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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 16, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time. On this occasion, the portfolio is education and skills. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Teacher Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government what clarification on teacher number arrangements will be provided to local authorities this year. (S6O-02728)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Excellent teachers make all the difference in our classrooms. They are vital to ensuring that we make further progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap, which is why we have invested to ensure that we have the lowest pupil to teacher ratio in the United Kingdom.

In this year’s budget, we are providing £145.5 million to protect teacher and support staff numbers across local authorities, on condition that those numbers are maintained at 2022 census levels. That data will be available following publication of “Summary statistics for schools in Scotland” next month. We have been clear with councils that, if teacher numbers are not maintained nationally, we reserve the right to withhold or recoup funding that has been given for that purpose.

Sharon Dowey

In recent years, there has been growing concern about the number of temporary contracts for teachers, which has led to increased job insecurity in the education sector. What precisely has the Scottish Government done to end such job insecurity for our hard-working teachers?

Jenny Gilruth

The member raises an important point about temporary contracts. It is worth saying that the number of permanent contracts has remained relatively static since 2007, at about 80 per cent, but I accept the member’s challenge. It is also worth saying that the number of teachers in our schools has increased by 8 per cent since December 2014.

More broadly, there is more work that we can do to encourage people into the profession. In the programme for government, I have committed to working with our professional associations and trade unions on a campaign to encourage people into teaching as a meaningful and worthwhile career.

On the member’s point on job insecurity, I point out that employment responsibility sits with local authorities. However, this morning, I attended the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland’s national conference, where the issue of recruitment came up. I have asked a number of experts to give me advice on our education workforce modelling analysis, which is an external piece of work that I have commissioned to inform our decisions on education workforce planning in future years. I hope that that will very much address the member’s point, but it is worth saying that the picture has not changed markedly since 2007.

I have received a number of requests for supplementary questions. I will try to get them all in, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Having the best pupil to teacher ratio in the UK is vital in providing an excellent education to our children and closing the attainment gap. What additional support does the Scottish Government provide to local authorities to close that gap and deliver the highest possible quality of education for our children?

Jenny Gilruth

We provide a number of forms of support directly to local authorities. As the member said, we have the lowest pupil to teacher ratio in the whole of the UK. In Scotland, we invest more per pupil in schools than is invested in other parts of the UK. Over this parliamentary session, we are investing £1 billion in the Scottish attainment challenge to help to close the poverty-related attainment gap. We are also providing free school meals to more than 280,000 pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and in special schools. We have provided funding for additional digital devices and internet connections in a number of parts of the school estate. We have also lifted the national minimum school clothing grant to £120 and £150 for primary and secondary school pupils respectively. All those measures help to support excellent education for all our young people.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

In some geographical and subject areas, including in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—there are shortages of teachers. The teaching bursary scheme to attract career changers is key to addressing such shortages and spreading opportunity. However, the number of people in receipt of the bursary has decreased from 180 when it was introduced, in 2018, to only 84 in 2022. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether the number of applications for the bursary has decreased, or has the Government chosen to cap the number of bursaries that are issued?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not have in front of me the specific answer to Pam Duncan-Glancy’s question, but I am more than happy to write to her. She is absolutely right that we provide additional investment for the STEM bursary. This year, the bursary is for the first time supporting Gaelic-medium education, which is a focus for the Government.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

This week, I was contacted by yet another teacher who gave up a career in industry to take up teaching. She was told just this week that no permanent contract is available for her, although she meets all the criteria. The cabinet secretary talked about the new modelling mechanism that she is looking at, but we have had mechanisms for years. I do not understand why supply and demand are so out of kilter. Will she explain that?

Jenny Gilruth

I am not aware of which local authority Willie Rennie alludes to, but one challenge is that we have 32 different approaches to teacher recruitment across the country and varying approaches to how probationers enter the system, as I know from experience. The local authority in the area that Willie Rennie and I represent has a generic approach to teaching interviews, which can sometimes be challenging for people who want to enter the profession in Fife in the middle of the academic year, which is where we are. I am more than happy to look at the specifics in the case that Willie Rennie raised.

Of course, local authorities employ our teachers directly, which is why we have ring fenced an additional £145 million to protect teacher numbers. That is hugely important and is a sign of investment from the Government. However, ultimately, our local authorities employ our teachers, so I will continue to work with them, through the workforce plan that I referred to, to help to improve the situation.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Probationer Teachers (Preference Waiver Scheme)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to increase the number of probationer teachers choosing the preference waiver scheme. (S6O-02730)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The preference waiver payment is an important component of the teacher induction scheme that provides a financial incentive for probationer teachers to consider undertaking their probation year anywhere in Scotland. Information that is provided to prospective probationer teachers clearly outlines all the options that are available to them, including the benefits of opting for the preference waiver programme. In addition, the strategic board for teacher education, which is made up of a range of key education stakeholders, is looking at the recruitment and retention of teachers, which includes considering issues that relate to the early phase of a teacher’s career.

Jeremy Balfour

Figures that were released last month show that only 6.8 per cent of probationers opted to choose the preference waiver scheme. Furthermore, local authorities across Scotland received 657 fewer probationer teachers than they had requested, and rural areas were particularly affected.

It is clear that the situation is unsustainable. What action is the cabinet secretary taking to improve the preference waiver scheme and its uptake, so that more probationers opt to take up the offer next year?

Jenny Gilruth

I should probably declare an interest, as I benefited from the preference waiver payment back in 2009, when I went to Moray as a probationer teacher.

The waiver payment is set at £6,000 for primary and £8,000 for secondary. As I said in my initial response, it very much encourages teachers to consider going anywhere. We know that there are teacher recruitment challenges in parts of Scotland, and the preference waiver scheme helps to address those.

However, the member is right that there seems to have been a shift in the willingness of some of our student teachers to tick the box and go anywhere. That is problematic, because the scheme is not as popular as it once was. A few weeks ago, I held a round-table session on the issue with a number of probationers, and I heard from them a reticence to move around the country that perhaps did not exist before the pandemic.

Such challenges do not arise just in the education system—I know that they exist in the national health service and in justice, so the situation is not unique to education.

In response to another member, I set out some of the action that I am taking. The strategic board for teacher education will work with the General Teaching Council for Scotland, Education Scotland and the Scottish Council of Deans of Education to look at—

Thank you, cabinet secretary—I have to move on to supplementary questions.

How will the Scottish Government continue to promote the teaching profession as a rewarding and valued career, particularly in rural communities such as mine—Perthshire South and Kinross-shire?

Jenny Gilruth

We value our teachers highly. Through the recent historic 14 per cent pay deal, teachers in our classrooms are the highest paid in the United Kingdom. We are also supporting councils with the additional £145 million that I mentioned in response to Mr Rennie.

As part of investing in our schools under the programme for government, we have a commitment to support our teaching profession by working with our partners on a joint campaign to promote teaching. As I said, the preference waiver payment, which Mr Balfour mentioned, is a really important part of that, as it gives probationer teachers financial incentives to consider undertaking their probation year in remote and rural areas, where the need is greatest.

Katy Clark has a brief supplementary question.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

Probationary teachers often do not feel sufficiently incentivised to move to other parts of Scotland to teach, and they are also put off by precarious contracts. Does the Scottish Government intend to set out in guidance that local authorities should seek to eliminate the use of zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, given that we know that continuity of teaching is very much in pupils’ interests, too?

Please answer briefly, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

I go back to the point that about 80 per cent of our jobs in teaching are permanent posts. On the member’s question about fixed-term contracts, some of those contracts arise when people go on maternity leave, so we should be mindful of that. Ultimately, local authorities are the employers, but I am committed, through the work with the strategic board for teacher education and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to seeing what more we might be able to do to improve the situation.

Schools (Abusive and Violent Behaviour)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether schools should publish monthly reports on any reported incidents of abusive and violent behaviour. (S6O-02731)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Our national guidance makes clear that all schools and local authorities are expected to record all incidents of violent behaviour. Recording and monitoring play an essential role in helping schools to identify recurring patterns of behaviour and ensure early intervention and appropriate support.

Members are aware that September’s summit on relationships and behaviour in schools focused on recording and monitoring incidents. My aim from the summit process is to identify practical actions that we need to take in order to make progress, including creating a culture where staff are empowered to record incidents. Local data must then be used to ensure that schools have an oversight of issues and are responding effectively.

Alex Rowley

Hardly a week goes by without us seeing, through the media, another report of another school where behaviour has broken down. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary has held two summits and intends to hold another one, but when is she going to bring forward to the Parliament something that shows the outcome of those summits and the action that her Government intends to take? Will she put in the necessary resources to go with that action?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for his question and I know that he takes a keen interest in the matter, as I have done, of course, since it was first raised in the chamber, not long after my appointment.

The point that the member makes about action will be addressed in a statement that I intend to bring to the Parliament in the next two weeks. That statement will talk to the accurate national picture. It is important for the chamber to remember that we have not carried out research on behaviour in Scottish schools since 2016, because the last round of data was in 2016. There should have been a round of data in 2020, but that was not possible due to the pandemic.

Publishing an accurate national picture is hugely important, and I intend to come to the chamber with an identified action plan for how we can help local authorities to improve the current situation.

As we mark anti-bullying week, what guidance does the Scottish Government provide to help schools to tackle bullying?

Jenny Gilruth

Our national anti-bullying guidance, “Respect for All”, provides an overarching framework for all adults who work with children and young people, to address all types of bullying. We have also published guidance for schools and local authorities on recording and monitoring bullying incidents, and we are currently undertaking a review of “Respect for All”, which is supported by a working group of key stakeholders. The planning is under way to engage with parents, carers, children and young people as part of that review, and the updated guidance is expected to be published next year.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Alex Rowley asked a spot-on question and got no answer. There is still no action plan to tackle incidents of abusive and violent behaviour, and there is no guidance for school staff. When will there be an action plan?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not think that Mr Kerr was paying attention to my response to Mr Rowley, because I was clear that I will bring a statement to the Parliament to identify action from the Government, while recognising, of course, that the statutory responsibility for responding to bullying incidents rests with our local authorities.

Skills and Training Planning

5. Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in relation to its planning for skills and training provision, what information it has on the skills needs of Scotland’s economy in specific vocations over the next five years. (S6O-02732)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

I apologise to the chamber that, with the Deputy Presiding Officer’s agreement, I will have to leave after I have answered this question.

Through our purpose and principles for post-school education, research and skills, the Scottish Government has committed to take responsibility for skills planning and develop an approach at the national level that sees us work with partners to set clear priorities. If we are to deliver the change that is required, we need the clearest possible understanding of what Scotland’s skills needs are and will be in the future, and how we will meet them.

Skills Development Scotland regularly publishes information on regional and sectoral skills demands, and that is available on its website. We will seek to build on the extensive work that it has done, through further detailed interaction with employers, colleges and universities.

Ivan McKee

I thank the minister for that welcome answer. As he knows, major employment sectors across the economy, including health, construction, engineering and many others, are reporting significant skills shortages. What process is the Government putting in place to quantitatively assess those needs and to align skills provision in the further and higher education systems to address them?

Graeme Dey

As I mentioned in my initial response, the Government is working with partners on developing an approach to take responsibility for skills planning and to improve the alignment and responsiveness of the provision. There is an on-going discussion within Government and across our agencies, but every bit as important to the process will be my further engagement with employers in the coming weeks and, of course, input from colleges and universities.

In relation to the specific areas that the member has noted, work is currently going on involving the NHS Scotland youth academy, the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland manufacturing skills academy and the Construction Leadership Forum. To summarise, we are aiming to build on the foundations that are already in place by gathering the clearest possible skills-need data to best inform course offerings, qualifications, training and upskilling opportunities so that we can fully grasp the economic opportunities ahead.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Evidence given to the Economy and Fair Work Committee details a significant skills gap across all sectors to deliver a just transition, which is much highlighted by the Scottish Government. Did the Scottish Government do a skills-mapping exercise prior to setting our climate change targets, and what is it doing to deliver the green economy opportunities to our school pupils, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for women?

Graeme Dey

That is quite a detailed question but, in a general sense, as I indicated earlier, we are currently engaged with ministerial colleagues across Government to map the skills shortages. I stress “skills shortages”—there is a difference between skills shortages and workforce availability, and that is what we are trying to differentiate. I will be happy to write to Brian Whittle in more detail in due course.

Fife Council (Meetings with Education Officials)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when it last met with Fife Council education officials, and what was discussed. (S6O-02733)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Education Scotland officials regularly meet Fife Council—specifically, the senior regional adviser for the south-east region and Fife’s attainment adviser directly engage with the local authority. The focus is consistently on support for improved outcomes for Fife’s children and young people. The SRA met two of the heads of service on 27 October this year, and discussions included an update on progress with stretch aims, improving attendance and strategies to raise attainment. The attainment adviser met a number of education officials on 8 November, and discussions included use of both the strategic equity fund and the pupil equity fund to promote equity.

Annabelle Ewing

I welcome the regular dialogue that is evidently taking place. As a Fife MSP, the cabinet secretary will be aware of the recent tragedies involving young people in my Cowdenbeath constituency. Although investigations are still on-going, drugs are suspected. Will the cabinet secretary therefore confirm that updated guidance will be issued to schools in Fife and across Scotland to help young people to stand up to the drug pushers who so blight our communities with the scourge of drugs and who destroy young lives?

Jenny Gilruth

I am aware of the case that the member alludes to. Although it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics of that case, I offer my condolences to the families involved.

Learning around substance abuse from secondary 1 upwards supports our young people to develop a range of skills that can help to support decision making about substance use. That includes strategies for making informed choices to maintain and improve young people’s health and wellbeing, and the ability to apply those in situations that might be stressful or challenging or involve peer pressure.

It is for education authorities and schools to consider the resources and approaches that they use in supporting our children and young people in their learning with curriculum for excellence. I know that information has already been provided to parents in local schools following some of the tragic incidents that the member has alluded to, and that work is on-going to consider what further steps can be taken to support children and young people’s learning around substance abuse, such as through personal and social education.

Culture and Arts Careers

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to help schools to support children who wish to pursue a career in the culture and arts sector. (S6O-02734)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Expressive arts education in schools plays an important role in supporting young people to enter Scotland’s creative industries and it positively impacts on our young people’s wellbeing. We remain committed to helping schools to support young people into careers in the culture and arts sectors. For example, the national career information and advice website, My World of Work, has a range of resources and tools to support the exploration of occupations in different sectors, including the culture and arts sector. Furthermore, Developing the Young Workforce, which is employer led, also promotes a range of culture-based education and career pathways through its network of dedicated school co-ordinators and by hosting careers events with employers and the creative industries.

Foysol Choudhury

Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture announced funding of £6.8 million for the cultural sector in 2023-24. I welcome that news. However, long-term and sustained funding for courses and qualifications must go hand in hand with that to ensure that the culture sector has the skills and talent that it needs. What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with ministerial colleagues in the culture sector to ensure that culture is encouraged and kept alive in our educational system?

Jenny Gilruth

The member raises a really important point. He will recall that I formerly served in the Parliament as the culture minister, and I very much recognise the importance of culture in terms of educational opportunities and our school curriculum. In fact, I am going to Lasswade high school later this evening for its expressive arts show. We are currently reviewing our expressive arts curriculum and, to the member’s point, there are opportunities through that review. More broadly, there have not been ministerial discussions directly on that point, but I am more than happy to undertake those with Mr Robertson.

It is worth saying that the Government has a long-standing investment in culture through the youth music initiative, including £9.5 million in this financial year. That is helping our young people across Scotland to access music-making opportunities and to develop their wider skills and learning. It is hugely important that we understand the wellbeing impacts that culture can have in relation to our education system and I am more than happy to discuss that in further detail with my respective ministerial colleagues.

What initiatives exist in schools and colleges to support young people to pursue careers specifically in the sphere of Gaelic culture and arts?

Jenny Gilruth

There are many good examples of young people who have benefited from a local authority Gaelic-medium education and have been encouraged to pursue careers in the sphere of Gaelic culture and the arts as a result. Support for culture and the arts features very prominently in Gaelic-medium classes, and additional support is provided for schools by bodies such as MG Alba.

School Pupils (Provision of Electronic Devices)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the provision of electronic devices to all school pupils to support their studies. (S6O-02735)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Data provided by local authorities in 2022 indicated that around 280,000 devices were in circulation. We are aware that local councils continue to make progress in providing electronic devices to our pupils in line with their own digital strategies. We continue to consider future options around enhancing digital access, including a range of delivery models to ensure maximum value for investment. Given the extremely challenging financial climate, it is important that that is fully considered to ensure best value.

As set out in the programme for government, we will also publish a digital strategy to support the broader aims of the education system. Further details on that strategy will be provided in due course.

Jackie Dunbar

I am sure that the update on the roll-out will be of interest to my Aberdeen Donside constituents who contacted me regarding it. With more young folk regularly using electronic devices to access the internet as part of their learning, what steps can the Scottish Government take to ensure that our children and young folk are able to stay safe online?

Jenny Gilruth

Protecting our children from online harm is a key priority for the Scottish Government, so we are taking a range of different actions, including funding third sector organisations, delivering campaigns and working with partners including Police Scotland, to keep children and young people safe online. We are committed to ensuring that child internet safety is properly recognised in Scottish education policies through the technologies part of the curriculum. That includes learning about internet safety and cyber-resilience, for example.

Within our national learning platform, Glow Connect, safety and safeguarding are key considerations, alongside the protections that are already in place, such as account management and dual-layer filtering, to reduce the likelihood of inappropriate content. We have recently joined the Internet Watch Foundation. Membership of the IWF provides us with a range of additional tools and resources to further enhance safety measures within Glow.

There are a couple of supplementaries. They will need to be brief.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

A freedom of information response earlier this year stated that digital inclusion funding has not been made available since 2020-21. What funding has been made available for digital devices since the digital inclusion fund was closed?

Jenny Gilruth

During the pandemic, as the member alluded to, we provided £25 million to local authorities, which supported the purchase of 72,000 devices and 14,000 internet connections for schoolchildren across Scotland.

Since that time, many local authorities have invested in devices from their own budgets. Information from them in 2022, for example, shows that up to 280,000 devices have already been distributed to learners across Scotland. It is worth while saying that many authorities, including Falkirk, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Glasgow and the Borders, have already made significant investments to improve the digital access of their learners.

More broadly, as we move forward, as was announced in the programme for government, we are developing a new digital learning approach and strategy that aims to develop a shared narrative on the role of digital in education and the opportunities that it can enable in the system.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Will the digital strategy deal with the disparity between the provision of modern devices for pupils with additional support needs and the restrictions that are being imposed by Scottish Qualifications Authority regulators that hinder the use of “familiar technology” during critical exam periods?

Jenny Gilruth

I am not sighted on the specifics of the second part of Martin Whitfield’s question in relation to the SQA, but I would be more than happy to discuss that with him in a bit more detail, to clarify the challenge in that respect, particularly in relation to young people with an additional support need.