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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Ferguson Marine, Covid-19 Vaccination Programme, Committee Announcement (Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee), Decision Time, Highly Protected Marine Areas (“The Clearances Again”)


Topical Question Time

Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland

1. Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported comments made by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland that the Scottish Government has “absolutely” failed to deliver for children. (S6T-01375)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I thank Bruce Adamson for all that he has done as Children and Young People’s Commissioner, but I do not recognise the picture that he paints. This Government introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment to tackle child poverty; we are delivering 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare to all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds; we have introduced free bus travel for all under-22s; and we have the most generous provision of free school meals in any part of the United Kingdom.

We are doing all that as a devolved Government, within a fixed budget. Despite that, we will continue to make real progress in delivering for our children in what have been, and continue to be, very challenging times.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

The children’s commissioner is hugely respected and has long shown his personal and professional commitment to the rights of children and young people, for which I thank him.

He is fundamentally correct in saying that the Scottish National Party Government has failed to keep its promises to children and young people. It has failed on the attainment gap, free bikes, child poverty, counselling in schools and free school meals—and the list goes on. Does the cabinet secretary accept that it is time for the Government to stop patting itself on the back and to start working to improve the lives of children and young people in Scotland?

Jenny Gilruth

I, too, have great respect for Bruce Adamson and, in fact, sat on the panel for his appointment back in 2017, when I was a back bencher.

Pam Duncan-Glancy will appreciate that I have been in this post for just six weeks. I would certainly welcome the opportunity to discuss those matters with the outgoing children’s commissioner, who I understand will demit office from tomorrow. I have asked to meet him to discuss the points that he has raised in the press. The role of the children’s commissioner is fundamentally about improving the lives of our young people, and I very much look forward to working constructively with the new children’s commissioner, Nicola Killean, when she takes up her post later this year.

I must rebut some of Pam Duncan-Glancy’s suggestions. It is also important to look at the context of the debate. The latest poverty statistics, which were published in March, show that child poverty rates in Scotland remain 6 per cent lower than in the UK as a whole, at 24 per cent compared with 30 per cent in 2021-22. In England, 31 per cent of children live in poverty, as do 28 per cent in Wales and 22 per cent in Northern Ireland respectively. Those statistics cover a period in which the pandemic was having a significant economic impact and also show the devastating impact of the UK Government’s decade of austerity and its welfare cuts for many Scottish families.

I think that I heard a member from the Conservative seats say, “For heaven’s sake!”.

I listened very intently to the children’s commissioner’s interview.

Please be brief, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

He mentioned the fact that the United Nations rapporteur Philip Alston has spoken about political choices. It was the UN special rapporteur who spoke about the limits of devolution in mitigating Westminster austerity.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Context matters; although the cabinet secretary has been in post for only six weeks, we have had an SNP Government in Scotland for 16 years.

The commissioner’s defence of human rights has clearly struck a nerve. Does the cabinet secretary agree that this Government has delayed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and has refused immediate commencement when that bill does come back because it is avoiding responsibility for its own shortcomings? That is exactly the bill’s purpose—to ensure that the Government is truly accountable for upholding the rights of children and young people.

Jenny Gilruth

I hate to say this to Pam Duncan-Glancy, but the Scottish Government and the SNP are not responsible for Covid, nor are we responsible for the impacts of the cost of living crisis. She might wish to look elsewhere for the source of the challenges that have been presented to this Government by those external factors. If members listen to what the children’s commissioner said, they will note that he acknowledged that there have been external factors in those challenges.

There has been no prevarication in relation to the UNCRC bill. Fixing the bill is really complicated, and we must address the Supreme Court judgment. Back in 2021, when this Parliament voted unanimously for the legislation, the UK Government challenged it. We respect the outcome from the Supreme Court, but it is hugely important to go back to fix the legislation to ensure that we improve the rights of children and young people and that we do so as quickly as possible. There is a responsibility on this Government, and our officials continue to engage on that, but there is also a responsibility for the UK Government. I hope that Pam Duncan-Glancy will respect and acknowledge that point.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

There has been a failure to close the poverty-related attainment gap and to amend the bill incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. There has been a failure to reduce the pupil teacher ratio, with fewer teachers—including maths and English teachers—and fewer classroom assistants in fewer primary, secondary and additional support needs schools. Many school buildings are unsuitable for modern teaching and more than 1,000 schools have not been inspected in the past 10 years.

There has been a failure to reduce class sizes, the number of violent attacks or the exodus of staff from private and voluntary nurseries. There are fewer childminders, and 11,000 childminding places have been lost. The Promise is not being kept. Entries for higher exams in science subjects, English and maths are at a five-year low. Teachers have been sidelined in educational reforms, and key recommendations about the reform of the Scottish Qualifications Authority have been rejected. Standards of literacy and numeracy are falling.

Ms Gallacher!

Meghan Gallacher

Curriculum for excellence is an unmitigated failure.

There is clearly not enough time to go through the list of failures by the Scottish National Party Government. Where are the laptops and bicycles? That is the legacy of an SNP-run Scotland. My question is simple: what mess created by her predecessors will the cabinet secretary focus on first?

Jenny Gilruth

What a dispiriting question from Meghan Gallacher. I do not really know where to start. [Interruption.]

I spend a lot of my time speaking to teachers and others who work with our children and young people. I spent a lot of time on Friday and Saturday speaking to the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association’s conference and at the NASUWT’s conference in Aberdeen. More broadly, it is incumbent on us all to remember that this is about our children and young people and not to politicise the issues, as Meghan Gallacher has sought to do. Reading out a list of policy areas in no way helps to improve children’s lives in Scotland.

Policy failures, actually.

In my view, talking about failure is not the place to start. [Interruption.]


Jenny Gilruth

Working constructively with Government is the way in which we can improve children’s lives. That is why, later this week, I will meet Ms Gallacher’s colleague and my Opposition counterparts in the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. I will work across party boundaries on the issue, because it is absolutely important that we get it right for Scotland’s children and young people.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Another area on which the outgoing children’s commissioner successfully challenged the Government was the age of criminal responsibility. In 2019, to much fanfare, the Government changed it from the lowest in the world at eight to just 12. During the passage through the Parliament of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019, as the cabinet secretary will remember, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child uplifted that de minimis position from 12 to 14. We did not even get to the bottom and, still, there was celebration.

Is the cabinet secretary content that we are still behind Russia and China on the age at which we hold children criminally responsible for their actions? When will her Government address that so that we at least come up to the floor of international expectation?

Jenny Gilruth

There might be split ministerial responsibility with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs on that matter. I recall some of the debates during the bill’s passage through the Parliament. I will be more than happy to write to Alex Cole-Hamilton directly on the points that he has raised.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Presiding Officer,

“there should be no doubt Nicola Sturgeon made huge progress putting in place the building blocks needed to end child poverty in Scotland.”

That is the assessment of the director of the Child Poverty Action Group, John Dickie. However, the Scottish Government is working with one hand tied behind its back. What analysis has it carried out into the impact of UK welfare reforms, and how many children could be lifted out of poverty in Scotland if those key policies were reversed?

Jenny Gilruth

I go back to my response to Ms Duncan-Glancy. It is important that we have context about the powers that the Government has in this Parliament and the external factors that undoubtedly impact on our children and young people.

Our analysis, which was published in April last year, estimated that reversing key UK Government welfare changes that have taken place just since 2015 could lift an estimated 70,000 people in Scotland, including 30,000 children, out of poverty this year. That is why we have consistently urged the UK Government to match our ambitions in tackling child poverty head on through reversing, for example, its policies such as the benefits cap and the bedroom tax and introducing game-changing benefits similar to our Scottish child payment.

I look forward to working with the UK Government on those issues, recognising that responsibility for some of the powers rests at another Parliament.

Violence in Schools

2. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to reduce violence in schools, in light of reports that three teachers and a 14-year-old pupil have been injured in a disturbance at a Renfrewshire school. (S6T-01384)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I hope that Jamie Greene appreciates that I cannot comment on the specifics of an on-going police investigation.

However, no teacher or member of staff should suffer verbal or physical abuse at their place of work. It is for schools and local councils to respond to specific instances of challenging behaviour.

Notwithstanding that, I discussed the matter with the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland only last week. I also chaired the Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools on Thursday, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and trade union representatives.

We are currently gathering evidence that will help us to better understand behaviour in our schools at national level through our research on behaviour in Scottish schools, which will report by the end of the year. That will ensure that future policy, guidance and support for our schools’ staff reflects the current challenges in our schools and what is working well.

Finally, I have been engaging with our trade union partners on the issue—most recently, at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and NASUWT conferences, which were held at the weekend.

Jamie Greene

Naturally, I will not comment on the specifics of the case. We wish those who are affected a speedy return to the classroom.

However, I will comment on the sad reality that that incident is not unique. There have been 75,000 incidents of physical or verbal attacks by pupils against teachers and school staff over the past five years, not including this year. Last year, there were nearly 20,000 such attacks, including 191 incidents that involved the potential carrying of a dangerous item or weapon. Of those, 64 were so serious that they were reported to the police.

We have been raising the issue in the Parliament for years, because the problem has been on the rise for years. Something has to change. My question is, therefore, what will change and when will it change?

Jenny Gilruth

Jamie Greene will recognise that I take a keen interest in the matter, given my professional experience before I was an MSP.

As I think I mentioned in my initial response, the issue was raised at both teacher conferences that were held over the weekend.

Fundamentally, we need first to recognise that Covid has changed the culture in schools. It is changing relationships, behaviour and things including attendance. We need to be cognisant of the broader changes that are happening in our school communities, and we need to support our school staff better in responding to such incidents when they are extreme.

Secondly, we also need to provide context. In my experience as a teacher, examples such as Jamie Greene cited were few. Yes, they happen—but they are not the norm in terms of behaviour in schools. We need to be careful about how we politicians characterise behaviour in our schools, because we do not want to send a message that is indifferent to the daily reality in our classrooms up and down the country, which is that teachers are equipped with the necessary skills and expertise to defuse challenging situations as and when they happen.

Thirdly, when we talk about specific incidents, we should be mindful that we are talking about the impacts not only on staff but on our children and young people. As a former teacher, I always think about that when it comes to responding to incidents.

We politicians must be careful not to use specific examples to form policy. That is why, in my initial response to Jamie Greene, I talked about the national evidence base. That evidence was last gathered in 2016 and has not, as a result of the pandemic, been updated. A number of weeks ago, I asked for an update on it, but I will not be able to access the data until the autumn. At that time, I will share with the Parliament the updated national picture on behaviour in our schools.

Jamie Greene

I say with respect to the cabinet secretary that the problem with that response is that 75,000 is not a “few” incidents. The incident that I mentioned is not unique or isolated. Such incidents are in the tens of thousands.

If the cabinet secretary does not believe me, she should listen to the Educational Institute of Scotland, which represents a body of teachers. Its former president, Heather Hughes, said:

“Violent incidents are happening more and more in our schools because the young people and teachers are not getting the support they need”.

It is nothing whatsoever to do with Covid. Heather Hughes said that a year ago.

The reality is that teachers are at their wits’ end. They should not be afraid to go to work in the morning. I agree that other pupils and young people have to bear the brunt, in disruption to their learning and their wider school experience.

I am afraid to say that the cabinet secretary is just one of many education ministers who has promised action on the matter. To say that it is just a matter for individual schools or councils simply does not wash any more; it is a national problem, which requires a national solution. When, therefore, will there be a comprehensive plan from the Government to deal with the rising violence in our schools?

Jenny Gilruth

Jamie Greene cited evidence from the EIS. Of course, I am a former member of the EIS, so I recognise its views on the subject and have already spoken to it on the matter. If Jamie Greene had listened to any of the interviews that I have given or to my comments on the culture in our schools, he would know that the issue is at the forefront of my mind in respect of recognising how the Government can respond.

However, my point to Jamie Greene is that local authorities have a statutory responsibility to deliver education in our schools at local level; therefore, they, too, have responsibility in responding to extreme events. When extreme events occur in our schools—I accept that they occur, although they are not the norm, in my experience—it is important that local authorities support their staff and their young people in responding to them. I am working with COSLA on that. In my initial response, I outlined the action that I am taking with COSLA, in relation to SAGRABIS and in relation to the behaviour in Scottish schools—[Interruption.]

Stephen Kerr is heckling from a sedentary position. I have to say that he probably would not have been able to do that in my classroom. Nonetheless, I have outlined my plan—[Interruption.]

I was going to go on to talk about promoting positive behaviour, so I look to the Conservative members in hope and with encouragement that they, too, respond to that call.

More seriously however, I say that there is a request and a call to action to the Government, but there is also the point that I made to the teaching unions at the weekend about the call to the teaching workforce to tell me what they think will work in our schools. I do not—neither as cabinet secretary nor as a former teacher—claim to have all the answers on that. The teaching workforce knows exactly what it needs in terms of the support and guidance that we provide for teachers in schools. We can provide some of that at the national level but, actually, our local authority partners will be key to tackling the issue.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is right that the local authorities have responsibility in the matter, but interpretation of what is a violent incident varies across Scotland. That means that bringing together statistics will be almost impossible; that responsibility surely rests with the Government.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that employers must carry out risk assessments

“to protect employees from exposure to reasonably foreseeable violence.”

What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with local authorities about improving violent risk assessments so that she can compare like with like, and what discussions has she had about providing resources to support mental health provision for students, given that mental health challenges lie at the base of a significant number of the conflicts that occur in schools?

Jenny Gilruth

As I said in my response to Mr Greene, I have already met COSLA to talk about its role in the matter. I met COSLA most recently last week, as part of the Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools. It co-chairs that group with the Government and I have asked the group to come back with recommendations on the action that we can take.

The data that I mentioned in my response to Mr Greene will not be forthcoming until the autumn. That, unfortunately, is because of the datasets that our researchers have used. I accept the need for the Government to act, but the Government needs to act in partnership with our local authorities. Therefore, more broadly, the member’s point is an important one.

Martin Whitfield has made important points about mental health and support for our young people: there is an issue, there. We have, of course, provided funding in the region of £16 million to provide secondary schools with access to counselling services. However, the solution is not just about having specialists in our schools; it is also about our classroom teachers and it is about our learning assistants and behaviour support assistants, who are often paid much less than our classroom teachers. We need to recognise that the situation requires whole-school and whole-community responses. Yes—that includes Government, but as the member said, it also includes our local authority partners. That is why I am really keen to take the work forward with COSLA and our trade unions.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I hope that the cabinet secretary has the matter at the top of her priorities list, because teachers and pupils are sick to the back teeth of how they are being treated in our schools. It is a huge problem that is causing massive issues for management of our schools.

However, my real concerns are that the previous cabinet secretary did not attend the advisory group back in December and that the survey that the current cabinet secretary has talked about will not be available until the autumn. I fear that the Government is not moving fast enough. There has been a mushrooming of cases since the pandemic. There has been a problem in respect of mental health, through lack of resources or additional support. Those issues should be at the top of her list. What can she say to reassure me that she fully understands the problem that exists in schools?

Jenny Gilruth

Mr Rennie really does not need to tell me what teachers think. I spend most of my time, if I am not speaking to my political colleagues, speaking to my former friends and colleagues who work in education. They tell me very clearly exactly what they think, so I very much recognise the challenge.

As I said in my response to Mr Greene, there is wider national work going on, which is really important. Mr Rennie previously—at an episode of First Minister’s question time, I think—raised a specific case from his constituency. We, as politicians, need to be careful to look not at the specifics but at the national picture and what it is telling us. We do not yet—[Interruption.] We do not have that data because it has not been gathered since 2016. I want to look at it in more detail.

My second point is that the SAGRABIS work is really fundamental to the endeavour. The group will work with COSLA and with our trade union partners. On Friday and Saturday, I got real encouragement from our trade union partners that they are part of the solution in respect of identifying how we can better support our schools. I hope that that gives Mr Rennie reassurance.

I have spent much of my time as cabinet secretary over the past six weeks looking at the issue and trying to get the granular information that we do not yet have. However, as I said, it is important that we do not necessarily look just at the specifics of the extreme cases but instead that we look to support our local authority partners on the ground and, fundamentally, that we help to support those who work with our children and young people. They include teaching staff, but they also include learning support assistants and behaviour assistants.

That concludes topical question time.