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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 23, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Celebrating Success of Rugby, Portfolio Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2021-22, Medication Assisted Treatment Standards, Business Motion, Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is portfolio question time. In order to get in as many questions as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses. We move to questions on education and skills.

Discussions with COSLA and Unison (Pay Ballot)

1. Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Unison following the balloting of thousands of the trade union’s members working in schools and nurseries over pay. (S6O-01268)

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

The local government pay negotiations are a matter for COSLA, on behalf of the 32 councils and the trade unions, to resolve via the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Any intervention from the Scottish Government at this point would undermine that process. I encourage the local government trade unions and COSLA to continue having open, constructive dialogue to find a resolution that would avoid any potential industrial action.

Katy Clark

Does the cabinet secretary believe that handing the education staff who kept schools running during the pandemic what is effectively a pay cut is helping to build a Scotland that is, in the words of the First Minister,

“wealthier, fairer and more resilient and better”?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Of course, the Scottish Government recognises the strength of feeling right across the public sector, including among many in the local government workforce, and recognises their desire to see their efforts recognised by way of a pay rise.

As I said in my original answer, we are not party to the national local government pay negotiations. We have not participated in those in the past, and our intervention at this point would undermine that process. However, it is important that the Scottish Government continues to meet COSLA and the unions to discuss matters of mutual interest, including, for example, local government funding. Of course, we will continue to have such discussions.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the admission by COSLA that private and voluntary sector nurseries providing 1,140 hours of childcare receive a significantly lower—[Inaudible.]—than council nurseries. That means that staff in one part of the sector receive thousands of pounds less each year for doing exactly the same job. That is discrimination by design. How has that been allowed to happen, and when will it be fixed?

Can I just check that the cabinet secretary heard enough of Mr Rennie’s question? Would she prefer that he repeated it?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Between us, Ms Haughey and I were trying to piece together what Mr Rennie said. My apologies if I have not understood his question, in which case I am sure that he will follow it up in writing.

The Scottish Government works with COSLA to ensure that we have a fully funded package for the 1,140 hours of childcare programme. There is an expectation within the Government that we make it clear to COSLA, and that it should recognise, the importance of our private providers to the programme. If there are particular details that I have not managed to pick up because of Mr Rennie’s poor connection, I will be happy to follow those up with him in due course.

Baby Box Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of the baby box programme. (S6O-01269)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

The latest data available on take-up in 2020 shows that 98 per cent of expectant parents took up the opportunity of receiving a baby box. As of Friday 10 June 2022, we had distributed 220,788 baby boxes to families across Scotland. The independent evaluation of Scotland’s baby box programme, which was published in August 2021, highlighted the positive impact of the scheme on families, particularly first-time, younger and low-income parents. It showed 97 per cent satisfaction with the baby box and its contents, and 91 per cent of families reported financial savings as a result of receiving a box.

Kaukab Stewart

Will the minister join me in welcoming Ireland’s pilot project, dubbed “the little baby bundle”, which will see 500 newborn babies receive a baby box in a policy initiative that is similar to Scotland’s? Does she agree that universality is an essential aspect of Scotland’s scheme, which promotes an equal start for all children in Scotland, reducing stigma and conveying benefits beyond the purely financial?

Clare Haughey

I agree with the member. It is fantastic that Ireland has decided to pilot its own version of the baby box, which has been informed by our approach in Scotland, and I wish the project every success.

Scotland’s baby box strongly signals our determination that every child, regardless of the circumstances, should get the best start in life by ensuring that every family with a newborn has access to the essential items and support that are needed in the first six months of a child’s life. I believe that universality is a crucial aspect of the success of the scheme in Scotland. As I said previously, there has been a 98 per cent take-up of the scheme, which helps to underpin our ambition that every child should have the best start in life.

Neurodevelopmental Support (Children in Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to provide access to neurodevelopmental support for all children in schools. (S6O-01270)

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

We want all children and young people, including those with neurodiverse conditions, to get the support that they need to reach their full potential.

In November 2021, we published our updated additional support for learning action plan and progress report, to deliver the Morgan review recommendations. We will publish a further update in the autumn. Last year, we also published our progress report on the autism in schools action plan. Although the majority of actions are complete, we acknowledge that there is more to do to improve the support that is offered to neurodiverse learners. We continue to engage with partners to take that forward.

Mark Ruskell

The cabinet secretary will recall our joint visit to Touch primary school in Dunfermline, which is trialling an exciting neurodevelopmental pilot project. It has clearly been transformative for the whole school community, and especially for those children who have previously struggled to find the right school environment to learn in.

Getting it right for every child means that all children in all schools deserve access to that type of support—I know that the cabinet secretary knows that. Beyond pilots and evaluations, will the cabinet secretary outline what the long-term plan is to cement that kind of best practice in every school in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It was a pleasure to join the member and Kevin Stewart on a visit to Touch primary school, in my constituency. It was a fantastic visit that enabled us to see the real difference that can be made by a project—I acknowledge that it is a pilot project—that enables lessons to be learned about how the school can work with families as well as the young person.

Kevin Stewart and I are determined to see what we can learn from that pilot project and others to ensure that what we saw in Touch can be built on and adapted. Mark Ruskell makes an important point about the fact that the type of support that we saw in that environment should be applied in all schools. It may not be applied in the same way in all schools, but we certainly have a responsibility to ensure that the sort of support that we saw being made available to pupils in Touch is replicated across the country. I will be happy to continue to work with Mr Ruskell on the issue in the future.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Having recently visited the Donaldson Trust—the leading charity in Scotland for neurodiversity, which is based in my constituency and which I encourage the cabinet secretary to visit—I am aware of the complexity of the neurodiversity issue and of the importance of early identification.

I acknowledge the Scottish Government’s intentions and actions in its autism in schools action plan, but what assurances can be given to my constituents regarding timescales for early identification of individual needs in neurodiverse pupils, when will mainstream schools make full adaptations to meet the needs of neurodiverse students and how will the real-life impact of the Scottish Government’s action plan be assessed?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Education authorities already have a duty to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils, including those with neurodiversities. Fiona Hyslop is quite right to point out the importance of early identification and ensuring that support is there for the child and their family. It is important that we look carefully at that. There are responsibilities in that regard on the Scottish Government and on local authorities. All local authorities have in place a staged intervention and assessment process, which should enable practitioners to assess and meet their learners’ needs.

I thank Fiona Hyslop for bringing the work of the Donaldson Trust to my attention once again. I would be happy to visit the trust should it wish me to do so.

Identification is important. Will the Scottish Government therefore reconsider the introduction of a more robust national neurodevelopmental screening programme in our primary schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I mentioned in my response to Mark Ruskell, a number of pilot projects are currently in progress, and we will see what we can learn from those to ensure that there is better and earlier identification, and then support, in place.

There is no formal diagnosis needed in order for a child or young person to receive support; that is an important aspect of the national project that is currently in place. However, there will be lessons for us to learn from the pilots, and we will do so.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I very much welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to appointing a learning disability, autism and neurodiversity commissioner. What plans does the Scottish Government have to gather the views of autistic people, their families and support organisations to ensure that lived experience informs and shapes the role and powers of the commissioner?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Scottish Government has adopted a human rights-based approach to ensure that the learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill is fully co-designed with people who have lived experience, including autistic people. The process will involve disabled people-led organisations and charities that represent the views of a wide range of people who come under the learning disability, autism and neurodiversity umbrella. It is very important that we continue that work.

Scoping work on the bill is under way as part of which the Scottish Government is currently running a series of events with existing stakeholders to allow us to work alongside people with lived experience to design the public consultation and the initial policy options that will be included.

Skills Priorities (Withdrawal from European Union)

To ask the Scottish Government whether its priorities for the skills required to support the economy have changed as a result of any consequences of withdrawal from the European Union. (S6O-01271)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

The national strategy for economic transformation, “Delivering Economic Prosperity”, recognises that

“A skilled population is fundamental to ... productivity and .. prosperity.”

The NSET skilled workforce programme sets out priority actions to ensure that people have the skills that they need at every stage of life and that employers invest in the skill set of their workforce.

NSET highlights that

“Brexit will inflict greater damage on the economy than even the pandemic”,

and says that

“This is becoming increasingly apparent”,

with almost all sectors reporting labour and skills shortages.

To help to mitigate those consequences, the Scottish Government will implement a programme of work to attract talent from the rest of the UK. In addition, it has committed to, and will launch, a migration service for Scotland.

Christine Grahame

First, Presiding Officer, I thank you for allowing me to leave immediately after my supplementary in order to comply with a long-standing engagement, which was obviously arranged before today’s truncated lunch.

Notwithstanding that education has a role in providing society with a relevant workforce, does the minister agree that the strength of Scottish education is its broad base, with flexibility built in? As pupils progress through secondary school and at senior level, they may very well change their mind about what they want to do later in life.

Jamie Hepburn

In general terms, yes—I very much agree with that. We see that the nature of our society and our economy is constantly changing, and in that sense our education system must adapt and must ensure that people can be resilient and adapt in the face of those changes.

I very much agree with the point that Christine Grahame makes. It is true not only for the school environment, but for people’s education and skills development across the entirety of their lives. She can be assured that I will take that approach in my area of activity.

Violence in Schools

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to address the reported increase in incidents of violence in schools. (S6O-01272)

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

All forms of violence are unacceptable and have no place in our schools or in society. We, and partners across the education sector, advocate an approach for schools and local authorities to work with pupils on the underlying reasons behind inappropriate behaviour. We want all pupils to respect their peers and staff, and we are supporting a number of programmes to promote positive relationships and tackle indiscipline, abuse and violence. That includes good behaviour management, restorative approaches and programmes to help develop social, emotional and behavioural skills.

Meghan Gallacher

Teaching unions such as the NASUWT and the Educational Institute of Scotland have raised serious concerns about the soaring levels of violence and aggression in classrooms. The unions have warned that the reduction in classroom assistants, combined with the Scottish National Party Government’s refusal to commission research into poor behaviour, are contributing factors. One union representative has even claimed that it is

“as if they don’t really want to know”

the scale of the problem.

That is happening under the SNP’s watch. Will the cabinet secretary listen to the concerns that are being raised about the increased level of violence in our schools, and will the Scottish Government admit that cuts to council and education budgets are putting teachers at risk?

Shona Robison

We now have 2,000 additional teaching staff in comparison to pre-pandemic numbers, and we have invested an additional £45 million since 2019-20 in order to enhance the provision of support staff in schools.

The latest edition of the “Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research” is an important part of our work. The most recent iteration of that research was due to be undertaken in 2020, but—as I hope the chamber will appreciate, given what was happening in schools at the time—the decision was taken to cancel that research because of Covid.

Arrangements are currently under way for the next wave of that research to be developed, and we are progressing that. It will provide an important research angle. In the meantime, we will work carefully with local authorities and our trade union partners to ensure that the policies and support are in place to help our teachers and young people ensure that there is no violence or misbehaviour in schools, if that can be avoided.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on the work that is being done to educate young people on gender-based violence in schools, in order to combat sexual harassment and intimate partner abuse among young people?

Shona Robison

The Scottish Government wants all children and young people to develop mutually respectful, responsible and confident relationships. There are a number of targeted programmes to support positive behaviour in relationships and that help to address gender-based harassment in schools. One example of that is the mentors in violence prevention programme, which tackles gender stereotyping and attitudes. Equally Safe at School is another project, and the Fearless project educates and supports pupils to speak up about crime.

Those are important parts of the work that is being done, and the gender-based violence in schools working group is developing a national framework to ensure that there is consistent messaging on gender-based harassment for everyone who is working with young people.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.

STEM Learning

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning in Scotland. (S6O-01274)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

The latest annual report on the Government’s STEM education and training strategy was published on 26 May. The report demonstrates that, despite the restrictions that were required as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of STEM education partners were able to continue to deliver programmes of professional learning and related activity.

As the next step, we plan to improve the strategy, governance, and performance monitoring arrangements in the coming months. The aim is to focus on priority areas such as upskilling computing teachers, which will help to ensure that inequalities in access to STEM continue to be addressed and that STEM education effectively contributes to the Government’s net zero ambitions for Scotland.

Clare Adamson

This week, Equate Scotland’s annual conference discussed STEM through an intersectional lens. Understanding existing power structures and the contribution that they make to inequality is key to intersectionality. Does the minister agree that we have to continue to improve diversity in STEM, in order to ensure that we benefit from the vast potential in the sector?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes, I agree with that. I place on record my thanks to Equate Scotland for all the work that it does; it plays a tremendously important role in highlighting those issues. We cannot fulfil our potential as a country if we do not allow everyone to make the best use of their talents—STEM is no different in that regard.

Since 2019, Education Scotland’s improving gender balance equalities team has been working with schools and local authorities to effect culture change in schools and to tackle stereotypes and unconscious bias. That work continues to be supported. Since the team was established, it has engaged with more than 1,100 educational establishments. This is an important area, and that work will continue.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

More than one in 10 jobs in Scotland are now in the digital sector, with an average salary of more than £52,000. However, the number of STEM secondary school teachers has declined since 2008, and there is a downturn in the number of pupils who are choosing STEM subjects. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that pupils are leaving school with skill sets that are aligned with high-growth sectors?

Jamie Hepburn

Ms Gosal speaks simultaneously to the opportunity and the challenge—the challenge being that we require to ensure the steady supply of such individuals to take up the opportunities that are in place. Where we have that lack of supply, there are many opportunities for people to take up other jobs in the sector, which can cause challenges in recruiting people for teaching.

That is why we have our £20,000 bursary for career changers, to try to support those who are qualified in STEM areas to come into the teaching profession, why we are continuing to take forward the recommendations that Mark Logan made in his Scottish technology ecosystem review. That includes supporting the teacher-led Scottish teachers advancing computing science project at Glasgow university, along with the provision of additional resources of £1.3 million in the last financial year for schools to transform the teaching of computing science.

Skills Development Scotland (Economic Recovery)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will outline the role of Skills Development Scotland in delivering its economic recovery plans. (S6O-01275)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

As outlined in the ministerial letter of guidance issued to the agency for 2022-23, Skills Development Scotland—working with other agencies and partners—will support the delivery of key actions in the national strategy for economic transformation, particularly within the skilled workforce programme. The actions in the skilled workforce programme are designed to ensure that people have the skills that they need at every stage of life to have rewarding careers and that employers invest in the skilled employees they need to grow their businesses.

Richard Leonard

Back in January this year, the Auditor General for Scotland reported to this Parliament that the Scottish Government, for almost five years, had presided over a complete and utter failure to agree a plan for skills for Scotland’s workers. The Scottish Government was rebuked for not giving the “necessary leadership or oversight” or clarity to deliver that. Urgent action was called for.

Instead, it is six months later and the Government still has no credible skills plan. Workers, employers, trade unions and people who are out of work are still in the dark and Skills Development Scotland is now facing a budget cut of £5.8 million. When is the minister finally going to deliver what he was told that he needed to deliver back in January?

Jamie Hepburn

Of course, Mr Leonard refers to the report that the Public Audit Committee has considered. He knows full well that I am engaged in responding to the report. We have welcomed the recommendations and we are taking them forward.

I would reject the assertion that we have no plan in relation to a programme of delivering skills interventions for the people of Scotland. Through the national strategy for economic transformation, we have a range of commitments to support the provision of skills interventions across a person’s life. We also have the future skills action plan, which we are working towards.

Skills Development Scotland is funded to deliver the core services that it provides. Some services were provided as a one-off intervention and are not being funded now, but SDS has the funding that it requires to get on with the task, as demonstrated by the fact that we saw, for example, a 42 per cent uplift in the number of modern apprenticeship starts last year in comparison to the year before. That says to me that we have a skills system that is delivering.

That concludes portfolio questions. I will allow a moment for members to get themselves into place for the next item of business.