by listening carefully to the learners of today that we will build a vision for the education system of the future. We are grateful to the Scottish Youth Parliament for the work that it will do over the summer to start gathering the views of young people and we look forward to working with many other organisations and learners as we seek to hold a discussion in which we prioritise listening to those whose voices are seldom heard.

I want that discussion to be the most inclusive ever on education, and I look forward to meeting later this month all the members of our international council of education advisers, who will be able to bring their diverse, international perspectives to bear on the opportunities and challenges for Scotland’s education system in a post-pandemic world.

It is crucial that our reform programme takes this opportunity to reflect, debate and develop what we need not just now but in the future for all parts of the learner journey, which is why I asked Professor Louise Hayward to undertake an independent review of qualifications and assessment.

As with Professor Ken Muir’s work, that process is fully independent, and I can confirm that Professor Hayward has now started the review and is committed to meaningful engagement with all interested parties, not least young people themselves. An independent review group has been established that includes young people and teachers, who will now work with their peers to consider options for change.

The review will also engage directly with schools, colleges and key partners in learner journey qualifications and assessment. Professor Hayward will report to me by the end of March 2023 and, crucially, will work closely with the national discussion, so that key initial findings from that exercise can be considered ahead of final recommendations on the future of examinations and assessment.

Those strands of work will also connect into and inform the development of the purpose and principles for our post-school education, research and skills ecosystem. The development of the purpose and principles is an opportunity to stimulate debate, challenge perceptions and further develop a shared evidence base on what the post-school ecosystem delivers for Scotland, aligning our efforts and decisions to deliver the outcomes that we want to see.

I have spoken about our commitment to design and deliver real change and to bring wide and diverse voices into the conversation. That will also be reflected in how we create a new qualifications body, a new national agency for Scottish education and an independent inspectorate body. Those bodies will replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland.

Design and delivery of the new bodies will be informed by engagement with a broad spectrum of those with a stake in their success and underpinned by a determination to bring in external views and innovative ideas that test, challenge and embed new approaches, cultures, governance, accountabilities and ways of working.

I have ensured that Professors Ken Muir and Louise Hayward have key roles in those arrangements, in order to provide on-going strategic and external support and critical challenge. I will also ensure that a number of external individuals sit at the very centre of the work that is now starting to design the new bodies, to provide the critical challenge that will be needed to achieve real change and reform of the system.

Building on the foundations that have been laid by Professor Muir’s extensive engagement, a stakeholder reference group, which I will chair, will shortly be established, and we will also look to draw on the approach that has been taken by Social Security Scotland through its experience panels, so that a broad range of people with an interest in education can have a say in the design of processes and services for the new bodies. However, I emphasise to Parliament that overall accountability and responsibility for the reform programme will be with the Scottish Government and, ultimately, with me as cabinet secretary.

I have been clear and unambiguous in setting out my desire for substantive change and meaningful reform, with children and young people, families, teachers and practitioners playing a key part in that decision making.

Staff in Education Scotland and the SQA deserve our thanks for continuing to deliver for Scotland’s learners, including successful delivery of exams over the past two months, and we will ensure that their knowledge, expertise and experience contributes to the reform process.

I spoke earlier about the importance of early learning and childcare. We are committed to ensuring that inspection of early learning and childcare supports delivery of high-quality services and ensures appropriate scrutiny, but we need to remove unnecessary burdens and duplications.

We welcome Professor Muir’s recommendation that there should be a shared inspection framework for early learning and childcare settings, which will be developed by the Care Inspectorate and the new education inspectorate. We will shortly come forward with specific proposals to consult the sector, followed by a programme of engagement over the summer and autumn. I am working with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education and the chief executive of the Care Inspectorate to identify what they can do in partnership—from the start of the next academic year—to streamline and improve the inspection process for providers.

Each of the areas that I have updated on today will be developed through joint working in the weeks and months to come. It will be a discussion and journey for everyone who has a stake in the continued success of Scottish education.

I look forward to continuing to work constructively with members and others on our reform ambitions.

The Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

This is not education reform; it is more of the same with a different name. While standards continue to slip and our young people are let down, this Government does not do very much at all. Professor Walter Humes sums it up as

“boards ... populated by the usual suspects”,

including senior staff

“from the bodies which are to be replaced.”

He says:

“It sounds like insider dealing, with those who are part of the problem being tasked with producing solutions.”

He is right, is he not? The cabinet secretary and the First Minister are part of the problem, are they not?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The remarks that Oliver Mundell refers to were made before I made the statement and before the Scottish Government made any announcements about the governance of the process.

To any member who still has a doubt about my ambitions for change in the area, I say that, very early after I came into my post, I set out my determination on the reform process. I came to education from another position in the Scottish Government that has moved away from a system that was unpopular, and about which people had concerns, and from that we have developed a social security system that has delivered real change and is now respected across Scotland. The Government has—and I have—a history of delivering such change, and that is exactly what I am determined to do.

I appreciate that people will be concerned that this is not a complete programme of reform. I have made it very clear why that is not the case. The programme will be overseen by ministers but, of course, it will be delivered by Scottish Government officials. In my statement, I spoke about the importance of the critical friends and critical contact that we will have in that process. Nothing will prevent change from happening.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I hope that the cabinet secretary will appreciate the frustration of members in the chamber over the interminable delays here. She talks about real change, but nothing has actually changed although we have more and more groups talking about it. If the cabinet secretary wanted to send an invitation to join a group, she could have picked up the phone; she did not have to make a statement to Parliament to do that.

There was precious little else in the statement that we did not already know. It confirmed, once again, only the glacial pace of reform. Today—eight months on from Professor Hayward’s appointment—could we not have expected to have an interim report, at the very least? When on earth will the actual report be published? This delay is not without cost or consequence. A generation of young Scots has been failed by the Scottish Government, debilitated by the pandemic and left without solution or redress, which is entirely unacceptable.

It is good to have it confirmed today that Education Scotland will go. Has the cabinet secretary written a letter to the leaders of that organisation today, too? Only days ago, the Education, Children and Young People Committee was told that that body was not being scrapped and that, for years to come, it was going to be “business as usual”. That, Presiding Officer, is the problem. It means savage yearly cuts in schools, colleges and universities—or the post-school ecosystem, as civil servants would have us call it. Does the cabinet secretary agree that any discussion of reform must be accompanied by an acknowledgement of those cuts and a commitment to resource our education system properly?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I look forward to the Scottish Labour Party actually bringing through costed proposals at the next budget. I may have a long wait, Presiding Officer, because it does not do so; its members simply make statements in Parliament and do not back them up with information on how their proposals would be resourced. That is the difference between being in opposition, with no hope of being in government, and being in government itself.

Business as usual is important, because, until the new organisations are established, the existing ones will continue to deliver support for teachers and to deliver exams. The idea of business as usual therefore should not be mocked or sidelined; it is to be encouraged, to ensure that our children and young people are still supported through the process.

We have talked about the need for speed on the issue. It is true that there is room for improvement on that, which is exactly why the Scottish Government has already delivered 2,000 additional teachers over pre-pandemic levels and has committed to £1 billion-worth of expenditure. When looking at longer-term progress on reform, it is important that we do so not just as a Government, but in a wider way that encourages a great conversation and a discussion about what needs to happen. That is exactly why we have set up—and will continue to pursue—facilitation work with the Scottish Youth Parliament, our teachers and stakeholder groups to ensure that they are hearing from each other and that their conclusions are getting directly to me.

Professor Louise Hayward is independent of the Scottish Government. She has been working exceptionally well with people in the education system to develop an innovative approach to delivering her report. She is keen to work with the national discussion. It is important that she responds after that stage, because I do not want to be in a position whereby what is decided for qualifications tilts what we do on the rest of our progress on education reform. That is exactly why the reform process has been worked on closely right across the education system. I hope that, despite the questions that he has asked today, Michael Marra will take part in that.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s update and the next stage of crucial reform that she has set out today, particularly the commitment to put the voices of our young people at the heart of that reform. The cabinet secretary will agree that we must provide assurances to learners that the process will deliver real and meaningful change. What assurances can the cabinet secretary provide of her personal commitment to delivering just that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I made very clear in my initial statement and in my answer to Oliver Mundell, I am determined to deliver real change in the education system. We will work across Government to engage with practitioners, learners, those who deliver and use education and those who have differing views from the Scottish Government to ensure that all those views are heard at the centre of the reform process. An example of that is what we have set up in the national discussion and in the reform and replacement of the organisations and qualifications.

We are learning from what has worked well in other parts of Government—for example, around social security—to ensure that we are using a wide range of partners who are not just the usual suspects that you would expect to see around the table in a discussion on education. We are reaching out as extensively as we possibly can—for example, through the user panels.

There is an opportunity for real change, and that is what I am determined to deliver.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

That was another education statement, with a lot of words but no direct action. We have commitments from the cabinet secretary today that will create greater levels of bureaucracy, but we have yet to see any meaningful change. Call me cynical, but why has the statement been brought forward to today? Is it just a ploy to deflect attention from the Scottish Government’s desperate attempt to kickstart a new independence referendum campaign?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Meghan Gallacher will know that it is not the job of the Government—and, in particular, not my job—to set the parliamentary timetable. It was important to get out a statement on Scottish education. Normally, I am criticised for not making statements or holding debates on Scottish education, but now we are being criticised for bringing them to the Parliament. [Interruption.]

What Meghan Gallacher calls democracy, I call consultation. That is what people are looking to see. The need for consultation came through very strongly in Ken Muir’s report, as did the need to listen to young people. [Interruption.]

I am afraid that Michael Marra is not even listening to my response, never mind to the children, young people and teachers. Consultation is required. That came through strongly in Professor Muir’s work—it was his first recommendation to the Government. I am prepared to take that on. I do not see any response from the Opposition parties to suggest that they are rising to the challenge so far.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

Like any reasonable person, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s invitation to Opposition parties to play a constructive role in the reform programme process. Can the cabinet secretary provide any further detail on the robust and credible nature of the external challenge regime that she envisions?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the most important aspects of the reform programme is inviting that critical challenge at the heart of the reform process. I have spoken about the stakeholder reference group, which I will chair. That group will ensure that a wide range of stakeholders have direct ability to have discussions with me about areas of hope and concern and will ensure that that is core to the reform process.

I hope that the role within the programme that we have offered to Professor Ken Muir and Professor Louise Hayward, to provide that critical challenge, offers reassurance to those in the sector. In particular, the work of Professor Ken Muir, which has already been published, has been widely acknowledged to have landed well. It presents the education secretary with challenges as well as a lot of hope for the future.

There is a great deal that we can do in the national discussion. I mentioned the co-facilitators that we have used in an attempt to take the politics out of the discussion on the education system, as was suggested, for example, by the outgoing secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Larry Flanagan. I hope that the national discussion, co-chaired by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities but facilitated by two external experts, will be another way of ensuring that we do just that.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

With a rising attainment gap, lower levels of attainment funding and an organisation that the cabinet secretary has deemed not fit for purpose leading our assessments—although apparently we should not criticise business as usual—is she not disappointed and frustrated by her lack of pace in implementing the reforms? They will seek to undo the damage of Scottish National Party reforms since 2007, of which there are too many to list.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There has been increased funding for attainment, with £1 billion allocated over this parliamentary session compared with £750 million in the previous session. We were seeing improvement in the attainment gap pre-pandemic, although it is clear that the pandemic presented Scotland with certain challenges, as it did education systems across the world. That is exactly why we have provided additional funding for the attainment challenge and why we are providing more teachers. We have made the commitment to have 3,500 more teachers by the end of the parliamentary session and, as I mentioned earlier, 2,000 more teachers than pre-pandemic levels.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The reformed system of education that the cabinet secretary outlines needs to serve learners. Children and young people must be centred in the process of reform; how will the Scottish Government ensure that that happens?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will meet a group of children and young people in the first of a series of engagement sessions very soon to hear directly from them about their priorities for education. That is the first in a series of moves that we are making in education to shift the power balance in order to enable learners to be fully centred in the development of the reform progress.

I mentioned in my statement the important work that we will carry out, which will be facilitated by the Scottish Youth Parliament. It will undertake an open discussion in its forthcoming summer sitting to ask young people how the national discussion should be shaped, and Professor Hayward has two members of the Scottish Youth Parliament working on her independent review group. I hope that that gives Ruth Maguire some examples of how we are putting young people at the heart of the process.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

In the past few days, the education secretary’s speech to the EIS has been described as “pathetically weak” by its new general secretary, she was humiliated by the First Minister on the date for closing the poverty-related attainment gap and she has broken her promise to have a qualified nursery teacher in every deprived community. With that record, what confidence can we have in the chance of real reform?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I welcomed my discussions with the new general secretary of the EIS, as I enjoyed my discussions with the previous general secretary, and I am sure that those will continue on many issues, on some of which we will agree and some we will not.

However, we have a shared endeavour that is wider than just the Scottish Government and the EIS, which is to have a discussion about education reform and the replacement of our organisations. Of course, there has been no change and will be no change to the policy on the removal of the attainment gap. Mr Rennie and others may wish to misinterpret and misconstrue that and attempt to claim that there is a division between me and the First Minister, but there is none, there will be none and we are determined to fulfil our pledges in the programme for government.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

We need to make sure that we hear from the people who know our pupils and education system best—our teachers. What opportunities will teachers have to shape Scotland’s reformed education system through the process that the cabinet secretary has outlined today?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Teachers will very much be at the heart of the reformed system, along with young people. I again mention the stakeholder reference group, in which teachers will play an important part. I mentioned earlier that we are giving further thought to who we can involve directly on the delivery boards, and I am sure that teachers will play a role in those.

That will go alongside the work that I continue to do when I meet, for example, the teachers panel, which ensures that I have direct contact with front-line teachers, which I find exceptionally useful. I would like to consider how we could take the important example of the experience panels that we used in Social Security Scotland and use them in the education reform process, and that will of course involve teachers.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

The success of the process will depend on a change in culture, as well as a change in structures. An entirely fair criticism in recent years has been about the hostility of the education agencies—particularly the SQA—to any feedback and constructive criticism. The role of the stakeholder reference group will be key to providing the unvarnished, constructive challenge that is needed to establish the new culture. How will that group engage directly with the officials who are designing the new bodies?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

An important aspect of the stakeholder reference group is that I will chair it and I will hear from it frequently during the reform process to ensure that it has a direct link to not just officials, but ministers.

Ross Greer’s point about culture is exceptionally important. We have to ensure that we not only get the structures correct but that the cultures and values that we want in our education system are absolutely embedded from day 1 in our new agencies, whether that is the replacement for the SQA, the replacement for Education Scotland or, indeed, the new inspectorate. We can do that by ensuring that, during the initial discussions and workings, the working group and the entirety of the reform programme board discuss culture and the fact that we cannot move on in any of this unless we ensure that the culture is appropriate in all the replacement organisations.

We all want Scotland’s education system to compete with the best in the world. How will the Scottish Government ensure that we use this opportunity of reform to learn from the best globally?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the important ways in which we can do that is through the facilitators that I have announced for the national discussion on education. I will continue to ensure that I seek the views of the International Council of Education Advisers. I look forward to meeting it in a few weeks’ time to discuss the reform process. We have, of course, invited the OECD to provide us with critical challenge on a number of occasions through the reviews of the curriculum for excellence and further reviews that it has carried out. It is important that we act on the recommendations. The reform process is a good example of that.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

In the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting on 18 May, I asked the cabinet secretary when the attainment gap would be closed. She said:

“I will not set an arbitrary date for when the attainment gap will be closed”.—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 18 May 2022; c 4.]

Those are the cabinet secretary’s very words in response to my very open question. The First Minister now says that that will be 2026. The Parliament deserves to hear the cabinet secretary say here and now that the attainment gap will be closed by 2026—within the lifetime of this session. Will she produce a set of milestones by which we can judge how she is progressing towards the achievement of that objective? Those are two very simple questions.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The discussion that we had in the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting and the discussion that is being had about the First Minister’s reflections on the programme for government show that we are all—right across Government—determined to close the attainment gap. Yes, progress will have been impacted by the pandemic but, as the programme for government in 2016 set out, we are absolutely determined to see progress. That has been laid out in the programme for government—[Interruption.]—of 2026 and nothing has changed from what is in that programme for government, or in what the First Minister has said on the issue, or, indeed, in any of the discussions that I have had in the Education, Children and Young People Committee. We are all—right across Government—determined to close the attainment gap and we will be able to see that.

We are determined to see local government, which is directly involved in delivering education, approach the work through the stretch aims that we have asked it to proceed with. That is a new addition to our education system. The local authorities will develop those stretch aims and I said in the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting that we will publish those. [Interruption.] If I am not happy or I am concerned about the pace of change, I will, of course, let the Education, Children and Young People Committee know.

It is unfortunate, Presiding Officer, that through that entire answer, Mr Kerr has refused to listen, so I think that we will perhaps be round this road again, because he has refused to listen to what the Scottish Government is doing—[Interruption.]—or to listen to the work that we are doing with local government to ensure that we are delivering on the attainment gap.

That concludes the ministerial statement on an education reform update. There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business.