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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 08 December 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Covid-19, Brexit Readiness, Covid-19 (Education), Parliament’s Evolving Scrutiny Function, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Decision Time, Human Rights Day (70th Anniversary)


Covid-19 (Education)

In order not to waste time, we will move straight on to the next item of business, which is a statement by John Swinney on education and Covid-19. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Throughout the school year, the Government has sought to safeguard the health and wellbeing of everyone—pupils, teachers, staff and students—in the education system, and we have sought to protect the importance of learning, recognising the benefit that lies in teaching and the harm that comes from its withdrawal. That approach has been led by the public health advice and science but, despite the clarity and strength of that advice, it inevitably remains the case that a judgment must be made as to the best way forward.

Today, I will provide an update on the judgments that we have made across a range of issues for schools and universities. I confirmed last week that there would be no change to the Christmas school holidays. That decision was driven by the expert public health advice that I received, which was published alongside my decision, and it will ensure greater continuity of learning. The evidence makes it clear that school closures result in significant harms to our children and young people. That is why we want to keep our schools, colleges and universities open. However, we must also keep people safe. That is why we keep our safety guidance under close review to ensure that measures remain robust and effective.

Recent Office for National Statistics data shows no evidence of any difference between the positivity rates of teachers and other school staff relative to other worker groups of a similar age, and there is no current direct evidence that transmission in schools plays a significant contributory role in driving increased rates of infection among children, although we continue to scrutinise all such evidence carefully.

That is reassuring news, and it is down in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of teachers and staff in keeping our schools safe. I reiterate our thanks for that work, but I am also conscious that many staff still have understandable anxiety. To address that, we have already put in place arrangements to allow members of school staff to get a coronavirus test whether or not they have symptoms. We are currently the only part of the United Kingdom that provides that routine access.

We will now go further. As the Cabinet Secretary for Health set out last week, after the schools return in January, we will begin piloting routine asymptomatic testing of school staff. The details are under discussion with interested local authorities, and I will provide further details to the Parliament in due course.

I turn to our colleges and universities. I know that this year will have been incredibly tough for many students, particularly those who are living away from home for the first time, and I express my thanks to students and staff for their resilience. Last month, the higher education minister set out our plans for ensuring the safe return home of students who wish to go home at the end of term. Our universities and colleges have already delivered over 20,000 rapid-result tests to students who are looking to return home.

I will now update the Parliament on our plans for ensuring the safe return of students following the winter break. College students, who largely do not move away from home to go to education, should return as planned, in line with the protection level for the area that their college is in at that time. However, universities are in a different position. As a result of the high numbers of people moving around the country, changing households and mixing as they return to university, we have to take a different approach.

At the start of the new term, universities’ returns will be staggered over at least six weeks. With some limited exceptions, undergraduate students will restart their studies at home at the normal beginning of term, and they should return to campus and their term-time accommodation only when they are asked to do so by their university. We will keep our approach under review to ensure that it remains in line with the most up-to-date scientific advice.

As with our guidance for the end of term, we are also asking students to voluntarily restrict their social interaction for two weeks before they return to university and two weeks following their return, and we will build on our experience of offering asymptomatic testing to students before the end of term. Students will again be offered lateral flow testing as part of their return, and we are working with universities and student representatives to build on the systems that have already been established, to deliver the second phase of testing.

Those arrangements will carry Scotland’s education system safely into the new year. The challenge after that will be the exams.

When I addressed the Parliament on 7 October, I said that cancelling the national 5 diet was a way to secure more time and, therefore, enhance the chances of a higher and advanced higher diet proceeding. We had dual priorities of safety and fairness. If exams were to take place, they had to be made safe and fair for all pupils. The prospects for public health have improved immeasurably due to the development of a vaccine. We know, however, that it will unavoidably take time for a vaccine to be rolled out and pupils have already lost significant learning time. First, they lost weeks of teaching time at the end of the last academic year, when pupils normally start to study for the following year’s qualifications. That has now been compounded by the disruption that many have suffered when they were obliged to self-isolate, had to learn from home or even saw their school closed.

We know that the level of disruption to learners has not been equal. Almost 40 per cent of pupils in secondary 4 who were not in school for a Covid-related reason, for more than one fifth of school openings, are from our poorest communities. For pupils in S5, that figure is 33 per cent. For those in S6, it is 26 per cent. Although we hope that public health will improve in the coming months, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to pupils’ learning.

In the light of that, the question is less whether we can hold exams safely in the spring and more whether we can do so fairly. There is no getting around the fact that a significant percentage of our poorest pupils have lost significantly more teaching time than other pupils have. Changing the exams for all does not, and cannot, address that. Instead, we need a model that is more flexible to the specific circumstances of individual pupils. That model exists; it is the model that we plan to use to award qualifications for national 5s this year.

A group that is led by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and which involves directors of education from our councils, members of the Educational Institute of Scotland, members of Colleges Scotland and others, has been working to develop that model. Under the plan, all schools and colleges are working with the SQA to understand the standards that are required for qualifications. They will then apply that to specified pieces of evidence, such as course work. Provisional results for individual pupils will be submitted to the SQA by 28 May, before certificates are awarded on 10 August.

Details of the model for national 5 will be published by the national qualifications 2021 group today. The model focuses on the work and performance of young people during the year. Let me be clear that no algorithm will be used in that exercise. The model will be based on learner evidence and will be subject to quality assurance at local and national levels in order to deliver a credible and fair set of results. The model has achieved a broad level of support among Scotland’s education professionals.

I am therefore announcing today that there will be no higher or advanced higher exams in 2021. Instead, we will adopt the new model that has been developed and base awards on teacher judgment of evidence of learner attainment. That approach is safe and fair, and it better recognises the reality of the disruption that so many pupils have had to their learning in the past few months.

I have previously taken action to support schools to respond to Covid by providing £135 million of additional investment, which includes the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers, and I have temporarily suspended inspections. However, in acknowledgement of the additional workload required to assess national qualifications in the absence of exams, in this unique academic year, I intend to make an exceptional one-off payment to teachers and lecturers who are critical to assessing and marking national 5, higher and advanced higher courses this year. We will progress that work urgently with partners and employers, which will include discussions about when and how the payment will be delivered.

In addition, I ask that secondary schools prioritise all remaining in-service days to work together on the alternative model of certification for national qualifications. Many schools still have two or three of the five annual in-service days left.

I will not stake the future of our higher pupils—whether they get a place at college, university, training or work—on a lottery of whether their school was hit by Covid. Exams cannot account for differential loss of learning and could lead to unfair results for our poorest pupils. That could lead to pupils’ futures being blighted through no fault of their own. That would simply not be fair.

Education is the greatest antidote to poverty that we have. That is why we have sought to protect learning, even in the midst of a pandemic. We pledged to keep people safe, to protect schools, colleges and universities and keep them open, and to fairly recognise the hard work and achievement of all. I believe that the measures that I have announced today make good on all those pledges.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. We now have 20 minutes for questions. I ask for succinct questions and answers, if possible.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. We also thank teachers for their hard work this year. Conservative members called for a debate asking that a decision be made, after months of dithering and delay that caused so much upset for parents and thousands of pupils. The decision to cancel higher exams will come as a disappointment to those who believe that they offer consistency, fairness and a level playing field.

Today’s statement is far from one that makes good on promises. Instead, it is an admission of complete failure. We were told in October that cancelling national 5 exams would save highers; it failed. We were told that the safety of exams sat at the heart of the decision making; it failed. We were told that home learning was delivering for every pupil in every part of Scotland; that, too, failed. We were told that teachers would not bear the brunt of the assessment workload; again, that failed.

Many unanswered questions result from today’s statement. Will teachers and their estimates still be moderated? If they will be, how? Will the appeals process this year be robust and fair to young people, and what role will the SQA have in all of that?

The mistakes of 2020 cannot be repeated in 2021. A promise must be made—today—that we will not let that happen.

I listen with great care to Mr Greene, but I do not think that he listens to what I say in Parliament with great care. I made it clear in October that there remained significant vulnerability around the higher and advanced higher exam diet because of the potential for disruption to learning for young people.

I point out to Mr Greene that I have come to this conclusion two months earlier than I said was the latest point at which this decision could be taken. Therefore, there is no delay. I have looked carefully at the evidence and have become persuaded that there has been disruption for young people to the access to learning that gives them an equal chance at exams.

The point I made in my statement is that an exam, or changes to it, cannot take account of the differential in disruption to learning between a pupil who has had to self-isolate and one who has not. An exam and its composition cannot possibly be expected to do that.

Teacher estimates will be at the heart of the model that we take forward, and the detail of that has been set out by the national qualifications 2021 group. It is a robust model that is based on the gathering of evidence during the year to ensure that young people are able to have due account taken of the learning that they have accomplished, and I am certain that it will deliver strong results for those young people.

My last point relates to the question about the appeals system. The Priestley review asked for enhancements to the appeals system to be undertaken, and the SQA is working on those propositions.

In my view, the decisions that have been taken make sense. However, yet again, they have been made very late. Students are already returning home, and many have had to do so unsure—until now—of how or whether they would be able to return. School pupils are preparing for, or even sitting prelims for, exams that will not now happen. In both cases, pupils, teachers, students and universities have been pleading for clarity for weeks. They need it urgently.

A staggered return for students could lead to significant demand for refunds of university accommodation rent. What agreement has the Deputy First Minister reached with universities on that potential loss of funding?

Given that we are already in December, can the Deputy First minister say when the higher and advanced higher scheme will be published? Can he assure us that it will have teacher judgment at its heart, that it will take full consideration of disruption to learning and that it will not simply be a version of the exam only administered and marked in the classroom, as many teachers believe the national 5 scheme to be?

The guidance from the SQA has been clear: prelims are not a necessary part of the assessment model this year. If schools are undertaking prelims, that contributes to the evidence base upon which teachers can make judgments. They are not prelims for the final exams; they are assessments of the learning that young people have undertaken.

Regarding staggered returns to university, we made a judgment in consultation with Universities Scotland about the importance of avoiding the situation that we faced in the autumn. We are spreading the return of students, and it is for universities to establish the implications of that decision for their own arrangements.

The assessment model for schools will be anchored on teacher judgment and based on teachers’ assessment of the potential of young people. As I said in my statement, guidance for national 5 is being issued today by the national qualifications 2021 group. Guidance about highers will follow as quickly as possible to ensure that there is every opportunity—months earlier than was the case in the 2020 exam diet—for teachers to familiarise themselves with the basis of the judgments that they must make.

The Deputy First Minister said in his statement that a significant number of pupils who have been absent from school for more than 20 per cent of the time for Covid-related reasons come from our poorest communities. What support has been provided to those pupils to continue their education from home in the absence of face-to-face teaching to ensure that we continue to build on the work to narrow the poverty-related attainment gap?

A range of measures have been put in place. Those are supported by individual schools and also by the national digital arrangements that come through the partnership between Education Scotland, directors of education, local authorities and e-Sgoil. For example, 27 study support courses are available through e-Sgoil this week. Thousands of pupils across the country have signed up for those and receive additional support outwith the school day.

Digital access is required. During the pandemic, more than 50,000 devices have been made available to pupils from the poorest backgrounds and about 9,000 connectivity packages have gone out with those.

We are providing educational and digital support to young people around the country, which will help to address the issues of equity of access to education and will help young people to overcome the poverty-related attainment gap.

I listened to the answer that Mr Swinney gave to Iain Gray, and I am still none the wiser. Will university students have to keep paying for accommodation that they cannot access if they are not able to return? How will those measures impact on students—often the poorest ones—who have to work during term time?

Any accommodation issues are for universities to address with the students who are affected. It is crucial that students have the opportunity to access learning. There will be a dialogue between the universities and students to ensure that all of their access to learning is supported as effectively as possible.

I welcome today’s announcement. I know that many young people will be disappointed although many others will be relieved. I have had contact from students in my constituency who have already had to self-isolate two, three or even four times and who are worried about the impact that that could have on their exams.

We know that self-isolation can be more common and more profound in areas of higher deprivation, such as North Lanarkshire. What impact has that had on the cabinet secretary’s decision, and how will the assessment models further safeguard students who may have been impacted by periods of self-isolation during the school year?

The emerging pattern of impact—particularly the disproportionate impact on young people from areas of deprivation—has affected my judgment, because it is at the heart of ensuring that there is fairness to all candidates from all backgrounds in relation to access to exams. That question has been fundamental to my decision making.

Obviously, there are a range of views about this particular question. I discussed the issue personally with a range of young people from a host of different geographies around the country last week. Different views were expressed in that conversation, but there was a pretty consistent expression of concern by young people about the differential in disruption to educational opportunity because of periods of self-isolation. It is for that reason that we must take this early action to ensure that young people are certain of the opportunities that will be available to them during the course of this school year.

The Greens have called for all 2021 exams to be cancelled since it became clear that the level of disruption would make a fair exam diet impossible, so we welcome today’s announcement. The education secretary cannot let the SQA repeat its approach to national 5 assessments with higher and advanced higher, though. Despite his categorical assurances earlier this year, the SQA has created a system that has significantly added to teachers’ workload, including expecting them to take on the large additional work of an SQA marker. Given that Scotland’s school system was already dependent on teachers doing an average of 11 hours’ overtime a week pre-pandemic, does the education secretary think that that additional workload is a fair ask of teachers?

Before you rise, cabinet secretary, I remind members to ask short questions. There are still members who want to ask questions and I want to give them the chance to do so.

First, the model that has been created was created through collaboration. Yes, the work was led by the SQA, but it was done in collaboration with directors of education on behalf of local authorities, the professional associations, the Educational Institute of Scotland and Colleges Scotland. The model is therefore not a product of the SQA alone but a system-wide product to ensure that there is system-wide agreement on the best way to proceed on the issue.

Secondly, the model was designed to align it as closely as possible to the on-going assessment work that teachers would undertake as part of their routine activities in preparing young people to have command of a particular course.

Thirdly, in my statement I referenced the fact that I wanted to see—we will discuss this with our local authority partners—the remaining in-service days in the secondary sector used to enable teachers to prepare for the task involved. We will also recognise their additional workload through a unique one-off payment to reflect their contribution to the process.

The decision to cancel exams was inevitable. It would have been unfair to proceed when thousands of young people have faced massive disruption to their schooling while others have had none. However, just because the pupils will not face exams, that does not mean that they should miss out on a good educational experience. What additional catch-up support will be made available for those pupils?

Further, will university students be tested for the virus before their return to campus? If not, does that not risk bringing the virus back to the universities?

On Willie Rennie’s first point, I set out in my answer to Clare Adamson some of the additional study support that has been made available through e-Sgoil. I assure Willie Rennie that that is an available and expanding proposition. There are 27 different study-support opportunities this week and there will be other arrangements like that in due course, as well as the work that individual schools are undertaking to support young people and their learning,

I understand the reasons underlying Willie Rennie’s second point, but I do not think that there is a practical way to deliver testing to students other than when they return to campus. However, in my statement I said that we asked students to voluntarily reduce their social interactions two weeks before they come back to university and two weeks after they come back to try to minimise the risk that Willie Rennie correctly highlighted. However, I cannot see any way of delivering that testing approach other than doing so on campus. Thankfully, much to my relief, that has been done quite smoothly in the past couple of weeks. Obviously, we want to replicate that in the new year.

I remind members to ask a question, not questions, which means that the cabinet secretary must take longer to answer. Some six people are still waiting to get in, so I want single questions.

Employers, colleges and universities all want consistency and to know what a pass means. How will an A pass in 2019 compare with an A pass in 2020 and 2021?

Obviously, there are differences in the certification model but, fundamentally, the test that we want to ensure is passed is that young people have undertaken the necessary learning for all their courses and been certificated accordingly. As a consequence, employers and other institutions can be assured that standards have been maintained in the process.

Following the moderation controversy in 2020, will the cabinet secretary commit to publishing in full whatever system is used to verify and alter grades awarded this year, in a repeatable and transparent methodology?

Thank you, Mr Johnson—an ideal question.

The material that has been published today gives a clear and transparent explanation of the approach that will be taken at the heart of the alternative certification model. I think that that gives the clarity and information that Mr Johnson is seeking. Of course, that has been the product of dialogue involving a range of educational stakeholders to maximise agreement and support. I think that that addresses the issue that the member has raised. Obviously, we will communicate further information in relation to the process for highers and advanced highers in due course.

What discussions has the Government had with key stakeholders, particularly in the college and university sectors, to ensure that the widening access agenda remains a priority for all, so that we can continue to see more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds gaining a place at college or university in 2021?

There has been extensive dialogue with stakeholders on the developments. I take this opportunity to compliment our universities on the commitment that they have demonstrated to the widening access agenda. We have made significant progress in a relatively short space of time as a consequence of their engagement and participation in the process. I know from my discussions with the university sector and those of the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science that universities are committed to that agenda.

As has been acknowledged, young people living in poverty, disabled young people and care-experienced young people are disproportionately affected by the pandemic crisis. Many of those people have become more distant and less engaged with learning since the virus hit. What assessment has been made of the extent of that disproportionate impact? What specific support measures will be put in place? How will support be targeted to ensure that those who are most at risk of falling out of the education systems altogether will benefit?

That was three questions when I asked for one, but please answer if you can, cabinet secretary.

But very important questions, Presiding Officer.

At the heart of the questions that Johann Lamont raises is the importance of ensuring that every child, no matter their background or circumstance, is able to access education as their pathway to their future life. Many of the measures that are utilised are supported by the investment that the Government has made through, for example, the attainment Scotland fund, and in ensuring that schools with young people who are significantly affected by barriers to learning are properly resourced and supported to assist in that challenge.

I have cited the additional opportunities of digital engagement and learning to reach young people, and there is good information about the availability of those mechanisms.

In all my interaction with schools, I see that they are all utterly focused on reaching all their learners, no matter their circumstances. I know that that will lie at the heart of the approach that schools will progress in light of the announcements that I have made today.

If members are brief, Liz Smith will be followed by Gillian Martin.

What guidance will be given to the small number of college students who live in halls of residence and not at home?

We will certainly work on such questions with Colleges Scotland to ensure that the advice is clear. Only a limited number of students are in such circumstances, hence the significance of their return is much less than, for example, that of students to the University of Edinburgh. We will also work with individual colleges to provide guidance. I add the important caveat, which I mentioned in my statement, that the restriction level in a particular local authority area is meaningful in determining the manner in which young people return to college at a particular time.

I have whittled my questions down to one, which is about the priority that will be given to getting students who are on placements or whose studies contain a large practical element back to university campuses. What guidance is being given to universities in that regard?

In my statement, I referred to certain exemptions to the situation on staggered returns. That question is central to the judgments that universities will have to make about which students might need to return earlier to ensure that they can fulfil the practical elements of their courses, which form part of their education. That issue therefore lies at the heart of the exemption that we have put in place.

That concludes members’ questions. I again thank all members and the cabinet secretary for their brevity. Everyone has managed to ask their questions.

There will be a short pause, after which it will be time to move on to the next item of business.