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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 11, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Glasgow Climate Dialogues Communiqué, Portfolio Question Time, Veterans and Armed Forces Community (Remembrance and Support), Motion without Notice, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

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

The next item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or, if they are joining us online, enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Unemployed Teachers

To ask the Scottish Government how many unemployed teachers there currently are in Scotland. (S6O-00353)

We are firmly of the view that we will need all possible teaching resources at our disposal to compensate for any loss of learning suffered since the start of the pandemic, as well as to bring much-needed resilience to the education system at this challenging time.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided £240 million of additional investment specifically for the recruitment of more education staff. In addition to that funding, we are providing local authorities with permanent funding of £145.5 million a year to support the recruitment of extra teachers on permanent contracts.

The issue is still a major problem. In the past 24 hours, I have had a flood of complaints from newly qualified teachers. One was so desperate, she was spending £400 a month travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow for a teaching job. Another had retrained to become a teacher but is now back with her former employer. One said:

“I’ve had enough. My mental health has been affected. My life is on hold until I get a permanent post but there are none for any of us.”

The education secretary’s complacency is crushing the careers of newly qualified teachers. When will she get this sorted?

As the member knows, responsibility for the recruitment of staff sits directly with local authorities and not with national Government. National Government’s responsibility is around funding, and I have just detailed the baselining of funding that we have provided to local authorities to ensure that they can recruit extra teachers on permanent contracts.

Figures published show that teacher numbers are increasing; indeed, they are doing so for the fifth year in a row. There are now more teachers than at any time since 2008 and the ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest since 2010. As I demonstrated in my first answer, we are undertaking firm action on the issue, and we will continue to support our valued teachers. As I said, we know that teachers’ skills and expertise are required to support our young people during this difficult time.

There are a number of supplementary questions. I hope to get all of them in, so I ask for brief questions and answers if possible.

In a similar vein, I ask the Scottish Government for an update on progress on recruiting more teachers to Scotland’s schools.

The additional £240 million that I mentioned in my first answer to Alex Cole-Hamilton has already been provided and has supported the recruitment of more than 2,200 additional teachers and more than 500 support staff. The permanent funding of £145.5 million a year that we are providing to baseline local authority funds will allow the recruitment of even more additional teachers on permanent contracts. As I said in answer to Alex Cole-Hamilton, that means that we now have more teachers than at any time since 2008.

Given the number of teachers looking for employment and the additional roles being created, does the cabinet secretary share my concern that Dumfries and Galloway Council are telling parents, particularly in smaller rural schools, that they may have to cut back on teacher numbers and strictly enforce ratios?

As I have said in my answers to two members, every council will be receiving additional funding from the Scottish Government. That includes Dumfries and Galloway Council, and I would encourage the council to ensure that the additional funding that has been baselined into a settlement is used to ensure that permanent staff are recruited.

I thank the minister for confirming that the 1,000 new teachers and the 500 pupil support assistants that were announced on 2 August have been employed. Out of that number, how many are qualified to work with children with additional support needs?

As the member knows, there are children with whom all teachers will work who have additional support needs. Particular arrangements are in place for them, and the Government is determined to ensure that we support children with additional support needs further in our work with our Scottish Green Party colleagues. I will keep Mr Whitfield up to date on the work that we are undertaking on that issue.

It is truly astonishing that, after months of being asked, the education secretary still does not know how many unemployed teachers there are in this country. She is the education secretary—she should know the answer to that question and cannot simply pass the buck to councils. When will she get a grip of the situation and improve the careers of teachers, rather than crush them?

Again, I can only go through some of the figures that I have just detailed about the action that has been taken since I became Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, including the baselining of funding to ensure that permanent contracts are available. The matter is of course for local authorities. The national Government has provided funding to local government for those additional posts and we are determined to continue that work.

We have a commitment during this parliamentary session to the employment of at least 3,500 additional teachers on top of the additional 1,400 teachers that were recruited during the pandemic. The Government has taken and will continue to take action to support our teachers and young people.


Discover Cyber Skills Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the discover cyber skills programme. (S6O-00354)

The discover cyber skills programme was delivered by Skills Development Scotland between September 2017 and March 2021. The purpose of the programme was to build young people’s, parents’ and teachers’ understanding of good cyber practice and to inspire young people into cyber security careers.

Over the four years of the programme, SDS engaged with more than 130,000 pupils in schools from every local authority in Scotland. In addition, the programme provided upskilling to teachers through the development of a toolkit to support the delivery of cyber skills sessions to young people.

The figures show a 29 per cent decrease in the number of pupils who took computing sciences at higher level between 2016 and 2020, as well as a significant decline in the number of computing teachers over the past decade. What action is the Scottish Government taking to increase uptake in that area to ensure that a pipeline of talent is in place to meet serious challenges such as cybercrime, which has nearly doubled in the past year?

I concur with the member that the issue is important. We need to ensure that we have young people with adequate skills in that area, and part of the matter is having qualified teachers. The latest data show an increase in the number of computing teachers compared with 2019. We know that there is more work to do on that, which is why we are taking forward work from the Logan review to ensure that we move forward with that agenda.

The question is pertinent. Businesses in Dundee regularly tell me that, were sufficient skills available in the local labour pool, they could create hundreds of jobs, but the skills do not exist.

We commend the work of local universities such as Abertay University. Unfortunately, Abertay University cannot use computing as a compulsory subject, because so few state schools now offer higher computing classes. What concrete action can be taken immediately to address the deficit that has been identified and to ensure that people in the first year of their courses are not having to relearn a subject that they should have learned at school?

In my original, or perhaps supplementary, answer, I mentioned the work that has followed from the Logan review. A number of pieces of that work have to do with schools. I recently met with Mark Logan and senior officials to discuss those proposals and we are due to have further meetings in the next few weeks about how to take them forward.

Action in a number of areas is already being undertaken by Education Scotland and other agencies on the issue. However, I recognise that we need to do more, and that is exactly why I will continue engagement with Mark Logan and with others who are interested in that area.

Both Skills Development Scotland and the General Teaching Council for Scotland have previously noted the value of bringing computer experts into the classroom to upskill teachers and pupils on issues such as cybersecurity. Has the Scottish Government any plans to bring further industry experts into schools for other, broader tech-related subjects?

One valuable form of expertise comes from industry voices, who can work with schools to inspire young people and to support teachers. A number of partners are already working with schools to introduce industry skills. Skills Development Scotland is heavily involved in supporting that work and has established a framework that brings agencies together to help them tackle that challenge. It is an important area of work, and we are keen to do more on it to make sure that schools have close relationships with, and discussions with, industry and local and national businesses.

Question 3 was not lodged.


United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. (S6O-00356)

We remain committed to the incorporation of the UNCRC to the maximum extent possible as soon as is practicable. We are considering the implications of the Supreme Court judgment and how best to take forward incorporation.

We are undertaking targeted engagement with stakeholders on options before final decisions are made. Careful consideration is also needed to ensure that those options address areas that were found to be outwith competence, deliver the UNCRC policy and avoid further challenge. The Deputy First Minister will come back to the Parliament in due course with our proposals.

Although the Supreme Court judgment means that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill cannot receive royal assent in its current form, the majority of the work in relation to the implementation can continue and is continuing.

The issue is too important for there to be further delays. Every day that passes is another day in which those rights are not enshrined in law. I know that the Scottish Youth Parliament is, understandably, concerned about getting those rights into place. We also have issues in Scotland, such as our national qualifications agency being subject to statutory action from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, that shows how vital those rights are. When can the Parliament expect a timetable for a revised bill, and how soon is “in due course”?

It is fair to say that the Scottish Government is bitterly disappointed that the bill has been delayed, but we remain committed to the incorporation of the UNCRC to the maximum extent possible and as soon as is practicable. We are committed to a three-year UNCRC implementation programme in collaboration with public authorities, children and young people, during which time we are investing £4 million a year in supporting a fundamental shift in how children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled in Scotland. Work is progressing and, as I said in my original answer, the Deputy First Minister will return to Parliament with our proposals.

There are a number of supplementary questions. I hope to get them all in, so I ask that they be brief.

Does the minister agree that a straightforward—and the quickest—way of incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child would have been by means of a bill that the Parliament unanimously voted for receiving royal assent without objections from the United Kingdom Government’s law officers?

Yes, I agree with that. The Supreme Court judgment makes it plain that we are constitutionally prohibited from enacting legislation that the Scottish Parliament unanimously decided was needed to enshrine and fully protect the rights of our children.

The Government believes that the children of Scotland deserve the fulfilment of the commitments that were made to them, and our determination to achieve that is undiminished. It is with urgency that we are carefully considering the implications of the judgment and how best to take forward that important legislation.

It has been more than a month since the Scottish Government was told that its bill went beyond the powers that are available to the Scottish Parliament. Taxpayers’ money is being spent so that the Scottish National Party can play cynical constitutional games with children’s rights. Does the minister believe that using almost £200,000 of taxpayers’ money to further the nationalist agenda is an appropriate use of public funds? [Interruption.]

Can we listen to the response, please? I say that to all sides.

Perhaps Meghan Gallacher, as a new member, is not aware that her party also voted for the bill. It was voted for unanimously by the Parliament. [Interruption.]

I have asked for a bit of quiet so that we can hear the response.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is very difficult when we have Opposition members shouting over us.

The Parliament is committed to ensuring that the rights of the children of Scotland are upheld and respected. We will continue to work to ensure that that happens.

Members on both front benches were engaged in shouting over others. I ask for a bit of courtesy for speakers.

Alex Cole-Hamilton can ask a final, brief supplementary question.

The Government talked about moving with urgency and being bitterly disappointed, but it could have foreseen that what happened would happen. During the bill process, Whitehall officials informed Government officials that there were problems, but Opposition members were never told of those problems during the transit of the bill. They could easily have been remedied at that stage.

Question.

Will the Government explain to the children of Scotland why it withheld that information?

I am not quite sure what point Mr Cole-Hamilton is making. He seems to ask several questions, and I am not quite sure what he wants me to respond to.

The duty of the Government is to ensure that the children of Scotland have their rights respected. We will continue to work at pace to ensure that the will of the Parliament is upheld.


Universities (Autonomy)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to protect the autonomy of Scotland’s universities. (S6O-00357)

The autonomy of Scotland’s universities is protected through their legal status as independent charitable bodies. The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 expanded the statutory definition of academic freedom and required our universities to aim to uphold the academic freedom of persons engaged in teaching or the provision of learning or research at the university.

I am sure that the minister agrees that university autonomy—which, of course, includes the academic freedom that he referred to—has been part of the success of the university system for hundreds of years precisely because it protects institutional diversity and specialisation and that the system reflects the likes of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Scotland’s Rural College and Glasgow School of Art. Does the minister accept that recent developments with regard to free speech in the university system at the United Kingdom and Scottish levels threaten to undermine the concepts of autonomy and academic freedom? Will he explain to Parliament what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that university autonomy is never diminished?

I understand why that question has been asked, but, in my experience, not a single institution or academic has contacted me to express concerns about what the system in Scotland is operating to. Our responsibility, of course, is to ensure that we enshrine and protect the autonomy of institutions and, indeed, academics. That autonomy is enshrined in the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, and we expect institutions to adhere to that. The act sets out that academic freedom includes the

“freedom within the law to ... hold and express opinions ... question and test established ideas or received wisdom ... develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals ... present controversial or unpopular points of view.”

Our universities should be able to do that, and I see nothing that encumbers them in their being able to do that.


Digital Skills (Education Curriculum)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that the education curriculum provides pupils with sufficient skills to build a digital economy. (S6O-00358)

Curriculum for excellence experiences and outcomes for the technologies have been reviewed to ensure that all young people are learning up-to-date computing and digital skills in primary and secondary schools. In addition, the Government has committed to fully implementing the Scottish technology ecosystem review, which was carried out last year by Mark Logan. That review includes the Scottish teachers advancing computing science—STACS—initiative, which was announced in our programme for government. STACS will be run for and by computing science teachers, and it will help them to share best practice in computing science across all schools, promote digital sector career opportunities and develop innovative teaching materials to be used by extracurricular computing clubs.

Official figures have revealed that there were 766 computing science teachers responsible for 25,000 pupils in Scotland in 2008 but that, by 2020, there were 595 teachers educating fewer than 10,000 pupils, of whom fewer than 2,000 were female. What action is being taken to address the gender divide in computing science studies?

Some of the discussion that we had on a previous question touched on the work that the Logan review has proposed. As I said in my answer to that question, Education Scotland and other agencies are already taking a great deal of action on that. That includes our work to increase capacity for initial teacher education in computing science, support for coding clubs and work to make it easier for schools to work with industry and bring industry voices into school. In response to the Logan review, we are taking forward the STACS proposal to establish that teacher-led group.

There is concern about the gender issue that Ms Gosal rightly points out in all areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was addressed in the STEM education strategy that the Scottish Government produced, and we are determined to take further action, as we did in the strategy, to deal with the gender divide.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that investment in new facilities can also be a catalyst for improving interest in, and the skills set for, the digital economy, which makes the case for a new-build West College Scotland campus in Greenock even stronger?

I agree that good-quality learning opportunities that develop digital skills in our young people are vital at all stages of the education journey, including in our colleges.

I understand that the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training visited the Greenock campus of West College Scotland with Mr McMillan in September and heard at first hand about the benefits that a new-build campus could bring. Of course, Mr McMillan will be aware that the Scottish Funding Council has been working on a medium-term college estates strategy, which will help to set priorities for investment should funding become available in the college sector. We will work closely with the funding council on taking that forward.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us how many high schools are offering higher computing this year?

If the member agrees, I will write to him about the particulars of that. I am not sure that the exact figure is in my briefing.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

I call Christine Grahame to ask question 8. [Interruption.] Can we have some assistance for Ms Grahame? [Interruption.] Expectations have risen to an almost unsustainable level.


Education (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale)

Then I am doomed to failure, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government what improvements it considers it has made in the delivery of education in Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale. (S6O-00360)

Schools and early learning settings throughout Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale have benefited from a range of national and targeted initiatives to support the improved delivery of education. The 1,140 hours of high-quality funded early learning and childcare, pupil equity funding and the £500 million of Covid funding to support education recovery and wellbeing will improve outcomes for children. At a local level, our £2 billion learning estate investment programme is funding a number of projects in Midlothian and the Scottish Borders, including a replacement at Beeslack community high school, Penicuik high school, Galashiels academy and Peebles high school.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her detailed answer.

After four years, Scottish Borders Council has admitted liability for its failings in relation to some of my constituents’ children attending Tweeddale support unit, which is currently subject to an independent enquiry to which I shall give evidence. Following that admission, what improvements has the Scottish Government made to support children with additional support needs and their families in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland?

My thoughts are very much with the children and families who have been affected by any issue of concern in any part of our education system. All children have the right to be cared for and protected from harm and the right to grow up in a safe environment in which their rights are respected and their needs met.

I note Scottish Borders Council’s announcement of an independent inquiry. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage, but I recognise Christine Grahame’s continued involvement in and concern about this issue, and I give her my assurance that I will keep a close eye on the proceedings on the matter. I will be happy to discuss the issues with her in due course, should that be more appropriate, once the inquiry has taken place.