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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Education and Life Chances of Children and Young People, Surgical Mesh and Fixation Devices, Urgent Question, Committee Announcement (COVID-19 Recovery Committee), Business Motion, Decision Time, Fundraising for Cardiomyopathy UK (Ferrier Family)


Education and Life Chances of Children and Young People

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on improving the education and life chances of all children and young people. 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 pleased to provide this statement to Parliament today. It is a timely opportunity to take stock of our work to recover from the pandemic and to accelerate progress on attainment.

Before I do so, however, I will directly address the current industrial action. As I have said before, the teachers strikes are in no one’s interests—not those of pupils, parents or carers, who have faced significant disruption over the past three years. We are continuing to work closely with our union and local government partners to try to reach a deal that is affordable and fair for all concerned. As part of that, I have spoken again to the general secretaries of the teaching unions over the past few days. Talks will continue over this week and we will continue to focus on areas of compromise. While those constructive talks are on-going, we continue to urge education unions to suspend their industrial action.

It is also important that while we work through that we maintain our work on excellence and equity. In December, we published the latest achievement of curriculum for excellence levels—ACEL—statistics, the 2023 national improvement framework and plan, and the stretch aims that each local authority has now put in place for closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Together, those set out the latest evidence for progress and set out our plans, which have been shared with local government, for substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026.

There is much to be proud of and to celebrate in our early learning and childcare settings, schools, community learning and development activity, colleges and universities. That is demonstrated by young people’s achievement of qualifications and awards that recognise their knowledge and skills, and their moving on to employment and starting new apprenticeships or courses in our colleges and universities. They are a credit to themselves and to those who have supported them through an extremely challenging period, and their resilience is an inspiration to us all.

I also want to pay tribute to the dedication, commitment and hard work of our early years practitioners, our teachers, our community learning and development practitioners, our college and university lecturers, and all those who work alongside them. The challenges of the pandemic are not yet over, and I recognise that we need to continue to support and nurture children and young people.

Pre-pandemic, the poverty-related attainment gap was closing, but the negative impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored. Lost learning resulting from the pandemic is not unique to Scotland, and the attainment gap in other parts of the United Kingdom remains wider than it was pre-pandemic. For example, the UK Government’s Department for Education has said that the attainment gap in England is the widest it has been since 2012, which suggests

“that disruption to learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has had a greater impact on disadvantaged pupils”.

It is therefore reassuring that the latest ACEL data, which was published on 13 December, demonstrates that the approaches to Covid recovery in education in Scotland are working. As 2023 begins, we are in a strong position to make further headway. The percentage of pupils who achieved the expected CFE levels in 2021-22 is higher than it was in 2020-21 for all primary school stages, and includes the largest single-year increase in primary school literacy and numeracy since 2016-17, which is the first year for which comparable data is available.

There are also promising signs that the attainment gap is, once again, narrowing, with the biggest single-year decrease in the gaps in primary numeracy and literacy levels since records began in 2016-17. For example, the gaps between the proportions of primary pupils from the most-deprived and least-deprived areas who achieved their expected levels have narrowed in both literacy and numeracy from 2020-21, and are now more similar to those that were seen before the Covid pandemic.

However, there is no room for complacency. Attainment levels are still largely below pre-pandemic levels, and the attainment gap at secondary 3 has widened since data was last collected, in 2018-19. That will, of course, be monitored carefully. However, it is important to note that this is the first year that the impact of the pandemic has been visible at that level, because no data was collected at that level last year, so improvements that have been made in the past year are not yet visible.

There is still work to do to support education recovery and to accelerate progress in closing the attainment gap. That is why we have implemented a new accelerated approach for the Scottish attainment challenge programme, which includes record investment of £1 billion over this parliamentary session. Those figures show that local authorities are well placed to make further progress in the coming year, as is set out in the local government stretch aims for tackling the attainment gap that I announced on 8 December.

Alongside health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy are the recognised responsibility of all who are involved in education, and are priority areas for the attainment challenge and our national improvement framework. The national response to improving mathematics partnership board is identifying opportunities to improve leadership and enhance the professional learning of teachers, in order to improve the learning experiences of children and young people. A parallel national response to improving literacy is at an early stage of development, with the aim of implementing similar improvements for literacy.

There is also across local authorities an established network team of attainment advisers, who are providing improvement support on numeracy, literacy and health and wellbeing in every local authority. There is a strong focus on parental engagement via the Scottish attainment challenge and the “Read, Write, Count” initiative in early primary school. Regional improvement collaboratives, supported by dedicated Education Scotland staff, are focused on improving literacy and numeracy through collaborative work that empowers the system at school, authority and region levels.

Nevertheless, I recognise that, although we are seeing progress on some measures, we are not yet where we need to be on all the indicators. I am the first to acknowledge that there is still work to do. That is why we have implemented a new accelerated approach for the Scottish attainment challenge, including the record investment of £1 billion.

As we set out in 2016, the Government is committed to closing the poverty-related attainment gap and to substantially eliminating that gap by 2026. I stand by that. That remains the policy and the objective of the Government, and there has been progress. I have previously set out the details of our refreshed approach to the challenge in the chamber. In addition, just last month, I published the local stretch aims that local authorities have now put in place for the coming year. In the ACEL figures that have been published we see evidence that local authorities and schools are already making progress and are well placed to go further.

We know that a ground-up approach works best in embedding improvement, so the stretch aims have been developed by local authorities, using local knowledge, data and expertise, and they express each local authority’s own ambitions for their learners.

Ultimately, of course, what matters is progress in schools through implementation of local plans, supported by strategic equity funding, that underpin the stretch aims. That is a shared responsibility; I do not expect teachers to achieve on their own the progress that we need. Schools and education services must collaborate across services and with local partners to make progress.

By introducing a requirement for local stretch aims we are ensuring clear local ownership of progress and creating opportunities for learning and partnership working, which will help us to address variation in attainment and to make progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap between schools and local authorities.

Collectively, the core stretch aims that have been set by local authorities show a great deal of ambition for recovery and for acceleration of progress. I welcome that level of ambition. Achieving the local stretch aims will require local government, central Government and Education Scotland to work together to ensure that progress on attainment and outcomes continues and accelerates.

The national discussion on Scottish education has provided an unprecedented opportunity for young people, parents, carers, teachers and practitioners to contribute to setting a long-term vision for Scotland’s education. I am delighted by the positive response from the public and stakeholders to that consultation, which ran between September and December last year. The views of those who took part will help us to develop a compelling and, I hope, consensual 20-year vision for Scottish education. It will provide a further opportunity to enforce our shared endeavour to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

Our vision for Scottish education will be launched in the spring and will be accompanied by a call to action setting out short-term, medium-term and long-term goals, which will build on the areas where we are performing well and make the changes that we will require in order to prepare learners for the economy, society and culture of the future.

The national discussion will also help to inform Professor Hayward’s independent review of qualifications and assessments. Her final report in May will pave the way for future reform of the qualifications and assessment system to ensure that it meets the needs of learners and society in the 21st century.

We will continue to ensure that the development of the new national educational bodies supports our vision of a world-class education system that continues to adapt to change and is based on equity and excellence.

Improving the education and life chances of all our children and young people is an ambition that is shared across the education system, and it remains central to our improvement agenda. The attainment challenge is a significant commitment within a much bigger programme of investment. Our spending plans for 2023-24 allocate £4.85 billion of funding across the education and skills portfolio, including on measures to address the cost of living crisis and to support a range of measures to help children, parents and carers with the costs of the school day.

I am committed to ensuring that all children and young people in Scotland have the same opportunities through their education. We know that we have the right curriculum in place for Scotland’s children and young people. In its 2021 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found wide support for curriculum for excellence, and highlighted that it

“continues to be a bold and widely supported initiative, and its design offers the flexibility needed to improve student learning further.”

In the programme for international student assessment’s 2018 global competence assessment, which measured knowledge of international and sustainability issues and ability to apply that knowledge, Scotland’s average score was higher than the average of all participating countries.

The latest evidence is encouraging—it shows that we are on the right track. Statistics that were published in December showed that the gap in respect of entering positive destinations between school leavers from the most-deprived areas and those from the least-deprived areas fell to 7.5 percentage points in 2020-21—the smallest gap on record—which shows that excellent progress has already been made in terms of outcomes for school leavers.

The Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were 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 will be grateful if all members who wish to ask a question would press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Before Christmas, the Opposition parties requested a statement on the latest set of data that had been released, but I wish that we could feel a greater sense of passion, energy or urgency from the cabinet secretary. That might be too much to ask, because what we have had in the statement is an exercise in spin. We have had an exemplary demonstration of cherry picking and straw clutching, but the reality is that it is just spin. Frankly, if that is what success looks like in the eyes of the cabinet secretary and the Scottish National Party Government, heaven help us. What would failure look like?

The truth of the matter is that the more data we get, the more we can see that the cabinet secretary and the SNP Government are failing Scotland’s children and young people and their parents and carers, and it just will not wash.

Central to improving the education and life chances of children should be ensuring that we have first-class learning environments in schools. Teachers are at the front line in all of this. Such is the cabinet secretary’s inaction that teachers have been led to do something that is against their nature as professionals: to take strike action for the first time in 40 years.

The cabinet secretary said last week that she was

“exceptionally disappointed”

to see

“a reduction in teacher numbers.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2023; c 54.],

because that is what the statistics show, but being disappointed, frankly, does not cut it. What action is the cabinet secretary going to take to increase the number of teachers, to increase the number of teachers on permanent contracts, to increase the number of classroom assistants and to reduce class sizes? I ask the cabinet secretary, in answering that question, not to pass the buck to the local authorities. Is the Government really not bothered any more about teacher numbers and classroom sizes, because if it is bothered, where is the energy and where is the urgency?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Not for the first time, we have heard a critique of my delivery in the chamber and the way in which I preside over these matters. It would appear that Stephen Kerr wants me to be more like him in the way that I act. I will politely decline the offer of being as passionate and energetic as Stephen Kerr is because, quite frankly, what we do not see from him is much development of the opportunity to take the discussion forward.

In my statement, I went over how the ACEL data shows the impact of the pandemic, but it also shows signs of recovery. That is very important. As I also said in my statement, the pandemic has had an impact not only in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom but further afield. It is not surprising, although it is exceptionally disappointing, that we have seen a reduction in attainment and a widening of the attainment gap during the pandemic. Very importantly, though, we saw signs of recovery in the ACEL statistics in December and, within the stretch aims, a real determination in local authorities to carry that through for another year. The Scottish Government and Education Scotland will ensure that we deliver our support to local authorities.

On teacher numbers, I point to the context that we are in. Research by the Education Policy Institute found that Scotland has more teachers per pupil than anywhere else in the UK. The overall pupil teacher ratio remains at 13.2, which is its lowest since 2019. I am exceptionally disappointed that, despite the baselining of further additional funding to local government and an agreement with local government that that money would be used for additional teachers, we did not see that happening.

Mr Kerr talks about passing the buck. It is not about passing the buck; it is about accepting, realising and moving forward on the fact that local authorities are the employers. I will be meeting the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that, in the coming years, the funding that is given to local government leads to additional teachers and, in particular, to an improvement in the number of teachers who are on permanent contracts. I would hope that local authorities, as the employers, use that funding accordingly.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary was right to begin with a focus on the first national teachers strike in 40 years and, frankly, the huge disruption that that has caused to pupils and families right across Scotland. Teachers do not want to be out on strike—we all know that—but it is now eight weeks since the last offer, and 22 more days of strike action have just been announced. What is the cabinet secretary going to do to change her approach to the negotiations to get the breakthrough that we need, because more of the same is clearly not going to cut it?

I have a specific question about the attainment gap at S3. The cabinet secretary will be very aware of the issue, too, and I have raised it previously with her. I am aware, from the conversations that I have with teachers, headteachers and pupils in secondary schools when I travel across Scotland, of the very particular problem that the S3 cohort has because of the huge disruption that those children experienced in their transition from primary school to secondary school. It is not good enough to say that that will be monitored closely. What will be done? What action, help, assistance and resource will be provided, or will those children—that cohort—just be another regrettable statistic for the rest of their lives?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will begin by addressing the question about industrial action. I have said in recent media reports, and I say again now, that we are some distance apart on what is affordable to the Scottish Government and local government and what the unions see as being acceptable. I have been clear all along that the 10 per cent pay increase that the unions have requested is simply unaffordable for the Government. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has now made four offers to the unions. I totally acknowledge that those have been rejected, but we need to see compromise on the issue from all sides. The only way to reach a resolution will be by achieving compromise not only within the Scottish Government or local government but among our union colleagues. We have had such discussions over the past couple of weeks in particular, and I look forward to those continuing in that manner.

Michael Marra is quite right to point to the particular concerns around the S3 cohort, which we have discussed previously. I have mentioned the £1 billion-worth of Scottish attainment challenge funding, which is an increase from £750 million in the previous parliamentary session. We are also considering carefully what can be done through the local authority stretch aims, through the network of attainment advisers in Education Scotland, through the universal support that is provided by that agency and through specific targeted support, where that is required.

It is important that when it comes to our approach of providing targeted support, where necessary, through our agencies, which is the best way for national government to address the challenges within the S3 cohort, we work with our agencies and local government to ensure that we deliver that support.

The Presiding Officer

Before we go on to the next question, I advise members that it has taken eight minutes to get through the first two questions and that 10 members still wish to ask questions. I would therefore be grateful if we could pick up the pace.

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

Contrary to Stephen Kerr’s spinning, local authorities are the bodies that are responsible for school-age education, so they have a pivotal role to play in tackling the attainment gap in our schools. Across the country, there is variation in performance on overall attainment and on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. What work is being done to address such variation? For example, how is best practice being shared with councils whose performance might benefit from such an approach?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have already mentioned the stretch aims, which are set by local authorities but on which Education Scotland works closely with them to provide support. Education Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland are undertaking collaborative improvement work to consider what more can be done to tackle such variation. I have also mentioned the further work—which, again, is being done through Education Scotland—to provide universal, targeted and intensive support where that is needed. I hope that those are examples of how we are attempting to tackle variation and assisting our local authority colleagues to do so.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

It is groundhog day. We have heard yet another statement in which the data is stacked against the Government, which has no meaningful solutions for improving education and the life chances of all children and young people. Questions must be asked about Scottish education reform funding. Gillian Hamilton, the chief executive of Education Scotland, has warned that it

“does not have capacity and/or capability to carry out this additional, very important work”,

which will have

“a significant detrimental impact on some key policy areas”,

including the Government’s flagship policy to close the

“poverty-related attainment gap”.

How serious is the Scottish Government about education reform?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am quite incredulous that I am being attacked by Opposition parties on this area. Previously, I have always been criticised on the ground that too much was being done by Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland staff; it would now appear that I am being criticised for not giving those agencies more money to allow more of their staff to be responsible for the reform package.

We will continue to ensure that, within the agencies, there are sufficient resources to enable them to carry out the necessary work, but we will also continue to ensure that the reform process is driven by the Scottish Government and—because I am responsible for that process—by the decisions that I will take to achieve the reform process that I want to see, which will be radical.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I welcome the latest achievement of curriculum for excellence levels statistics: the statistics show a positive improvement in achievement for pupils with a recorded additional support need. However, it is clear that there is much to do. It is essential that children and young people with neurodiverse conditions go through an education system that is responsive to the needs of their conditions. How will the Scottish Government ensure that children and young people with neurodiverse conditions are included and that their unique perspective is front and centre when planning for any progressive improvements?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Karen Adam raises an important point on the work that we are doing. We are working closely with the young ambassadors for inclusion, including those who are neurodiverse. They are closely involved in the delivery of the additional support for learning action plan. Those ambassadors will be consulted in the national discussion on the future of education in Scotland because, as we look to future progress, it is important that everyone is involved in that discussion, including our young people who are neurodiverse.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I agree with the cabinet secretary’s commitment to ensure that every child and young person in Scotland has the same opportunities through their education.

There are 15,324 school-age children and young people who have been identified as having additional support needs. However, on figures from 2020-21, 17.4 per cent of pupils with learning disabilities did not achieve a national qualification at level 2 or better, compared to 0.9 per cent of pupils without learning disabilities. I thank Enable Scotland for those figures. What will the cabinet secretary do to narrow that gap by 2026?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That follows on in part from the question from Karen Adam. I point Martin Whitfield to the work on the additional support for learning action plan and the work within that to recognise that success and achievement for those with additional support needs may vary. It is important that we work with those children and young people to ensure that we are setting our actions in the right way so as to ensure that they are achieving what they can deliver within Scottish education.

I hope that the work on that action plan will give the member some reassurance. I would be happy to meet the member and work with him if that is an area of concern to ensure that we are including the thoughts of children and young people and their requirements in order to see their success being recognised in a suitable way.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

As the cabinet secretary said, all local authorities have set their stretch aims for the years ahead, outlining their local ambition to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Should the local ambitions be realised and if the rate of progress that we have seen in recent years continues, what impact will that have on the poverty-related attainment gap in constituencies such as mine and across Scotland more generally?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Collectively, local authority stretch aims indicate significant ambition to drive accelerated progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. For example, for literacy and numeracy in primary schools, collective local ambitions are to close the gap by more than 7 percentage points compared to 2021, with data from 2022 showing real progress towards that.

I welcome that level of ambition. I look forward to seeing progress towards those stretch aims, recognising that meeting them is more important than setting them. We will do everything that we can as the national Government and through our agencies to continue to support local authorities to do that work.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Before Christmas, in response to my question, the education secretary said:

“we will be on track to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in primary schools”.—[Official Report, 8 December 2022; c 58.]

She failed to mention secondary schools. Will the election manifesto promise for secondary schools be met?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

There has been no change in the extent of our determination in relation to primary and secondary. Although I point to the success that we are having in primary schools, I also recognise that there is more to do in relation to secondary school. However, nothing has changed in our determination to deliver a substantial reduction in the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026—exactly as we set out in the programme for government.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

It is obvious that the poverty-related attainment gap—it is important to give its full name—cannot be tackled by schools on their own. Will the cabinet secretary outline what steps are being taken by the Scottish Government to tackle the cause—the drivers of poverty—at its root and mitigate the damaging actions of the Tories in Westminster?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The member rightly points to the fact that tackling the poverty-related attainment gap is best done at source, by tackling the drivers of poverty. Frankly, it is exceptionally frustrating and disappointing that we continue to try and do that with one hand tied behind our back, because of the changes that the UK Government has made to welfare, and the continuation of those changes will push more and more children into poverty over the coming years. We will continue to do what we can through the Scottish child payment and the Scottish welfare fund, but it is exceptionally difficult when the UK Government makes life harder rather than easier for our children and young people.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

We now have two sets of national qualifications results from years when exams did not take place and pupils were graded based on continuous assessment and the professional judgment of their teachers. In those two years, the attainment gap was considerably narrower than in years when grades were based on high-stakes end-of-term exams. Without pre-empting Professor Hayward’s independent review, could the cabinet secretary reflect on the difference in the attainment gap between those two models of grading?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Greer is right that I will not pre-empt Professor Hayward’s work. I am sure that she will be looking not just at what happened when we had exams but at the fact that our experience over Covid has shown that there are different ways in which we can measure attainment and achievement in our schools, all of them credible, as agreed by universities and employers. That presents us with opportunities for change should that be the right thing to do. I look forward to reading Professor Hayward’s report and recommendations in due course.

Natalie Don (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP)

I welcome the Government’s mission to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap at all levels of our education system. Will the cabinet secretary set out some detail on what measures are being taken by the Scottish Government to widen access to universities?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We recently announced the appointment of the new commissioner for fair access, Professor John McKendrick, and I welcome him to his post. His experience in tackling poverty and inequality in Scotland is vast, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I point to some of the parting words of the previous commissioner for fair access, who said that

“Scotland continues to set the pace”

when it comes to widening access to university, and who described the Scottish Government’s approach as an “unambiguous success”.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

Central to improving the educational life chances of children and young people should be ensuring first-class learning environments in schools. In the past academic year, there were more than 20,000 physical or verbal attacks against schoolteachers and other members of staff. The former president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Heather Hughes, said:

“Teachers often feel unsupported when reporting these issues. All too often they are made to feel that the blame lies with them”.

It is therefore disappointing that there was no mention of such a serious issue in the cabinet secretary’s statement. The Parliament has enough evidence that shows that teachers are not reporting those attacks and disruption, so the real scale is unknown. Will the cabinet secretary commit to mandatory reporting of violence in the classroom so that the issue can be dealt with once and for all?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The statement was, as I think Opposition parties wished, mainly based on the statistics that came out in December, and that is where I focused my remarks. The member is right to point to the important issue of violence against staff. There is absolutely no excuse for violence, intimidation or threats against our staff in schools. We work very closely with local authorities as the employers to ensure that we are doing everything that we can, and there are a variety of ways in which we could look to strengthen that work. I would be more than happy to look at any proposals on what can be done, and I would do so in conjunction with local authorities as the employers, who take the issue, as we do, very seriously.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

I have spoken in the chamber previously about the importance of educating children on Scotland’s ties with colonialism and the role that black and minority ethnic people have had in Scotland’s colonial past. Currently, it is not compulsory for schools in Scotland to educate students of any age on Scotland’s colonial past and its role in the British empire and the transatlantic slave trade. Mandatory primary education on such matters would ensure that, from a young age, children have a realistic understanding of Scotland’s history, what has been done to overcome that, and how we can strive to improve that in the future. Does the cabinet secretary agree that a mandatory primary curriculum on Scotland’s history of colonisation, slavery and empire is essential to ensure that all children receive an education that redresses historical inequality and supports the growth of our progressive and diverse nation?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Foysol Choudhury will forgive me if this is not correct, but I think that we have been trying to get some time in the diary to discuss that issue in particular and have kept missing each other. I am more than happy to find a time to discuss the issue in greater detail than I can today.

Although we do not have a compulsory curriculum in Scotland—and I do not think that we should have—we are, of course, working consciously with our anti-racism in schools works to look at how the curriculum can be changed and what changes can be made so that the issues that Foysol Choudhury has raised are dealt with. As I have said, I hope that we will get the chance to have a proper conversation soon to explore that in further detail.