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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 07 March 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time, Electronic and Internet Voting


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The first item of business is portfolio question time. I would appreciate succinct questions and answers, please.

Play Strategy

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of its national play strategy. (S5O-01854)

Scotland’s national play strategy was developed in collaboration with the play sector. This year alone, we have invested more than £3 million in this area, which includes our continuing support for Play Scotland. Play Scotland continues to develop and to distribute excellent resources and training for practitioners, teachers and parents to support the play strategy. That includes the play types toolkit, which highlights the range of play that children experience and the vital contribution that play makes towards their learning and development.

Given the minister’s response, I know that she will agree that Play Scotland has a central role to play in the continued implementation of the strategy. Will she agree to meet Play Scotland and me to discuss current play issues, such as how weather is used as an excuse not to go outside, the withholding of play due to negative behaviour and some schools banning running in the playground?

Absolutely—I would be more than delighted to meet the member and Play Scotland to discuss those issues.

Last week, I think that we all enjoyed watching the children of Scotland building igloos all around the country. I am not sure that the weather should be an excuse for not going outside. Undoubtedly, there are safety issues, and a risk assessment and a good decision need to be made but, in general, weather should not prohibit playing outside or running.

I absolutely agree that early access to play is essential for children’s physical and mental wellbeing and their development. I read through the national play strategy, which has some great visions and objectives with which I whole-heartedly agree. However, it is light on the delivery programme. How will the Government practically deliver the ambitions of the strategy?

As the member will know, the significant expansion of funded early learning and childcare gives us an opportunity to define the experience that we offer. Last week, I spoke in the chamber about my fantastic visit to the forest kindergarten. There is a growing body of research and evidence about the benefits of outdoor learning for children’s health and wellbeing and for their physical and mental development. We are determined that outside learning will be a key part of our offering.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Apprenticeships

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage young people into science, technology, engineering and mathematics apprenticeships. (S5O-01856)

Central to our developing the young workforce strategy is a commitment to prioritise and further expand STEM apprenticeship opportunities. We recently published “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Education and Training Strategy for Scotland”. It makes a commitment to the planned expansion of STEM-related foundation apprenticeships for pupils in the senior phase of school and graduate apprenticeships for those working and studying for a degree qualification, which will provide clear pathways in STEM-related work-based learning qualifications.

For the current 2016 to 2018 cohort, foundation apprenticeships are being delivered in just 23 of the 32 local authorities. There have been only 251 STEM starts over that entire timeframe. This is national apprenticeship week. Will the minister outline what he is doing to ensure that all school-age students will have access to STEM foundation apprenticeships, if they want them?

As the member will appreciate, foundation apprenticeships are a relatively new creation, which we have been road testing and are still rolling out. We have gone from a position in 2014 when we had two pathfinder frameworks being delivered in two local authorities to the position this year in which we will provide opportunities for more than 2,000 young people across Scotland to take part in foundation apprenticeships, which will be delivered in all 32 local authority areas. Therefore, the member can be assured that we take the roll-out, the development and the expansion of foundation apprenticeships very seriously. We have made a commitment that there will be 5,000 such opportunities from 2019 onwards. We are continuing to grow the offer, and I assure the member that STEM is a critical part of that offering.

Cutting more than 800 STEM teachers will not help to promote opportunities in STEM to young people, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. What specific action is the Scottish Government taking to support children and young people from our most deprived communities to enter STEM apprenticeships?

As I have just said, we are rolling out foundation apprenticeships more widely. That wider availability will ensure that more young people have the opportunity to take part and, specifically, it will ensure that we have greater diversity among those taking part in STEM careers and apprenticeships. We take that very seriously and we are approaching it through a range of initiatives. Skills Development Scotland works with partners at a local level to ensure that there is greater uptake of foundation apprenticeships in STEM-related opportunities, and ensuring that young people from deprived backgrounds can get that opportunity is of critical importance.

School Clothing Grant (Payments in 2017)

To ask the Scottish Government what the average school clothing grant payment was in 2017. (S5O-01857)

Local authorities spent £9.2 million on school clothing grants in 2016-17, although the level paid varies across local authorities. I am determined to help families with the cost of the school day and am working closely and constructively with local authorities on the provision of a minimum school clothing grant.

I welcome that response from the cabinet secretary. He did, of course, agree to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to produce a minimum payment in 2016, but we have not seen evidence of that yet. I am concerned, because just this week the Scottish National Party members of West Dunbartonshire Council considered reducing the school clothing grant to £50. Thankfully, they did not. The Labour group proposed an increase to £130, and the cabinet secretary will of course be aware that the poverty truth commission says that the true cost of kitting out a child for school is, indeed, £130. Will he consider using that as the appropriate minimum figure for all local authorities in Scotland?

There have obviously been discussions in local authorities about the level of the school clothing grant. Jackie Baillie cited the proposals that were considered in West Dunbartonshire. Glasgow City Council is a very large local authority that is controlled for the first time by the SNP, and I notice that it has increased the school clothing grant from £52 to £70, which is very welcome progress after all the years in which the Labour Party could have done something about the issue.

To give Jackie Baillie the assurance that she is seeking, I had a very constructive meeting a couple of weeks ago with Councillor Stephen McCabe of COSLA. We are undertaking joint work to establish an agreed approach to a minimum school clothing grant for all local authorities within Scotland. That work is actively under way just now. I welcome the collaboration that we have with COSLA on the issue and as soon as we have reached the conclusion of that work I will, of course, report to Parliament.

Vulnerable Young People (Guidance and Counselling)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports school staff who provide guidance and counselling to vulnerable young people. (S5O-01858)

The mental health of children and adolescent young people is a very important issue, which we must all take seriously. We know that prevention and early intervention make a big difference in reducing the risk of developing mental health problems. Every child and young person should have access to emotional and mental wellbeing support in school. Some schools will provide access to school-based counselling, while others will be supported by pastoral care staff and will liaise with the educational psychology, family and health services for specialist support when required. A mental health link person is available to every school. That has been achieved in a variety of ways, using various models working to meet local needs.

We are becoming more and more aware that preventing adverse childhood experiences—or ACEs—is fundamental to the wellbeing of children and young people. However, where we cannot prevent them, how can we make sure that all teaching staff can identify and nurture vulnerable young people and help to build resilience and the ability to cope with trauma in those youngsters?

I will make two points. The first concerns the application of professional practice in relation to adverse childhood experiences, and its wider application across our public services. In the past few months, many of us have seen the film “Resilience”, which focuses on adverse childhood experiences. Following a showing of that film that I hosted at St Andrew’s house, the Government will be hosting later this month an extensive dialogue involving a range of ministers, local authority partners and a huge cross-section of stakeholders to find ways in which we can apply best practice in tackling adverse childhood experiences across the country.

The second point is a practical one about the education system. Education Scotland has developed two national professional learning resources—one concerning nurturing approaches in the primary school and the other concerning a whole-school nurturing approach—that encourage a focus on creating an environment that is anchored in the principle of nurture. Creating such a supportive atmosphere and environment for children and young people will ensure that we are taking all the steps that we can to intervene at the earliest possible opportunity in order to avoid any mental health difficulties arising for young people.

In England and in Wales, pupils have a legal right of access to a trained and qualified counsellor at school, if needed. Could our children not benefit from that same right?

The most important thing is to ensure that young people have access to the services that they require. In my answer to Gail Ross, I set out the range of support services that are available. Of course, a mental health link person is available to every school—that resource is deployed in different ways across the country.

The vital issue that we have to focus on is ensuring that young people have access to that support and that we are able to intervene as early as possible. Of course, early intervention can avoid the escalation of some of these issues and can, as a consequence, deliver a much more sustainable solution for young people across the country. That is exactly what the Government will do to ensure that we meet the mental health needs of all young people in Scotland.

Student Associations

To ask the Scottish Government what it sees as the key roles of student associations in representing the interests of students at colleges and universities. (S5O-01859)

Student associations play a vital role in the learning and lives of college and university students and it is important that students are given the opportunity to express their views on issues of concern to them. In recognition of that, the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 sets out that the membership of the governing body of any higher education institution must include two student members who have been nominated by a student association of that institution.

Students also have representation on boards in the college sector, with the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013 increasing the minimum number of student members on college boards to two. The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council currently funds the National Union of Students Scotland to support colleges and their student associations to deliver on the key aims and objectives that are set out in the framework for the development of strong and effective college student associations in Scotland.

Last week, I visited Inverness College, where I was hosted by the Highlands and Islands Students Association, which has enjoyed tremendous success in a relatively short period of time in giving students from across the University of the Highlands and Islands a strong and effective voice. During the discussions with HISA representatives, including the team from Orkney College, concerns were raised about the cost of attending events and meetings, which invariably take place in the central belt.

In the light of the ministers’ comments on the funding that is provided, will she consider whether there are still cost barriers to be overcome in relation to allowing students across the field to play that representative role on behalf of their peer group? Will she also consider ways in which events might be encouraged to take place outwith the central belt, which would benefit those in the Highlands and Islands, the north and indeed the south?

I am unsure of the detail of the events that Mr McArthur highlights; I am not clear whether he is talking about Scottish Government, funding council or NUS events. However, from the point of view of the Scottish Government and the funding council, I am happy to take on board the suggestion that we consider those issues when we are collaborating with students from across the country, and that we need to think about using digital technology where that is appropriate. I will encourage others to take those points on board, too.

It is important that UHI students can collaborate and share their experiences with others. I have had quite a few dealings with the students at various UHI campuses and I have seen how well they work together. However, given the unique nature of UHI, they undoubtedly also face certain challenges.

I hope that Mr McArthur will be assured that the Scottish funding council is receiving feedback from associations—indeed, it received that last year—about the positive impact that college student associations are making. We have an on-going commitment to ensure that we share best practice as that goes along, and if that is not happening, the funding council will work with the college and the students to ensure that it does happen. If there are specific issues that the member would like me to look into further, I will be happy to do that.

School Curriculum (Scottish Studies Strand)

To ask the Scottish Government what evaluation it has carried out of how the Scottish studies strand of the curriculum is operating. (S5O-01860)

Although there has been no formal evaluation of the Scottish studies strand of the curriculum as a whole, Education Scotland’s evaluation report on literacy in the curriculum, published in 2015, found that teachers were increasingly using Scots and Scottish texts to develop children’s literacy skills. That was followed by Education Scotland’s report on Scots in the curriculum, published in August 2017, which confirmed the educational benefit of learning Scots. The Scottish studies awards were introduced in 2013-14, and there has been an increase in the uptake of them across all Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels, rising from 165 awards in 2014 to 1,383 in 2017.

In 2011, the Government set up an independent working group, including highly respected cultural leaders such as Phil Cunningham, Liz Lochhead and the late Gavin Wallace, to advise on how best to implement its manifesto commitment to roll out Scottish studies in a meaningful way across the curriculum. That review group made a number of specific recommendations, including on continuing professional development, signposting and generally supporting a positive environment for schools engaging in learning about Scotland. Can the Government tell us which of the working group’s recommendations have yet to be implemented and whether implementation is consistent across schools and local authorities?

I will have to write to Ms McAlpine about the detailed implementation of individual recommendations. What I would say at the outset is that a variety of different approaches will be taken to the application of that aspect of the curriculum in different schools, as should be the case, because curriculum for excellence relies upon the judgment of individual teachers to deploy the curriculum in the most effective way to meet the needs of young people.

I can assure members that the recommendations from the Scottish studies working group have been embedded across the curriculum, and schools will be able to develop their practice to reflect the steps that have been taken. Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority provide materials and resources to support schools and teachers to include Scottish studies in the curriculum and to actively promote studying Scotland and the Scottish studies award to teachers and to schools, to ensure that the increase in uptake that I talked about in my first answer is capable of being delivered by the education system.

On the same Scottish theme, can the minister tell us how many pupils across Scotland are taking up the Scottish baccalaureate qualification?

I do not have that number to hand, but I am certainly happy to write to Liz Smith on that question. What I can say is that we have a broad and broadening range of qualification opportunities available for young people. Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the Scottish credit and qualifications framework conference, and I was enormously heartened by the strength of that framework and the breadth of the curricular and qualification opportunities that are available for young people, to recognise all aspects of their learning and to use that as a foundation for future success.

Teacher Recruitment Campaign

To ask the Scottish Government what impact its most recent teacher recruitment campaign has had. (S5O-01861)

The Scottish Government’s teaching makes people campaign was launched in February 2017 and has led to almost 3,500 people attending teaching makes people events and more than 42,000 visits to the website. Campaign tracking showed a 21 per cent increase in those considering applying for a postgraduate diploma in education, and that 40 per cent of people who had seen the campaign took action, such as seeking advice on a career in teaching. A further phase of campaign activity was completed at the end of February and is currently being evaluated.

Information received from universities on recruitment into initial teacher education showed a 7.5 per cent increase in student teacher numbers, from 3,591 in 2016 to 3,861 in 2017. The number of teachers in Scotland rose by 543 in 2017, and that included a rise here in Edinburgh, where we have seen a rise in the number of teachers for the third year in a row.

Last week, I was contacted by Gail Morrison, who is a constituent of mine with a son at Queensferry high school. She told me that the computing science teacher left last month and has not been replaced and, as she was the only such teacher at the school, all computing classes are currently going without. The measures that have been adopted by the school include pupils following a set of PowerPoint lesson plans under the supervision of a history teacher. Will the cabinet secretary explain to Gail how he expects pupils to attain vital qualifications if there is nobody there to explain coursework to them when they get stuck?

I am the first to acknowledge the challenges that we face in the recruitment of individual teachers into particular subjects across the country, and I have done so on a number of occasions. There are acute challenges in the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects. For that reason, the Government has taken steps to increase the number of STEM teachers who are recruited into our education system. On 8 October, I announced the creation of a scheme for STEM bursaries to enable individuals to access £20,000 of funding to make a career switch from existing activities into teaching. I am pleased to tell Parliament that applications for the STEM bursary will be available to be completed from 3 April. The scheme will be available to individuals in order to fill some of the vacancies that Mr Cole-Hamilton mentioned.

Since 2010, there has been a 16 per cent decline in STEM teachers in secondary schools in Dumfries and Galloway. As the newly created fast-track teacher route focuses on other rural areas, what action is being taken to address the specific STEM recruitment issues that Dumfries and Galloway faces?

A number of steps are being taken. There are the STEM bursaries that I have just referred to, which open up opportunities for individuals to enter the teaching profession. We have expanded the number of available places for individuals to gain access to initial teacher education. More than 4,000 places were available for the current academic year. As a consequence of the new routes into teaching that the Government has established, more than 250 candidates have been recruited into initial teacher education who would not otherwise have been able to gain access.

Mr Carson is correct that the Government is opening up opportunities for particular rural areas through a partnership between the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of Dundee to take steps to attract more STEM teachers. That will assist the general flow of teachers into the teaching profession as a consequence of the steps that the Government has taken.

Registered Childminders

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to registered childminders. (S5O-01862)

We recognise the valuable contribution that childminders can and do make to delivering high-quality early learning and childcare for many families. We want to see more childminders involved in delivering funded early learning and childcare. The introduction of our provider-neutral approach, in which funding follows the child, will support childminders across Scotland who wish to do so to offer the funded entitlement to families.

We provide grant funding to the Scottish Childminding Association to enable it to support and actively promote childminding services. That grant funding enables the provision of induction, training, access to legal advice, business support, advertising and an advice helpline for the association’s members. We recently also funded the Care Inspectorate to develop “Your childminding journey: a learning and development resource”, which has been warmly welcomed by childminders and which provides support for new childminders as well as personal development material for existing childminders.

Inverclyde has 54 registered childminders, who work with 411 children, supporting 310 families. Clearly, childminding plays a crucial role in my constituency. How does the Scottish Government envisage childminding playing a role in delivering the 1,140 free hours policy, given that local training regularly takes place after nurseries have closed for the day but childminders regularly work until after 6 pm and so are prevented from attending?

We expect childminders to play a full role in the expanded early learning and childcare sector. We worked closely with the Scottish Childminding Association in developing our quality action plan for the ELC sector. One of the actions included in that plan was making available to all ELC practitioners, including childminders, a national online programme of continuing professional learning that can be undertaken at a time that is convenient to them.

In September 2017, the Care Inspectorate published “My Childminding Experience”, which is a learning resource specifically for childminders that guides them through their induction and professional learning once they are in practice. Again, that can be accessed at their convenience. The Scottish Childminding Association regularly runs courses at weekends, specifically to ensure the opportunity for attendance by those who work outwith regular hours.

We have a supplementary question from Michelle Ballantyne.

The Scottish Government has said that it will go to greater efforts to involve childminders in the expansion to 1,140 free hours. However, as recently as November 2017, the Scottish Childminding Association said that only 100 out of the 6,000 childminders in Scotland are actually commissioned by local authorities to deliver funded childcare. What steps has the Scottish Government taken—or will it take—towards increasing that figure and getting childminders on to the partner provider lists?

Through our review of local authority ELC expansion plans, and in response to the latest figures produced by the Scottish Childminding Association on the current use of childminders in providing funded ELC, we have committed to working with local authorities, the association and individual childminders to identify any barriers to commissioning childminding services. We will work together to remove those barriers and to build on learning from the national programme of 1,140 hours trials. Of the 14 Scottish Government 1,140 hours trials, 10 involved childminders.

School Curriculum (Life Skills)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it gives to the provision of teaching life skills as part of the school curriculum. (S5O-01863)

Our curriculum has always been about providing young people with a well-rounded education that prepares them to thrive in today’s world. The teaching of life skills is an entitlement for all learners under Scotland’s curriculum. The curriculum for excellence is explicit in stating that all learners must have opportunities to develop skills for life, for learning and for work, with a continuous focus on literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that skills such as learning to swim or to cook a healthy meal, and having access to good physical education, are all extremely important in ensuring that our children develop into healthy, active adults who attain all that they can, and that school is the obvious place to deliver those crucial skills?

Yes, I agree with Mr Whittle’s observations. All those elements are essential parts of the experience of young people. A breadth of opportunity is available through different schools in different parts of the country. There is an increasing focus on the knowledge and appreciation of skills for work through the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda, which has been a tremendous innovation over the past few years, in response to the report from Sir Ian Wood. Some of the fundamental long-standing elements of our school system on the teaching of skills such as cooking, swimming and being physically active are all key parts of our curriculum that are deployed across our education system.

Children Affected by Alcohol Harm (School Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how schools support children and young people who are affected by alcohol harm. (S5O-01864)

Improving outcomes for children who are affected by parental substance misuse is a priority for the Scottish Government. We recognise the need to work together with a range of partners to ensure that children who live with substance-misusing parents get the care and support that they need.

All staff in schools share a responsibility for identifying the care and wellbeing needs of children and young people. Schools should establish open, positive, supporting relationships across the whole school community, which could include the provision of school-based counselling or support from pastoral care staff in those efforts.

In Scotland, 51,000 children and young people live with problem drinkers, and we now have a better understanding than ever before of alcohol harm in the context of adverse childhood experiences and its impact on long-term health. As we have heard, counselling is available in some schools but not in all. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, when one in 18 young people under the age of 16 is affected by alcohol harm, access to school-based counselling should be a right and an option that is open to all? Does he agree that it is an effective way of using preventative spend to help those young people? What better time is there to deliver that than in the year of young people?

Fundamentally, I agree with Monica Lennon that there has to be a very clear focus in our policy making on the wellbeing of every child. Wellbeing is central to the curriculum for excellence and, alongside literacy and numeracy, it is one of the three key elements that the chief inspector of education highlighted in his guidance to the education system in August 2016. It is available to every young person as part of our curricular approach.

As I said in my earlier answers—principally in response to Gail Ross—there is support available in every school for young people. It takes different forms in different schools and there are different arrangements but, fundamentally, all schools are obliged to follow the getting it right for every child agenda. If we follow that approach, we assess the requirements and needs of every young person individually and support them to overcome any challenges that they have.

The wider discussion around the impact of adverse childhood experiences is now much more significant in the policy debate. I am very optimistic that the steps that we are taking with the discussion that I set out in my answer to Gail Ross will have a constructive effect in focusing public services across the board on making sure that young people can attract the support that they require.

Question 12 has been withdrawn.

Schools (Spending Trend)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will comment on the trends in spending on schools since 2010-11. (S5O-01866)

Funding to local authorities, which are responsible for the delivery of education, has been fair and is increasing, despite continued United Kingdom Government cuts to Scotland’s budget. The total spending on education by local authorities has increased from £4.9 billion in 2010-11 to £5.1 billion in 2016-17. That is a 4.5 per cent increase in cash terms.

Through this year’s local government settlement, we are providing £112 million next year to fund councils to maintain teacher numbers specifically, including funding for the recent teacher pay award.

We are investing £179 million in 2018-19, which is up £9 million from last year, in raising attainment and closing the attainment gap, and will target the schools and local authorities that should benefit most. The funding contributes to our commitment to provide an extra £750 million for education through the Scottish attainment fund during the course of this parliamentary session. That investment in Scottish education has enabled a total of nearly 700 additional teachers to be recruited as at September 2017.

The Improvement Service’s latest local benchmarking report has detailed figures on education spending around Scotland, and it paints a rather different picture from that of the cabinet secretary. The report reveals that there has been a reduction in real-terms spending per pupil in primary and secondary education. In primary schools, there has been a real-terms reduction in spend of £513 per pupil and, in secondary schools, the real-terms reduction has been £205 per pupil.

Will the cabinet secretary admit that cuts of £1.5 billion to local government since 2011 have inevitably had a detrimental impact on our children’s education?

I will comment on the fact that, in very difficult and challenging economic times, when there has been significant constraint applied to the Scottish Government’s budget, the investment in education has increased by 4.5 per cent. That is the practical impact of the Government wrestling with a difficult financial challenge.

By voting against the local government settlement this year, and also voting against the budget, Iain Gray voted against extra money going to support the Scottish attainment challenge and to close the poverty-related attainment gap. The Labour Party voted against every single measure of that type, so Mr Gray should not come here and complain to me about education spending when the Labour Party voted against it.

University of the Highlands and Islands Colleges (Merger)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with trade unions regarding the merger of University of the Highlands and Islands colleges. (S5O-01867)

UHI had a constructive meeting with the relevant unions on 6 March and will continue to work with them. Initial discussions have taken place between the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and the unions. A further tripartite meeting between UHI, unions and the Scottish funding council is currently being arranged.

The minister is aware that college lecturers won a universal pay settlement in the summer. Will that be honoured if further education lecturers are to be employed by a university? Is the minister aware of the locally rooted as well as world-renowned reputations of many of the partner colleges? How will those reputations be protected under the new settlement?

I highlight that the proposal for integration is at a very early stage, and further details will be available in the summer of 2018. The reason why the UHI partnership is looking to evolve in that way is to create a fully integrated curriculum and a more effective delivery of academic provision. I recognise that there are concerns, such as around trade union recognition and national bargaining, which is why I am pleased that yesterday’s discussions were constructive. It was the first of what I am sure will be many discussions that will involve the trade unions, UHI and the Scottish funding council. I am due to meet UHI to discuss those issues and we will go through in great detail the concerns that have been raised by the trade unions and the views of students and local communities. I take very seriously the point that the colleges that are involved in integration, and indeed the others within UHI, are much valued in their local communities and provide world-class services in their own right.

I notice that the minister mentioned the other colleges, and I hope that she is aware that there has not been a lot of discussion—if any at all—with those other colleges. I think that there is a meeting today about that very subject. When the minister has her meetings with UHI, will she take that matter up directly? Is she also aware that Perth college has already said that it may not wish to be part of this merger—not integration—and will she recognise that the learner student experience is the most important thing? Many of us are not convinced that yet another merger is the way to achieve better student experiences.

The proposals are at a very early stage, and Perth college will attend the integration board meetings as an observer. The proposal does not involve all the colleges in UHI, because the process has come not from the Government or the Scottish funding council but from within UHI, which was looking specifically at the point that Tavish Scott has raised, quite rightly, about what is right for the students—I add to that what is right for the staff and the local communities that they serve. We take very seriously the views of the students and the staff, as well as those within the UHI implementation board, in which I include not just the colleges that are involved in the process, but UHI as a whole and every other college that is taking part as a partner organisation.

Support for Learning Staff

To ask the Scottish Government what changes it forecasts in the number of support for learning staff in schools in the next year. (S5O-01868)

The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places duties on education authorities to identify, provide support and review that support for their pupils. It is for education authorities to ensure that they have the appropriate resources, including support staff, in place to meet the needs of their pupils. “Scottish Local Government Financial Statistics” for 2016-17 shows that local authorities spent £5.1 billion on education in Scotland, which is a 0.3 per cent increase in real terms and a 2.5 per cent increase in cash terms. Of that, £610 million was on additional support for learning, which has increased from £584 million in 2015-16—a 2.3 per cent increase in real terms and a 4.5 per cent increase in cash terms.

The number of learning support teachers fell by 12 per cent between 2012 and 2016 and overall additional support needs staff numbers fell by 3 per cent at a time when the number of students with additional support needs has risen by 55 per cent. Does the cabinet secretary not take any responsibility for the fall in learning support staff numbers? Does he accept that, unless we see a reversal in the cuts in funding per student with additional needs over the same period, we will fail to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable children in the classroom?

My first point is that, as Mr Smyth is well aware, the classifications that are used and the recording of students have changed dramatically over the period, and that must be reflected in my answer.

Secondly, Mr Smyth talks about the total number of staff who support pupils with additional support needs. According to the information that I have in front of me, that figure increased from 15,723 in 2011 to 15,880 in 2016, which, by anyone’s calculation, is an increase.

I remind Mr Smyth of and repeat the point that I made in my original answer: there was a real-terms increase of 2.3 per cent in expenditure on additional support for learning in the most recent year for which information is available. That investment is welcome, and I am glad that that money is being invested in supporting some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.