Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 09 May 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Forensic Examination, Literacy, Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Food Banks


Topical Question Time

Water (Recreational Activity)

To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes safe recreational water activity. (S5T-00537)

Before I answer, let me extend on behalf of the Scottish Government heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends of the three men—Sandy Hamilton, Kevin James McKinlay and Stuart McLevy—who lost their lives in the recent tragic accidents off Dumfries and Galloway and on Loch Lomond.

The Scottish Government takes the issue of safety in and around water very seriously indeed. Although there have been a number of high-profile tragedies and near misses in recent days, we know that there are many other people who have enjoyed Scotland’s inshore and offshore waters safely and without incident. However, we are not complacent. Sportscotland, the national agency for sport, contributes to promoting safe recreational water activity through its national centres at Cumbrae and Glenmore by developing future coaches and offering skills development in a wide range of water sports.

We also support the aims of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents water safety Scotland group, and will provide £104,000 this year to its annual home and water safety programme. In addition, water safety Scotland is developing a Scotland-specific response to the National Water Safety Forum’s “The UK Drowning Prevention Strategy 2016-2026”, which aims to reduce accidental drowning rates in the UK by 50 per cent by 2026. Water safety Scotland is currently consulting on a draft response to that strategy document, and I encourage anyone who has an interest in water safety and recreational water activity to respond to the consultation.

I thank the minister for her response and I extend my condolences to the families who have been affected by last week’s tragedies.

There is to be a Scottish response to the national drowning prevention strategy specifically because of Scotland’s geography. We know that of the 79 drowning deaths in the UK last year, 50 occurred in Scotland, so we have a disproportionate problem in Scotland, in that regard. As chair of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on accident prevention and safety awareness, I work very closely with ROSPA, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and other organisations that are involved in water safety in Scotland. Would the minister like to visit the CPG and meet its members to discuss the final stages of the response to the strategy?

Yes—I am certainly happy to come to the CPG at an appropriate time when we can fully discuss future actions as a result of the consultation exercise that water safety Scotland is currently carrying out. I encourage the CPG and other interested members to contribute to the consultation exercise, which is on an issue that is pertinent as we come to the—I hope—hot summer weather in Scotland, when people are more likely to engage in water sports across the country.

It is important that we send out a message that ensures that people are aware of the risks, but also enjoy safely the many opportunities that Scotland’s waters and water sports can offer. We already undertake a great deal of work with the Scottish Tourism Alliance on a wide range of industry-related matters, and we will certainly ensure that we explore with it other ways in which we can ensure that safety messages can be shared with visitors who take part in activities across the country. We also have our national parks website and other communications that include extensive advice about people staying safe when enjoying Loch Lomond’s fantastic facilities, which is of course backed up by our emergency services, including Police Scotland.

One of the key hopes of water safety Scotland is that it will be able to cut deaths in Scotland’s waters by half by 2026. Every tragedy is terrible for the families involved, but the truth is that the people who are most in danger in this respect are older men aged 60 to 69. Would the minister consider how to work with pensioner organisations and others that represent that age group on how they might get across a better water safety message?

The consultation exercise gives us an opportunity to make sure that we have fully explored with any interested group or organisation how to ensure age-appropriate messaging—in particular, for the more vulnerable age group that Clare Adamson described.

There is also real recognition that we probably need to be better at understanding information and data. I understand that National Records of Scotland data shows that, in 2015, 35 people died in Scotland due to drowning or submersion. However, there are difficulties: data can be ascribed to misdescribed locations for drowning deaths, there can be inconsistency in information that is captured on death registration forms, there can be lack of information on the forms and there is the complexity of international coding systems. Also, the figure does not include suicide by drowning.

We now have an opportunity to delve deeply into the situation and make sure that we use information appropriately. We also have to make sure that we use existing partners and existing structures to ensure that we get the best possible safety messages out across the country to people who might have greater vulnerabilities.

Does the Scottish Government consider that its decision to cut the funding of free swimming lessons for all primary school children, resulting in 40 per cent of children being unable to swim by the time they reach secondary school, promotes or hinders safety in recreational water activity?

I think that it is important not to conflate the two issues. The ability to swim has not necessarily been a factor in some of the matters that we have been discussing in response to Clare Adamson’s question.

It is also important to recognise that the latest funding for sportscotland allocated over £5 million to Scottish Swimming for the past four years—the largest funding settlement for any of the Commonwealth games sports. Scottish Swimming is actively working in partnership with local authorities and leisure trusts to implement and embed the national swimming framework to support the development of swimming across the country. It is also incumbent on us and Scottish Swimming to include and work with local authorities, which are responsible for deciding what subjects are offered in their schools, taking into account local needs and resources. I will continue to engage with Brian Whittle on the points that he makes and, with that investment, I will certainly make sure that young people get the opportunities that they would like.

Examination Papers

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the decision by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to restrict teachers’ access to exam papers after the exam has been taken to prevent “inappropriate postings” on social media. (S5T-00536)

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has taken that decision in response to concerns that social media posts that included answers to questions were being viewed by candidates immediately after exams had concluded, which caused additional stress for candidates. The intervening period afforded by the new arrangements is intended to reduce that potential negative impact on candidates. As it does with all operational changes, the SQA will review how the new arrangements have worked over the course of the 2017 exam diet. In consultation with stakeholders, it will then consider whether any changes are necessary for the 2018 diet.

To be clear, the SQA’s rationale for restricting access to the paper after the exam has taken place is about nothing more than avoiding negative press over any errors that it has made—errors that have, unfortunately, become an annual occurrence. The reality is that the period immediately after an exam is often one of the most anxious for pupils. The opportunity to seek reassurance, or at least clarity, from their teachers while the exam is fresh in their minds is invaluable. What effect does the Scottish Government believe that this decision will have on the levels of stress and anxiety that pupils feel during the exam season?

As I indicated in my original response to Ross Greer, the SQA’s decision has been taken directly for the reasons that I have publicly put on record: to reduce additional stress for candidates as a consequence of some of the practice that has taken place. When I looked into the matter, I looked at correspondence from parents giving their views and their experiences of social media posts—not posts about the accuracy of examination papers but posts about the presentation of answers, which caused immediate stress for candidates in the immediate aftermath of the examination. It is for that reason that the SQA has taken the decision that it has.

From the exchanges that we have had at the Education and Skills Committee, Mr Greer will know that I have made clear—I have made this clear in the chamber as well as at the committee—the necessity of accuracy in SQA examination papers, which must be maintained at all times. I have written to the chief executive of the SQA to make that point to her.

Those are two very separate issues. As I indicated in my answer, the SQA will look at this particular operational decision in the light of experience in 2017 and in consultation with stakeholders.

The reality is that exam papers will be discussed immediately after the exam. The difference now is that they will be discussed in the first 24 hours without accuracy and without teachers being able to reassure their pupils.

As the Government is aware, in January the Education and Skills Committee published a report, which was agreed by consensus, that was nothing short of damning of the SQA. The evidence that was received from teachers in particular was, in the convener’s words,

“nothing less than eye opening”.

It is quite clear that teachers’ trust in the SQA has broken down. The Educational Institute of Scotland has said that that shows that the SQA lacks trust in teachers. What effect does the Scottish Government believe that that message—that the SQA does not trust teachers—will have on teachers’ trust in the exam authority?

I have to say that I do not see it that way at all. As a country, we need a trusted and respected examination authority, not to satisfy me but to ensure that candidates have reliable certification of their achievements. I am determined to ensure that the SQA carries that respect among candidates and among teachers. I want to ensure that the SQA works in that fashion, and I have seen first hand a sustained effort by the SQA to ensure that it does so. The reason why we must ensure that it is successful is that confidence in and the credibility of examination certification, on which thousands and thousands of young people in our country depend every year, must be assured at all times.

What confuses me is why the period is 24 hours. If the cabinet secretary’s answer is correct, surely there should be no posting on Facebook until the results are announced. Why the 24-hour period, which seems completely arbitrary? How was that figure reached?

The SQA’s rationale, as it has been explained to me, is that delaying the availability of papers until the following day provides for a period in the aftermath of the examination for views and experiences to settle, and for more considered advice to be given and more dialogue to take place with teachers. That is the rationale for the change that the SQA has made.

I should also make it clear—this is an important point about my relationship with the SQA—that the SQA is an independent examination certification body that must be able to take operational decisions that it judges within its remit to be appropriate. It is not for a minister to dictate decisions on the proper operational functions of the SQA.

I will reiterate to Jeremy Balfour the point that I made to Ross Greer in my earlier responses: the SQA will review the arrangements, to determine what their effect has been on candidates and their experiences during the 2017 diet.