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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 26, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time, and the portfolio on this occasion is education and skills. Anybody who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Pay Awards in Schools (Discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met COSLA to discuss pay awards in schools. (S6O-02632)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I am advised that the Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning met COSLA on 24 October. Local government pay was discussed at that meeting.

It is important that I reaffirm that the workers who are involved in this dispute are local government employees, not teachers, so it is not a specific education dispute and I am not directly involved in the negotiations. Negotiations on local government pay are, rightly, between COSLA, as the representative of the employer, local government and the trade unions that represent the workforce. Nevertheless, I have an agreement with COSLA that we will work together to ensure that any disruption to learning is avoided as far as possible in the event of further industrial action.

I will be meeting COSLA ahead of further planned industrial action next week; similarly, I met COSLA prior to the previous action.

Claire Baker

The cabinet secretary will know that, although the GMB and Unite the union voted in favour of the offer from COSLA, Unison staff overwhelmingly voted to reject it, and members are beginning a rolling programme of strikes in various regions, including Fife. Even the unions that accepted the offer have stated that the negotiating process fuelled “uncertainty and mistrust” and that the revised offer should have been put

“on the table months ago”.

I hear what the cabinet secretary says about her involvement in the discussions with COSLA, but I would like an update on what the Government is doing to try to resolve the current dispute. Something that is purely within her remit is workforce planning. Will she give an update on what work the Government is doing to ensure that there is proper workforce planning in schools?

Jenny Gilruth

I welcome the news that, as Claire Baker outlined, GMB and Unite the union members voted to accept the deal. Negotiations remain on-going in relation to the wider challenges with Unison. I am aware that council leaders are due to meet tomorrow in that regard.

As I outlined, my focus is on ensuring consistency in how our local authorities engage when industrial action happens in their area. I met COSLA regularly to discuss that point in the run-up to the previous action, and I was clear about the need for us to have a joint understanding of what that should look like. My expectation was that most schools should have remained open at that time, subject to a school-by-school risk assessment, which is the responsibility of local authorities. We had an agreed form of wording—I do not think that I need to read it out today, but I can share it with the member—which was shared with the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. That was really important in ensuring consistency.

More broadly, I work regularly with COSLA on the challenge relating to workforce planning. I have asked the strategic board for teacher education to look more holistically at how we can plan better with regard to workforce planning. I look forward to engaging with COSLA on that point and on the issues relating to school closures when we next meet.

How does investment in school education in Scotland compare with that in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Jenny Gilruth

Independent research conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, in 2022-23, school spending per pupil in Scotland was more than £8,500. That is more than 18 per cent, or £1,300, higher than the level in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where spending was about £7,200 per pupil.

We have the highest spending per pupil, the lowest pupil to teacher ratio and the best-paid teachers in the UK—all of that in the face of more than a decade of austerity from the UK Government and further cuts. That is what we have been able to achieve with one hand tied behind our back. Imagine what we could have achieved with the full powers of independence.

Post-school Learning

2. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making on implementing the recommendations on the skills delivery landscape in the report, “Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation”. (S6O-02633)

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

The programme for government sets out our plans for implementing reform of our education and skills bodies and putting the voices of children, young people and adult learners at their core.

On post-school learning, James Withers’s report was an important milestone in developing our approach to reform. We have been clear that we accept the direction of travel that is set out in the report, but we will take a little bit of time to fully consider the recommendations and engage with stakeholders before updating the Parliament in the coming months on a set of actions. That is what we are actively doing.

Kenneth Gibson

Scottish ministers agree that parity of esteem across all qualifications is essential, with recognition needed of the importance of vocational skills. What is being done to deliver that message to our schools, young people and parents? How can we ensure that employers have greater input into skills development to ensure that the skills are available to fuel future economic growth?

Graeme Dey

As Kenny Gibson indicates, the theme of parity of esteem comes across strongly in the Withers report. It has also come across in my interactions with a host of interested parties, not least young people who have chosen to undertake apprenticeships.

The message is already being delivered in a number of ways in schools. The Developing the Young Workforce network and careers advisers are important conduits for making young people aware of the range of qualifications that are now available in the senior phase, including foundation apprenticeships, and enabling them to access the support that they need in order to make decisions on their next steps. However, there is more to be done, and the delivery of an enhanced national careers service, as we have in mind, will be central to that.

Employers will always have an important role to play in post-school education and skills development. Withers made important recommendations about strengthening that role, and I am considering how we best do that with a number of employer voices.

I will take a couple of brief supplementary questions.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

It has been months since the Withers report was published and, as we heard yesterday, the Scottish Government has been largely silent on it. Can the minister confirm whether the Government intends to implement recommendation 5, on establishing a single national funding body, and, if so, when?

Graeme Dey

I think that Liam Kerr equates what he terms as silence with inactivity. A great deal has been going on to develop our thinking on the matter. I note, and am sympathetic to, that specific recommendation from the Withers report. However, as Liam Kerr would expect, we are working through any potential unintended consequences that could flow from that. As we all do in this chamber, we want the best outcome for our learners.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Workplace learning is a critical part of ensuring that students maximise the value of what they learn in the classroom or lecture theatre. What is the Scottish Government doing in response to the Withers report to maximise the use of apprenticeships and other forms of workplace learning in the education system in order to support Scotland’s economic growth aspirations?

Graeme Dey

I agree with Ivan McKee on the importance of workplace learning, which I would like to see more of, building on the work of careers advisers and, in particular, DYW networks in highlighting the range of opportunities available in the senior phase. I assure members that apprenticeships will continue to be front and centre of our work on not only reform but our whole post-school system. I am also keen to explore how, in conjunction with employers, we increase opportunities for work experience to help young people decide on the best career options for them.

Video Games Technology (Education and Skills Development)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the potential role of emerging video games technology in education and skills development. (S6O-02634)

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

Digital technologies have been used to enhance teaching and learning experiences in Scotland for some time. When deployed effectively, digital technologies, including video game technology, have the potential to increase the engagement and motivation of learners and develop skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and digital literacy. It is, of course, for teachers, schools and local authorities to decide whether and how to make use of all forms of digital technology to best effect.

Clare Adamson

Next week is the second annual Scottish games week. I urge colleagues to attend events at Dynamic Earth and Michael Marra’s event in the Parliament, and to speak in my members’ business debate.

The cultural, social and commercial value of the games sector is staggering. We need to embed the sector in public policy, because video games are used in so many instances, including in colleges and schools as well as in medical advances. Gaming forms part of so much that we do in society. How are the requirements of the games industry being embedded in our schools and colleges to ensure that we can truly meet our ambitions for Scotland as a digital nation?

Graeme Dey

We are in a period of rapid digital advancement and should consider what opportunities progress might offer for our respective interests. In education, delivery colleagues are already exploring how available and emerging technologies, including video game technology, might be used to enhance teaching and learning.

On a recent visit to the newly merged college in Stornoway, I saw for myself how students in schools across the vast area that that institution now covers were participating in remote learning as part of games-related courses being delivered by the college. On a tour of Abertay University, I was fascinated to see the learning that can be delivered by games technology—fascinated, I should add, as a 60-year-old whose most recent interaction with games tech was probably playing Space Invaders. In all seriousness, the learners of today are far more acquainted with such technology than someone of my vintage, and we would be missing a trick not to seize the opportunities that it presents in education.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The minister should not knock Space Invaders.

It is a great pleasure to follow on from Clare Adamson’s advert about next week. Development companies can offer much, in relation to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, directly to our schools. I think of the work of 4J Studios—which is based in East Linton in East Lothian, with a small outreach office somewhere in Dundee—and its interaction with primary school and secondary school pupils. Can the minister outline what work is being done to facilitate individual industry players to work in schools?

As we move out of the territory of Space Invaders, which I was by no means knocking, I am coming out of my comfort zone—this is more in the space of the cabinet secretary.

I have not played Space Invaders. [Laughter.]

Graeme Dey

I meant in the context of primary schools, cabinet secretary.

It would be reasonable to expect that we will do as much as we can to encourage such work. I will be happy to write to Martin Whitfield in greater detail.

Let us move on before there are ministerial splits.

Violence in Schools (Nutrition and Behaviour)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any link between nutrition and behaviour in its work to address violence in schools. (S6O-02635)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government’s programme for government restates our commitment to ensuring that our young people have access to the right nutrition, and we will continue to work with partners to ensure that that is realised.

The latest behaviour in Scottish schools research, which is being published in November, will provide teachers’ insights into factors that may underlie behaviour in our schools. We are also currently working with Young Scot and YouthLink Scotland to understand the impact of the cost of living crisis on young people’s readiness to learn. The Scottish Government will consider those findings carefully to identify any actions that should be taken to address the concerns that have been raised.

Monica Lennon

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for her response and for recently meeting me and the Scottish Trades Union Congress women’s committee to discuss some of these issues.

Today, I was pleased to attend an event in Parliament, sponsored by Jim Fairlie MSP, celebrating Scotland’s school meals and front-line caterers. Speeches by Assist FM and Food for Life Scotland reinforced the importance of feeding and nourishing young minds.

With the national good food nation plan coming to consultation, does the cabinet secretary agree that the roll-out of universal free school meals has never been more important? Can she update Parliament on when universal free school meals will be piloted in secondary schools?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for her question. We had a really worthwhile meeting with the STUC a few weeks ago, at which we discussed the issue of school nutrition. I touched on some of the work that I hope to take forward with Mairi Gougeon in the space of the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022, recognising the opportunities that the act provides us to ensure that there is appropriate nutrition in our schools, particularly in relation to our roll-out of free school meals, as the member has touched on.

We have recently established a joint ministerial working group on food, which will enable us to have a cross-Government approach to those matters. I specifically asked for there to be an agenda item that relates to school nutrition. That is in addition to some of our broader work that supports the food for life programme, which aims to increase the amount of healthy, locally sourced food that is served by local councils and schools, and which currently operates in 17 local authorities. That provides another option to work more closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in relation to the 2022 act.

The member asked for an update on the secondary school pilot. I do not yet have a date for its roll-out, but I am more than happy to write to the member on that. We discussed the pilot in some detail when we met recently.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

The roll-out of universal free school meals for all pupils in primaries 1 to 5 and in additional support needs education settings has been startling. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the uptake of free school meals in general?

Jenny Gilruth

The Government is pleased that we can support families at this very difficult and challenging time through our free school meals scheme. I can confirm that our latest pupil census shows that more than half of pupils are now registered for free school meals, with the proportion of eligible pupils increasing to just over 70 per cent. I would like to see that figure increase, so we will continue to work with COSLA on ensuring that that happens.

This year’s healthy living survey also found that 2,301 free school lunches were provided to children and young people on survey day. That represents an increase on the previous high of free school lunches that were provided in 2022. However, again, I am keen to work with COSLA to ensure that we see a continued increase across the piece.

We recognise that uptake has been impacted by changes in relation to behaviour at school as a result of the pandemic, but undoubtedly there is more work to be undertaken with COSLA on increasing that figure further.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Not only is good nutrition linked to tackling violence in school, it is also linked to physical and mental health, attainment and the prevention of malnutrition—I am sure that we are all fed up of seeing queues of schoolchildren outside the chip shop at lunchtime. It is not just about ensuring high-quality school meals, but about encouraging the uptake of school meals, which is too low, especially in urban areas.

What will the Scottish Government do to promote and encourage school meals uptake?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for his question. I recognise his interest, particularly in relation to physical exercise and the impact that that can have on raising attainment more broadly.

I provided an update in response to Michelle Thomson’s question. The proportion of eligible pupils has increased to around 70.4 per cent. However, we will need to do more to work with local authorities, particularly in urban areas. I recall the chip van that used to be parked outside the school when I was at school, so it is not a new problem that schools are facing.

It is imperative that we engage directly with local authorities and headteachers who know our school communities and can put in place the encouragement that is needed to see a further increase in the uptake of school meals.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Vaping in Schools (Ministerial Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has had with ministerial colleagues regarding action to reduce instances of vaping in schools. (S6O-02637)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We remain concerned about the proportion of young people who are using vaping products. Scottish Government officials in the education and health and social care portfolios are working together to ensure that we take a holistic approach to tackling vaping in schools.

We are also working with Education Scotland and public and third sector partners to support work on substance use education. Future work will be informed by insights from our forthcoming behaviour in Scottish schools research, which, as I alluded to in a previous response, will be published next month. We would expect local authorities to work with schools to ensure appropriate measures are in place to deal with incidents of vaping.

Maurice Golden

We know that underage vaping is widespread, but we do not know how prevalent it is in our school system. Analysis that I conducted at the start of the year revealed that at least 22 local authorities were unable to provide information on vapes being confiscated from pupils. What information does the Scottish Government hold on the problem, and how many schools are now recording that information consistently?

Jenny Gilruth

On the evidence that we hold on the issue, although the most recent survey of young people’s substance use shows that the majority of teenagers do not vape regularly, we are concerned about the proportion of young people who have tried vaping. We know that the majority of pupils agree, or would strongly agree, that their school has given them the advice and support that they need to make important decisions about drinking, alcohol, smoking and drugs. However, more broadly, I think that there is further action that we can take.

The member will recognise that there is a split in responsibilities in health and education. Education Scotland is taking forward further work to that end at the national level. I would, however, be more than keen to see the data that the member has gathered on the topic, as I have not had sight of it. More, broadly, he has raised a really important topic.

In my initial response to the member, I alluded to the behaviour in Scottish schools research, which will tap into some of the behaviour change that has happened in our schools, particularly since the pandemic. I would be happy to meet the member to talk about the issue in more detail, recognising that it is a challenge in our schools at the current time.

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

We know that the colourful packaging, cheap price and easy accessibility of vaping products confirms that they are targeted at our younger population, almost one in 10 of those who vape are thought to be under the age of 16, and the health implications are still not known. Urgent action is required. Will the cabinet secretary update members on any discussions that have been had with schools and local authorities about stores that sell those products within the vicinity of schools, to work towards ensuring that youth vaping, particularly in the school setting, is reduced and eradicated?

Jenny Gilruth

The enforcement of the legislation on the sale and purchase of those products is carried out by local councils as part of the enhanced tobacco sales enforcement programme, which is overseen by the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland and funded by the Scottish Government.

Last year, we wrote to all retailers who sell nicotine vapour products to remind them of their responsibilities to comply with legislation on the sale of those products—the member made an important point about the targeting of young people in that space. More broadly, we encourage anyone who has information about suppliers who might be providing vapes to underage young people to contact trading standards.

There is, however, a challenge in relation to some of the legislation. We are keen to work across the UK to take a four-nations approach to tackling the issue more broadly. As I alluded to in my response to Maurice Golden, there is a separation between the educational responsibilities and those of the health directorate. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the health directorate to ensure that the Government takes a consistent approach to dealing with the issue.

Secondary School Teachers (Action on Numbers)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to increase the number of new secondary school teachers. (S6O-02638)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting the recruitment of more teachers, and we are providing £145.5 million in this year’s budget to protect increased teacher numbers and support staff across all local councils.

We work with partners to promote teaching as a highly rewarding career and the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of children and young people. The aim of that work is to improve recruitment and retention and to attract more highly qualified individuals into teaching in areas and subjects where they are needed most.

In addition, the strategic board for teacher education, which is made up of a range of key education stakeholders, is looking in detail at issues around the recruitment and retention of teachers in Scotland.

Jamie Greene

The cabinet secretary must be disappointed that, last year, more than 800 vacancies went unfilled in our secondary schools. There is widespread concern about the lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers, particularly in rural areas. The golden hello, which is aimed at addressing shortages of rural teachers, has reaped disappointingly low levels of interest and take-up. Why is the Government struggling to meet its own targets for recruiting into secondary schools? More important, what reassurances can the Government offer parents and pupils that they will not be facing reduced subject choice because there are simply not enough teachers available to teach certain subjects?

Jenny Gilruth

I recognise Jamie Greene’s interest in the area. I know that he has asked a number of written parliamentary questions recently. He mentioned the golden hello. I declare an interest, having ticked the box back in 2008 and gone to Elgin for a year to teach. The preference waiver payment provides probationary teachers with an additional payment, as the member has alluded to.

More broadly, there has been a change in relation to how people engage with the system. I held a round-table meeting with probationers just before parliamentary recess and heard from them a number of different approaches to how they regard their employment, with people perhaps being less likely to move than they might have been in the past. We need to recognise that challenge, particularly in relation to Jamie Greene’s points on specific subjects.

We have a teaching bursary scheme, which gives bursaries of up to £20,000 for career changers wishing to undertake a one-year postgraduate qualification in the hard-to-fill STEM subjects that Jamie Greene alluded to, including physics, maths, technical education, computing, science, chemistry and home economics. That scheme has been extended to include Gaelic as a secondary subject and Gaelic medium across all secondary subjects and at primary level.

It is worth my while to point out that, since December 2014, the number of schoolteachers in Scotland has increased by 8 per cent. However, I recognise that there are subject-specific challenges, particularly in secondary schools. I have commissioned the strategic board for teacher education to look at the issue in further detail and to provide me with greater advice on how we can support the challenge.

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

Alongside the work to increase teaching numbers, retention is a key matter, which I think the cabinet secretary has alluded to. What further work is the Scottish Government undertaking to promote and support retention across Scotland’s teaching profession?

Jenny Gilruth

The retention of teachers is absolutely key. Undoubtedly, the historic pay settlement that was reached earlier this year will go some way towards showing our teachers how valued they are in Scotland, but we are also working with our partners to promote teaching as a highly rewarding career, with, as I mentioned in my initial response, the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our young people. The aim of that work is to improve recruitment, as well as—in relation to Audrey Nicoll’s question—retention, and to attract more highly qualified individuals into teaching to make a difference in our classrooms.

In addition, as I mentioned in my response to Jamie Greene, the strategic board for teacher education is looking in detail at issues around the recruitment and retention of teachers in Scotland. I am looking to work with our teaching unions on that issue more broadly to consider how we can work together to encourage more people into teaching.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The Institution of Engineering and Technology has highlighted some of the problems that it is seeing in finding STEM teachers. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments about bursaries. However, in that organisation’s report, it asked for a review of those bursaries, because they are not attracting people who work in STEM sectors to change careers and go into teaching. What more can the cabinet secretary do to attract those people into teaching?

Jenny Gilruth

Pam Duncan-Glancy raises an important point. She has touched on some of the additionality that we have provided, which I outlined in my response to Jamie Greene. There have been historical challenges in a number of different subjects over a number of years. For example, there are gender divides in the teaching of physics and maths, and we need to be cognisant of that and encourage more women into the teaching of those subjects and more generally.

I am more than happy to meet Pam Duncan-Glancy to talk about opportunities in this regard. Although I will not commit to a review while on my feet today, I am more than happy to look at the issue in a bit more detail. In our secondary school recruitment process specifically, there are gaps in certain subject areas, and we need to be cognisant that different action will be needed to respond to those challenges accordingly.

City of Glasgow College (Industrial Dispute)

8. Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any discussions between the City of Glasgow College senior management and trade union representatives regarding the on-going industrial dispute. (S6O-02639)

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

Although colleges are responsible for operational decisions on resourcing and staffing, the Government expects the principles of fair work to be at the heart of decision making, and I have written to all college principals to make that clear. I expect every effort to be made, in consultation with the campus trade unions, to protect jobs.

On the City of Glasgow College specifically, I have engaged with the chair of the Glasgow Colleges Regional Board, which has governance oversight on the situation at the college. In addition, the Scottish Government has regular meetings with College Employers Scotland and representatives of campus trade unions, at which workforce issues are discussed, including the issues at the City of Glasgow College.

Kaukab Stewart

I have been contacted by numerous students, parents and staff while the dispute has been on-going. The continued impasse, which has led to further strike action, has caused disruption to students’ educational experience, and it has the potential to do severe damage to the reputation of the college. What additional powers does the minister have to intervene on the matter? Does he agree that now is the time to step in and exercise those powers in any way that he can to help to bring about a resolution?

Graeme Dey

As I have already outlined, workforce issues relating to redundancy and severance are operational matters for the colleges to consider. Ministers have no locus to intervene.

I have also made it clear in all my discussions with the sector that, when it comes to workforce matters, fair work must be the guiding light. In my engagement with the chair of the Glasgow Colleges Regional Board, I sought assurances that fair work principles have been followed at the City of Glasgow College and that impacts on learning and students have been considered in decision making.

I think that we can all agree that industrial relations at the college are extremely poor. As Kaukab Stewart has mentioned, that undoubtedly has a detrimental effect on students. I hope that she will be interested to learn that Education Scotland has commenced a planned thematic review of all three colleges in Glasgow, which will cover, among other things, governance and management. If—I stress the word “if”—that activity were to highlight any areas of concern, it would be open to the Scottish Funding Council to take an interest in such matters.

Given that we have a bit of time over the course of the afternoon, I will take a brief supplementary from Willie Rennie.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The industrial dispute at the City of Glasgow College is symptomatic of the wider deep-rooted problems that we have in the college sector. As the minister prepares for the budget process for next year, where do colleges fit within his priorities? Will he review the Government’s policy of no compulsory redundancies and bring that policy to the college sector?

Graeme Dey

I respect Willie Rennie’s position on the matter. His underlying message is that we must find more money for colleges. Of course, what we never hear from Opposition members is where we could find that money from. I accept that not having to answer that is a luxury that Opposition members have.

Of course colleges are a priority for us. As Willie Rennie well knows, the issue here is not simply about the budget process; it is also about how we engage with the colleges. He knows that we have been doing a lot of work on flexibilities for colleges to enable them to have a bit of scope to create a more sustainable situation in the immediate term until we can get them into a stronger position.

With regard to the policy of no compulsory redundancies, the position on that has not changed. I hope that Willie Rennie accepts that. It is not the case that colleges have been removed from that policy; they have always been where they are now. I hope that that answers his question.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item business to allow for a changeover of front-bench members.