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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 February 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Points of Order, Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50), Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, Decision Time, Blackhillock to Kintore Transmission Line


Topical Question Time

Schools (Teaching Staff Shortages)

I suspect that I should not try any jokes on names after that point of order.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that almost half of headteachers consider that there is a lack of teaching staff in schools. (S5T-00381)

The Scottish Government is taking a number of actions to help recruit and retain teachers. We are spending £88 million this year to make sure that every school has access to the right number of teachers; we are opening up new and innovative routes into teaching; we have increased student teacher intake targets for the fifth year in a row; and we are setting targets to train teachers in the subjects where they are needed most. I will also be launching a new teacher recruitment campaign tomorrow that builds on the success of last year’s inspiring teachers campaign, which helped drive a 19 per cent increase in the number of professional graduate diploma in education applications to Scottish universities compared with the previous year.

We have also gone further than our manifesto commitment by providing £120 million of pupil equity funding for 2017-18. That funding will be available for headteachers to use for the additional resources that they consider will help raise attainment and reduce the poverty-related attainment gap. The funding is being allocated directly to headteachers, as they and other school leaders are best placed to know the needs of the children and young people in their schools.

In 2007, the Scottish Government said that it would

“reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or less”.

Four years later, the Scottish Government said:

“there will be a new legal limit of 25 on class sizes in Primary 1.”

Last year, the Scottish Government did not mention class sizes at all. Today, only one in 10 primary 1 to primary 3 classes has 18 pupils or fewer, and there are 2,000 fewer teachers but 20,000 more pupils. Does the cabinet secretary accept that headteachers are telling him that the number of children in a class matters? What is he going to do about it?

Of course I accept that point. What the Government is trying to do is to ensure that we have an adequate number of teachers in our schools. As Mr Scott will be aware, the number of teachers in our schools rose last year, which was a consequence of the decision that the Government had taken to apply resources and constraints to local authorities in relation to the number of teachers that were required in our schools. We believe that that is important because of our commitment—reinforced in the local government settlement this year—to protect the people teacher ratio, which is the direct relationship between the number of teachers and the number of pupils. Of course I acknowledge that that issue is important, and the Government is taking a series of actions to address it and to ensure that we have an adequate supply of teachers who are able to lead our education system in Scotland.

From August this year there will be more than 400,000 primary school pupils in Scotland, of whom nearly a quarter—86,000—will have additional support needs. However, across Scotland’s 2,000 primary schools there are only 193 ASN teachers. Given that schools now face further budget cuts, how are class teachers meant to cope with that reality?

First, I am sure that Mr Scott is aware that the definition of young people with additional support needs was significantly broadened in 2010 to ensure that even the more limited additional needs that a young person might have, including those of a temporary nature, are adequately and fully taken into account by the teaching profession. That point puts the increase in the number of pupils with additional support needs into context.

The second point is that the number of professionals who are working with children with additional support needs rose last year, as did the amount of money that is spent by local authorities on that area of activity. The rise was of the order of £24 million, if my memory is correct.

Thirdly, as a consequence of the Government’s budget that was approved by Parliament at stage 1 of the Budget (Scotland) Bill last Thursday, there is a significant increase in the resources that will be available to local authorities: £160 million of additional resource was put into the local authority block grant to add to the £240 million increase in the spending power on local authority services. I know that Mr Scott and his colleagues were unable to support the budget last week; that defies belief, because the budget represents significant investment in our local authority services.

It would be welcome if Mr Scott could provide some support to the effort to ensure that the schools of Scotland are given the resources that they require, including the £120 million of pupil equity funding that will be influencing the performance of 95 per cent of schools across Scotland.

The cabinet secretary knows that we on this side of the chamber believe that two things could ease teacher shortages: first, ensuring that there is a national register of supply teachers, which would allow councils to hire staff with much greater flexibility than is currently the case; and, secondly, relaxing the rules on pensions abatement, which would tempt more of those of retirement age to re-enter the profession. What progress has been made on those two practical steps?

I am sceptical about whether having a register of supply teachers would make much of a difference. The challenge is about having supply teachers available. We cannot register supply teachers who are not available. Schools are habitually looking for supply teachers to fill gaps that arise from vacancies and temporary absences. I do not doubt that a huge effort is put in by schools to ensure that supply needs are met.

I will look at the question of pensions abatement to determine whether there is something that can be done. I have to be mindful of the importance of assessing value for money in relation to all financial arrangements that are put in place for the teaching profession.

The same survey did not just highlight teachers; it also highlighted support staff and classroom materials. Does that not show the impact of the £1.4 billion decline in revenue funding to local government since 2010? Although the cabinet secretary mentions extra money, the reality is a £170 million net decline, even after the additional funding that he mentions. That is a cut, not an increase. Does that not reflect the reality of resourcing in education?

No, it does not. There was an increase in the spending power on local authority services of £240 million before stage 1 proceedings last Thursday, and we added another £160 million to that figure. Within that, we have targeted £120 million of pupil equity funding directly into the schools of Scotland. I do not recognise the funding picture that Mr Johnson talks about.

One of the things that would help to improve the recruitment of teachers would be if members of Parliament such as Mr Johnson were slightly more positive about Scottish education than he is in the dismal diatribes that we hear from him. Every single time he speaks in the chamber on education, he contributes to undermining the quality and strength of Scottish education, and he should up his game.

Housing (Emergency Accommodation)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to reduce the amount of time families are spending in emergency accommodation. (S5T-00376)

People may be in emergency accommodation such as bed and breakfasts if they have to leave their home quickly, for example because of a fire or domestic abuse. Households with children and pregnant women are covered by the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order 2014, which ensures that it is only for a short period of time. We are committed to introducing a cap for families with children and pregnant women of one week living in B and B accommodation, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Scotland’s strong homelessness rights mean that families are placed in temporary accommodation while they wait for appropriate, sustainable permanent accommodation.

I welcome the Government’s statement on the one-week cap on B and B accommodation.

Is the minister aware that Shelter, in an article this week, has said that the time that families spend in temporary accommodation has risen by one-fifth in two years? The minister knows that children are adversely affected by living in temporary accommodation, yet there are 826 more children living in temporary accommodation than there were last year. Does the minister agree that those are the correct figures? If not, I hope that he will say what figures he accepts. What is the minister doing to establish the factors that are involved in, and the reasons for, any rise in the figures?

As Shelter has pointed out, temporary accommodation is a necessary part of our strong homelessness legislation, and it ensures that families have a home when they are made homeless. To ensure a better outcome, the time that is spent in temporary accommodation is best used positively to identify the best possible housing option for a household. We want the time that is spent in temporary accommodation to be as short as possible, so we are increasing housing supply to help with that. Temporary accommodation in Scotland is generally good quality and is normally in the social rented sector.

We have strengthened the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order 2014, which regulates the quality of temporary accommodation for households that include children and pregnant women, and we have plans to strengthen it further. The order also addresses the issue of proximity to health and education services.

We are working with local authorities and other partners to improve the use of temporary accommodation for homeless households. I wrote to Ms McNeill last month and offered to meet her to discuss homelessness issues: that offer stands.

I thank the minister for his offer and will take him up on it. However, I must again ask whether he accepts that there has been a rise in the number of children living in temporary accommodation and in the length of time that families spend in temporary accommodation.

Further, does he agree that it would be helpful if the Scottish Government were to agree minimum standards for temporary and emergency accommodation in order to ensure that families have decent and affordable accommodation, especially since the welfare benefit cap could affect the quality of housing that they live in?

We have done everything possible to ensure that temporary accommodation is the right accommodation, which is why 86 per cent of the temporary accommodation that is being used in Scotland at the moment is in the social housing sector. Increasing the amount of affordable housing in Scotland by 50,000 units is one of the key planks of Government policy, and 35,000 of those units will be for social rent. That, in itself, will help with those issues.

The number of households in temporary accommodation has decreased by 1 per cent from the number on the same date last year, but it is unfortunate that the number of children in such households has increased compared with one year ago. As I pointed out in my previous answer, we will do everything possible to ensure that their time in temporary accommodation is as short as possible. The period that is spent in temporary accommodation gives us the option to find the right housing for those folk and, as I said previously, we will introduce a cap of one week living in B and B accommodation for families with children and pregnant women. I am glad that Ms McNeill welcomes that measure.

Shelter Scotland’s report on homelessness that was published in September last year reported that, in England, the ministerial working group on preventing and tackling homelessness had brought together eight different Government departments to produce a series of what Shelter described as

“major strategic documents that have been significant in progressing the approach to preventing and tackling homelessness in England and, importantly, led to innovations such as joint funding initiatives.”

Shelter gave some examples, then continued:

“Far more must be done to ensure that similar joined-up working with multiple strategic partners is achieved in Scotland.”

Does the minister agree?

The homelessness prevention and strategy group of which Shelter is a member looks strategically at homelessness around Scotland. Any member of that group can raise any issue, and we can try to find solutions to issues that are raised.

On cross-Government working, I have met colleagues—the Minister for Social Security, the Minister for Mental Health and the Minister for Childcare and Early Years—over the past number of weeks to look at how we can better join up our approach to homelessness in Scotland. I intend to have bilateral meetings with other colleagues and to present findings to the strategy group that I mentioned. I hope that, by working in partnership with our stakeholders and ensuring that there is a cross-Government response, we can do even better for homeless people in Scotland.