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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 27, 2022


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary, I would invite them to press their request-to-speak button or, if they are joining us online, to place an R in the chat function, during the relevant question.

There is quite a bit of interest in the questions this afternoon, so brief questions and responses to match would be helpful.

Cumberford-Little Report

1. Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government which elements of the Cumberford-Little report it sees as relevant for its forthcoming review of the skills landscape, and particularly in relation to the stated purpose of “optimising the system for upskilling and reskilling.” (S6O-01460)

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

James Withers is leading the independent review of the skills delivery landscape in Scotland, which commenced in September. It will be for him to decide what evidence he considers and which individuals, institutions and organisations he consults.

Michelle Thomson

The minister will be aware that the Cumberford-Little report argued the case for a stronger focus on skills excellence rather than mere competence. Does the minister agree that such an ambitious focus for the skills sector should be considered by the review, and that it fits with the stated purpose of the review to address the specific

“functions and remit of Skills Development Scotland”?

Jamie Hepburn

First, I am happy that I see excellence in our system already. The purpose of the review is to ensure that we have a skills system that is fit for the future challenges that we face. I can certainly say that it must be one that is based on excellence.

That is why we initiated the review, which will look not only at SDS but across the wider skills landscape. The review has parameters that will ensure that we have an ambitious focus for the future.

I reiterate that it is for James Withers to consider the points that Michelle Thomson has raised, given the independent nature of the review.

Pam Gosal has a brief supplementary question.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

Apprenticeship contribution rates have remained static for around a decade. Now there are fears of a freeze on apprenticeship places until next year. Naturally, many small and micro-sized businesses are concerned about the potential impacts. Can the minister clarify whether there will be a freeze on apprenticeship places until next year, and will the Government commit to an independent review of apprenticeship contribution rates?

Jamie Hepburn

There is no freeze on apprenticeships this year. There are still many places available to be taken up in the contracts that have been awarded, and they should be fulfilled. Let us be clear: there is no freeze on apprenticeship places this year.

As for the contribution rates, I would expect Skills Development Scotland, as the agency tasked with those matters, to consider those in conjunction with any other agency that is looking to consider those matters.

Question 2 has not been lodged.

Skills Shortages

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to tackle skills shortages. (S6O-01462)

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

In the national strategy for economic transformation, we set out our commitment to ensuring that employers have the supply of skills they need. In 2021-22, the national transition training fund and the north east economic recovery and skills fund provided over 23,000 training interventions across a range of sectors.

To attract people to Scotland, we have committed to launching a talent attraction and migration service in 2023, which will build on our talent attraction programme aimed at attracting workers from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Gordon MacDonald

I share the concerns of the Construction Industry Training Board about filling the skills gap across the sector—in skills from bricklaying to building safety, and from digital skills to those relating to energy efficiency—in order to enable us to address the commitment to net zero. The CITB has suggested that we need an additional 26,000 construction workers by 2025. Given the skills gap, and the fact that access to previously available European Union workers is no longer an option, can the minister advise us what action the Scottish Government will take to tackle the problem?

Jamie Hepburn

I certainly recognise the nature of the challenges, which I have been able to discuss directly with the sector, including the Construction Industry Training Board. I have laid out some of the activity that we are undertaking, including steps to try to attract people from other parts of the UK to Scotland.

In terms of what we are doing here and now, in 2020-21, there were more than 11,000 construction and property students in Scotland. That is about 9 per cent of full-time equivalent places in our colleges. Apprenticeships continue to be a key mechanism for promoting employment and investment in the construction sector.

In 2021-22, the Scottish Government had 6,540 people going into modern apprenticeships in the construction sector—the highest number on record and a 30 per cent increase on the previous year. In addition, construction accounts for the highest level of usage of individual training accounts. Alongside that, since 2018, almost 600 employers in the sector have accessed the flexible workforce development fund.

We have a range of initiatives under way, but of course I recognise that there is more to do. That is something that I am committed to taking forward.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Given that answer and the comments of a whistleblower who has contacted us, can the minister confirm whether Skills Development Scotland has had any of its budget for this year reclaimed by the Scottish Government?

Jamie Hepburn

It is no secret—the Deputy First Minister has stood on his feet in this chamber to talk about the process that we are undertaking to try to manage some of the cost pressures this year. However, if that was a reference to the question that was asked by Pam Gosal—we do not need any form of whistleblower to raise those issues given that Pam Gosal has done so—I will say again that there is no freeze on the recruitment of modern apprenticeships this year, which is the core activity of Skills Development Scotland. SDS will continue to deliver on the programmes and projects that it has in place.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

When it comes to skills shortages, can the minister comment on Derek Smeall’s evidence to the Education, Children and Young People Committee on 21 September? He said:

“the reality is that, when we did our own analysis we found that, as we go forward in the presence of ‘chronic underfunding’—there is a reason why I use that term—the impact looks at this early stage to be likely to mean a reduction in my workforce of 25 per cent by the end of year 5, which is 2027.” —[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 21 September 2022; c 14.]

How is that helping our skills shortage?

Jamie Hepburn

I recognise that there are obvious challenges in relation to the college sector. We will work closely with the colleges to make sure that we find a way through. The independent review that is under way will make recommendations, and we are responding to the Scottish funding council’s review into sustainability and coherence of provision. We are working our way through those matters.

In terms of the budgetary position, I would have thought that Mr Whitfield would recognise and understand that there is significant pressure on the Scottish Government’s budget as a consequence of decisions that are being taken by the UK Government. If it is Labour’s view that more should be invested in this area of activity, I look forward to it suggesting what other area of the budget should be cut.

Question 4 is from Fiona Hyslop, who joins us online.

Home Education

4. Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will amend education support guidance to distinguish between voluntary home education as a matter of choice and involuntary home education as a matter of necessity. (S6O-01463)

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

Opting to home educate your children should always be a choice and no family should feel that they have to withdraw their child from local authority education. There is a clear duty on education authorities to provide an education for all children in their area, especially children with additional support needs.

Fiona Hyslop

The cabinet secretary will be aware that there is a small number of pupils who have very serious difficulty in physically being in school because of their neurodiversity or their struggle with their mental health. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge the difference between those parents who voluntarily home educate as a choice and those parents and children who have it involuntarily imposed on them as the only possible way that they can engage in education? Can the Scottish Government amend the draft guidance that is being consulted on to reframe such involuntary home education as a necessity rather than a choice, as local authorities say that they cannot provide discretionary support without such a change in guidance? What support can the Scottish Government offer to those young people in the meantime so that they do not miss out on education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Fiona Hyslop for her continued interest in the matter. As I said in my original answer, home education should always be a positive choice by a family and no one should be required to home educate. Local authorities have that duty to provide a suitable education to every pupil and, despite the challenges that individual pupils face, a local authority must support every child.

I am very sympathetic to the wide range of situations in which children and young people may struggle at school and I recognise that that may lead a family to consider home education. However, where a family feels that school education is not meeting their child’s needs, I would expect the local authority to work with the family to resolve any concerns.

On the matter of guidance, I know that the member is well aware of the Government’s current consultation. Local authorities have the power to respond to requests for discretionary access to a range of resources, including from home educated pupils, and the authorities’ responses will depend on the support that is requested. Our guidance encourages local authorities to support home educating families where that is possible.

I again thank Fiona Hyslop for her continued interest in the matter. I note our recent correspondence and I will consider it, as we consider all aspects regarding the guidance, during our consultation process.

In cases where home education is a matter of necessity, what support can the Scottish Government provide to ensure that children have the connectivity and the equipment that are needed for a modern education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my answer to Fiona Hyslop, home education should always be a positive choice and not a matter of necessity. The guidance as it is currently configured allows local authorities to assist families with requests for discretionary access to a range of resources, which might include aspects around connectivity.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The consultation on home education comes at a particularly challenging time for local authorities. I have pressed the cabinet secretary on numerous occasions to do more to find out how many pupils have not returned to school following the pandemic. Many of those pupils are moving on to forms of home education.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to a full analysis of how many young people across Scotland have disengaged from education and how many families are struggling to get their kids back into school? Will she accompany that with a real plan for our education recovery?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The issue is discussed in both national and local Government. It is happening not just in Scotland but in other jurisdictions as well.

I recognise that there is a challenge in relation to some young people returning to education, and particularly to full-time education, following the pandemic. I reassure the member that we are taking the issue very seriously, as are Education Scotland and local authorities. We will continue to analyse it and do what is necessary to support schools to support young people to get the education that they are, of course, entitled to.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Teachers (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the actions that are being taken to recruit teachers in primary and secondary schools. (S6O-01465)

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

Local councils are responsible for the recruitment and deployment of their staff. That includes providing a complement of teachers that best meets the needs of each of their schools and its pupils within the resources that are available.

During the pandemic, the Scottish Government provided an additional £240 million to local authorities to support the recruitment of additional teachers and support staff. We have since committed further permanent funding of £145.5 million a year to further support education staffing. That provides assurance of funding for councils and removes that barrier to the employment of staff on permanent contracts.

Tess White

In the summer holidays, Aberdeenshire schools were sent only a handful of the newly qualified teachers they requested, with particular gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Meanwhile, other parts of the country have been given surplus teachers they do not need. Those issues are long standing and show no sign of abating, with the effect that pupils are not getting the same teaching in key subjects just because of where they live.

Ahead of the next school year, what action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the system for allocating new starts does not overlook our brilliant schools in the north-east, outside the central belt?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Of course, the decision on where a probationer wishes to spend their probationary year is for that individual, who will consider where they wish to go. We cannot make probationers go to certain parts of the country. There is a process that allows them to give a number of options in relation to where they wish to go. We need to take cognisance of the fact that there is an individual choice aspect to the matter.

I recognise that there are shortages in particular areas and particularly in some aspects of education—STEM being one. There are other areas where there are not similar challenges.

We will always consider what can be done at Scottish Government level and through initial teacher education to provide information to the people going through teacher education about the options that are available. Local authorities are, of course, responsible for ensuring that they do everything that they can. I admit that there are challenges in that, and I am happy to work with individual councils when challenges arise. However, we have to take account of the fact that individual probationers and those moving into full-time education posts make individual choices—they might decide to go to particular areas and that might present challenges. We are cognisant of that.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

An issue relating to the recruitment and retention of teachers is the state of morale in the profession. In large measure, that is being driven by the incidence of violence against teachers in the classroom. Some disturbing reports have been published recently by the Educational Institute of Scotland and other bodies to try to quantify the level of such violence in classrooms. What initiatives or plans does the cabinet secretary have to help and support teachers in those difficult situations?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is an exceptionally important issue, and I thank Stephen Kerr for raising it, as he and other colleagues have done in the past. We are in close contact with all the teaching unions, and I have spoken to them directly about their concerns about violence and harassment in schools. There is no place and no excuse for an attack, either verbal or physical, on a teacher, a member of support staff or anybody who is involved in education. National guidance has been made available, but it is up to individual schools to decide on the right process and penalties for them. I am keen to work with trade union colleagues to see whether anything further can be done at national level.

Transition to a Fossil Fuel-free Future (Workforce Skills)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support the workforce skills that are needed to pursue a transition towards a fossil fuel-free future. (S6O-01466)

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

Supporting Scotland’s current and future workforce to develop the skills that are needed for the net zero transition is a priority for the Government. Our commitment to green skills and a just transition is clearly set out in the national strategy for economic transformation, and we are already making strong progress in that area.

We will update our first climate emergency skills action plan in 2023, and we are working with the skills agencies to ensure that our existing skills programmes are providing people with the skills that employers will need as they move to greener ways of working.

Gillian Mackay

A recent report by Scottish Renewables found that more than 27,000 people in Scotland are directly employed in Scotland’s renewables sector. With fossil fuel supplies likely to be impacted this winter, the need to accelerate the transition to a green future has never been greater.

Will the minister outline what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that the green jobs workforce academy and similar programmes are boosting skills and employment across Scotland, including in my Central Scotland region?

Jamie Hepburn

Our green jobs workforce academy has been undertaking good initial and early work. We have been through the design phase, learning from and building on successful existing programmes such as the national transition training fund and the young persons guarantee. That is informing the evidence base for what we need to do in the longer term to support the scale and breadth of work to retain and reskill the workforce so that we can face the challenges that Gillian Mackay has mentioned. Skills Development Scotland has undertaken a detailed impact assessment of the academy to date, which has included drawing out information on the profile of users and sectoral interests. The data is informing the development of the next phase for the academy.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

Yesterday, at the Conveners Group meeting, Chris Stark of the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee stated that having a properly skilled workforce and jobs to facilitate the economic transition to net zero is the top issue.

The eco-house project at West Lothian College is a prime example of the college sector and Government funding working together to upskill Scotland and pursue a transition to a fossil fuel-free future. It will see the development at the Livingston campus of two semi-detached houses, which will form a state-of-the-art training facility in the heart of West Lothian to support the development of skills and knowledge and provide practical experience in sustainable construction methods and efficient and effective renewable energy, all underpinned by current and new technologies. It is a prime example of what the Scottish Government, the college sector and the private sector should be doing to meet the challenges that our country faces in tackling climate change. Will the minister commit to providing funding to replicate that innovative and ground-breaking eco-house project throughout Scotland?

Jamie Hepburn

We support the college sector to support local communities and local economies to respond directly to that challenge in a creative fashion, as is happening at West Lothian College.

The work that is being done at West Lothian College is obviously a very good example of what is happening, and it is to be commended for that. However, if the member were to go to Borders College, she would see what it is doing to support that transition through the science, technology, engineering and mathematics centre that it has constructed. If she were to go to any college in the country, she would see a range of such activity. That activity is already happening, and we will get behind it and support it as best we can.

Attainment (Primary Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is doing to improve attainment across primary education in Scotland. (S6O-01467)

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

We are absolutely committed to improving attainment and substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026. To do that, we will invest an increased £1 billion in the Scottish attainment challenge over the course of the parliamentary session. Primary schools will benefit from £520 million of pupil equity funding, which will empower teachers, who know their pupils best, to focus on improving attainment.

The new framework for recovery and accelerating progress requires local authorities to set ambitious stretch aims on improving attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap, which include improving literacy and numeracy in primary education. Local authorities are currently providing those stretch aims, and Education Scotland will support them in implementing the improvements.

Jeremy Balfour

Despite what the cabinet secretary said, the Scottish Government is failing Scotland’s children. As the national improvement framework report shows, attainment levels are declining across the board. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that there are now fewer teachers and fewer schools than there were when the Scottish National Party came to power in 2007? Is she worried that, despite the hard work of our teachers and support staff, the SNP is overseeing declining attainment levels in Scottish schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am disappointed by the tone and inference of Jeremy Balfour’s supplementary question, which, I think, discredits the good work that is being done in Scottish education.

Before the pandemic, the year-on-year trend in the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels—ACEL—data was positive. There were positive signs, but it is clear that the pandemic has had an impact. That is not surprising; an impact is being experienced not only in Scotland but elsewhere.

When it comes to teacher numbers, the ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest level since 2009. We have more teachers than at any time since 2008, and—[Interruption.] If Mr Balfour would like to listen to the answer to the question, he might learn something. We have more teachers per pupil than any other nation in the United Kingdom.

We will continue to invest in, and to support local authorities with, the recruitment and retention of teachers, and we will continue to fulfil our manifesto commitments on attainment and investment in teacher numbers.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

Poverty has a huge impact on children’s ability to learn. Does the cabinet secretary agree that any child would find it difficult to learn on an empty stomach? Free school meals for children in primaries 1 to 5, the child payment of £25 per week for every child in a qualifying family and the extension of that to children up to 16, which will all be available from 14 November, will play an enormous part in improving the attainment of all our children in schools.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As always, Christine Grahame makes a very salient point. The Scottish Government is able to assist children and young people not just through our education policies but through our wider work on child poverty.

Our work on child poverty would be much easier were it not for the devastating impact of successive UK Government welfare reforms that have been imposed since 2015. If some of those welfare reforms—such as the two-child limit, the removal of the £20 uplift in universal credit and the 2015 to 2020 benefit freeze—were to be reversed, that would put £780 million into the pockets of those in Scottish households and would lift 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty next year.

We will do—as we have always done—everything that we can to support children and young people. It is unfortunate that the UK Government continues to make that much more difficult than it needs to be.