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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 15 June 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Economy, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Trade Union Membership


Portfolio Question Time

Teachers (Moray)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage people to take up teaching posts in the Moray area. (S5O-00031)

We are taking a number of actions to encourage people to take up teaching posts in the Moray area. We are supporting the University of Aberdeen in its distance learning primary initial teacher education course to enable partner local authorities, including Moray Council, to develop existing staff as teachers while they continue in work. We also support the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is offering initial teacher education in secondary subjects at Moray College.

We welcome the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s recent initiative, working with Moray Council, to recruit teachers from Moray’s military and wider community. The scheme allows qualified teachers to be provisionally registered while they undergo top-up training to enable them to obtain full registration as teachers.

The Scottish Government launched a successful recruitment campaign last September to encourage more people to become teachers. We will extend and develop that campaign this year.

I thank the cabinet secretary for the attention that he is giving to the issue and for his detailed answer. I certainly agree that the more home-grown teachers we have in the Moray area, the more that will help the situation. Moray has 39 secondary teacher vacancies and 18 primary teacher vacancies to fill by next term. Some of our more rural areas seem to face specific issues.

I have two issues to raise with the cabinet secretary. First, there is a case for reviewing the way in which newly qualified teachers are allocated. Often, when Moray Council calls an NQT to let them know which school they will be going to, it is told that the person has failed their course and so they should not have been called. Perhaps there is a way to address that.

Secondly, on recruitment to permanent teaching posts, often when a teacher who has applied for a permanent post is phoned to be given the name of the school that they are to go to, the teacher says that they have already accepted a post in the central belt and will not be taking up the position in Moray. Is there any way in which we can tie down applicants to their original commitments? That would greatly help.

Finally, I invite the cabinet secretary to visit Moray to meet teachers, education authority representatives and me.

I thank Mr Lochhead for his speech.

I am grateful to Mr Lochhead for his inaugural brief question to me as education secretary. I look forward to many other brief questions in future.

On his last point, I would be delighted to go to Moray. I am taking time weekly to meet teachers and I would be happy to do so in Moray. He will appreciate that the requirement for me to be present in Parliament can restrict such meetings, but I will endeavour to go to Moray as soon as I can.

I will explore the specific suggestions that Mr Lochhead made about the allocation of newly qualified teachers.

As for his second point, members of the teaching profession are free to choose where to take up posts. However, we must ensure that the employment prospects and opportunities are as attractive as possible in all parts of the country. The measures that I set out in my original answer are designed to encourage the development of home-grown teaching professionals in the Moray area, and I will continue to explore other alternatives for taking that forward.

Schools (South Lanarkshire)

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has invested in building or refurbishing schools in South Lanarkshire since 2007. (S5O-00032)

Through the Scotland’s schools for the future programme, the Scottish Government is undertaking significant investment in Scotland’s school estate. In South Lanarkshire, the Government has awarded funding of up to £11.6 million for the replacement of Spittal primary school, Burnside primary, Halfmerke primary and West Mains additional support needs school.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the calls for a new secondary school in the Halfway area of my constituency. Does he agree that given that 107 schools have been built or refurbished in South Lanarkshire since 2007—more than in any other local authority area—the issue in South Lanarkshire is not caused by a lack of Government investment in schools? Will he raise the issue with South Lanarkshire Council when he next meets it?

Decisions about the investment that is made in the school estate are fundamentally for local authorities, under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which contains the statutory responsibility for individual authorities to plan and manage their school estate in order to deliver education services.

We do, of course, take forward investment programmes—the schools for the future programme is one example—through which the Government makes available resources to encourage the refurbishment of schools. I will consider the points that Clare Haughey has made about the opportunities to deploy such investment in the South Lanarkshire area, particularly in the Halfway area of her constituency.

We attach a significant premium to ensuring that we invest effectively in the school estate, to ensure that young people can be educated in a quality environment. That will remain a commitment of the Government during its term of office.

Members across the chamber would welcome all investment in schools. What discussions have the cabinet secretary and ministers had with the City of Edinburgh Council about finding capital investment for the wave 4 schools that the council has identified, including Liberton high school? It is the only high school in my constituency of Edinburgh Southern that, in the past 10 to 20 years, has not received any refurbishment or a new building.

For guidance, I point out that the question should have been specifically about South Lanarkshire. However, in this case the cabinet secretary is free to answer it.

A rigorous assessment process is undertaken on the quality of the fabric in individual schools, which drives judgments about the investment priorities that local authorities take forward, often with the Government’s support.

I will consider the points that Daniel Johnson has raised as the Government formulates its further investment programmes. We have already set out a range of investments that are being made under the schools for the future programme, which involves £1.8 billion-worth of investment and will construct or refurbish 112 schools in Scotland. We have a major programme of school investment under way, but I am very happy to consider the specific points that Daniel Johnson has raised about the City of Edinburgh Council and Liberton high school.

Universities (Fair Access)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure fair access to universities for young people from every community. (S5O-00033)

Fair access to higher education for those in our most deprived communities is a key priority for this Government. We have legislated on access, invested significant additional resource in additional places and have consistently challenged universities and the wider system to do more.

That has delivered progress. In 2014-15, 14 per cent of Scotland-domiciled full-time first-degree entrants were from our 20 per cent most deprived communities, which is up from 11.2 per cent in 2006-07. However, we recognise that we need to do more, and the commission on widening access has set out an ambitious plan to achieve further and faster progress. We are determined to advance that agenda and will announce further details soon.

Closing the attainment gap is not the end of the journey by any means. Ensuring equality of access for youngsters from every community in Scotland to some of our high-tariff university courses, such as medicine, law and dentistry, is a fight that is yet to be won.

In the absence of any national data showing which communities successful student applicants come from, will the minister consider requesting that that kind of data be provided to us, so that we can plan how best to deliver the equality of access to university courses that we seek?

I will certainly take that issue under advisement and look into it for Willie Coffey. It is important to realise that, increasingly, Scottish universities operate contextualised admission policies that are not just down to grades. We must look at a number of issues when we look at widening access and at those applicants who are successful in achieving a place at university. I am happy to look into the point that Willie Coffey has raised.

The Scottish Government has set a 2030 target for widening access. Is it the Scottish Government’s intention to provide more university places to make that achievable?

It is not as easy as expanding the system—saying that if we increase the number of places, wider access will follow. If only it were that straightforward. The Scottish Government has already invested money in additional places over the past years, but the commission on widening access has pointed out that there is a structural unfairness about what happens in the current system that we need to address. Simply adding more places to those that are available now will not widen access and solve the problem.

Scottish Attainment Challenge

To ask the Scottish Government whether the full £750 million pledged for the Scottish attainment challenge will be given to headteachers to spend on their individual schools’ priorities. (S5O-00034)

We will allocate £750 million through the attainment Scotland fund during this parliamentary session to close the gap in educational attainment. As well as investing £50 million each year in our established area-based approach to raising attainment, we will allocate to schools the additional £100 million that will be raised each year from our local tax reforms. The allocation will be based on the numbers of children in each school who meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals, and headteachers will be able to invest the extra resources in ways that will have the biggest impact on raising attainment in their schools.

The Scottish attainment challenge focuses on the key issues of literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing. We will continue to target support to more than 300 primary schools in our most deprived communities. Last week, I confirmed that we will expand the reach of the challenge to involve more local authorities with significant levels of deprivation and extend the scope to include secondary schools.

Given that recognition of headteachers’ leadership, does the cabinet secretary agree with School Leaders Scotland, which said last week that headteachers should control much more of schools’ budgets to allow the money to be directed towards local priorities?

Generally, I agree with that point of view. As a matter of fact, I will see School Leaders Scotland immediately after question time for a discussion. I was delighted that Jim Thewliss from School Leaders Scotland participated in the education summit that took place this morning at Craigroyston high school.

The Government is committed to ensuring that schools and headteachers are able to exercise much greater discretion over the way in which they make choices about priorities in their schools to ensure that the potential of every young person in Scotland can be fulfilled as a consequence.

The cabinet secretary was clear in his answer that the bulk of the funding will be from the council tax changes that the Government intends to make. However, he must know that the Parliament’s financial scrutiny unit has said that those resources will accrue to local authorities and no mechanism exists to pool or redistribute them according to eligible pupil numbers as he describes. How does he intend to make good the promise that he has just repeated?

I will set out the Government’s detailed thinking on that when I set out the delivery plan to Parliament before the summer recess. However, the fact that arrangements do not currently exist does not mean that they cannot be put in place to make it happen. I assure Mr Gray that the Government’s commitment will be to allocate that £100 million each year in the fashion that I described in my answer to Mr Cameron and ensure that we advance an agenda that enables us to direct resources to the areas where they are required the most to support and drive the improvement of pupil attainment.

What measures will be put in place to ensure that the funding will be invested for the purpose of increasing attainment and not be redirected or subsumed into other budgets?

My answer to Mr McMillan is much the same as my answer to Mr Gray. The Government is determined to ensure that the resource fulfils its required purpose in local authority areas of supporting improvements in numeracy, literacy and health and wellbeing for young people and assisting us in closing the attainment gap. If the Government is making a commitment and was elected on a mandate to fulfil that commitment to undertake that approach, members have the right to expect it to do that as it formulates its plans on the matter. I will share more details on that with the Parliament as we explain the details of the delivery plan. However, it is our clear commitment to concentrate on those resources in the fashion that I set out to Parliament.

If the criterion for the attainment fund is free school meals, as the cabinet secretary has described, does that mean that attainment funds will go to every school where the children are so eligible?

Yes, that would be a fair conclusion to draw from what I have said.

Circular Economy (Education and Skills)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to enhance education and skills for a circular economy. (S5O-00035)

Our recent circular economy strategy “Making Things Last” sets out our priorities to explore the scope for a skills academy for the circular economy; to review skills investment plans to identify circular economy skills needs in specific sectors; and to identify and support a cohort of circular economy teaching champions in schools.

I welcome that answer on skills. Will the Scottish Government explore the inclusion of the circular economy across key subject areas in the secondary and tertiary sectors?

I want to give a helpful answer to Mr Golden. The Government values the importance of the circular economy, as do I. When my colleague Richard Lochhead was in government, he made strides in developing and applying the strategy. I am very supportive in principle of the encouragement of the circular economy.

I want to put in a note of caution, which Parliament will hear from me quite a bit over my term in office. I cannot be expected to put everything into the curriculum. If voices in the Parliament are saying that we need to provide clarity and simplicity in the curriculum, Parliament cannot also ask me to put everything into it.

I have made it very clear publicly that I intend to declutter aspects of the curriculum and the bureaucracy of our education system to enable teachers to focus on attainment. In so doing, I ask for a bit of patience and understanding from Parliament that I will not be able to accede to every request to add every new thing into the curriculum. The history of Scottish education is that we are very good at adding things into the curriculum but we are hopelessly bad at taking things out.

Educational Institute of Scotland (Industrial Action)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the Educational Institute of Scotland regarding its ballot for industrial action. (S5O-00036)

On Saturday I met the Educational Institute of Scotland at its annual general meeting in Dundee. I reaffirmed my commitment to empowering teachers and reducing unnecessary workload—a commitment that I have also given to Parliament. As part of that, I have taken early action to reduce teacher workload and will continue to do so.

Although the EIS acknowledges that, if it does end up in industrial action, its dispute would be with local authorities, the remedies that it seeks are with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is a body of the Scottish Government. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge the central role that the Scottish Government—and he—has in preventing or potentially resolving any future dispute?

My answer is a bit of yes and a bit of no. I acknowledge that there will be aspects of the increase in teacher workload that have come about as a consequence of the measures taken by the Government, by Education Scotland and by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. There have also been additions to teacher workload from local authorities and from within schools.

If there is to be a sustained effort to reduce the bureaucracy with which teachers are wrestling, to simplify the environment within which teachers are operating and to operate with greater clarity, that will not be achieved only by the actions of the Scottish Qualifications Authority. That will be achieved by the actions of a range of players, including local authorities, schools, school leadership and Government.

I am absolutely determined to tackle the issue of teacher workload, because I see it and the concerns about it as a significant impediment to my efforts to focus the teaching profession on the attainment challenge. I will do everything that I can within Government to tackle the issue, but I need local government and school leadership to be participants in the process. That is why all those different interested parties participated in the summit on education today.

How will standardised assessments impact on teacher workload?

The standardised assessments are designed to be a replacement for existing assessment within the school estate. A range of different types of assessment will be undertaken within schools. The standardised assessments approach is designed to give us the quality and reliability of information to drive teacher judgment about the performance of young people and then to inform and support us in relation to how we can encourage and support the development of educational performance by young people in Scotland.

The standardised assessments will not add to teacher workload; they will replace existing provisions. As I said in my earlier answer to Patrick Harvie, I will make strenuous efforts to reduce unnecessary teacher workload to enable teachers to focus on their core purpose of improving attainment.

Schoolchildren (Career Path Aspirations)

To ask the Scottish Government what the results of information gathered by local authorities on schoolchildren show about their career path aspirations, other than attending college or university. (S5O-00037)

That information is not held centrally by the Scottish Government. Schools take a variety of approaches to help teachers and careers advisers plan for a pupil’s future needs and support in relation to career aspirations.

We are committed to maintaining an all-age careers service in Scotland. To maintain and improve the quality of that service, we are implementing the recommendations of the commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce in our youth employment strategy. That includes the introduction of careers advice earlier in schools and the publication of “Career Education Standard (3-18)”. The standard sets out the entitlements that a young person can expect to receive to help them consider their future careers and it emphasises the importance of them being helped to build their career management skills.

The Scottish Government will be well aware not just of the growing attainment gap but of the emerging skills gap in Scotland and the growing view that the Scottish Government is not providing the training for the skills required for the workforce of the future, with not enough apprentices or training for bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and so on.

As that shortage of skilled workmen and women is already contributing to the economic slowdown in Scotland, what will the Scottish Government do immediately to address the problem?

Mr Scott has raised a significant issue. It is important that we invest in our education system in a fashion that enables us to generate the skills that are necessary for our current employment and economic needs. The Government, through Skills Development Scotland, has put in place a comprehensive set of skills investment plans, which are designed to engage with each industrial and business sector to identify future needs within individual sectors.

If I were to cite an example of a particular challenge in recent years, it would be digital skills. We do not have to be sophisticated digital participants to understand the enormous change in digital activity that has taken place in the course of the past two, three or five years.

It is essential that we have skills investment plans that adequately foresee changes in the economy and equip our institutions to satisfy that demand. The skills investment plans that have been developed are strong propositions and they are designed to engage with industry, to identify skills requirements and—crucially—to get higher and further education institutions to align their provision to support those skills investment plans.

My final point is that the Government has significantly increased the number of modern apprenticeships. There were 15,000 per annum when we came to office; there are now 25,000 and I think that the statistics have been published for this year—yes, Jamie Hepburn is nodding. I was fearful that I had committed a statistical obscenity by releasing the figures formally to Parliament. The new modern apprenticeship statistics for last year are out and the Government exceeded its target of 25,000 apprenticeships. We are committed to increasing that target to 30,000 during the term of this Administration.

Early Years Learning and Childcare

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to increase early years learning and childcare. (S5O-00038)

The Scottish Government has already extended the hours of free early learning and childcare by nearly 50 per cent, from 412.5 hours a year in 2007 to 600 hours from 2014. We have started to make those hours more flexible and accessible and we have extended the entitlement to more than a quarter of two-year-olds.

We will go further in this session of Parliament and almost double the number of funded hours for all those children who are currently eligible from 600 hours to 1,140 hours per year from 2020. Quality will be at the heart of that expansion and we will ensure that it is delivered flexibly to meet the needs of working parents as well as young children. The programme is not just about increasing hours; it is about helping to close the attainment gap, both through supporting parents to work, train or study and through providing young children with a strong foundation for their learning journey.

A gap exists in early language skills between children from the most and least advantaged backgrounds. Every child in Scotland deserves the best possible start in life. Can the minister confirm whether any future investment will be used directly to tackle that issue?

The answer is yes. It is worth noting that results from a recent growing up in Scotland study show that vocabulary in three-year-olds is getting better, but we recognise that there are challenges to be faced. We also recognise that parents have a key role in supporting their children’s speech and language development from the start. We have recently launched the new read, write, count campaign, which builds on the play, talk, read and bookbug campaigns. We are also examining how we can include bookbug materials, for example, in the baby box that will be given to every newborn child in Scotland. It is about ensuring that, whenever possible, we take the opportunity to encourage parents and families to read with and to their children, because that has a significant impact on increasing literacy and vocabulary in children before they get to school.

Can the minister explain how a significant increase in fully trained early years nursery teachers will be achieved?

We estimate that up to 20,000 additional staff will be required to deliver our transformational expansion, and we are working with key partners including Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and local authorities to plan for that. We are committed to ensuring that, from 2018, all nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas benefit from an additional graduate with early learning expertise. Obviously, as well as infrastructure requirements, there are workforce planning requirements, which will form a key part of the delivery plan that the Government brings forward.

Does the minister accept that there is a particular challenge in delivering the entitlement in rural and island areas, as many communities simply do not have existing childcare provision? What will the minister and his Government do to ensure that that provision is in place, given the entitlement that is being laid out?

I recognise Tavish Scott’s point that, obviously, we have to ensure that provision is available in communities. That will involve working with a range of stakeholders. That is why I emphasised flexibility, not just in terms of availability but in terms of provision. That forms part of our thinking as we develop the delivery plan.

I am always happy to hear suggestions from members. As I do not represent a rural area, I perhaps do not have the same knowledge and understanding that Tavish Scott might have. If he has any constructive suggestions and wishes to write to me with them, I would be more than happy to receive them.

Attainment (Socioeconomic Factors)

To ask the Scottish Government to what extent it considers that adverse intergenerational socioeconomic factors impact on educational attainment and what steps it will take to mitigate these over the next five years. (S5O-00039)

The Scottish Government recognises that, where poverty has persisted across generations, it can have a significant impact on a child’s educational attainment. That is why the Scottish attainment challenge is supporting communities and schools that have the highest concentrations of pupils living in deprivation. By 2017-18, we will also provide funding to schools based on the numbers of eligible children in each school who meet the criteria for free school meals. We must ensure that every child has the same chance in life, regardless of their background.

The cabinet secretary will know that parental support is vital to ensure that young people reach their full educational potential and that supportive parents encourage their children and assist with homework, and that an increasing number hire tutors after school. In such circumstances, and given that so many children who are not realising their full potential do not enjoy such support, how can the attainment gap be closed rather than simply reduced?

The measures that I set out in my original answer to Mr Gibson are designed to address the very real point that he raises. There is a need for intensity of support to enable young people to achieve their potential. I saw a good example of that this morning at Craigroyston high school, where I met a young man from a family with persistent intergenerational unemployment. The efforts of the school to focus on that young man’s needs and to open up opportunities through a partnership with the business community enabled that young man—who had a very difficult educational background—to gain access to full-time employment. It was a thrill to hear about the success of intense school leadership being deployed to provide support and opportunities for that individual.

I do not for a moment present that as an easy challenge to be overcome; the circumstances that Mr Gibson raises are very demanding to overcome. With the focus of the attainment fund and attainment challenge, we can provide the necessary approach in particular schools to ensure that young people are able to fulfil their potential.

Female Headteachers (Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of headteachers in Fife secondary schools are female, and how that compares with the overall figure for the rest of Scotland. (S5O-00041)

Sixteen per cent of headteachers in publicly funded secondary schools in Fife were reported as female in September 2015 in the annual teacher census, compared with 40 per cent across Scotland.

Madras college in St Andrews is the state school that I went to. It has never had a female headteacher in its history. Nationally, women make up 63 per cent of the secondary teaching population and—as the cabinet secretary has just said—40 per cent of the headteachers. Does the cabinet secretary agree that local authorities such as Fife Council have a duty to ensure that the number of women in senior leadership positions in education is more reflective of that predominance of women in the secondary teaching population and, indeed, more reflective of wider society?

Appointments to individual schools are for local authorities, as employers. However, I accept Jenny Gilruth’s point that the percentage of female headteachers in Fife secondary schools is lower than could be expected. Fife Council will be able to explain the basis of the experience and data in that respect. It is worth noting, however, that while females are still underrepresented in promoted posts, the position has improved significantly since 2003. Female principal teachers are up from 48 per cent to 61 per cent, female deputy headteachers are up from 36 to 54 per cent, and female headteachers are up from 18 per cent to 40 per cent across the country.

I recognise the specific issue that has been raised by Jenny Gilruth. It is important that we are encouraging, as part of our leadership development work in schools, all people of talent to be able to exercise that role in school leadership. I will consider how we might reflect the points that Jenny Gilruth has raised in the approach that we take to the development of school leadership.

Scotland’s Rural College

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next meet the management of Scotland’s Rural College. (S5O-00042)

I am planning a schedule of visits to all Scottish higher education institutions over the coming months, and I am keen that it will include Scotland’s Rural College.

There have been concerns locally about the SRUC’s uncosted ambition to relocate the Barony campus to the Crichton Royal farm in Dumfries, thereby potentially losing valuable hands-on training opportunities in land-based industries. Those concerns have been raised by the previous session’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, and by me in Parliament and with the then Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment. Will the Government work with me to ensure that land-based education in Dumfries and Galloway is not compromised by SRUC decisions?

I understand Joan McAlpine’s concern, given the importance of agricultural skills to the economy in Dumfries and Galloway. I am pleased to note the commitment that was made by the SRUC in January to continuing delivery of land-based education and training in the region. I also recognise the work that has been going on between Joan McAlpine and the previous cabinet secretary on the issue, and I will be more than happy to discuss it further with the member and representatives of the SRUC.

Attainment Gap (Role of Breakfast Clubs)

To ask the Scottish Government what role breakfast clubs play in closing the attainment gap, and what support it provides to them. (S5O-00043)

Some research studies suggest that breakfast club provision can contribute to raising attainment. We also have substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest that breakfast club attendance helps children to engage positively with learning.

The Scottish Government provides local government in Scotland with an agreed package of funding and it is the responsibility of each local authority to allocate the total financial resources on the basis of local needs and priorities. Local authorities have flexibility to use some of the funding to provide services such as breakfast clubs, if they choose to do so.

Does the minister agree that there are a range of ways in which schools can use programmes beyond the classroom—breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and other support—that will not only provide real help to children and make it easier for parents to work but, crucially, help to raise attainment in the classroom as well?

I acknowledge Ash Denham’s point. Schools across Scotland use a range of programmes before school, at lunch time and after school to engage children and young people in learning and to ensure that opportunities for extracurricular learning are available to everyone, regardless of their background, in order to raise attainment and close the attainment gap. A number of such initiatives are being directly supported by the Government through the attainment challenge, and we will ensure that the good practice that emerges in the challenge is promoted and shared widely across the country. Indeed, my first ministerial engagement was with the Deputy First Minister when we went to visit a breakfast club in Edinburgh, so I am cognisant of the role that breakfast clubs and other out-of-school activities play in supporting children and closing the attainment gap.

There is evidence that breakfast clubs and access to them can help to close the attainment gap, so would it not be more straightforward to ensure that local authorities have the resources and obligation to provide a breakfast club in every school?

It is important that we identify and prioritise need where it exists. A number of schools out there are already running breakfast clubs, where they have identified that a need exists locally, either through parents who require that support if they are to be able to access the workforce, or because children were coming to school and going through the school day without having had breakfast, which could impact on their learning.

Funding is available to local authorities; that is clearly demonstrated by the fact that there are breakfast clubs out there. Where they are identified as a priority, it is for schools and local authorities to take them forward, in the first instance. If Iain Gray has evidence that breakfast clubs are not being taken forward in areas where they are required, I will be more than happy to receive it from him.

The minister might be aware that some food businesses in Scotland support local breakfast clubs. Would it be worth the minister’s while to speak to the private sector and the food sector about giving more support to breakfast clubs throughout Scotland in order to make sure that more children can have those advantages?

Mr Lochhead, with all his experience of working closely with the food sector, brings an interesting point to the chamber. I will be more than happy to reflect on it and see what more we can do—in particularly to encourage a situation in which children receive a nutritious and healthy breakfast when it is being provided, and one that promotes the produce that is often available not too far away from the schools that they attend.

Children’s Services (Support for Families)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support families accessing children’s services. (S5O-00044)

Our national parenting strategy ensures that parents are valued, equipped and supported. We are expanding early learning and child care for young children, and providing opportunities for additional support for families and parents. If a child is at risk of becoming looked after, from August onwards local authorities will make family group decision-making and parenting support services available to eligible children, pregnant women and their families who want those services. Once a child becomes looked after, we have ensured that local authorities have statutory duties to meet the needs of the child, including the provision of parental support where that is judged to be appropriate.

The minister will be aware that cuts to council budgets have had a direct impact on children’s services. He might also be aware that cuts have threatened service provision by Action for Children at Hillcrest in the Western Isles. The uncertainty impacts on the children and families who use those valued services. Will the minister ensure that councils receive adequate funding to protect children’s services?

As I highlighted in my earlier answer, the Government allocates funding to local authorities, which are then able to determine their priorities within that funding envelope.

I am not familiar with the individual case that Rhoda Grant has highlighted. If she wants to write to me with more detail, I will be more than happy to look into it and provide her with a more detailed response.

Scottish Attainment Fund (West Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what targets it has set to measure the impact of the Scottish attainment fund in West Scotland. (S5O-00045)

The information that we will collect as part of the national improvement framework will give the most detailed picture ever of progress across the country, including in West Scotland, and will help us to tackle the attainment gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds. We want to see significant progress on doing so within the parliamentary session, and to have substantially closed the gap within the next 10 years.

I welcome the announcement that the Cabinet Secretary of Education and Skills made last week that Renfrewshire Council will now have access to greater funding to tackle educational inequality and raise attainment after the local authority was categorised as a challenge authority. However, the statistics do not paint a good picture. In 2008, the Scottish survey of mathematics and core skills saw 60 per cent of pupils in secondary 2 performing well or very well. By 2014, the same survey saw the number of S2 pupils who were performing well or very well drop to 40 per cent.

In the light of those figures, and with Renfrewshire Council now being a challenge authority, can the cabinet secretary confirm whether Renfrewshire Council will receive its portion of the £11.7 million first-tranche funding that it was announced in July 2015 challenge authorities would receive?

That is inviting me to undertake retrospective public expenditure, which I do not think Parliament believes is within my gift.

I have just announced the expansion of the challenge authority programme to include Renfrewshire—I am glad that Mary Fee welcomed that. We have acknowledged the challenges that exist in Renfrewshire and I look forward to working with schools in that authority area to try to tackle those issues and ensure that we do all that we can to close the attainment gap as it affects the young people concerned.

I was pleased to see the number of challenge authorities increase and, in particular, to see the inclusion of Renfrewshire. Will the cabinet secretary further outline the reasoning behind that decision? What support is available to secondary schools in attainment challenge areas?

The rationale behind the decision is that the levels of deprivation that have been wrestled with in Renfrewshire did not, in the original tranche of the decision making, qualify the authority to be included. I have since taken a decision to expand the range and scope of the challenge authority programme to enable Renfrewshire to be included, and to provide the resources that can be used to tackle the attainment gap. That will be the focus of the efforts that we put in place, in respect of primary and secondary schools, to ensure that a comprehensive approach is taken to enhance the opportunities that prevail for young people in Renfrewshire.

That brings us to the end of education questions. Before I call the next debate, I inform Parliament that I have confirmed with business managers that all the votes from yesterday will be taken at decision time today.