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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 22, 2021


Curriculum for Excellence

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe the measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on the Organisation for Economic Co-?operation and Development’s report on curriculum for excellence. 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)

Further to yesterday’s Government-inspired question, I will update Parliament on one of the key deliverables in our 100 days commitments—the Government’s response to yesterday’s publication of the OECD’s independent review of the implementation of curriculum for excellence.

I thank the many stakeholders, including the Scottish practitioner forum, who shared their experiences with the OECD and whose feedback has helped to shape the report and its recommendations. I also thank the OECD, which has, as many members will recall, worked with Scotland on previous reviews. It has wide-ranging international experience and credibility in the area.

In my statement to Parliament earlier this month, I made clear this Government’s commitment to ensuring the best possible educational experience for children and young people as we emerge from the pandemic. I also signalled my intention to consider a reform process and underlined the importance of the OECD’s findings and recommendations in shaping our approach to improving the way in which Scotland’s curriculum is implemented.

The Government accepts the OECD’s 12 recommendations in full and we have published today our initial response to each of the recommendations, setting out how they will be taken forward. This afternoon’s statement is an opportunity to outline some key points in our response.

First, it is worth highlighting that the OECD has endorsed the continued relevance and ambition of CFE as the right approach for Scotland. Its vision—to achieve excellence for all learners, embodied in the four capacities—remains fit for purpose. The report highlights CFE’s bold and aspirational future-oriented approach, and states that it continues to be viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice. I hope that we can all unite behind that endorsement.

Furthermore, the OECD acknowledges the efforts to engage stakeholders throughout our curriculum’s life cycle. That engagement has created the necessary conditions for shared ownership and support for the vision for CFE, which has given teachers and practitioners the ability to shape and deliver it to adapt to local needs.

It is 10 years since CFE was established, so it is right and proper that we review how it is being implemented. We must also seek to learn from the events that have been brought about by the pandemic. The OECD report notes that there are areas that we need to work on to ensure that our curriculum remains fit for now and the future. I have already made clear my intention to work with all those in education to deliver the reform that is required to improve outcomes. We must ensure that our children and young people can fully benefit from a coherent learning experience from the age of three up to the age of 18.

I am absolutely committed to putting the voices of young people, parents, teachers and schools as well as other stakeholders at the centre of our education policy, as the OECD has recommended. That is why I am announcing today that I will reconvene the Scottish education council with a refreshed membership and renewed purpose to support the delivery of the OECD’s recommendations as well as wider education policy as we move on from Covid-19.

Young people will of course have seats on that council, but to ensure that the voices of those who are most affected by any changes in education are always heard loudly and clearly in strategic discussions, I am also establishing a children and young people’s education council to sit alongside the Scottish education council. I will chair both councils, and their input and advice will have parity of esteem. I want consideration of the lived educational experience of young people, current teachers, leaders and other practitioners to be fundamental to the work that I do and the decisions that I take as education secretary.

It is essential that we take a rights-based approach and that we achieve genuine parity of esteem for young people’s views. We will therefore work with children and young people’s organisations over the summer on the details of our new arrangements. The councils will ensure that impactful and representative engagement happens throughout our work to implement the OECD’s recommendations and will allow us to demonstrate that the engagement shapes the changes that we wish to make.

We know that we must simplify our policies and institutions so that there is maximum coherence. That includes the need to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the national and local bodies that are involved in delivering and supporting Scotland’s curriculum, and to ensure that the teacher workforce has the skills, time and capacity to lead, plan and support CFE on the ground. I will come back to our national bodies in a moment.

In response to the OECD’s recommendation that dedicated time should be provided to school staff to lead, plan and support CFE at school level, the Government has already committed to teacher class-contact time reducing by 1.5 hours per week, and we will work with our partners in the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers to take forward discussions as to how that can best be achieved.

The OECD also identifies a need for better articulation of assessment methods through the broad general education and into the senior phase, with methods that better align with the aims of curriculum for excellence and its four capacities. We await with interest the outcomes of the OECD’s comparative analysis, which is due to be published by the end of August. That will allow us to have initial conversations as to the future of our senior phase qualifications and awards, but I want to make clear that I am open to change, if change is recommended.

To step away from the OECD for a moment, I would like to give a short update on qualifications. We know that learners, teachers and lecturers are keen to understand how qualifications will be awarded in 2022.? Feedback from the national qualifications 2021 group’s discussions suggests that there are a range of views on the issue and a recognition of the need to carefully reflect on and learn from the on-going experience of this year.?

The examination diets in 2020 and 2021 were cancelled on the basis of public health advice.? I want to be in a position to confirm our central planning assumption for awarding qualifications in 2022 for the start of the school term in August, in order to give as much certainty as possible for learners, teachers and the system.? That will take account of the state of the pandemic.

Last week, the First Minister committed to reviewing our approach to self-isolation for young people who are identified as contacts. Any changes to that could have a significant bearing on the extent of disruption for individual learners in the next school year and, in turn, on our decision on whether to hold an exam diet or use an alternative model of certification. I know that many stakeholders support our approach of taking the next few weeks to think through the issues and take account of the latest public health advice before we confirm our central planning assumption at the start of the new school term.

In my speech to Parliament on 3 June, I announced that we will be considering options for reform so that schools get the best possible support to provide the highest quality of learning and teaching for our children. We need to accelerate the pace of reducing the attainment gap and to reduce variability in the outcomes that are achieved by young people in different parts of the country. With that in mind, I signalled my intention to reform Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. I want to be clear that that is not reform for reform’s sake. All the changes that we will make will be guided by the central principle of improving the experiences and outcomes of children and young people in Scotland’s education system.

I assure learners and candidates across Scotland that those plans will not affect certification and awarding processes in the current or the coming academic years. To that end, I acknowledge and thank all those who are working in the SQA and the wider profession who are going above and beyond to ensure that learners receive the recognition that they deserve.

The OECD review includes important recommendations on the clarity and coherence of the institutions that support our education system. It highlights the “unusual configuration” of having the inspectorate as part of an organisation that is also responsible for supporting school leaders, curriculum design and teacher professional learning. It also invites us to explore assigning responsibility for curriculum and assessment to a stand-alone agency.

I therefore confirm my intention to do two things. First, we will move the inspection function out of Education Scotland. As the OECD highlights, such a separation can help to balance the dual need for local flexibility of provision alongside national consistency in outcomes. In addition, I am minded to accept the OECD recommendation to create a new specialist agency that will be responsible for curriculum and assessment, which will replace the SQA. That will help to improve alignment and coherence in those functions, as recommended by the OECD.

We will progress implementation with the pace that it warrants. Although change is clearly necessary, I want to move decisively to avoid unnecessary uncertainty. I also want everyone who is affected to have a chance to inform the way in which we respond. I am therefore pleased to announce that we will appoint Professor Ken Muir, who was until recently chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, as an adviser to lead that work. I am delighted that Professor Muir has agreed to take up the position, given his knowledge and experience of Scottish education.

In progressing that work, Professor Muir will be supported by a dedicated and diverse advisory panel, which will be drawn from academia, practitioners, organisational change experts and others. Together, they will lead wide engagement that will ensure that our agencies are designed in a way that maximises the supporting of excellence and equity for our children and young people. I make it clear that the process is about designing how to implement the proposed reform; it is not another review. The OECD has already completed its review, which gives us a clear sense of direction. I expect Professor Muir to begin his work in August and to conclude it in around six months’ time.

It is clear to me from reading the OECD’s report and listening to the debate on education since I took up the post of education secretary that there is a clear need for a system-wide response. Neither the Scottish Government nor the teaching profession can do this alone. I therefore welcome the statement from the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, Education Scotland and the SQA—all of which have been involved in this work throughout—which outlines their shared commitment to work with the Government to realise the OECD’s recommendations. The Scottish Government will now work alongside all partners to co-design a more detailed implementation plan for the OECD’s recommendations, with a view to publishing it in September.

Putting aside political differences, if we can, I hope that members can agree on the importance of us working together, as we emerge from the pandemic, to maintain our relentless pursuit of excellence and equity in education and to ensure that our young people realise their aspirations. I look forward to considering the review’s recommendations with my colleagues across the chamber and with learners themselves, alongside everyone who is involved in delivering and supporting our young people to succeed in their chosen paths.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

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

I remind members and the cabinet secretary that, if we get succinct questions and answers, I will be able to call everybody; otherwise, that will not be possible.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

There can be no doubt that the exam system has been a disaster in recent years. Young people know that the SQA has screwed them over and it is right that the SQA should pay the price for its incompetence, but the SQA must not be used as a scapegoat for 14 years of Scottish National Party failure.

Historically, rigorous exams have been a strength of Scotland’s education system—a cornerstone of how we help young people to succeed in life. The problem is leadership, not the foundations, yet this morning the cabinet secretary said that she was very open to a debate that could lead to the wholesale scrapping of exams. No Government that is serious about raising standards in our schools can contemplate such a radical break from tradition. It would further diminish our international standing and remove one of the last hallmarks of Scotland’s world-leading system. Will the cabinet secretary clarify whether scrapping exams altogether is seriously on the table?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Oliver Mundell for his question—I think. Let me be clear: as I said in my statement, a second OECD report that specifically considers qualifications will come out by the end of August. It is fair and reasonable for the Government to say that we are open to a discussion about what is in that report—if I did not say that, I am sure that Oliver Mundell would be one of the first to criticise me. I do not know what is in that report at this point but, given that we have invited the OECD to undertake a review, for me to then say that I will not be open to whatever it suggests would seem mighty strange.

I ask Oliver Mundell to have faith, as I do, that the OECD has come up with reasonable proposals and suggestions of a way forward, which we can then discuss with young people and teachers. We can then come up with something together that I hope Oliver Mundell and others will truly support. As I said in my statement, this is not reform for reform’s sake but listening to internationally renowned experts and implementing their suggestions—if they are right for us—after consultation.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The OECD report is welcome. It is right to praise our education workforce, and we welcome the Government’s acceptance of the recommendations in full. We have the review; now is the time for urgent action. After two years of disarray and disastrous leadership, we must immediately rebuild confidence in our education institutions.

Later this afternoon, I will lodge a motion in Parliament for the Government to make the inspectorate independent, this week, by executive arrangement. The Government must put in place interim leadership to bring together the curricular functions of Education Scotland and the SQA by the middle of July, so that arrangements for 2022 assessments can be on teachers’ desks when they return.

Given the central role of contact time in holding back the curriculum for excellence, the Government must begin negotiations on a new teacher agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and teaching unions immediately, and unlock the funds to restore the cuts to teachers that the cabinet secretary’s Government has made. Will the cabinet secretary sign my motion?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will consider the motion carefully, as I always do any motion that Michael Marra lodges. I said in my statement today that Professor Muir is coming in to work for a specific period—six months—to ensure that we work with stakeholders to design the right system. As in many, if not all, areas of education, there are differing views on where inspection and other areas should sit. Should it be independent of Government or in it, as other inspectorates are? The OECD’s recommendations do not define one solution, and there is not one shared agreement among all stakeholders about where the inspectorate should be.

I share Michael Marra’s urgency to move forward on the issue, which is exactly why I have asked Professor Muir to work with stakeholders to design that system. We will have six months to ensure that we get that system right, taking young people and teachers with us and allowing them to co-design it.

With the greatest respect to Michael Marra’s motion, I do not think that he will have gone through the due consultation that I will ask Professor Muir to go through to move forward with this work. As I said in my statement, we will seriously consider what will happen in 2022 this summer—due to potential changes in self-isolation, for example, among children and young people—and we will use the public health advice to move forward as quickly as possible with determining what will happen with 2022 qualifications. That is not dependent on any of the changes that we are about to make but sits separately from them.

I assure Michael Marra that we are already having discussions about reduced contact time with teachers. That is on the agenda and we hope to move forward with that work at pace.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

There is a lot to welcome in the statement. For 10 years, completely unnecessary misalignment between the exam system and the curriculum in Scotland has let students down, and the bodies that are responsible for both have consistently failed to deliver or even to listen.

This work needs to be more than just a rebrand. The structural, cultural and policy failures of the SQA must be left behind, alongside the body itself. Given that the Government has committed to accept all OECD recommendations, what is its response to the report’s criticism of primary 1 to secondary 3 standardised assessments and the recommendation that a sample-based evaluation system be reintroduced instead? Will the failed Scottish national standardised assessments testing system now be scrapped too?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I reassure Ross Greer that this is certainly not a rebranding exercise but is a serious piece of reform, as I hope has been demonstrated by the Government-initiated question yesterday and my statement today.

What Ross Greer said in his question about Scottish national standardised assessments was not a specific recommendation in the OECD’s report. Assessment was mentioned and I am aware that the issue was mentioned in the webinar yesterday, but national standardised assessments are a key element of our improvement agenda as part of the national improvement framework. They allow us to have consistent, objective and comparable information. Ross Greer will be well aware of the independent review that took place in 2019, which concluded that assessments have a valuable potential and should be continued, albeit with some important changes that we will take forward.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The OECD’s recommendations are infuriatingly familiar. The shortcomings could have been addressed long ago. Teachers, pupils and the Scottish Parliament should have been listened to earlier. Teacher workload was front and centre of the OECD’s concerns. Scottish teachers spend more time in front of their classes than teachers almost anywhere else in the world and, before the pandemic, teachers reported that the pressure of the job led directly to them developing mental health problems. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary commit to a full review of teachers’ terms and conditions?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I say to Beatrice Wishart that Parliament and others called on the Government to look seriously at the curriculum for excellence. As part of that, we invited the OECD in and we have brought forward our initial response to its report on the day of publication. I genuinely think that you could not ask for a quicker Government response to a report than what we did yesterday.

On teacher workload, we are, as I said earlier, looking to ensure that we fulfil our manifesto commitment to reduce teacher contact time by one and a half hours per week. That will assist with workload pressures and ensure that teachers have more time to develop lessons and plan for the curriculum. I also point out to Beatrice Wishart the commitment in our 100 days document to increase teacher numbers by 1,000 and classroom assistant numbers by 500 as part of our commitment to provide 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants over the parliamentary term.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I welcome the publication of the OECD report and, as an ex-teacher, I thank our current teachers, parents and young people as they prepare to break for the summer holidays. As we know, this has been a particularly challenging year for so many. I have already been contacted by many educators, including in my Kelvin constituency, to whom the recommendation to replace the SQA is particularly significant. I ask the cabinet secretary how she will ensure that the concerns, views and voices from across universities, schools and further education colleges will be heard during the process of creating a new organisation, so that it is informed by personal and professional experiences and is fit for purpose?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I, too, thank teachers and young people once again, as the First Minister did during her statement, for everything that they have done over the past 15 months. The support that teachers and support staff have given to young people has been extraordinary and young people’s ability to persevere through some of the most difficult circumstances that any of us can imagine has been fantastic to see. We will continue to support them during the process.

As I said in my statement, I will reconvene the Scottish education council. Importantly, we are looking to refresh the membership and give it a renewed purpose so that it looks clearly at the delivery of the OECD’s recommendations as well as at wider education policy. In addition, and very importantly for me, we will establish the new children and young people’s education council, which will have parity of esteem with the Scottish education council. The council will, at least to begin with, work alongside the Covid education recovery group. I reassure Kaukab Stewart that the organisations and stakeholders that she mentioned will play an important part in the process. We will make sure that we are engaging with all stakeholders as closely as we can.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

The OECD’s report points out a lack of clarity in the curriculum around the role of knowledge, and Professor Lindsay Paterson has even said that the report did not go far enough in stressing the importance of knowledge creation being firmly included in the curriculum. Does the cabinet secretary agree that knowledge creation is an important part of an effective education system? Will she therefore commit to ensuring that that importance is made explicit throughout Scotland’s curriculum?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am sure that Lindsay Paterson and others will strongly express their views over the next six months—and, indeed, beyond that—on how we can take forward the reform. There is an important opportunity for everyone with strongly held views on education to take part in the process and to ensure that there is wide engagement in it.

At this point, it is fair for me to leave the work of Professor Muir to develop. However, I am sure that he will listen very carefully to voices across education, regardless of who they are and what particular areas they think we should go further on, and ensure that we take cognisance of that as we move forward. I am also sure that other stakeholders will come forward with ideas through the Scottish education council to make those voices heard.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Is the Scottish Government open to considering expanding the use of continuous assessment and embedding teacher judgment within certification in the senior phase more generally, reducing the overreliance on high-stakes exit exams for final grades and, where exit exams continue, challenging previous assumptions on matters such as the waterfall effect, which can often constrain the grades of young people, particularly in my constituency?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my answer to Oliver Mundell’s question, we will look very carefully at what the OECD says about qualifications and assessments, and particularly at the fact that we need to develop approaches to ensure that they align better with the four capacities and the curriculum for excellence philosophy. We await the outcomes of the OECD’s second report, which is expected in the autumn.

I have said that I am open to change, but I have also said that the process will not be simple. There are many different views on the best way forward—I think that we have heard at least two in the chamber so far today—but I am cognisant of the fact that the OECD talked about a 19th century model that we seem to have while we still move forward with the curriculum for excellence. It is only right that we see what we need to do to reform that, if that is what the OECD recommends.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is disappointing that young people do not get a mention in respect of the advisory panel that is being drawn up to assist Professor Muir.

My question relates to the thanks that the cabinet secretary has given to the SQA. I want to ask about a Government-initiated question that was released at 3.02 pm yesterday afternoon, which announced that last year’s outstanding exam appeals for those who sat in 2020 cannot be reopened. Will the cabinet secretary be writing to each of those appellants, whose appeals sit on her desk, to tell them that their appeal is going nowhere, which is just another blow to young people’s rights?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The advisory panel has not been drawn up yet, so bear with us. Please do not assume that young people will not be on it.

It is very important to say that Professor Muir has just been asked to take up the post. He will begin the work in August, and it is only right that he is involved in the question of who is on the advisory panel. That is not for me to set up. Given what I said in my statement about the importance that I place on the views of children and young people, I am very open to that, but Professor Muir will have his views, and we will, quite rightly, take forward that discussion with him.

Martin Whitfield pointed to the GIQ on exam appeals yesterday. I have looked very carefully and seriously at that issue since I took up the post. It is exceptionally difficult to see how we can have a fair and credible appeals system at this point, but anyone who still thinks that they should have had an appeal on the grounds that the SQA had in place for the 2020 year qualifications has the ability to take that forward at this time.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

I will ask about learners with additional support needs. What work will the re-established Scottish education council undertake to ensure that plans for the qualification and assessment processes also benefit learners who require additional support—particularly those who are in the senior phase?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As always, Gillian Martin raises an important point. When we work through the Scottish education council or through any policy and practice in education, that must work for every child and young person, including those who have additional support needs. We will engage widely to ensure that plans and assessments hold to that and are accessible for all learners. Any reforms will be informed by the OECD’s comparative analysis that I mentioned, which is expected in the autumn. Reforms will be fully impact assessed in relation to equality and children’s rights and wellbeing.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary confirmed that the SQA will be reformed. Given that the SNP Government was aware of the OECD’s report months ago, why did it wait until this point to announce that the SQA would be scrapped, especially when our young people have endured yet another exam fiasco this year because of the incompetence of the SQA and the SNP Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I hope Meghan Gallacher agrees, we should move forward when we have a report’s final conclusions, rather than a draft—particularly when a group such as the OECD continues to work with stakeholders to see whether any changes will be made. We move quickly when we have reports, but it is also imperative to wait for final recommendations, rather than make assumptions. We moved quickly when we had the OECD’s recommendations, and we have quickly established an independent adviser to take forward the recommendation that has been mentioned.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

What impact will the OECD review’s recommendations have on the Government’s wider work on closing the attainment gap, to ensure that pupils from our most deprived backgrounds have the greatest opportunity to achieve better outcomes and guarantee that we deliver excellence and equity for all pupils?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government welcomes the OECD review’s recognition of improvement in tackling poverty-related attainment issues and of the fact that the impact of socioeconomic status on performance is among the lowest levels across OECD countries. We also note that there is a greater proportion of resilient young people from less well-off backgrounds who perform at high levels. The Scottish Government has demonstrated its continued commitment to closing the poverty-related attainment gap through, for example, the £1 billion that we will invest over the parliamentary session.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

While the front benchers change position before the next item of business, I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe the measures, including when exiting and entering the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seats and when moving around the chamber.