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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 October 2019

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 (Day 2), Point of Order, Transport (Scotland) Bill, Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

Good afternoon. Our next item of business is portfolio questions. I remind members that questions 4, 5 and 7 will be grouped together.

Dyslexia (Learning Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting learners who have dyslexia. (S5O-03651)

We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full potential. We support education authorities in meeting their duties under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils, including pupils with dyslexia.

We have provided free professional learning opportunities for practitioners that support them to further develop their knowledge, understanding and skills in supporting learners with dyslexia. Those include the refreshed addressing dyslexia toolkit and the dyslexia and inclusive practice online professional learning modules.

It is estimated that around one in 10 of us have dyslexia in some form, making it crucial to ensure that there is appropriate support. As this is dyslexia awareness week, does the cabinet secretary agree that businesses and employers must also take proactive steps to implement policies and practices that ensure that employees with the dyslexia have the support that they require?

I agree with Emma Harper’s point. It is important that individuals with additional support needs are able to make a full contribution to our society. That may, in certain circumstances, require adaptations in educational practice and support; equally, it may require adaptations and revisions in the world of work. That aspiration will certainly be reflected in the approaches to employment support that are available through Skills Development Scotland and other organisations, including our college sector. There are obviously opportunities for us support that work through dyslexia awareness week.

Learners with neurodevelopmental conditions such as dyslexia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have particular support needs, and teachers need skills to support them. The National Autistic Society Scotland recently suggested that there should be a minister for neurodiversity. Does the cabinet secretary agree with that suggestion, and will he consider it?

I will certainly consider the suggestion but, as Mr Johnson will appreciate, ministerial responsibilities are not entirely my responsibility—the First Minister has a very significant say on those questions. I will reflect on what is an interesting and helpful suggestion. I reassure Daniel Johnson that the neurodiversity issues that he has raised are very much uppermost in ministers’ minds as we try to ensure that practice is in place to support individuals and that the appropriate training and education are in place for staff to deliver that support. However, I will consider his suggestion as part of our on-going dialogue about meeting the needs of individuals with additional support needs.

I was very pleased to be able to appoint Angela Morgan to lead the review of additional support needs provision. I had the pleasure of meeting her yesterday to discuss how she intends to take forward the review.

Teacher Reductions (Impact on Curriculum for Excellence)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that reductions in teacher numbers have impacted on the implementation of the curriculum for excellence. (S5O-03652)

I am pleased to advise Mr Balfour that the Government’s actions to boost teacher recruitment are working. There are now more teachers than at any time since 2010, and the pupil teacher ratio is at its lowest since 2013. Primary teacher numbers are now at their highest level since 1980. Schools and local authorities continue to ensure that curriculum for excellence, in both the broad general education and the senior phase, is delivering the best possible opportunities for young people. I welcome the fact that, last year, a record proportion of pupils went on to positive destinations such as work, training or further study.

If the cabinet secretary looks at the Scottish Government’s recent headteacher survey on implementing the senior phase of the curriculum for excellence, he will see that 75 per cent of respondents said that the availability of teaching staff was a factor that limited headteachers’ ability to ensure a broad general education at the senior phase.

Is it not the case that Scottish National Party cuts to teacher numbers in previous years have prevented headteachers from being able to successfully implement the curriculum for excellence?

I do not accept that view. Over the past few years, we have worked hard to boost teacher numbers, and the data speaks for itself—teacher numbers are rising. I accept that there were challenges in relation to teacher numbers, and we have acted to address that issue.

We must ask why there was such pressure on teacher numbers. A lot of that was down to the financial constraints within which we have had to operate as a consequence of the austerity that we have had to endure under the Conservative Government since 2010.

We have worked hard to boost teacher numbers. I am delighted that they are the highest that they have been since 2010, which is enabling our headteachers to make choices about how they can deliver an effective education for young people across our country.

One consequence of reduced teacher numbers is the systematic use of multilevel teaching in the senior school. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to evidence that was published in The Ferret this week that that is more prevalent in schools serving poorer communities, and that, in some schools, most senior classes are taught using multilevel teaching?

There will be a variety of factors that lead to the existence of multilevel teaching. Some of that will involve the number of pupils who have a desire to take particular courses and the desire of schools around the country, which I recognise, to ensure that provision is as broad as possible.

Mr Gray will realise that, in some schools that operate in deprived areas, the cohort size may be smaller than it is in other parts of the country. In general, pupil numbers in secondary schools in deprived areas result in generally smaller cohorts than in other secondary schools. Those factors will obviously have an effect on the provision of particular courses.

What I do not think that schools and headteachers should be criticised for is trying to maximise the opportunities that are available to young people, which is what they are doing. That might contribute to the use of multilevel teaching, which, of course, as Mr Gray knows, has long been a feature of Scottish education.

School-based Counsellors

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the commitment in its 2017-18 programme for government, what progress it has made with the appointment of school-based counsellors. (S5O-03653)

The Government is taking forward its proposals on child and adolescent mental health, which we take seriously, and the investment in providing access to counsellors in every secondary school is part of a package of measures to ensure that children and young people get the support that they need.

We are delivering the commitment in partnership with local authorities, which are responsible for the recruitment of counsellors. To support local authority partners, we have agreed the distribution of funding to implement the service, a set of aims and principles to underpin development and delivery and a process for local authority reporting on implementation and progress.

Constituents have raised with me concerns about the number of young people who have considered, attempted or completed suicide, and there is disappointment at the fact that the planned roll-out of school-based counselling in South Lanarkshire has been delayed. Does the cabinet secretary share my disappointment at that, and can he outline further what steps the Scottish Government will take to support councils across Scotland to ensure that the commitment to school-based counselling is being fully fulfilled?

I want to reassure Monica Lennon that we are taking forward our proposals in partnership with local authorities. We have gone through the process of agreeing the distribution arrangements. In 2019-20, South Lanarkshire Council, which Monica Lennon mentioned, will receive £709,000 from the Scottish Government to support the school counselling service, and that will rise to £961,000 in 2020-21.

Obviously, we want to make swift progress on the issue, and a lot of good work is going on in individual schools around supporting the mental health of young people. I completely accept the importance of the issue that Monica Lennon raises.

This morning, I visited the Royal high school of Edinburgh, where young people have been involved in a bibliotherapy exercise, which is about identifying works of fiction and other books that can help young people who are wrestling with mental health challenges to find empathy and support when they participate in reading exercises. The approach has borne significant fruit in the school. It is the product of a lot of welcome collaboration with City of Edinburgh Council library services and it is supported by the Government’s school library improvement fund.

Schools are taking a variety of steps—not to mention what is being done through pupil equity funding—to provide mental health support. I completely accept the importance of the issue that Monica Lennon raised and I assure her that, with our local authority partners, we are pursuing the implementation of the commitments that we have made to the Parliament.

Questions 4, 5 and 7 are grouped. I remind members that if they want to ask a supplementary on any one of those questions, I will take their supplementary after question 7.

Additional Support Needs

4. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides for pupils with additional support needs. (S5O-03654)

We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. Under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act (2004), education authorities have duties to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils.

The Scottish Government funds a number of services to provide advice and support to children, young people and their families, to ensure that they are fully informed of their rights to additional support and can access support and guidance that enables them to be involved in any decisions that are made about that support.

This year, the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition highlighted a fall in the number of specialist teachers who support young people with additional support needs. A decline of something like 403 over the past six years takes the number of specialist teachers to a new low.

I welcome funds being made available for pupil support assistants, but will the Deputy First Minister say how much money the Government is allocating to plug the hole in the number of specialist teachers?

A range of specialists provide support and assistance to young people with additional support needs, and although teachers make a huge contribution, I think that, in her question, Jackie Baillie acknowledged the importance of other members of staff who contribute to the process.

On financial support, the most recent data that is available shows that local authorities have increased the amount that they are spending on education in general. There is a real-terms increase of 1 per cent, or 3 per cent in cash terms. On additional support for learning, local authorities have increased the support that they make available by 0.9 per cent in real terms, or 2.9 per cent in cash terms.

In addition, the Government has made available an extra £15 million in this financial year to expand the range of pupil support assistants. When I discussed the issues at a gathering on additional support needs that the Government convened in Edinburgh last week, the Government’s initiative to support provision at local level received a warm welcome.

Children with Additional Support Needs (School Location)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether children with additional support needs should be educated at the nearest appropriate school to their home. (S5O-03655)

Children and young people should learn in the environment that is best suited to their individual needs. It is for education authorities to determine the most appropriate provision for children and young people with additional support needs, taking account of their legislative responsibilities and the individual circumstances and wishes of children, young people and their families.

Guidance for education authorities is provided through the statutory code of practice on supporting children’s learning. Authorities are further supported in their decisions by the refreshed guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming, which was published in March 2019.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his comprehensive answer. Does he agree that local authorities should be flexible enough to allow children to be educated near their home, even when that means going to school in a neighbouring local authority?

Such a circumstance might well be appropriate for a young person. I certainly do not think that local authorities should feel constrained by a necessity to operate within their electoral boundaries in the context of provision to meet the needs of young people with additional support needs; nor should a local authority feel obliged to move outwith its area. The key decision making should be about the needs of the child, after good dialogue with the child and their family. I encourage local authorities to exercise their legislative responsibilities in the context of understanding and accepting the important point that Mr Gibson made.

Additional Support Needs Assistants

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that assistants in schools for pupils with additional needs have the appropriate training or qualifications. (S5O-03657)

In line with legislation, education authorities must ensure that they have appropriately trained and qualified staff in place to support pupils in their learning.

We are exploring with key stakeholders how we can further enhance the support that is offered to wider education staff, including classroom assistants, to ensure that all children and young people get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential.

The cabinet secretary will appreciate that assistants who support pupils with ASN are not general classroom assistants and that supporting ASN pupils requires specialist knowledge and training; we do not leave it up to individual local councils to manage the registration of ASN teachers and having 32 different registration schemes would not be feasible. Will the Government step in to ensure that ASN assistants are properly supported to assist pupils in order to make sure that the highest standards apply across Scotland?

I will certainly consider the issue that Alison Johnstone has raised and feed it into the review of ASN provision that Angela Morgan is leading for the Government. I accept the principle that it is vital that the needs of young people are appropriately met and that the training of staff is effective in ensuring that that is the case.

Last year, there were almost 200,000 pupils with additional support needs in Scotland’s schools. Although training for classroom support staff is important, teachers are crying out for specialist ASN teachers after their numbers fell by over 10 per cent between 2012 and 2018. What action is the cabinet secretary taking to address that reduction in specialist ASN teachers, especially as the identification of special needs is improving all the time?

From the data that I have, there are 51,253 teachers—forgive me, I will leave that point; I misread the column in front of me.

On the point that Alison Harris raises, there is a fundamental issue around the principle of mainstreaming—our mainstream teaching population must be able to properly support young people in their requirements. Local authorities must make a judgment about whether they have all the teaching complement in place to adequately meet a young person’s needs. A young person should not be placed in mainstream education unless the local authority is satisfied that there is appropriate trained support available for the education of that young person.

Fundamentally, it is the responsibility of local authorities to make that judgment and to ensure that the appropriate support is in place for a young person. We are seeing a growth in the number of staff supporting pupils with additional support needs. That number will be boosted by the announcements that were made in the programme for government. That is the route that we are taking to ensure that the needs of individuals are met appropriately.

Modern Apprenticeships

To ask the Scottish Government what schools are doing to encourage fifth and sixth year leavers to pursue modern apprenticeships, particularly in more affluent catchment areas. (S5O-03656)

Apprenticeships are promoted to teachers, young people and their influencers through a range of regular campaigns and activity across digital channels, social media, events and traditional media, as well as through careers information and advice.

The introduction and promotion of foundation apprenticeships embeds the apprenticeship offer into the senior phase of secondary schools and further supports career paths into modern and graduate apprenticeship jobs.

In my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, a high proportion of school leavers go on to university, which of course I welcome. Does the minister agree that apprenticeships and skills training is an equally positive destination and should be encouraged by all schools?

I welcome the fact that so many young people go on to university across Scotland. We will continue to support that opportunity; we provide over £1 billion to the higher education sector. However, I agree with Rona Mackay on that point; we are working to try to get parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. We are doing that through the developing the young workforce initiative.

We will provide 29,000 apprenticeship opportunities this year. I am sure that Ms Mackay will welcome the fact that, last year, approximately 400 apprentices started training in East Dunbartonshire, the local authority area in which her constituency is located. Skills Development Scotland reports that it expects to see a significant increase in the number of foundation apprenticeship starts this year.

Much is happening in Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and much is happening across Scotland, and we will continue to promote apprenticeships as an invaluable part of Scotland’s skills and training system.