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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 06 December 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Education (Excellence and Equity), Renewables, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Social Care Charging


Education (Excellence and Equity)

The next item of business is a statement from John Swinney on excellence and equity in Scottish education. The Deputy First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement; there should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.


The programme for international student assessment, which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development runs every three years, assesses the skills of 15-year-olds in 72 countries, in reading, mathematics and science. The results for the most recent assessments, which were undertaken two years ago in March 2015, were published this morning.

The figures for Scotland do not make comfortable reading and reinforce the need for the reforms to our school system that are under way. Although they show that Scotland’s scores are similar to the OECD average in all three areas tested, they also show that, compared with 2012, our performance in science and reading has fallen.

In science and maths, we are now below the levels at which we performed in 2006 and more countries have outperformed Scotland in all three areas than at any time since the programme for international student assessment began. The results show that closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a complex challenge that is not unique to Scotland. The welcome improvements in the performance of young people from deprived backgrounds, which we saw in the previous results between 2009 and 2012, have been maintained. However, there is still a gap between pupils from the least and most disadvantaged backgrounds—around three years’ worth of schooling, according to the OECD.

Pupils in Scotland are generally more positive about the value of learning science at school than is the case across the OECD. Classroom disruption is generally lower than average, and relationships with teachers more positive. Those relationships are crucial to improving outcomes.

The results are consistent with the 2014 Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, published in April 2015, which told us that we needed to do more to make our education system among the best in the world. Since that survey was published, we have set out, and are pursuing, a range of actions to improve Scottish education. If anyone was in any doubt about the need for the reforms that we have introduced and the improvements on which we are consulting, the results should dispel that doubt.

The reforms are based on the 2015 review of education in Scotland that was carried out by the OECD, the same body that runs the PISA assessments that were published today. The OECD’s policy review was commissioned by the Scottish Government. Its purpose was to inform the on-going development of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, by providing an independent review of the direction of the curriculum for excellence. In its review report, published this time last year, the OECD said that curriculum for excellence was “an important reform” that was the right approach for Scotland. The OECD said that we had got the design right but that we needed to take further steps to secure the benefits of the new approach in all parts of the country. The report went on to make a number of recommendations on how we should do that. I want to focus on five of the key recommendations made by the OECD, and on how our response to those recommendations is driving the reform that is needed to improve education in Scotland.

The OECD report said:

“There needs to be a more robust evidence base available right across the system, especially about learning outcomes and progress.”

That is precisely why we have developed the national improvement framework and standardised assessments for children in primary 1, P4, P7 and secondary 3 to support teachers’ professional judgments. That will provide us with a complete picture of how our children are progressing with their learning, covering the full range of school years, so that we can see that progress is being made at national, local authority and school levels. It will allow us to plan targeted interventions to tackle the attainment gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds.

Next week, we will launch the first ever national improvement plan for education, based on the widest range of performance information ever gathered on Scottish education as part of the national improvement framework. It is also why we have committed to providing teachers with benchmarks on assessing children’s progress. Those benchmarks will set out with absolute clarity the standards that are envisaged within the curriculum, not to constrain teacher professionalism or to create a series of boxes to tick, but to provide a tool that will be of genuine use in classrooms, will help to ensure consistency in the judgments that teachers make and substantially reduce the bureaucratic burden carried by the teaching profession.

Secondly, the OECD said that CFE needs to be

“a dynamic, highly equitable curriculum being built constantly in schools, networks and communities with a key role for a strengthened ‘middle’.”

That is why we have launched a wide-ranging review of education governance to gather views from parents, pupils and professionals on how education, from early years to secondary school level, should be run. At the heart of the governance review is the presumption that decisions about children’s learning and school life should be made at school level. The governance review also responds to a third OECD recommendation about the need to strengthen professional leadership. We have invested in leadership capacity in our schools by establishing and funding the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, which has delivered a new qualification for headship that is fully funded by the Scottish Government. The Government will take forward further measures to enhance leadership and professional development in education.

A fourth area covered by the OECD report was the need to be rigorous in our focus on closing the attainment gap for our poorest pupils. That is why we launched and subsequently expanded the £750 million Scottish attainment challenge, and it is why we have taken the lead in showcasing best practice in closing the attainment gap. We have also announced plans to double the entitlement to free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours per year by 2020. That will help to narrow the vocabulary gap, which can be up to 13 months by the time a child starts primary school, and it will ensure that all children arrive at school ready to learn.

The OECD also advised that we take steps to simplify and clarify the curriculum. In response to that recommendation, in August this year we published a definitive statement on curriculum for excellence that sets out what every teacher needs to do in order to achieve the potential of CFE, as well as benchmarks for literacy and numeracy. Those definitive documents will provide clarity and replace thousands of pages of advice, guidance and case studies that had created a cluttered landscape. We have also announced changes to national qualifications that will address the burden of overassessment for young people and teachers as part of a relentless drive that I am leading to reduce red tape and ensure that teachers are freed up to teach.

As well as responding to the OECD’s recommendations, the Government has taken a range of measures to drive improvement in reading, maths and science in the period between the PISA assessments being undertaken in 2015, and the publication of those results today. We launched the read, write, count campaign; we established the making maths count group, which recently published the report of its findings and recommendations to boost mathematics achievement in Scotland; we are consulting on a strategy to raise levels of enthusiasm for and knowledge about science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and the First Minister launched her reading challenge, which is aimed at promoting and supporting reading for pleasure among P4 to P7 pupils.

One of my early actions on taking up office as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was to establish an international council of education advisers. Professor Andy Hargreaves, who is one of the international advisers and a member of the OECD review team that visited Scotland in 2015, has said that he is

“very impressed with the richness and boldness of the Scottish curriculum, the confidence of Scottish learners, the professionalism of the country’s teachers, and the collective will to do even better to provide equitable opportunities and outcomes for all young people.”

Others have commended our belief in continuous improvement, our foresight and our patience in relation to education—qualities that are much needed now. Those highly regarded experts from a range of countries across the world are credible independent voices, and they are not describing an education system in crisis; they are describing a system that is striving to meet significant challenges and that is well placed to do so.

Yesterday afternoon, I held a teleconference with several of our international advisers to discuss the latest set of PISA results. They recognised that the challenges that Scotland faces are not unique and that a great many other countries are having to reflect on deteriorations in their PISA results, particularly in relation to science. The unanimous advice that I received from our international advisers was to remain focused on taking forward the plans that we formulated carefully in response to the data from the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy as part of our journey of reform. I consider that to be sound advice and I intend to follow it.

The Government’s plans for reform were set out in “Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education: A Delivery Plan for Scotland”, which was published in June following the national education summit. The programme is bold, ambitious and, in parts, controversial. A strength of Scotland’s education system has always been collaboration—a sense of national shared endeavour—but we must now be clear that reform is required. The data reinforces the case for the radical change that the Government is determined to pursue.

The Deputy First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I shall allow around 20 minutes for questions.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement—although I am sure that there will be great regret on the part of every teacher, parent and pupil in Scotland about the circumstances in which it has had to be made.

We are now below the OECD average on the three measurements on which we were above the average in 2000. Not only that, but the most recent trends since publication of the previous set of PISA results in 2012 tell us that Scotland is actually heading backwards on two measurements.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the statistics that have been published today are a damning indictment of the Scottish National Party’s schools education policy? Does he also accept that they call into question whether there is effective delivery of curriculum for excellence?

The promotion of STEM subjects is supposed to be a top priority for the SNP, so why are there fundamental weaknesses in Scotland’s showing in science compared with the showing of competitor nations?

My first point to Liz Smith is that the Government has been perfectly prepared to have its approach to the delivery of curriculum for excellence tested by external advisers. Nobody could doubt that, given our commissioning of the report by the OECD in 2015. That review was an assessment of the policy direction that was started, before this Government came into office, with the design of curriculum for excellence, which we continued when we came into office.

We have now applied CFE in concert with our local authority partners, professional associations, education agencies and a broad cross-section of organisations that have been actively involved in its design and delivery. One look at the curriculum for excellence management board will demonstrate the point that I made in the concluding part of my statement, which is that the Scottish education system has been taken forward in an atmosphere of collaboration. Of course, the Government has been in the lead—I accept that unreservedly—but there has been collaboration with a range of bodies.

We asked the OECD to consider our approach to implementation of curriculum for excellence, and to consider the condition of Scottish education. I have put on record the OECD’s view, which was that CFE was the correct reform to undertake. It said that CFE is the right curriculum for Scotland and that it creates many strengths in our education system. It also set out for us a range of further measures to ensure that we would achieve the full potential of CFE, which is what the Government’s reform agenda is focused entirely on delivering.

On Liz Smith’s point about science, I have been absolutely up front with Parliament about the deterioration in performance, which I make no attempt to deny, but Liz Smith must look at the data across the board. There has been a general deterioration in participation and performance in science across many jurisdictions, and the OECD average has fallen as a consequence. I make no attempt to deny the fact that our performance has fallen, but it is fair to put it in context. The PISA analysis highlights a wider issue in respect of participation and performance of young people in science.

We can only take the actions that we need to take to address those issues in Scotland. That is why, in my statement, I went through a range of the measures that the Government is taking to strengthen participation in STEM subjects and to encourage more teachers to come into STEM subjects. Liz Smith will know that, just last week, I announced new and swifter routes into the teaching profession for individuals who have a STEM background in order to enable them to be participants in Scottish education and to help us to work together to ensure that we improve the performance of Scottish education, including on STEM subjects.

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement and for his admission that the PISA results

“do not make comfortable reading”.

That is quite an understatement. They are the legacy of 10 years of SNP Government and 10 years of cuts in education budgets, cuts in council funding and cuts in teacher numbers.

I bow to no one in terms of my respect for the professionalism, dedication and inspiration of our teachers. What our schools cry out for is enough of them, with enough time, enough support staff and enough resources to do their job. That is the key reform that the PISA results demand. The budget next week must protect education spending and begin to reinstate what has been cut in the past decade. Will the cabinet secretary promise that reform? However, will he first just say “Sorry” to the parents, children and teachers of this country?

I came to Parliament willingly to explain the PISA results and to acknowledge that their contents make uncomfortable reading for all of us. I have put all the comments that I made on the record in order to sum up the Government’s response to statistics and performance that are unacceptable and on which we have to improve. I accept responsibility for ensuring that that happens: it will dominate my term in office as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Let me, Presiding Officer, answer the particular points that Iain Gray raised. He referred to local authority budget issues. I simply refer him to the report by Audit Scotland on behalf of the Accounts Commission that was published last week. It said:

“Taking into account 2016/17 funding, councils have experienced a real-terms reduction in funding of 8.4 per cent since 2010/11. This is approximately the same as the reduction in the Scottish Government’s total budget over the same period.”

That puts Mr Gray’s point in its proper context.

My long service as a finance minister enables me to know and to understand that when the Labour Party comes along to Parliament to complain about lack of money for particular policy areas, it is not very good—it was not very good at this over the long period for which I was finance minister—at telling us where the money would come from to make good any of the problems that were raised in the statement. The answer to Mr Gray’s point about local authority budgets is contained in the detail of the Audit Scotland report.

On teacher numbers, Mr Gray will, of course, be familiar with the fact that, surrounded by some controversy, I had to apply constraints on some local authorities in order to avoid their reducing teacher numbers even further. I put in place those constraints in the face of much opposition from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and—I have to say this bluntly—from many Labour councils that wanted to reduce teacher numbers. I stopped them doing so. I make no apology whatsoever for protecting teacher numbers when Labour councils wanted to reduce them.

Finally, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution will obviously set out the details of the budget in Parliament next week. The Government has committed to investing £750 million in tackling the attainment challenge that the country faces. That is exactly what the Government will bring forward in its proposals. The cabinet secretary will set out a strong settlement that will enable us to tackle the problems that exist in Scottish education and to deliver for the young people of Scotland.

I have my doubts that we will get through all the questions from members who have requested to ask one, so could we have shorter answers, please, cabinet secretary?

The cabinet secretary is right that the results

“do not make comfortable reading”,

but they clearly underline the case for reform of our education system. Some people have suggested that the Scottish Government should slow reform down. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we need to pick up the pace of reform? I will ensure that the Education and Skills Committee plays its role, particularly in monitoring, scrutinising and implementing the Government’s review. Does the cabinet secretary also agree that there is now more reason for groups and members in Parliament to come together to support reform, just as they did when curriculum for excellence was introduced, in order to help it to succeed in its initial phase?

Mr Dornan makes the fair observation that curriculum for excellence has been widely supported across the chamber—and in the Scottish community, into the bargain. As I explained in my answer to Liz Smith, CFE has been implemented collaboratively across the country.

I set out in my statement the Government’s response, which is to reinforce the lessons that we learned from the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy in 2015 about the need for us to progress with reform. That is exactly the agenda that the Government is pursuing, and I assure Mr Dornan that it will pursue that agenda with pace and urgency in order to improve Scottish education.

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement. On page 4, under key recommendation 2, he refers to an education governance review involving education practitioners. However, teachers in my region, many of whom attended a recent consultation event at Aberdeen exhibition and conference centre, have said to me that the review consultation is too bureaucratic and is filled with too much jargon. Teachers have said specifically that they have no idea what some of the review questions are actually asking. With teachers already expressing so little confidence in the review process, how can the cabinet secretary possibly deliver the reforms that he has articulated, when he cannot take teachers with him?

All I can say to Ross Thomson is that the Government is engaging very actively, in detail, in many conversations and in many parts of the country, about the detail of the governance review. A number of ministers are involved in those conversations. I have taken part in them and found them to be rewarding and thoughtful conversations in which many views were expressed. The Government obviously takes those views into account when coming to its conclusions.

All I say to Mr Thomson is that we need to encourage participation in the discussions around the governance review. The Government will ensure that that is done and that we take a set of focused decisions that are designed to strengthen Scottish education as a consequence of the information that we hear from everyone who participates in that process.

I add my thanks for prior sight of the statement. I am glad that the cabinet secretary acknowledges the gravity of the results, but is it not the case that, since the SNP formed the Government in Scotland, we have lost two STEM teachers every week, there are 20 per cent fewer technicians and the number of lab assistants has been reduced by half? What impact has that reduction in resources in our schools had on our PISA rankings?

What we have to address as a Government is the resources that are, and have been, available to us for dealing with the challenges across the public services. Over the past nine years, we have delivered strong and fair settlements for local authorities, as is evidenced by the quote from the Audit Scotland report that I shared with Mr Gray.

The Government does not choose how many technicians there are in schools and we do not choose who the teachers are in schools. Those decisions are taken by local authorities. I point out again to Mr Johnson that, had I not stepped in to stop local authorities—many of which are run by his party—reducing teacher numbers further, we would have fewer teachers in our schools than we have today. That is the uncomfortable truth for the Labour Party—that I had to step in to stop Labour local authorities reducing teacher numbers, and I am glad that I did so.

The OECD rightly highlighted the role of leadership in our schools. I welcome the role that the Scottish College for Educational Leadership is playing in that regard. Will the cabinet secretary explain how the college seeks to empower middle leaders, who will be key to driving improvement in classrooms across the country?

Leadership is a well-demonstrated point in the OECD review of Scottish education. It is also a visible illustration of where strength comes from in the education system.

Yesterday, I was in the John Paul academy in Summerston in Glasgow, which is a fantastically well-led school. It has clear direction and a tremendous learning environment. Leadership is demonstrated at all levels in that school.

I make the point to Jenny Gilruth that we have to recognise the importance of leadership throughout the school community—not just at headteacher level—so that there is a focus on how we strengthen and improve Scottish education at every level at which teaching and learning are being delivered.

My colleagues and I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance copy of his statement.

Today’s report on the PISA figures coincides with a report from Enable Scotland that does not make for comfortable reading, either. That report found that far too many people with additional support needs feel, and are, excluded at school, which has an unavoidable impact on their attainment.

Given the links between the attainment gap and the prevalence of additional support needs, will the Government use the Parliament’s powers to bring forward a budget that allows local government to reverse the recent cutting of hundreds of additional support needs teachers and support staff? In addition, will the Deputy First Minister outline what evidence the Government has of any educational benefit of moving control of education from the local level to a regional board?

On the first point, the finance minister will set out the provisions of the budget next Thursday and Mr Greer will not expect me to prejudge that. The points that Enable Scotland has raised are important for the inclusion of every young person in our education system and ensuring that they achieve fulfilment. I have made it clear to Parliament before that the Government has set the centrality of the agenda of getting it right for every child, which has to mean every single child—we have to meet their needs.

On Mr Greer’s point about educational regions, I have well-published data from Audit Scotland that significantly questions the ability of individual local authorities to add value to education in the schools in their areas of responsibility. That data tells us that we must support the enhancement of learning and teaching. From the published data that I have, it is clear that some local authorities cannot add that value. We therefore have to confront the hard reality that we must make sure that such support is available to every school in the country. It is not good enough for me to turn a blind eye when it is not available in certain parts. Some local authorities can add that value, but others cannot.

I want to make sure that we have an educational development resource that is available in every part of the country and which can add value to young people’s educational experience. That is the point of co-operation between local authorities to create educational regions.

When we are in difficult circumstances and are making choices about the resources that are available to us, we must be prepared to do what the OECD said and work collaboratively across boundaries to share good practice and ensure that it has a profound impact on the educational experience of young people in Scotland. That is the justification for educational regions.

As has been highlighted, progress on closing the attainment gap has been maintained and the impact of deprivation is around the OECD average. Does the cabinet secretary agree that maintaining progress is not enough to make the changes that we all want and that we should strive for higher than the average?

I accept that point. That was the focus of the recommendations that we received from the OECD review and is the focus of what we are taking forward as part of the national improvement framework and the Government’s work on attainment. It also features in the steps that we have taken during the past 18 months or so to advance our agenda of closing the attainment gap in Scottish education.

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for a copy of his statement. Will the Deputy First Minister accept that he is the fourth SNP education secretary in nine years and that, under his Government’s—and no one else’s—watch, the results are shocking? Does he agree that he has to do much more to allow Scotland’s teachers to actually teach? His Government’s education quango has issued 20,000 pages of guidance on curriculum for excellence to every school and that has simply not worked. How many of those 20,000 pages will go? Does he accept that no parent, teacher or pupil will accept financial cuts for schools after today? Will he meet local authority leaders before the budget next week to agree how to maintain spending in Scotland’s schools?

On Mr Scott’s point about guidance, during the implementation of curriculum for excellence, various discussions were held on the collaborative structures for taking forward curriculum development through the curriculum for excellence management board, which I referred to in my response to Liz Smith. Those discussions resulted in the drafting of guidance to provide greater clarity to the teaching profession.

I accept that the cumulative burden of that guidance has become unnavigable for the teaching profession, which is why I have set about reducing it. That is why the definitive guidance that I issued to every schoolteacher in the country in late August was designed to give absolute clarity about what was expected of the teaching profession and it is why that was followed by a simplification agenda from the chief inspector of education.

There will be a huge reduction in the volume of paperwork and guidance that is available to the teaching profession as we move to a much simpler and more crystallised approach to advice on the curriculum through the benchmarks that I talked about in the statement. I say to Mr Scott that I have had good feedback from the teaching profession on the literacy and numeracy benchmarks that were issued—teachers believe that the benchmarks are valuable. That is the spirit in which we will take forward our approach to benchmark information.

On Mr Scott’s final point about local authorities, there are on-going discussions with local government about the whole issue of public finances. Mr Mackay, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, is carrying out those discussions and I understand that further meetings on the issue are planned for today.

I can squeeze in two more questions—from Jeremy Balfour and Monica Lennon—if they are quick.

I thank the cabinet secretary for a copy of his statement. The clear message from the results today is that the Government has failed a generation on education and we in Scotland will pay a price for that in future years. Looking ahead, does he agree that we need to look at having specific science teachers in primary schools who are trained in science and who can bring that education to the children, so that another generation does not fall further behind?

I am happy to concede that the detail makes for uncomfortable reading, but I have to say that Mr Balfour’s characterisation of the situation is absolutely over the top. The OECD analysis does not bear out his analysis, and the view of a number of international education advisers does not bear out his analysis.

I am happy to have an honest debate about where we are, but we have to have that debate in the spirit of using decent quality information, which the OECD and our international advisers have given us. I do not think that the debate is well served by the characterisation that Mr Balfour has given it.

I think that the Conservatives know—because I have made this point to them before—that the idea of specialist science teachers in the primary sector runs contrary to the approach to the delivery of primary education within curriculum for excellence. I accept the importance of young people being captivated by science, which has to happen at the earliest possible stage in their educational journey. On countless occasions around the country, I have seen fabulous examples of how that can be done—not by specialist science teachers but by teachers who are motivated to deliver the broad curriculum that will enhance the educational opportunities of our young people.

There has been no acknowledgement of the cuts to local authorities and schools, and no apology from members on the Scottish Government benches to our young people and their teachers, some of whom are in the public gallery. It seems that the Government is in the business only of taking credit—never the blame.

Ms Lennon, I asked for quick questions.

Meanwhile, the cabinet secretary’s governance review proposes the centralisation of funding for setting school budgets. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give to teachers, pupils and pupils’ families that his plan will ensure that all schools get the funding that they need?

I do not know where Monica Lennon has been for the past half an hour, because I have given a pretty candid account to Parliament of the challenges that we face. I want to send funding directly into the schools of Scotland so that our leading teachers can take decisions about the needs of the children in their schools. I want to have a debate in Parliament about how we can do that and I hope that the Labour Party will engage constructively in that discussion.