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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 02 May 2018

Agenda: Automated Teller Machines, Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service (Financial Accountability), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Nuclear Weapon Transport (Civil Contingency)


Portfolio Question Time

Secondary School Education Budget (Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can provide to teachers in Fife regarding reports of over £2 million of reductions in the secondary school education budget. (S5O-02027)

Despite continued United Kingdom Government real-terms cuts to Scotland’s resource budget, we have treated local government fairly. This year, Fife Council’s increase in spending power to support local authority day-to-day services, including secondary school education, amounts to £18.8 million—or 3 per cent—on the figure in 2017-18.

I am tempted to say, “Meanwhile, in the real world,”—and I do not mean that disrespectfully. The fact is that a presentation that is being given to teachers across Fife shows that Fife Council has approved savings of £4.095 million in secondary education. The presentation says:

“Of these £4.095m of savings, £2.338m is expected to come directly out of school budgets”.

The reality is that teachers in secondary schools in Fife, with all the other pressures that they have on them, are now being asked to work out how they are going to cut hundreds of thousands of pounds from their working budgets.

Does the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills think that that is acceptable? I will not even start on the cuts in primary schools. How will we raise attainment when we are seeing such levels of cuts in front-line education in our classrooms?

I attach the greatest of importance to investment in education, which is the foundation of the Government’s education approach, particularly with the focus on the Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding. I reiterate to Mr Rowley the point that I made in my earlier answer: Fife Council’s budget—its spending power—will increase by £18.8 million as a consequence of the decisions taken in the Government’s budget.

We are of course seeing funds being distributed directly to individual schools. Schools in Fife have been allocated more than £10 million in pupil equity funding, which I know from my various visits around Fife has been used very effectively by Fife schools to meet the needs of young people.

I have just come from a meeting of the Scottish education council, present at which was Fife Council’s executive director of education, who is leading the south-east of Scotland regional improvement collaborative. We heard at the education council this morning about the significant plans that the improvement collaborative is deploying to support the enhancement of education in the school sector in Scotland.

I understand the points that Mr Rowley is making. Those are decisions that Fife Council must make within the overall financial allocations that are made by the Scottish Government and other sources of money that are available to it. In that regard, the Scottish Government has investment significantly in local services in Fife Council.

Several heads of schools in Fife have told me that they would like to spend pupil equity funding on employing more teachers with skills in additional support needs but that the spending of such money on additional teachers is not permitted. Will the cabinet secretary clarify whether that is correct?

Of course pupil equity funding can be used to employ members of staff. I can tell Mr Stewart that 506 additional teachers have been employed under the Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding arrangements. That provision exists around the country, so there is no reason why it should not apply in Fife.

To be honest, I would be very surprised if schools in Fife were facing such a difficulty, because I can think of examples in Fife where additional teachers have been recruited and are able to contribute to the education of young people.

Education Maintenance Allowance

To ask the Scottish Government what role the education maintenance allowance plays in encouraging young people to stay on at school. (S5O-02028)

The education maintenance allowance programme provides a financial incentive for 16 to 19-year-olds from low-income households who are attending non-advanced learning in school or college, or who are on an activity agreement, to stay in learning. Home-educated pupils are also eligible.

The EMA programme is an entitlement in Scotland, unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government wants young people to be able to choose from the same learning opportunities, regardless of their background or circumstances.

I welcome that the Scottish National Party Government continues to recognise the importance of the EMA programme in allowing our young people to make learning decisions that are based on their abilities and aspirations rather than their financial circumstances.

What proportion of EMA recipients live in our most disadvantaged areas?

The most recent statistics on education maintenance allowance show that in 2016 the proportion of recipients who live in Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived areas increased to 36.8 per cent from 34.9 per cent in the previous year. The figures tell us that education maintenance allowance arrangements continue to make a positive difference to young people from the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland. I welcome the increase that has taken place.

This morning, the Education and Skills Committee heard evidence that families lose access to clothing grants and tax credits when a pupil applies for education maintenance allowance. Families are falling into poverty and debt, due to the gap in processing applications. What action will the Scottish Government take to prevent families from falling further into debt as a result of applying for EMA?

I will look with care at the transcript of this morning’s committee meeting and follow the evidence. It is my understanding that the decision on whether other benefits are forfeited as a consequence of an application for EMA is enshrined in the rules and eligibility criteria of individual local authorities.

I will consider with care the point that Mary Fee raised, because I would be concerned if a family who applied for an education maintenance allowance forfeited access to other elements of provision, such as a school clothing grant—because an EMA will be available to an older pupil, who will be bound by the rules on uniform in relation to which school clothing grants are designed to try to assist.

If Mary Fee has particular information to draw to my attention, I will look at it carefully, because what she described is certainly not the policy intention or the situation that I want to emerge. I will examine the detail, to see what the Government can do to rectify the situation. It might be to do with individual decisions that are taken by local authorities, over which I have no control.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teaching Initiative

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage female pupils to consider enrolling in the STEM teaching initiative run by the universities of Dundee and the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-02029)

The Scottish Government’s STEM strategy includes a range of actions that are aimed at encouraging women and girls to take up STEM-related careers. The partnership induction model that is being developed by the University of Dundee, supported with £240,000 of Scottish Government funding, will contribute to that goal.

The University of Dundee has more females than males across its STEM teacher education programmes, and it has put in place an action plan to encourage the on-going recruitment of underrepresented groups, including females, into STEM teaching. The new programme is being marketed in conjunction with four partner local authorities, who will also actively encourage female applicants.

There is a big skills shortage in engineering and very few women are taking up a career in the area. Indeed, women make up only 14.4 per cent of the workforce in all STEM careers. That will not change, because there appears still to be a shortage of girls taking up STEM subjects in school. Such subjects are crucial to a career in the sector. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that more girls choose maths and science at school?

A number of measures are detailed in the STEM strategy, which I had the pleasure of launching last year. At the recent second meeting of the implementation group for the strategy, we discussed issues on gender imbalance, including how we can tackle, in schools, the unconscious bias that goes on in society and build on the fine work of the Institute of Physics in that area.

We are also looking at what can be done to tackle apprenticeship challenges—that work is being led by my colleague Jamie Hepburn—and further and higher education challenges, through the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council’s gender action plan. A number of other methods are being dealt with through the STEM strategy. For example, some of the key performance indicators deal specifically with gender imbalance challenges in schools and encouraging take-up.

If Rhoda Grant has further questions in relation to particular aspects of the STEM strategy and how we can take it further, I will be happy to take them up with her in due course.

Following the recent refresh of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s publication “Tapping all our Talents”, what measures is the Government taking to ensure that women who are qualified but not currently working in STEM have an opportunity to take up the new initiatives?

Last night, I had the pleasure of receiving an update on that—albeit briefly and informally—when I attended a UK Research and Innovation reception, at which I spoke to Professor Lesley Yellowlees, who chairs the RSE working group. Government officials, the RSE and I are having very detailed discussions on how we can support the RSE as regards the data that it is looking at. We have committed to working with the RSE to look at the updated recommendations that it will give once it has refreshed the document. As I understand it, its consultation is on-going.

At the moment, we have a number of measures to tackle gender imbalance, including funding though the equalities budget to support Equate Scotland, which, as Rhoda Grant will know, is an organisation that works to tackle underrepresentation of women in the STEM sector—for example, through careerwise, which is a placement scheme that is exclusively for women studying STEM subjects at universities and colleges. Also through Equate Scotland, there is funding of up to £50,000 to deliver a women returners programme.

We are therefore taking action at the moment but are very aware of the issue. We will help the RSE in any way that we can and will listen very carefully to the recommendations that will come from its refresh of the document.

South Lanarkshire Council Education Resources (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met officials from South Lanarkshire Council’s education resources. (S5O-02030)

My officials regularly meet officials from South Lanarkshire Council’s education resources to address a range of issues.

Last month, the Child Poverty Action Group told the Education and Skills Committee that young people face a postcode lottery as far as their opportunities in education are concerned. That is emphasised in South Lanarkshire Council’s attainment figures, in which just more than a third of pupils are able to attain national 5 standard, which is below the national average. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the objective should be to give a fair opportunity to all young children in Scotland? That is constrained by the Government’s policy of penalising councils through cuts, as demonstrated by the cuts of £134 per head that South Lanarkshire Council’s citizens have faced since 2014.

I was on the verge of agreeing with quite a bit of Mr Kelly’s question until he got to the last bit. However, on the first bit of it I unreservedly agree that the whole focus of the Government’s education policy—with its emphasis on the achievement of excellence and equity for all—is on ensuring that, regardless of their background, young people are able to achieve their potential in the education system. The disparities that have existed in that system for all of my lifetime are what we are trying to tackle in focusing on the attainment agenda.

I will make three points in relation to South Lanarkshire. First, South Lanarkshire Council’s spending power has increased by £16.3 million, or 3 per cent, in this financial year compared with the previous year.

Secondly, in the current financial year, schools in South Lanarkshire will benefit to the tune of just short of £8 million in pupil equity funding. I have seen schools taking action to address the individual issues that confront them within their own localities as a consequence of having the pupil equity funding resource available to them. All the localities that Mr Kelly is concerned about have the means available to help them to address the attainment challenge.

Thirdly, in the context of having the resources available for schools, there has been an increase in the number of teachers who are available in South Lanarkshire schools. The latest census shows that there has been an increase from 3,202 to 3,282 teachers. That is a welcome indication of the priority that is allocated to education and to increasing the number of teaching professionals employed to educate our young people.

Knife Crime (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what action schools take to protect children from knife crime. (S5O-02031)

All staff in schools share a responsibility for identifying the care and wellbeing needs of children and young people. Schools should establish open, positive and supportive relationships across the whole school community.

Education authorities, in consultation with key partners, including staff unions, should develop their own policy on knives and offensive weapons within the wider context of positive relationships, learning and behaviour. The Scottish Government is investing significantly in various violence reduction preventative approaches with young people across Scotland as part of a wider strategy to promote positive relationships and behaviour.

Since 2007, we have invested more than £14 million in violence reduction programmes for young people, and we continue to expand the work undertaken with children and young people on those programmes.

Recent figures show that the number of pupils being excluded from school for incidents involving conventional and even improvised weapons is at a five-year high, with an average of two exclusions a day involving a violent incident with a weapon. Those are shocking statistics. If it is the cabinet secretary’s understanding that local authorities have standardised their processes on gathering knife crime data, why are incidents at a five-year high? What comfort can he offer to parents that they are sending their children to a school environment that is weapon free and safe?

I agree with the aspirations behind Mr Greene’s question: parents should expect to be able to send their children to weapon-free schools and a safe environment. Yesterday, I chaired a meeting of the Scottish advisory group on behaviour in schools, or SAGBIS. That wider stakeholder group focuses on putting in place the mechanisms to enable positive behaviour and a positive ethos to be created in schools, with an emphasis on removing the incidences of any weapon carrying, so that the policy environment that Mr Greene expects to see is present in every school.

The statistics to which Mr Greene refers are a concern to us because, for some time, we have seen reductions in the overall levels of exclusion. In Scottish education generally, the levels of exclusion are falling, but we have seen a rise in exclusions relating to weapons and weapon carrying. That tells us that we must be vigorous in ensuring that activities such as the no knives, better lives campaign, which is a youth engagement programme, and the mentors in violence prevention programme are felt within individual schools, and that the positive behaviours that we expect to see are prevalent in all our schools. I assure Mr Greene that those considerations are very much uppermost in the minds of ministers and our stakeholders in trying to ensure that we create the environment to which he referred in his question.

Obviously this is a serious issue. Although it is probably harder now for young people to access knives by buying them, what sort of discussions has the Government had with the United Kingdom Government on restricting the online sale of knives?

In the aftermath of the Bailey Gwynne tragedy, the Government considered the recommendations of the report that examined the circumstances of that tragedy, and the justice secretary then made representations to the UK Government about working together to raise concerns about the online sale of knives and the need for a cohesive approach by us and the UK Government in relation to what actions to take.

The UK Government agreed with that approach, and in October, it published a consultation on knives, corrosive substances and firearms. The consultation extended some proposals to Scotland and it ended just before Christmas. The UK Government is currently working with our officials on legislation to address concerns about online sales of knives. These are reserved responsibilities, but we are keen to co-operate with the UK Government on putting in place the most effective regime that we can to tackle the issue.

I appreciate the detail of the cabinet secretary’s answers, but I would encourage some succinctness so that we can get through some more questions.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teachers

To ask the Scottish Government how it encourages people to consider becoming teachers in STEM subjects. (S5O-02032)

We have taken a series of actions to encourage more people into teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. Our teaching makes people recruitment campaign targets STEM undergraduates and career changers to consider teaching as a career. We have increased student intake targets for STEM subjects and we are offering bursaries of up to £20,000 for up to 100 career changers to train to teach in STEM subjects.

We are also supporting innovative new routes into teaching in STEM subjects. They include the University of Strathclyde’s masters course for STEM graduates to complete an initial teacher education course alongside a masters degree.

In my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, one school is only able to offer an elective computing class to third-year students due to a shortage of teachers. Does the minister agree that the subject is crucial to young people’s future careers and, wherever possible, should not be compromised?

I absolutely agree that digital skills are crucial both for everyday life and for Scotland’s future economic prosperity. Indeed, only yesterday, I was at Tulliallan primary school, where I heard first hand about the work that is being done in a number of primary and secondary schools to develop young people’s digital skills through the digital schools awards programme.

We recognise that some councils are facing challenges in STEM teacher recruitment. That is why the Government has taken a number of actions to support further improvement in teacher recruitment. I mentioned some of those actions in my original answer. There is also, for example, work on-going with the University of Aberdeen to allow former oil and gas workers to train as teachers. There are the bursaries that I mentioned earlier, and we are also working with the University of Dundee, where we are looking at highly qualified graduates and career changers who specialise in science and technology and related subjects. This is an issue that the Government is determined to take more concerted action on.

There are some encouraging signs that uptake in highers and advanced highers is increasing in some science subjects, but in others, uptake is falling. What is the Scottish Government doing to improve uptake across the board?

We are doing a number of strands of work, as I mentioned earlier, on encouraging more young people—especially young women—to take up STEM subjects in school and then within apprenticeships, further education or higher education. Most of the strands of work are detailed in the STEM strategy.

We are looking to inspire, and we are looking to connect the work that we are doing on inspiring young people all the way through early years, primary and secondary school subject choices with ensuring that those young people know about the exciting opportunities for them to access STEM careers at the end of that process.

Uptake of STEM subjects is something that the Government is taking action on with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. In the STEM implementation group, we have representation from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and from the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

We are taking a whole-system approach in looking carefully at the challenges that we have in attracting more young people into STEM subjects. We want them to be able to see the opportunities that are undoubtedly out there for them.

How many people have signed up to the career changers and bursary programmes?

There are a number of schemes that individuals can go on in universities that are about encouraging STEM teaching careers. Many of the schemes have started, and others are due to start in 2018. If Iain Gray would like detailed figures on the numbers of people who have started specific courses, I would be happy to extend that information to him. We can see the progress that we are making to date and who has signed up, but we want to encourage more people to take advantage of the courses that are due to start.

Education Governance (Island Proofing)

To ask the Scottish Government whether any changes that will be introduced to the governance of education will be island proofed. (S5O-02033)

Any changes that are proposed will be island proofed.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Cunningsburgh primary school in Shetland has a headteacher who teaches. Shetland Islands Council advises me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit headteachers who also have to teach as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Given that reality not just in Shetland but in other parts of the country, how will that work, in the context of island proofing, if the cabinet secretary plans to increase headteachers’ responsibilities?

This consideration applies in any circumstances, island or mainland, around the country: I want to ensure that young people can access the strongest quality leadership and learning and teaching in individual schools, because those two elements are the foundation of a successful education at local level. All reforms that we bring forward will be about strengthening leadership capability and ensuring that leadership has more support available to it, and about support also being available to enhance the quality of learning and teaching.

I understand the different circumstances of many schools in the constituency that Mr Scott represents. We will ensure that the steps that we take take due account of those considerations in the final design of our legislative proposals.

Yesterday, a number of people protested outside Orkney Islands Council against proposed cuts to support for learning budgets, and the council has now decided not to proceed with those proposals. The cabinet secretary will be aware that because of their geography and demographics, island communities are often less able to collaborate and share among schools the costs of services such as support for learning. What provision is there to ensure that budgets that are assigned for support for learning are sufficient to meet local needs? Have ministers had any contact with Orkney Islands Council about its particular proposals?

To my knowledge, there has been no dialogue with the council about its proposals, but they are ordinarily and properly a matter for Orkney Islands Council to consider.

Mr Halcro Johnston asked about the challenges of collaboration in island communities. In my view, the best example of interauthority co-operation on education policy is the northern alliance, which includes Orkney Islands Council. What I have detected from talking to practitioners around the north of Scotland is that they are feeling the benefit of that, particularly on strengthening learning and teaching, which is facilitated by that co-operation among a number of authorities. The smaller and more remote local authorities are benefiting enormously from co-operation with other authorities. There is, therefore, good work going on in that respect, and it is work that pays proper respect to the democratic interests and perspective of Orkney Islands Council, and enables the council to co-operate with others to enhance education provision for the young people of Orkney.

Teachers (Pay Campaign)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Educational Institute of Scotland’s campaign value education, value teachers, which is calling for a restorative pay rise for teachers. (S5O-02034)

We value Scotland’s teachers highly. We are committed to taking an active role in the current discussions through the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers and I urge everyone round the table to take a constructive approach. This Government is the first anywhere in the United Kingdom to commit to lifting the 1 per cent public sector pay cap, and the teachers’ pay deal for 2017-18 is an example of that.

The truth is that, under Scottish National Party management, our teachers have seen their pay go from among the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries to well below the average. As well as that, they are now teaching some of the biggest classes in Europe. The Government has cut 4,000 of their colleagues and has managed to create a teacher recruitment crisis. When will the cabinet secretary accept that it is not divisive reforms that our teachers need, but the pay that they deserve, and support and resources to do the job that they do so well in difficult circumstances?

I remind Mr Sarwar that we have been living in a period of fiscal austerity that has been applied by United Kingdom Governments going back to when his party was in power before the 2010 election. It is all very well for Mr Sarwar to come here and talk about pay constraint, but pay constraint was applied by the Labour Government when it was in office because of the financial crisis that it presided over in the aftermath of 2008. It is not easy to hear Mr Sarwar come here with his simple solutions to the problem.

I am committed to substantive negotiation with the teaching profession. As I said in my original answer, our work in 2017 has seen us deliver a pay deal for teachers that has moved outwith the pay caps that have been in place, and I welcome that. We are committed to putting in place support and assistance to enhance the teaching profession, because I want teaching to be an attractive career. I remind Mr Sarwar that, over the past 12 months, the number of teachers in post in Scotland has increased by 543, which is very welcome.

Early Learning and Childcare (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarding funding for increasing the provision of early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours per year. (S5O-02035)

I suspect that I know the answer.

On 27 April, the Scottish ministers and COSLA leaders reached a landmark agreement on a multiyear revenue and capital funding package for the expansion of early learning and childcare. The agreement, which is the culmination of more than two years of hard work by local authorities and the Scottish Government, represents a shared understanding of the costs that are required to deliver the expansion in entitlement to funded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours from August 2020. It is evidence of real partnership working to deliver a shared ambition to give all our children the best start in life. Under the agreement, the Scottish Government will provide local authorities with additional recurring revenue funding of £567 million per year by 2021-22, which will be the first full financial year of the expansion. In addition, the Scottish Government will provide local authorities with capital funding of £476 million over four financial years, from 2017-18 to 2020-21 inclusive.

I congratulate the minister on her role in reaching that landmark deal with local government, which will ensure that our children get the best possible start in life. Will she outline how the expansion will deliver the flexibility that parents need to support them in work or training, and will she say whether she thinks that flexibility is already improving?

I believe that the simple increase in the number of hours available to parents will make a massive difference to every family in the land. It will save £4,500 per year per child for each family. The funding follows the child model, which is underpinned by the national standard, will be a provider-neutral means of delivering flexibility to parents, which will absolutely transform their opportunity to work and to pursue education.

Aberdeenshire Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the education secretary last met the director of education and children’s services for Aberdeenshire Council. (S5O-02036)

I last met the director of education and children’s services for Aberdeenshire Council on 7 March.

Will the cabinet secretary meet the new director when they are appointed and discuss with them the overall state of staff morale in our schools in the north-east? Will he outline today what, specifically, he can do to improve staff morale?

I am happy to engage with Mr Rumbles about his perspective on those matters but, when I go around schools, I meet teachers who are positive and utterly motivated by the work that they are doing to educate young people. I was in Smithycroft secondary school in Glasgow this morning, where the staff and leadership team are buoyant about the condition of Scottish education.

We are taking a range of different measures to enhance the recruitment of teachers in the north-east of Scotland, including some of the new routes into teaching that we are developing. We are directly supporting the delivery of education, and Aberdeenshire Council is benefiting to the tune of £3 million in pupil equity funding into its schools.

If Mr Rumbles has particular concerns, I am happy to consider them and to do what I can to address them with the director of education at Aberdeenshire Council when they are appointed after the retirement of Maria Walker.

Young People (Rights)

To ask the Scottish Government how it enshrines the rights of young people, and how it plans to further embed these. (S5O-02037)

We are committed to enhancing children’s rights in all aspects of Scottish life. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 places specific duties on all ministers to consider steps that might give better or further effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those provisions take us further than any previous Scottish Government. We continue to look for opportunities, issue by issue, to apply the principles of the convention when we consider it right and proper to do so, for example, in raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 years old, and in supporting Mr Finnie’s proposals to introduce a legislative ban on the physical punishment of children.

It is fitting that, in the year of young people, which is a global first, we have commenced a comprehensive audit of the most effective and practical way to further embed the principles of the UNCRC into policy and legislation, including the option of full incorporation into domestic law.

Will the minister outline the Scottish Government’s position on the right of young people to opt out of religious observance in schools? Will the forthcoming education and governance bill enshrine that right?

As Mr McKee might be aware, the Scottish Government’s statutory guidance on religious observance, which was amended in March 2017, states:

“schools should include children and young people in any discussions about aspects of their school experience, ensuring their views are taken into account.”

The law currently provides a right for

“parents to withdraw their children from participation”

in religious observance. The statutory guidance makes it clear that local authorities must ensure that pupils’ view are taken into account, rather than providing pupils with a direct opt-out. The Scottish Government’s view is that pupils’ views should be supported to make their views and preferences clear. Ministers are open to exploring the best way to give effect to children’s rights, as expressed under the UNCRC. However, any changes to the current statutory position would need to be subject to full consultation with all key stakeholders.

Newbattle High School (Digital Centre of Excellence)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the development of the Newbattle high school digital centre of excellence. (S5O-02038)

The development of a digital centre of excellence as part of the new high school in Newbattle is an initiative of Midlothian Council. I commend the collaborative approach that is being taken by the council in seeking to ensure that young people across all Midlothian secondary schools have access to specialist digital learning and a diverse range of pathways to follow into digital jobs. I am aware of a funding shortfall for the digital centre of excellence at the new school and have asked my officials to explore opportunities for supporting the project’s progress.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Newbattle high school’s catchment area has too many pockets of relative deprivation. Does he agree that all those involved in the creation of the centre should be congratulated on this groundbreaking and forward-thinking initiative, which will have a considerable positive effect on the life chances of young people in the area?

Yes, I agree. It is an excellent initiative by Midlothian Council. It recognises the need to ensure that there are clear pathways for young people to access education and have links into the world of work. It fits comfortably into the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda and, as I indicated in my earlier answer, I am very keen to see whether there is any way in which we can be of assistance.

Music Tuition (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with local authorities regarding the provision of music tuition in schools. (S5O-02039)

The Scottish education system devolves decision making to the most appropriate level, which enables local education authorities to make choices that meet their local circumstances and needs. I am, however, concerned about the decision by a number of local authorities to reduce access to instrumental music tuition for young people. I have asked my officials, while respecting the autonomy and responsibility of councils, to assess the impact and identify ways of working with key stakeholders to ensure that instrumental music tuition remains accessible in the future.

Local authorities of all political persuasions are having great difficulty on the issue. What is the timescale for your working group to report to Parliament? As you rightly say, it is a very urgent matter.

There is work under way that has been led by John Wallace, who was formerly the principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I look forward to meeting the members of the music education partnership to discuss their thinking on this matter. It is an issue in which both I and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs are actively involved. I do not have a specific timescale to offer Liz Smith, but I assure her that I will be happy to engage in dialogue with members of all political persuasions to ensure that this important characteristic of education in Scotland is available for young people across our country.

That concludes portfolio questions.