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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 14 January 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Improving the Lives of Gypsy Travellers, Business Motion, Decision Time, Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Correction


Topical Question Time

Primary Schools (Capacity)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the number of primary schools exceeding their capacity has increased by a third since 2009. (S5T-01947)

School occupancy levels will vary due to changes in pupil population arising from local factors such as housing developments and parental choice. The proportion of primary schools at or exceeding their capacity has increased by 35.4 per cent since 2009, but the number of secondary schools at or exceeding their capacity has fallen by 46.5 per cent over the same period. The change in the primary school figure represents 1.4 per cent of all primary schools.

It is the statutory responsibility of all local authorities to manage and maintain the school estate in Scotland. However, through our £1.8 billion schools for the future programme and its successor, the £1 billion learning estate investment programme, we are supporting local authorities to deliver high-quality learning environments for our children and young people. Through the learning estate investment programme, we will consider issues with capacity on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with local authorities.

The Scottish Government’s own statistics show that 111 primary schools are now at or over capacity—that figure has gone up by 83 since 2009. Some pupils are being crammed into schools and classrooms that were not designed to operate with the number of pupils that they accommodate. The Educational Institute of Scotland is clear that overcrowding

“has significant implications for the educational experience of young people”

and that overcrowded environments are not conducive to learning.

What is the cabinet secretary’s response to those very real concerns? Do overcrowding and larger classes not hinder efforts to close the attainment gap?

We need to retain a sense of perspective around some of those questions.

Beatrice Wishart has correctly set out the figures. In 2018, 111 primary schools were at or above 100 per cent capacity—a figure that had fallen by 34 per cent since 2016. The number peaked at 169 in 2016, and the current number is lower than in any year since 2012. As I indicated in my earlier answer, that represents a very small change of 1.4 per cent of the overall number of primary schools.

I believe fundamentally in investment in the school estate and in ensuring that young people are educated in a high-quality learning environment. That is why I am so pleased that, since 2007, when this Government came to office, we have managed to reduce the number of pupils who are educated in schools that are in a poor or bad condition from 37 per cent of all pupils in Scotland to 10 per cent today. That is a phenomenal achievement in the face of the austerity with which this Government has been wrestling.

I take the issue seriously. We invest in the school estate and in teacher numbers, which are crucial in closing the attainment gap. I am very pleased that the statistics that came out in December demonstrated that the pupil-teacher ratio in Scotland, which is the key measure of educational engagement, has been stable for another year.

The cabinet secretary refers to teacher numbers, but the EIS also told The Herald that jam-packed classrooms have significant implications for teacher workload.

The Government tells us what it is doing about teacher recruitment but, in fact, we know that there are 2,853 fewer teachers in Scottish schools than when the Scottish National Party Government came to power, in 2007. One current example is that of a secondary 3 class at Anderson high school in Lerwick, which has no teacher of English—I know that because one of my grandchildren is in the class. Some pupils are being let down, and already-overworked teachers are being left to pick up the pieces.

Will the cabinet secretary explain why 12,000 more primary school pupils are being taught in supersize classes than in 2012?

There are a number of issues in there.

I am engaged in dialogue with the EIS around teacher workload. We are taking forward a lot of very good joint work to make sure that, as part of the pay and workload deal that saw teachers receive a very significant increase in their salary, measures have been taken to reduce their workload and that some of the time that is necessary to enhance learning and teaching has been enabled through the additional in-service days that the Government has provided for.

In relation to the number of pupils in large classes, the number of pupils in primary 1 classes of 26 or more has almost halved since 2018 and has fallen from 16,845 in 2006, before this Government came to office, to just 267 in 2019. That equates to around 10 classes in the totality of Scotland’s schools.

We are taking a number of steps to ensure that young people are educated in smaller classes. I point out to Beatrice Wishart that teacher numbers are at their highest level since 2010, which has been achieved despite the austerity that the Government and local authorities have had to wrestle with. Of course, that austerity was ushered in by a Conservative Government that was supported by the Liberal Democrats at Westminster. Given the consequences of the actions of the Liberal Democrats, the irony of Beatrice Wishart’s question is in no way lost on me.

I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising those issues, because they are of particular concern in my constituency, where I have four schools with school rolls of around 600 or above. The cabinet secretary stated that capacity issues will be taken into account on a case-by-case basis through the learning estate investment programme. However, should that not be incorporated more systematically within those criteria? I understand that the LEIP is still being finalised. Surely, a growing city such as Edinburgh needs investment in its schools?

The most recent data on Edinburgh city secondary schools that I have available to me show that the number of secondary schools in Edinburgh that are operating at more than 100 per cent capacity has fallen by one secondary school. [John Swinney has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] The number of primary schools in the same situation fell from 19 in 2017 to eight in 2018. Good progress is being made by City of Edinburgh Council.

Issues of capacity are being considered in the learning estate investment programme. Indeed, they led to my decision to award funding—under the auspices of Midlothian Council—for a new secondary school around the A701 corridor, because of the population expansion that is taking place to the south of Edinburgh, adjacent to the Midlothian Council area. Those issues are very much part of our discussions. I look forward to discussion with City of Edinburgh Council as we look to the next phase of bids in the learning estate investment programme, which I expect to conclude during the autumn of the coming year.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the newspaper article that appeared at the weekend. He may also be aware that six of the 17 schools that are operating over capacity in North Lanarkshire—which was referenced—are in Coatbridge and Chryston. They include Chryston high school and Stepps, St Kevin’s, Glenboig, Gartcosh and St Mary’s primary schools.

One thing that those schools have in common is that they are in areas of housing growth and development. The countless constituents who have spoken to me about the issue are often frustrated as to why the rapid increase in pupil rolls does not appear to be anticipated or factored in locally. What does the Scottish Government do to support councils to be more proactive in increasing school capacity where there are large-scale developments and, therefore, predictable increases in the number of pupils who require places at local schools?

That point was at the heart of my original answer to Beatrice Wishart. School occupancy levels will vary due, invariably, to decisions that are taken by local authorities on development and housing expansion in localities. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they have adequate school estate to meet the needs of pupils in their areas. Given that they are also responsible for planning decisions on the zoning of land for housing and the approval of individual developments, it is incumbent on local authorities to consider all aspects of those questions as they settle on the size of the school estate that is appropriate in their area. I encourage local authorities to act in the fashion that Mr MacGregor has set out to Parliament today.

Caledonian Sleeper Services

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that complaints about Caledonian sleeper services have increased by 221 per cent. (S5T-01953)

It is well documented that the 2019 introduction of the new Caledonian sleeper carriages was difficult for the operator and passengers. The manufacturer—CAF—did not provide sufficient vehicles in a service-ready state to allow for full service introduction.

The increase in complaints is related to last year’s summer period, when new trains had reliability problems and the 1970s and 1980s rolling stock was in continued use on some routes. The vast majority of the rise in complaints was related to on-train quality issues that are being resolved. The Scottish Government continues to monitor Caledonian sleeper services closely. A performance improvement plan is being implemented following below-target performance and it is working well—we are already seeing performance improvement as a result.

The cabinet secretary referred to the improvement plan for Serco Caledonian Sleepers. Given the failure of multiple improvement plans on the ScotRail franchise, why should anyone have any faith that this improvement plan will work? The Government has accepted that the Abellio ScotRail franchise that it awarded has failed. Is it not the case that the Government also got it wrong when it awarded this franchise?

Colin Smyth is confusing two different things. The complaints relate to service provision on the Caledonian sleepers. The improvement plan does not specifically relate to service provision, but to wider issues around the Caledonian sleepers, including punctuality.

The member will recognise that the data that was published last week for the autumn period showed a significant improvement in ScotRail services and their punctuality, which was a direct consequence of the remedial plan that was put in place.

However, the improvement plan in this matter does not relate to complaints about on-service matters. It is about punctuality and wider issues in the service, and is to make sure that there are improvements, which we are already starting to see happen.

It is still not clear how that improvement plan will work, when previous improvement plans that were instigated by the Government and our rail services failed miserably.

The reality is that complaints are up by 221 per cent and the performance level today—not in the summer—is closer to breach than to target on the Serco services. Emergency exit windows recently would not open; trains are overshooting platforms; services were introduced a year late in the north of Scotland; and staff are walking out due to high stress levels and workload.

Surely the cabinet secretary accepts that the current service is not good enough? Will he apologise to the passengers who are putting up with an inferior sleeper service?

I reiterate that the purpose behind improvement plans is to see improvements, and we are already seeing improvements in punctuality and in wider service provision. Alongside that, there is a reduction in the level of complaints from passengers about on-board service provision, as a result of actions that have been taken to close out some technical issues on the new rolling stock. The overall picture is one of improvement, which I very much welcome. I recognise that staff are working very hard to address the deficiencies and challenges that are associated with the introduction of new rolling stock. The focus is on making sure that the improvements are sustained and will continue.

This iconic service has the potential to improve tourism business and connectivity and help us to meet our climate objectives. It is clear that there are problems and that many customers are unhappy with both the recliner and cabin services. Given that the trains may be around for decades, what conversations has the cabinet secretary had with the current operator on the potential for improvements or retrospective upgrades to the CAF fleet, that may be able to be installed to improve the passenger experience? Has the operator shown any desire or willingness to engage in retrospective upgrades to the service that may make more customers happier and more likely to recommend it to others?

A range of work is being undertaken. I have engaged not only with Serco but with CAF senior executives on those matters and the specific problems that have been experienced with the introduction of the new rolling stock. A range of measures are being taken forward as a result, including a rolling programme of retrospective technical work on the new rolling stock by CAF to close out on-going issues that have had an impact on the passenger experience. Good progress has been made on that matter, according to Serco Caledonian Sleepers. It expects that work to be completed in the next couple of months, which will ensure that all the technical issues that have had an impact on the passenger experience will have been closed out. Alongside that, it has taken the opportunity to review a number of the arrangements that it has in place, such as for cleaning and laundry services, and that has also resulted in improvements. The picture over the past couple of months is one of improvement and the focus must be on making sure that that is sustained and built on.

I had occasion to use the Caledonian sleeper when I travelled south on 23 October and returned the following day. There was a bit of alarm on my part when one of the services arrived 22 minutes early, because I thought that I had done something wrong. Will the cabinet secretary join me in congratulating the staff on board the Caledonian sleepers? I found the on-board service to be beyond complaint. The breakfast was absolutely magnificent, and I know that other passengers on those two journeys shared my delight at the new service.

Stewart Stevenson’s experience is a very good advert for using the Caledonian sleepers. It is important that we recognise the progress that is being made. It might be of interest to members that, since action has been taken to address a number of issues, there has been an increase in sales and train occupancy levels continue to grow. Since the new year, the number of bookings for forward sales on the Caledonian sleepers has been at record levels. Yesterday, there were the highest ever daily sales figures for the Caledonian sleepers, which is very encouraging, and there has been a particular increase in the number of international bookings being made for the services. Since the introduction of the new trains in October, journeys have increased by 20.8 per cent compared with the same period in the previous year.

There is a real appetite to make use of the service, and it is attracting new people. We want to ensure that the service is of the highest possible standard and that it complies with the provisions that are set out in the franchise agreement. The focus is on achieving that. The figures of late demonstrate that the improvements that we have seen in recent months are starting to reap benefits.

We all want everyone to enjoy the same experience that Mr Stevenson enjoyed. Personally, I would like to see that happen in the public sector rather than with that particular pernicious company.

As of this morning, there are on-going issues with the doors to the berths not opening. It takes multiple attempts to get people in, and people get shut in and shut out. The cabinet secretary will be aware that the emergency exit windows are locked, which has already been alluded to. We are assured that the windows themselves are not a primary means of egress during an emergency but, coupled with the problems with the doors, they represent a significant health and safety risk. When will those issues be rectified?

That relates to the work that Serco Caledonian Sleepers is taking forward with CAF and that is expected to be completed over the next couple of months. It is important to reassure members that the Office of Rail and Road has oversight of any actions taken by Serco Caledonian Sleepers relating to safety matters on the vehicles. My understanding is that the ORR is satisfied with the actions that are being taken to address the issue with the emergency windows, to which John Finnie referred. The ORR has responsibility over the safety arrangements on the Caledonian sleeper. The ORR must be satisfied with the actions that are taken, and my understanding is that it is satisfied with the measures that are being put in place.

I welcome the measures that are being taken to speed up the handling of complaints. Given that there has continued to be an increase in sales for the service, as the cabinet secretary said in his response to Stewart Stevenson, will he outline what steps are being taken to ensure that on-board service conditions and quality are maintained?

Specific measures that are being taken forward include Serco Caledonian Sleepers’ work with its staff to continue its operational excellence training programme, which was agreed with the trade unions. Additional on-board staff have been recruited to manage the transition to the new fleet. As I mentioned, work is being done with the manufacturer, CAF, to close out any residual on-train defects. That work is expected to be completed in the next couple of months.

Additionally, since the introduction of the new trains, Serco Caledonian Sleepers has been reviewing some aspects of its supply chain, including catering and cleaning supplies. We have seen the positive impacts of that work. Alongside that, Serco Caledonian Sleepers is engaged directly with Transport Scotland’s service quality incentive regime—SQUIRE—which is the inspection team. It is using the team’s feedback to continue to focus on areas of improvement.