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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 05 September 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Topical Question Time, Programme for Government 2017-18, Programme for Government 2017-18, Decision Time, Boys Brigade Juniors 100th Anniversary


Topical Question Time

Teacher Vacancies

To ask the Scottish Government how many teacher vacancies there are. (S5T-00637)

In 2016, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities worked together to develop a teacher vacancy survey to seek to provide high-quality data from local authorities. The information was fed into the 2017-18 teacher workforce planning process. A further exercise is currently under way as part of the 2018-19 workforce planning process.

We recognise that some local authorities are experiencing challenges in filling vacancies, which is why we have taken decisive action to recruit and retain teachers. We have increased the student teacher intake targets for the sixth year in a row; we are setting targets to train teachers in the subjects for which they are needed most; and we are investing over £1 million from the Scottish attainment fund to develop new routes into the profession.

It has come out in recent days that the number of teacher vacancies days is 500—the cabinet secretary failed to put that in his answer. The reality is that excellent education starts with excellent teachers, so that number of vacancies is of concern to us all, but it can be no surprise, given the falling pay in real terms and the increasing workload, which have led to retention issues.

In recent days, there has been much talk about the lifting of the public sector pay cap. What steps is the cabinet secretary taking to ensure that teachers are among the first to benefit in order to stop the spiralling situation in pay and conditions?

As I did in my earlier answer, I recognise that there are challenges in teacher recruitment around the country but, even if we take Mr Johnson’s figure at face value, that represents 1 per cent of the teaching profession. We must have a sense of perspective on the issues. I was pleased that, when some of the survey information came out, local authorities made it clear that they were optimistic that they would be able to close those vacancies in the course of the school term.

Part of the issue is that we have seen a dramatic change in the employment of post-probationers. When the Government came to office, only 66 per cent of post-probationers were in permanent or temporary employment; that figure is 87 per cent in the current period.

On the questions about public sector pay, I assure Mr Johnson that the dialogue is under way in the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers process to agree the teachers pay round for the current school year. It would be premature of me to make any judgments about that process, but I assure Mr Johnson that the Government is participating in it along with the teaching trade unions and the local authorities.

The cabinet secretary did much to try to downplay the numbers, but the Government’s own papers show that it will take three years to fill the shortfall, and we know that we have 4,000 fewer teachers than we had in 2010. On 31 May, John Swinney came to the Education and Skills Committee and admitted with hindsight that too many teacher training places had been cut. With the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that 500 teachers are missing from our classrooms, what mistakes does the cabinet secretary think that the Scottish Government has made in its stewardship of the teaching profession and workforce in Scotland?

I return to my point about post-probationers, because Mr Johnson’s question makes my point for me. In 2007, 66 per cent of post-probationers were in permanent or temporary employment, and Opposition parties in the Parliament demanded that the Government do something about that level of probationer employment. So we did that, and we now have 87 per cent of post-probationers in permanent or temporary employment. Therefore, we addressed the issue that members were concerned about. At that time, there were more teachers than there were places for them to be employed in, so in 2010-11 the initial teacher education intake was reduced to comparatively low levels. In 2010-11, 2,282 teachers were recruited into initial teacher education. For this academic year, that figure stands at 4,058.

That is what the Government is doing. We are responding to the need to create opportunities for teachers to gain employment and training sufficient teachers to enter the profession. The reforms that I set out in June are designed to strengthen the profession and the attractiveness of the occupation of education to more individuals in our country.

The cabinet secretary will know from committee evidence that concerns have been raised about the accuracy of data on teacher numbers and that, specifically, data on supply teacher numbers is patchy across local authorities. What is he going to do about that problem?

Fundamentally, it is for individual local authorities to manage their resources and to employ the teachers that they require to deliver education.

Yesterday, I was in Mr Mundell’s constituency and visited Dumfries high school, where I was pleased to see the strength of educational provision. I was also pleased to hear from Dumfries and Galloway Council that it has started this school year with a full complement of teachers in its schools. I warmly congratulate the council on achieving that.

Of course, the supply pool needs to be managed. I am taking steps to ensure that we have a strong supply pool, so that when the inevitabilities of illness and other factors take their course during the year, we have adequate supply cover in our schools.

I encourage members of Parliament to see the progress that is being made following the significant increase in the initial teacher education intake that we have delivered, which has strengthened the recruitment into the teaching profession. It has ensured that, in some parts of country, we have a sufficient supply of teachers. In other parts of the country, we are working with others to ensure that the issues are addressed.

To address teacher shortages, the Scottish Government has opened the door to fast-track training for teachers, including, potentially, the highly controversial teach first course. What evidence has the Scottish Government gathered that the length of traditional initial teacher education course, which is highly regarded, is the issue?

The Government has insisted that the high standards that are expected for the recruitment of teachers into the profession are maintained. I give Parliament an absolute commitment on that point. All the new routes into teaching that have been validated have not been validated by me; rather, they have been validated by the guardians of the process—the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Any course that comes forward—Mr Greer is speculating about possible courses—must be validated by the GTCS and have an academic partner as part of that process.

I have met some of the students at the University of Strathclyde. They are people who have had a career in other areas of activity and have an interest in teaching STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. Because of the refinements that the University of Strathclyde has made to the course, which have been validated by the GTCS, those individuals have been prepared to change from other careers into teaching. I welcome their doing that. They will still be put through rigorous training and education, but that approach guarantees a stronger flow of teachers into the classroom and addresses the areas of shortage that we have in the STEM subjects.

National Health Service Radiologists

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle the reported shortage of NHS radiologists. (S5T-00631)

Under this Government, the number of consultants with a specialty of radiology working in NHS Scotland has increased by 41.9 per cent to 317.2 full-time equivalents.

We have enhanced the supply of doctors to fill radiology training posts, with 26 new training places over the past four years, which is an increase of 20 per cent. That will be augmented by a further increase of 10 radiology training places for 2018, which was agreed by the shape of training transition group on 24 August. Supply will improve from 2018 onwards as our increased investment in radiology training numbers begins to produce an increased output.

The Scottish Government is working with the board of NHS Highland to support improved performance by the radiology service, and the board is taking action as part of that work. The chief executive of NHS Scotland, the chief medical officer for Scotland and the director of health workforce recently met radiologists from NHS Highland. Later this month, I will meet the Royal College of Radiologists to discuss its concerns.

I thank the cabinet secretary for those figures. Let me give her some figures in return. According to letters that I have received from the department of medicine and general surgery at Raigmore hospital—signed by more than 50 people—the situation is critical. NHS Highland undertakes about 167,000 imaging examinations annually. That is a 250 per cent increase on the situation 10 years ago, but there are four fewer full-time radiologists than there were then, and there are 50 per cent fewer staff than in NHS Lothian. NHS Highland is sitting on some 8,000 unreported films.

It has proved impossible to recruit more radiologists, despite the board’s direct input over the past three years. There has been one resignation this year. Doctors say that as a result there are unacceptable delays to elective and emergency surgery and to reporting.

Does the cabinet secretary think that those figures are acceptable?

No, I do not. That is why a review of radiology services was commissioned by the Scottish Government, along with NHS Highland. The report was produced last month and will form the basis of an action plan to address the problems. I will be happy to provide Edward Mountain with a copy of the report if he has not seen it.

In his question, Edward Mountain touched on the problem, which is the ability to recruit to radiology in NHS Highland. It is clear that it is extremely hard to recruit to some specialties in some parts of Scotland. Therefore, a number of actions are under way, including the work that is set out in the review. Action is being taken, for example to ensure that NHS Highland puts forward radiology posts as part of the international medical training initiative. In addition, the board is working with NHS Education for Scotland to consider where radiology trainees might be located, including through joint appointments with other boards and teaching hospitals, to ensure that trainees receive the required educational experience and to make posts more attractive.

Everything that can be done will be done, but I reiterate to Edward Mountain that across Scotland there are additional radiology consultant posts—nearly 40 per cent more—and more than 20 per cent more training posts. However, there are certain parts of the country and certain specialties in relation to which more work must be done to fill posts, and such work is under way in Highland.

NHS Highland said that it has made

“significant investment in time, energy and commitment”

over the past three years, and I think that some two and a half years ago the cabinet secretary had a personal visit from radiologists from the Highlands to alert her to the problem.

The cabinet secretary has had two and a half years to solve the problem; the board has had more than three. It appears that neither the cabinet secretary nor the board of NHS Highland can solve the problem. Will the cabinet secretary step down and make way for those who can? Will she do the honourable thing, so that people in the Highlands can get good service?

I say to Edward Mountain that that is not really worthy of him. He and I have had very constructive engagement in the Parliament, which I hope will continue.

I set out in my initial answer and in my follow-up answer all the work that is going on to address the problem. There is no magic wand—or magic bullet or however else we might describe it—to sort the issue. It is difficult to recruit to radiology in Highland and other areas; the specialty is difficult to recruit to generally and recruitment is particularly difficult in remote and rural areas.

That is why the action in the review report is under way, as is the other action that I described, such as action in relation to international recruitment, to ensure that Highland has posts as part of the medical training initiative. I think that the approach will help to bring people into Highland, because it is a new initiative, which has worked in other areas. Also, joint appointments with other boards are an approach that has worked for other specialties, and NHS Highland is looking at the approach, which will make posts more attractive.

I will be happy to work in a constructive way to ensure that Edward Mountain is kept abreast of such developments, if he would find that helpful.

I remind members to keep their questions and answers tight, please.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

Last week, the Financial Times revealed that doctors have been leaving NHS England at a rate of more than 400 a month. With the vote to leave the European Union exacerbating shortages, does the cabinet secretary agree that the Tory approach to Brexit is hindering efforts to ensure that the NHS is staffed for the future?

On radiologists please, cabinet secretary.

Clare Haughey makes an important point. Whether it is in radiology or in other specialties, we can ill afford to lose any opportunity to recruit from the EU to those posts. It is interesting that Edward Mountain did not mention that in his question. Every health board, including NHS Highland, has raised the issue with me as a deep concern. That is why it is important that the message goes out that EU nationals—those we have here already and those who want to come and make their home in Scotland—are very welcome.

The truth is that the problem is not just with radiologists and not just in the Highlands; it is part of a wider recruitment crisis in our NHS. Figures published today show that the number of consultant vacancies is up to 500 and that the number of nursing and midwifery vacancies is up to 3,200. The situation is now impacting directly on patient care. We were promised a comprehensive workforce plan before the summer recess; instead, we got part 1 of a three-part plan. Is it not time that we had a comprehensive plan and a demonstration that the cabinet secretary understands the concerns of the NHS workforce, that she understands the concerns of patients who are waiting for treatment and that she has some idea of the problems in our NHS?

That is a wide question. I would like a tighter answer please, cabinet secretary.

The workforce plan is in three parts because the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities asked for publication of the second part to be delayed until after the elections so that it could publish its own workforce plan jointly. It would have been silly to publish the third part, which deals with primary care and the general practitioner workforce, when we were in the midst of negotiating with the British Medical Association a contract that the workforce was part of. That part of the workforce plan will be published at the end of the negotiation. That makes sense: everybody knows that it makes sense, and perhaps Anas Sarwar agrees that it makes sense. A comprehensive workforce plan has already been published and will be followed up by the rest of the plan as we take forward those issues.