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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 08 March 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal


Portfolio Question Time

Remote and Rural Schools

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that remote and rural schools are not disadvantaged compared to those in urban areas. (S5O-00732)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that there is access to high-quality education in rural and remote communities and is taking a number of steps to make sure that that happens. In line with the recommendations of the commission on the delivery of rural education, the Scottish Government made a series of amendments in 2014 to the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 to provide additional protection for rural schools. Those amendments included the establishment of a presumption against the closure of rural schools and additional consultation requirements in respect of the likely impact on the community and the likely effect of different travelling arrangements. The member will be aware that the local authority funding distribution formula also includes a number of adjustments to ensure that remote and rural schools are not disadvantaged compared with those in urban areas.

In north-east Scotland—particularly in Aberdeenshire—there is a high teacher vacancy rate and a problem with teacher shortages. Maria Walker, who is the director of education and children’s services for Aberdeenshire Council, has described the current situation as “cruel” and said that

“teacher recruitment is our constant worry”.

Northern alliance councils such as Aberdeenshire Council want more varied routes into the profession and have even had to ask parents to help to find qualified staff. What action will the Scottish Government take to alleviate the problems that are being experienced in Aberdeenshire, bearing in mind the fact that one in 10 teacher training places goes unfilled?

The Government is taking a number of steps to address the issue. I have discussed such matters with Maria Walker, the director of education at Aberdeenshire Council. At my instigation, we have invited the colleges of education to propose a range of routes that will improve the speed with which individuals can enter the teaching profession, subject to the assurance of the General Teaching Council for Scotland that the requisite levels of quality have been achieved by the individuals who are pursuing those routes.

In addition, I recently increased the intake of students into the colleges of education for the sixth year in succession. As Mr Chapman may be aware, I recently announced a teacher recruitment campaign under the headline “Teaching Makes People”, to encourage more individuals to enter the teaching profession.

I assure Mr Chapman that I recognise the difficulties that are caused by the shortage of teachers and that we are doing everything in our power to address them. That includes asking the General Teaching Council for Scotland to work with teachers who are registered to teach but are not currently teaching in Scotland to ensure that they are available and asking it to provide the easiest and swiftest route to entering the profession for teachers who have experience from other parts of the United Kingdom and who wish to teach in Scotland.

What analysis does the Scottish Government undertake to compare teacher numbers in rural and urban schools on a school-by-school basis?

Pupil teacher ratios are monitored across the country and are shown by local authority area. Those numbers vary because pupil teacher ratios in rural authorities are generally lower than those in urban authorities. Under the fair local government settlement, all local authorities have a collective obligation to maintain the national ratio of teachers to pupils in classrooms. Nevertheless, Kate Forbes’s question highlights the fact that the pupil teacher ratio is generally lower in rural authorities than it is in urban authorities.

In his initial answer to Peter Chapman, the Deputy First Minister mentioned that the local government formula takes into account rural and island issues. When the cabinet secretary considers revisions to the pupil equity fund, will he consider taking those aspects into that fund? When he was in Lerwick last Monday, he will have recognised that, although Shetland Islands Council is gaining £200,000 from that fund, that is for 24 schools, so we have considerable challenges to address, which could be done with a formula that was more advantageous to the islands.

I am certainly open to pursuing such questions. As I have said to Mr Scott before, I am open to considering the issues with the formula by which pupil equity funding is distributed. We have used free school meal eligibility to give us a detailed picture of the prevalence of poverty around the country. That is a better mechanism than the Scottish index of multiple deprivation in its geographic coverage, but I would be the first to accept that the methodology has limitations. I am therefore happy to engage on the question.

I had a helpful meeting with the convener and the deputy convener of education at Shetland Islands Council when I was in the islands just the other week. I also had an interesting visit to Anderson high school, where I paid close attention to the names on the dux board.

Will the cabinet secretary outline his thoughts on the recommendation from the commission on widening access that

“Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them”?

Does he agree that, as elected representatives, we have a duty to speak about education in a way that encourages those who are considering entering the profession?

I am certainly happy to address the issues that Gillian Martin has raised from the commission on widening access, which set out clearly the necessity of ensuring that young people have the chance to study for appropriate qualifications by better integrating provision in our senior schools and colleges. A tremendous amount of innovation is under way in the country that gives young people access to such opportunities, and I want to ensure that that is taken further.

Digital connectivity assists us in a number of respects by ensuring that we can extend the scope and range of opportunities for young people to acquire the qualifications that will ensure that they can access higher and further education. We need to ensure that that good practice and those opportunities are available to young people in rural areas, too. When the Government looks at the learner journey from 16 to 24, we will consider those issues.

It is important that we have a positive debate about the opportunities in education. The Government’s campaign to motivate individuals to enter the teaching profession is called “Teaching Makes People” because that is exactly the product of the fine work that teachers do. It is important that we support them in their efforts.

Teachers (Recruitment and Retention)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to retain and recruit teachers to tackle shortages. (S5O-00733)

The Scottish Government is taking a number of actions to help to 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 sixth year in a row; and we are setting targets to train teachers in the subjects where they are needed most. We also launched a teacher recruitment campaign on 8 February; it builds on the success of last year’s inspiring teachers campaign, which helped to drive a 19 per cent increase in postgraduate diploma in education applications to Scottish universities compared with the previous year.

As it is international women’s day, it is pertinent to ask what actions the Scottish Government is taking specifically to address gender inequality and violence against women and to keep women teachers in the profession, given the reports that misogyny and sexual harassment are on the increase in schools.

Any misogyny, bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination against women is wholly unacceptable in our education system, and any member of staff who feels that they are experiencing such conduct has my full support and encouragement to raise those issues through the relevant channels, to protect their interests. It is important that our schools have a strong and tolerant learning environment in which young people can learn and teachers can teach. Those values will certainly be reflected in the general work that the Government takes forward.

On female access to teacher education, we are particularly concerned to ensure that, in our wider science, technology, engineering and mathematics work, we encourage more and more women to become involved in the STEM subjects, and that is reflected in the campaigns that we take forward.

The cabinet secretary will be aware from his recent visit to Moray, which I was grateful for, that a shortage of teachers continues to be an issue there. He may also be aware that the northern alliance—of which Moray Council is part and in which directors of education work closely together—believes that empowering local authorities to have more say over teacher training might be part of the solution to the issue of attracting more home-grown teachers into the profession. Will he give more thought to that solution? Is it on his agenda?

The work of the northern alliance is important and beneficial, because it brings together expertise across seven local authority areas to create a much stronger advisory support arrangement for the delivery of education in the north of Scotland. The feedback from all the local authorities that are involved is that they appreciate and value the approach that is being taken. The northern alliance is taking forward an illustrative model for the rest of Scotland.

The relationship between the university community and the colleges that generate the teaching profession, and the work of our schools, is critical to a strong approach to the learning and teaching of our teaching workforce.

I am happy to consider the issues that the northern alliance has raised. Local authorities are already involved in determining teacher recruitment levels, as they are part of the workforce planning that the Government undertakes. I am keen for the colleges of education to be closely involved in that process.

Graduate Apprenticeships (Costs)

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has spent on graduate apprenticeships since they were introduced. (S5O-00734)

The week is Scottish apprenticeship week, which is a chance for us collectively to mark the success of Scottish apprentices and our apprenticeship offerings, so the question is timely.

The Scottish Government spent £200,000 on graduate-level apprenticeships in 2015-16, the year in which they were introduced. The projected spend for 2016-17 is £1,372,000 and, in the coming financial year, we estimate that we will spend £4.7 million.

As the minister has just set out, the Government has spent more than £1.5 million on the graduate apprenticeship scheme up to the end of this financial year. However, that scheme has delivered only 27 opportunities. That means that each one of those graduate apprenticeships has cost the Scottish Government £58,222, which is more than the cost of sending someone to Harvard University and more than the Government spends on educating a single young person from first year to sixth year. Does he honestly think that that is good value for money?

Anas Sarwar may have confused opportunities with starts. I urge him to do his homework rather better.

Will the minister confirm that the Labour Party has voted against every increase in apprenticeship numbers since the Scottish National Party Government came to office in 2007? Will he also confirm that, under this Government, the number of apprenticeships in North Ayrshire has increased by more than 89 per cent, compared with 63 per cent in Scotland as a whole?

The Government’s apprenticeship offering is inextricably interlinked with its budget process, and it is on the record that the Labour Party voted against our budget this year, along with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; that would have denied apprentices and potential apprentices across the country that opportunity.

I welcome Scottish apprenticeship week. After 10 years of this Government, why does Scotland have only half as many apprenticeships per head of population as the rest of the United Kingdom?

It is intriguing that Mr Lockhart has asked that question of me again. We have a high-quality offering here in Scotland—it is different from what exists south of the border. We explored that matter in a debate last week. On the face of it, the ambition that the UK Government has for a rapid expansion of apprenticeship numbers may look attractive, but I cannot see how it will lead to an increase in quality. We have a high-quality offering here and we will continue to progress with that.

Having served an apprenticeship, I know that good tutors and lecturers are required to get people through an apprenticeship programme. Is the minister aware that, on Friday, Heriot-Watt University announced 100 redundancies? How will that redundancy programme, which is being carried out to fill a £14 million gap, help to increase the number of graduate apprentices?

Funding for universities has increased over the period. There are undoubtedly problems associated with Brexit for the position of universities in Scotland—we are not quite sure whether Neil Findlay supports or opposes Brexit. I recognise his fundamental point: that our apprenticeship opportunities rely on good-quality people to deliver them, and I am very grateful that we have good-quality people delivering apprenticeships right across Scotland.

Named Person Scheme Reform (Consultation)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the consultation on reforms to its named person scheme has been described by one group as a “sham”. (S5O-00735)

As I set out in my statement to Parliament yesterday, the three-month engagement involved more than 50 meetings with 250 organisations and groups. It included around 700 young people, parents, carers, practitioners, professionals and leaders from health, local authorities, faith communities, police, unions and charities. We engaged with a number of stakeholders, who gave a range of views and perspectives throughout the engagement programme. They included a number of organisations that had concerns, including Christian Action Research and Education Scotland, Clan Childlaw, Together and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

I thank the cabinet secretary for what I think was a repeat of what he said yesterday. Notwithstanding the statement that he made yesterday—and of course my question was lodged before he made it—will he meet with the no to named person campaign group to discuss his revisals of the scheme?

Yesterday, I went through Gordon Lindhurst’s question as courteously as I could. The view that I have taken on it is that the discussions that I have had on taking forward this agenda have been to implement and put into practice the named person provision. The no to named person campaign does not want named persons at all. The formal consultation on the policy took place in 2012 and Parliament legislated for it as a consequence of that. It is my duty as a minister to implement the will of Parliament and implement what has been legislated for, and to make arrangements to address the issues that have been put in front of us by the Supreme Court. That is precisely what I have done in the course of action that I set out to Parliament.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether any parties voted against the creation in law of the named person service? If no party did, would he agree that, in the same spirit, all parties should recognise the benefits to our most vulnerable young people of the service, rather than playing politics with it?

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill was passed by Parliament by 103 votes to 0, with, if my memory serves me right, 16 abstentions. No member of Parliament voted against the bill at stage 3, before its enactment in 2014. I intend to do what Parliament would expect of me, which in this instance is to address the Supreme Court’s issues, and I believe that I have done that fully and comprehensively. I will bring forward the legislation for the highest amount of parliamentary scrutiny that any issue can be given. Parliament has been invited to legislate on the issue and can come to its conclusions in due course. I hope that, when it considers the legislation, it does so on the basis of values and principles that I believe have underpinned much of its thinking since its foundation, which include the importance of taking steps to get it right for every child and ensuring that we take every measure to support young people on their journey through our society. That is the thinking that I have applied to the legislation.

Schools (Support Staff)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that schools have adequate numbers of support staff. (S5O-00736)

It is for education authorities to ensure that schools have adequate numbers of support staff. Education authorities will take resourcing decisions based on their commitments, including statutory duties under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, and local circumstances and priorities.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will acknowledge that support staff play a vital role in our schools in helping teachers to support pupils with additional needs. Under the watch of this Government and the Scottish National Party-Labour Party-run City of Edinburgh Council, the number of support staff in Edinburgh’s secondary schools has declined by almost 20 per cent since 2010, which is one of the largest drops in Scotland. How does the cabinet secretary reconcile that record with the Scottish Government’s desire to close the attainment gap?

Around the country, the number of staff who support pupils with additional support needs was 12,572 in 2008 and, in 2016, it was 12,883. That demonstrates the ability of local authorities around the country to make decisions, because they have those powers. That is as it should be.

What I find quite strange about Miles Briggs’s question is that, at the weekend, his party leader called for more powers to be given to local authorities. Miles Briggs is complaining about local authorities exercising the powers that they currently—

What is the cabinet secretary doing about it?

I am respecting local authorities’ decisions. It is up to local authorities to take decisions within the resources that are available to them. Mr Briggs cannot have it both ways—he cannot argue for more powers for local authorities, then complain when they exercise those powers and make the choices that they want to make.

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

What are the cabinet secretary and Scottish ministers doing to give effect to the measures in the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015, including supporting children with a hearing impairment in their education?

The Scottish Government is taking forward a number of measures to support individuals who are British Sign Language users. We were the first Government to introduce BSL legislation and, last week, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on the first British Sign Language national plan. The consultation, which will run until 31 May 2017, will actively seek the views of a wide range of stakeholders. The draft plan includes the actions that the Scottish Government—and the national public bodies for which Scottish ministers have responsibility—proposes to undertake to support the promotion of British Sign Language.

We are committed to supporting children with a hearing impairment to reach their full potential. My officials are working with key stakeholders to identify and develop the actions that are needed to respond to the Education and Skills Committee inquiry into the attainment of pupils with sensory impairments. I understand that the development of the action plan is at an advanced stage and will be finalised shortly.

All those actions are based on the very positive initiative that was taken by Mr Griffin in the previous parliamentary session to advance legislation on BSL.

Given the importance of the assessment of need in securing additional help through support staff for a child, the cabinet secretary will be aware that 28 per cent of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been assessed as having additional support needs in comparison with 16 per cent of pupils from the least disadvantaged backgrounds, according to his Government’s figures for 2015. Despite that, only 1.3 per cent of pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have a co-ordinated support plan in comparison with 2 per cent of pupils from the least disadvantaged backgrounds.

Why does that inequality in support exist? What action will the cabinet secretary take to ensure that young people secure the support that they need to sustain their place in mainstream education? Does he recognise the importance of the level of support staff for young people in disadvantaged areas who already face significant barriers to learning?

Every young person who should have a co-ordinated support plan must have a co-ordinated support plan, regardless of their background. The commitment that we make with regard to our work to get it right for every child means that, whatever the circumstances of the young person, they should have the assistance that they require. Fundamentally, that issue is handled by local authorities in exercising their statutory duty. We had a discussion at the Education and Skills Committee this morning about some of those questions and whether there are enough requirements and obligations to ensure that that is the case. I undertook to take that issue away and to consider it further.

My commitment, which is on the record, is that regardless of a child’s circumstances any child who requires a co-ordinated support plan should have one. If we need to provide support to families from deprived backgrounds to secure the support to which their child has an entitlement, the Government will give consideration to that issue.

On the question of support for young people who have additional needs, the way in which the Government is taking forward pupil equity funding puts resources into schools to enable them to take decisions on many of these questions.

Pupil Equity Funding (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley)

To ask the Scottish Government how much support will be provided to schools in the Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley constituency through pupil equity funding, and when this will commence. (S5O-00737)

Just over £2.16 million of the £120 million pupil equity funding will be provided to schools in the Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley constituency and it will be available to use from the start of the 2017-18 financial year. The funding is part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide £750 million during the current parliamentary session to provide targeted support for children, schools and communities to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

The funding will make a huge difference to many youngsters in my constituency and it will give them the chance to at least catch up with their counterparts across Scotland, despite Tory and Labour MPs voting against it. Does the Government intend to report regularly on progress with the initiative so that we can track where the successes are being made and so that we can share good practice across the country?

As we take forward what is an innovative approach to the empowerment of schools, I am keen that we learn lessons on good practice and share them across the country. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis of Scottish education shows that there are strong elements of educational thinking and practice in the country, but the challenge is for us to ensure that that is systemic. The Government has put in place a national improvement hub that provides a reference point for the teaching profession around the country so that it can identify interventions and measures that will help in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. That material is available and it will be enhanced to ensure that best practice is available to give us a fantastic opportunity to close the poverty-related attainment gap in Scottish education.

What protocols have been set for using this investment, how do they define attainment, and how do they measure any change?

Is there provision within the framework for choosing to invest outside the classroom in the most important ways such as in transport for pupils who are participating in after-school activities, breakfast clubs or outdoor learning?

Guidance about the handling of the resources has been discussed and agreed with local authorities and made available to schools. Some of the points that Mr Whittle makes are entirely legitimate because, in some circumstances, the young people involved will not be able to gain access to some of the trips that ordinarily, in other family circumstances, might have been possible and would be of significant personal, educational and developmental benefit to the young people concerned.

Care must be taken with the decisions that are made about the use of the resources. However, during the past few weeks, I was given tremendous confidence when I met hundreds of headteachers around the country at our briefing events on pupil equity funding. The teaching leadership in Scotland is absolutely determined to make maximum impact with these resources and they want to take up the point that Mr Coffey made about knowing what are the best interventions that can be used to best effect to transform the lives of young people in Scotland. That approach is to be welcomed and I look forward to seeing its fruits in due course.

Personal and Social Health Education (Reform)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to reform personal and social health education, in light of evidence presented to the Education and Skills Committee on 22 February 2017. (S5O-00738)

I provided evidence to the Education and Skills Committee this morning on, amongst other things, personal and social education. I will carefully consider any outcomes and recommendations from the committee’s inquiry on PSE as part of our own work on health and wellbeing in the curriculum.

We are all aware of the role that high-quality PSE can have on children and young people’s health and wellbeing, and ensuring that it can be delivered will form part of my contribution to the forthcoming mental health strategy. This morning, I said to the Education and Skills Committee that I am open to considering how we can undertake that activity more effectively and I look forward to hearing the outcome of the committee’s deliberations on the matter.

It has long been recognised that, not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom, the situation is patchy as regards the provision of education in relation to sexual health, mental health, consent and a wide range of other critical life skills that young people need to have access to. There has been some success south of the border, with a cross-party campaign, including a private member’s bill by my colleague Caroline Lucas, pushing the UK Government to acknowledge the need to make PSHE mandatory in all schools.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the situation is patchy in Scotland? Does he agree that young people in our schools have a right to high-quality education on these issues? Will he ensure that by the means that I have mentioned or by other means, we achieve the objective of ensuring that young people in Scotland are no longer in a lottery as regards the provision of these important skills?

I agree entirely with Mr Harvie’s point that it is important that all young people in Scotland are able to be equipped with the requisite knowledge and awareness of the important issues around their health and wellbeing and their sexual health, including issues of consent. We discussed many of those issues at the committee this morning in what I thought was a helpful conversation.

Mr Harvie rather makes my point for me in saying that there might be a different route by which we undertake that work in Scotland given that we do not have a fixed curriculum. However, health and wellbeing is one of the three principal areas of the curriculum for excellence and, within health and wellbeing, there will be education on relationships and sexual health.

As Mr Harvie will be aware, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee has asked me for an opportunity to reflect on some of the issues that should be in our refreshed strategy. I await the committee’s response in that respect. Once I have that, and have reflected on the conclusions of the Education and Skills Committee, I will be able to address fully the issues that Mr Harvie raises. It is important that young people have that awareness and the opportunity to form their views on these important questions.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in welcoming the fact that the time for inclusive education campaign pledge for inclusive education has now received the support of a majority of MSPs? What is the response of the Government to that? Will the cabinet secretary tell the chamber what steps the Government will take to implement the actions in the pledge, now that Parliament has the will to act, so that we can educate to liberate?

As I said to Patrick Harvie, the Government is addressing those issues through the work that is being undertaken on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education, which needs to be comprehensive and inclusive.

The Equalities and Human Rights Committee has asked me for an opportunity to consider some of the issues that have been raised in its deliberations. I have provided that opportunity and await the committee’s conclusions in that respect. Once that information is to hand, the Government will take forward steps to ensure that the approach that we take on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education as part of health and wellbeing, which is one of the three core curricular areas in Scotland, is advanced comprehensively in Scottish education.

What action is the Scottish Government taking to promote healthy relationships among young people? What progress is being made on addressing risky behaviour by our young people?

Fundamentally, children and young people should be able to feel safe, respected, happy and included in their learning environment, and all staff must be proactive in the school situation in ensuring that that is the case. Within and outwith schools, young people must be able to operate in an environment in which there is a complete intolerance of bullying, whatever the motivation of that happens to be, and through their education they should be able to learn tolerance, respect, equality and good citizenship as part of fulfilling the four capacities of the curriculum for excellence.

Prejudice has no place in Scotland and the Government continues to work with a range of organisations, such as Stonewall Scotland, LGBT Youth Scotland and the TIE campaign, to ensure that we address the important LGBT issues that young people face, and to ensure that young people are supported in that respect.

I reiterate to Mr Beattie the points that I have made to Mr Harvie and Mr Thomson about the importance of the guidance that will be issued on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education, which will largely reflect the conclusions of the analysis that we will undertake.

Early Learning and Childcare

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that children receive quality early learning and childcare. (S5O-00739)

A high-quality experience for children is key to our approach to early learning and childcare and will remain at the heart of the expansion of entitlement to 1140 hours.

The quality of early learning and childcare is regulated through co-ordinated inspections by the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland. Ultimately, the delivery of a quality ELC experience is driven by a highly skilled and qualified workforce. The Scottish Social Services Council regulates the early learning and childcare workforce by setting standards for practice, conduct, training and education, and supporting professional development.

Research by the fair funding for our kids campaign shows that 73 per cent of all free childcare places for three to five-year-olds in Scotland are offered in council-run nurseries. Of those places, 89 per cent are for half days only and local authorities in Scotland are underfunding places in private nurseries by up to £492 per child. When does the Scottish Government anticipate that a full-day nursery place will be available to every child who needs one?

Cabinet secretary. I am sorry—minister.

Thank you for the unexpected promotion, Presiding Officer.

Those points have been raised with me repeatedly in the chamber, and I have met the fair funding for our kids campaign group to discuss those very issues. The Government has a manifesto commitment to deliver 1140 hours of early learning and childcare by 2020, we have recently undertaken a wide-ranging consultation on our blueprint for that, and I will report to Parliament when we have determined the way forward following the consultation responses.

On the point that Mr Simpson raised, there is a clear direction from this Government on flexibility in relation to early learning and childcare. Local authorities have a responsibility properly to consult families in their areas on their requirements for early learning and childcare, and we are determined to ensure that flexibility will form a key part of the expansion, while also ensuring that quality is at the heart of what we take forward, as I said in my initial answer to Mr Simpson.

Last week the Family and Childcare Trust published a report showing that the cost of childcare rose by 4.5 per cent in Scotland last year, while it has been falling in the rest of the UK. With the added pressure on nurseries of an increase in business rates—there is an average rise of 64 per cent in Edinburgh alone—what assurances can the minister give that inflation-busting increases in the cost of childcare will not continue?

I am aware of the research undertaken by the Family and Childcare Trust. However, we have raised with the trust a number of concerns about some of those research findings in the Scottish context—for example, we do not feel that it accurately reflects policy and practice in Scotland, and we are already taking forward all of the actions that the report highlighted and called for.

On business rates, Mr Johnson will be aware that powers now exist for local authorities to undertake business rate reduction schemes to support key sectors in their communities, and additional money for that was allocated as part of the budget agreement that the Government reached with the Green Party. Those allocations enable councils to take forward such schemes, and a number of local authorities are already doing so. That is on top of the national rates relief scheme that Mr Mackay outlined in the chamber.

It would perhaps be appropriate for Mr Johnson to speak to his colleagues in the City of Edinburgh Council, where I know that the Labour Party forms part of the administration, about what proposals they have to take forward localised rates relief schemes such as exist in other local authorities following their budget discussions.

School Uniform Costs (Assistance for Low-income Families)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that school uniform costs for pupils from low-income families can be met. (S5O-00740)

All children in Scotland should have equal access to education regardless of their financial circumstances and background.

The Scottish Government provides funding to local authorities to help low-income parents to afford the basic costs associated with school, such as the cost of suitable clothing. That provides support for families impacted by austerity, putting money back into the pockets of the families who need it most and, importantly, ensuring that all children and young people have suitable clothing to enable them to learn and to thrive at school.

The Education (Scotland) Act 2016 allows Scottish ministers to make regulations so that local authorities pay a minimum for school clothing grants. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has indicated a willingness to reach a voluntary arrangement to create a national clothing grant. Discussions are continuing to explore how that can best be achieved.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that the basic minimum cost of a school uniform is £129, not including the cost of wear and tear to that uniform throughout the year. Given that the recommended minimum school clothing grant is £70, which is well below the £129 figure, and given the cuts to local government budgets of £170 million, what assurances can the cabinet secretary give to pupils from families with parents who are on low incomes that they will be able to afford adequate school uniform?

I am very sympathetic to Mr Kelly’s point, but he will not be surprised to hear that I am not sympathetic to his analysis of local government finance. I had a helpful discussion with the Child Poverty Action Group and a number of parents that it had brought to see me who went through many of the legitimate and well-researched issues that Mr Kelly has raised. I am keen to make progress on this question, because I recognise that school uniforms can be central to creating the ethos of a school and that no child should feel excluded or in any way unable to participate in that fully.

Mr Kelly raises substantial issues and I assure him that we will continue discussions with COSLA in order to make progress.