Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, October 7, 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Mental Health Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Heat in Buildings Strategy, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill, Withdrawal of Scottish Statutory Instruments, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place, and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak buttons or type R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Young Persons Guarantee

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the young persons guarantee scheme. (S6O-00251)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

Since the launch of the young persons guarantee in November 2020, we have invested an additional £130 million, which aims to provide at least 24,000 new and enhanced opportunities for young people. An update was provided in our “Young Person’s Guarantee: Implementation progress report”, which was published in July and demonstrates that we have delivered on our first 100 days commitment. More than 200 employers have signed up to the guarantee to support young people in their communities, and there are developing the young workforce school co-ordinators in every mainstream secondary school.

Annabelle Ewing

It would be helpful if specific information could be provided on the roll-out of the young persons guarantee scheme in Fife. In particular, what will the minister do to ensure that the opportunity for real job progression is built into the scheme, so that it can be truly life changing for the young people concerned?

Jamie Hepburn

I acknowledge Annabelle Ewing’s long-standing interest in this issue. She has been a champion for developing the young workforce in Fife, where the school co-ordinator role that I mentioned was piloted, and I know that she was keen to see that approach embedded.

Partners in Fife have taken forward a number of actions in supporting young people to access short, industry-focused courses on subjects including digital literacy, data science and security, and they provide Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications to support young people to access higher-skilled, better-paid employment as they progress through their careers. There has also been a particular focus on support for mental health and for those who live in deprivation, to ensure that additional barriers are eliminated. I have been clear that the approach must ensure that there meaningful, sustainable and enduring opportunities. That is as true in Fife as it is across the entire country.

Scottish National Standardised Assessments

2. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it plans to implement the recommendations made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on Scottish national standardised assessments in its report, “Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future”. (S6O-00252)

The Scottish Government has welcomed the OECD’s independent review and accepted in full all its recommendations. We continue to consider carefully all the observations in the OECD report.

Willie Rennie

National assessments were originally introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Government, before they were scrapped by the Liberal Democrat-Labour Government here, because they resulted in crude league tables. The recent OECD report criticised the use of the Scottish Government’s assessments for national monitoring purposes, and now we have crude league tables once again. Why is the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills more persuaded by the logic of Margaret Thatcher than that of the OECD?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Willie Rennie for that question. I will make clear, as I did in the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting yesterday, that the purpose of the Scottish national standardised assessments is primarily formative. The OECD made no recommendations about standardised assessments, but we will consider the commentary in the report that recognised that assessments are a valuable tool to support teachers’ judgment.

We are keen to ensure that the OECD’s recommendation about what we can do with data—and do it effectively—is considered. That work is on-going, but, as I made clear to Willie Rennie in committee yesterday—so I am confused about why we are having the same conversation today—the Government does not collect and, therefore, does not publish the standardised assessments.

We have a couple of supplementary questions.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

The cabinet secretary is either in denial or is keen to hide her Government’s dire record on education. We need the right data for the right purpose and any cabinet secretary who was serious about restoring standards across our education system would want to end the data desert. Why will the cabinet secretary not get a refreshed Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, or SSLN, back up and running and rejoin the internationally respected trends in international mathematics and science study and progress in international reading literacy study—TIMSS and PIRLS—assessments?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I will start on a note of consensus: I absolutely believe that we should have the right data for the right purpose. Since the introduction of the national improvement framework for education in 2016, there has been an increase in data and the performance information that the Scottish Government collects. The Government continues to participate in the largest international survey—the programme for international student assessment, or PISA, survey—as well.

As I also think I said at committee yesterday, we undertook to reconsider the merits of SSLN data compared with ACEL—achievement of curriculum for excellence levels—data in response to an inquiry by the former Education and Skills Committee. That work is on-going; it had been delayed during the pandemic. We will respond on that, and on the other recommendations and commentary in the OECD report in due course.

How does the Scottish Government plan to engage with stakeholders, including children and young people, as we move forward with education reform?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is very important that we engage with stakeholder groups, because there are a variety of opinions on different aspects of education reform. I have asked Professor Ken Muir to act as an independent adviser. He is engaging widely to understand the needs of schools, practitioners and, very importantly, learners as we look to design our new national education agencies. He has recently published a consultation on that issue.

I also intend for the Scottish education council, which is the key strategic forum for oversight of education improvement activity, to have a key role in that, as will the children and young people’s education council, once it is established.

Vocation Skills Training

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure the future workforce can have access to vocational skills training, in light of the current staff shortages in certain sectors. (S6O-00253)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

Ensuring a sustainable workforce supply requires continued investment and collaboration across the system, so that provision is aligned to economic and social need.

We have committed an additional £500 million investment over this parliamentary session to support new, good green jobs of the future, including £20 million this year through the national transition training fund for sectors that have been impacted by the pandemic and Brexit. We will also continue to urge the United Kingdom Government to rethink post-Brexit immigration policy to prevent labour shortages from undermining our recovery.

Sue Webber

The issues that I am raising existed long before Brexit. There has been a sharp decline in the number of students in further education during the pandemic, and the number of 16-year-olds who are enrolled full time at college has fallen by nearly a quarter in the past decade. With businesses also struggling, how will the Scottish Government support those very businesses and their apprenticeship schemes to ensure that all our young people have the best opportunities as they leave school?

Jamie Hepburn

We will do what we have always done and continue to invest in apprenticeships in the country—that is the approach that we have always taken. We have seen some disruption during the past year. How could we have seen anything other, given the impact of Covid-19?

However, I am pleased to be able to tell Ms Webber that, as of the first quarter of this year, we are seeing 3.7 times the number of modern apprenticeship starts as we saw last year. We are recovering, and the Government will continue to work to that end.

How many school leavers are going to positive destinations?

Jamie Hepburn

The latest available data, which is from 2019-20, shows that 92.2 per cent of school leavers were in a positive destination nine months after the end of their final school year. The 2020-21 figures will be available in due course. I believe that those figures reflect the resilience and tenacity of young people, and of our education system as a whole.

Lifelong Learning and Reskilling (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support lifelong learning and reskilling in Argyll and Bute and other rural areas. (S6O-00254)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

We are making significant investments to ensure that people of all ages in rural communities have the right skills, now and in the future, to support our recovery and transition to net zero.

Argyll and Bute is covered by six Skills Development Scotland career centres in Campbeltown, Rothesay, Islay, Dunoon, Helensburgh and Oban. They play a critical role in guiding people to skills opportunities.

Since the individual training account scheme began in 2017, we have invested nearly £100,000 in support for learners in Argyll and Bute. Over the next 10 years, through the growth deal, we have committed £25 million to the region by supporting a rural skills accelerator programme with a mobile science, technology, engineering and maths academy, learning hubs and a rural enterprise accelerator programme.

Jenni Minto

Both Argyll College and the Scottish Association for Marine Science provide a variety of courses across a number of locations in Argyll and Bute to local people and people from outwith the area. I recently took part in a round-table meeting with the SAMS to discuss the lack of student accommodation. Will the minister outline what support is available to colleges to provide suitable living accommodation for students?

Jamie Hepburn

I would always encourage students who are worried about their housing situation to seek, in the first instance, advice and support from the institutions that they attend. The issues in Jenni Minto’s question are important, however, which is why our programme for government commitment to review purpose-built student accommodation and our 100-days commitment to establishing the next stage of it are already under way. That work is being taken forward in parallel with work to ensure rent affordability and improved standards across the private rented sector.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

In the summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the award-winning Gloagburn farm shop in Perthshire. The owners told me how difficult it is to recruit butchers in their local area. According to a survey by Meat Business Women, 37 per cent of women believe that

“they would face barriers to success because of their gender”

and 80 per cent say that they are

“unable to see role models in the sector who would encourage them to join.”

In the light of the long-standing shortage of butchers, especially female butchers, what support does the Scottish Government offer to help women and young people in rural areas to reskill to become butchers?

Jamie Hepburn

In this financial year, we are committing £300,000 to bring about practical solutions to support women in the agricultural sector in the wider sense, including in Argyll and Bute, which the original question was about, and in Perthshire, which the supplementary question was about. That will include wider roll-out of Be Your Best Self personal development training, a pilot of business skills training and a range of other activity. I recognise the challenges that Ms Hamilton has laid out. We must respond to them, which is exactly what we are doing.

Well done on knitting those questions together.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I will allow the minister to extend slightly further.

Young people from rural parts of Scotland who want to stay in their area already struggle to get apprenticeships or to find studies that allow them to stay, which is leading to a rural brain drain and to depopulation. That is now being exacerbated by the fact that lecturers at one of the main places for rural-related studies, Scotland’s Rural College, are having to take strike action to get their voices heard, as their pay and grading have fallen significantly below the norms that exist across further and higher education. Our lecturers carry out vital work for our citizens who want to continue their studies, so what steps will the minister commit to in order to resolve that deadlock?

Jamie Hepburn

On the first part of Mr Whitfield’s question, I do not have the latest figures before me, but the last figures I saw showed that the spread of apprenticeships across the country broadly correlated to population share. That has been the experience in the past few years.

On the situation at the SRUC, I would, as always, encourage the management and unions to come together. The last thing that I think any of us want to see is disruption to learning—or disruption to research, on which the SRUC is a world leader. I encourage management and unions to get together to resolve the situation.

I remind members who are asking supplementaries to try to keep them broadly relevant to the initial question, but I congratulate the minister again on managing to knit them together.

National Digital Academy

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the national digital academy. (S6O-00255)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Work on developing a national digital academy is at an early stage. Its development will build on learning from the pandemic, including the national e-learning offer which built on the Glow Connect and e-Sgoil programmes.

Over the coming year, we will engage with young people, in particular, to understand fully how remote learning has worked for them over the pandemic and how it can support their on-going learning. A number of colleges already offer Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 6 courses and qualifications including highers remotely. Work will take place to understand how those already support provision of courses outside traditional educational settings.

Siobhian Brown

I welcome that response. I believe that implementation of the digital academy will give a lot of people comfort—especially those of our children who have missed a lot of school during the pandemic and did not get the exam results that they needed for the courses that they wished to get into. What other steps are being taking to support senior-phase learners across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is important that we support our senior phase students, who have gone through an incredibly difficult year over the course of the pandemic. The work that has already been announced includes, for example, e-Sgoil learning. In addition to that, the investment that we have already put into local authorities and schools directly through the Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding will assist schools to develop what is right for them in their situations and communities, to support their pupils during this time. That might—I am sure that it will—include online learning, at some points. We will learn from that as we go forward in order to see what more can be done, as we build the national digital academy.

Question 6 is from Sarah Boyack, who joins us remotely.

Children and Young People with Vision Impairment (Teachers)

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)



To ask the Scottish Government how many additional qualified teachers of children and young people with vision impairment will be recruited as part of its commitment to recruit 1,000 new teachers and 500 pupil support assistants in the next academic year. (S6O-00256)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The recruitment and employment of teachers are matters for individual local authorities. Since the pandemic, we have provided £240 million to support educational staffing, including our commitment to support the recruitment of 1,000 additional teachers and 500 support staff. Furthermore, we have provided £145.5 million, which is baselined into the 2022 local government settlement, to support sustainable employment for those additional staff. We are committed to providing an additional 3,500 teachers by the end of the parliamentary term.

The Scottish Government is committed to increasing the capacity and expertise of school staff to support pupils with visual impairments. We fund the Scottish Sensory Centre to provide specialist training to school staff to support pupils who have sensory impairments.

Sarah Boyack

In the past decade, the number of visually impaired young people in our schools has doubled, and a large number of qualified teachers of visually impaired children and young people will reach retirement age in the next decade. The quickest route to qualification is postgraduate education, which costs about £9,500. If people go down the competence route, it takes a lot longer. Will the cabinet secretary agree to look at the issue? We will, potentially, have a shortage of QTVI teachers over the next decade, so we need action now to ensure that our young people do not miss out on the skills and experience that people who are visually impaired, in particular, need.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Sarah Boyack for that question, which raises an important issue. I give her the assurance that we will look at it more. We are, as a Government, aware of the issue and of the campaign about it that has recently been organised by Sight Scotland. I am, nonetheless, certainly more than happy to take the issue away again and look at it further.

Schools (Scottish Literature)



To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to promote Scottish literature in schools. (S6O-00257)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government does not prescribe literature to be used in schools. However, curriculum for excellence provides schools and practitioners with the opportunity to make choices about the literature that is studied in schools to reflect the circumstances and needs of learners. That will often include the use of Scottish texts.

Scottish Qualifications Authority national 5 and higher English courses have a strong focus on Scottish literature, allowing candidates to develop an awareness and appreciation of Scotland’s rich social and cultural heritage.

Dr Allan

Will the cabinet secretary say whether the Government feels that there are lessons to learn from other countries around Europe, where learning extensively about their country’s literature is almost without exception regarded as an essential outcome of secondary education for learners?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Dr Allan has made an important point. The Government is always keen for opportunities to learn from other countries in that and other areas of education. For example, we recently commissioned the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to review curriculum for excellence and its implementation, precisely because we are determined to learn from good practice from abroad.

As I outlined in my earlier response, curriculum for excellence provides young people with the opportunity to engage with a range of literature, including Scottish texts. I am sure that that is being done across the country with great enthusiasm by our teachers and learners.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 8 has not been lodged. That therefore concludes portfolio questions.

I note that all the members who need to be present for the next item of business are here, so we will move on to that shortly.