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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 16, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 16 September 2021 (Hybrid)

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Jobs Scotland, Portfolio Question Time, Fairer and More Equal Society, Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

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

The next item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. I remind members who want to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button or to put an R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Education Agencies (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government what the recruitment policy is for its education agencies, in light of the plan to abolish the Scottish Qualifications Authority and reform Education Scotland. (S6O-00149)

There has been no change to the recruitment policy for the education agencies following my announcement that we will replace the SQA and reform Education Scotland. Recruitment policy remains a matter for the individual agencies and is publicly available in the framework agreements for Education Scotland and the SQA. I am committed to continued support for the SQA and Education Scotland to ensure that they have sufficient resources to perform their functions during this transitional period.

I have been looking at many job adverts for the soon-to-be-overhauled Education Scotland. Right now, the quango is looking for a head of leadership learning. Apparently, this person

“will lead and co-ordinate the work of the Professional Learning and Leadership Directorate, providing national support for professional learning and leadership development. The Head of Leadership Learning will work closely together with the Head of Professional Leadership and Learning to bring a coherent approach to professional learning and leadership learning and development on a local, regional and national basis”.

Sorry—that was not my fault; that was the advert.

I know that you are making a point, but will you ask a question?

One lucky person will get up to £77,000 a year for the role. Will the cabinet secretary explain to pupils and parents the benefits of such lucrative quango jobs? Would that money not be better spent on teachers?

The Government is investing heavily in additional teachers. We made that commitment and have taken action on it in our first 100 days.

Education Scotland and the SQA continue to have exceptionally important roles in supporting teachers to support learners during the transitional phase. I trust that all those working in Education Scotland and the people who reply to the job advertisements will do their utmost to support our education system through this difficult time by supporting our teachers to support our learners.

On the assumption that they will not read out job descriptions, Martin Whitfield and Willie Rennie will ask brief supplementary questions.

Thank you, Presiding Officer—I will not read out a job description.

Will the cabinet secretary give an undertaking that Scottish Government will wholly fund the new agency rather than require it to raise resources, as the current SQA must do, which diverts attention from its core purpose?

Ken Muir will report on the remit, role and functions of the replacement to the SQA, and he is due to report back to me in January. Scotland is not alone in having a qualifications authority that has to seek recompense from local authorities. Ken Muir may wish to put in a submission on those issues and, if anyone wants to put in a submission to him as he carries out his work, I am sure that he will listen closely. I will certainly listen closely to his recommendations.

Will it be possible to recruit staff who are able to produce timely guidance, unlike yesterday’s guidance, which notes that further guidance on this year’s qualifications will be produced in October? That is two months into the school year—how on earth will that help pupils and teachers?

The first guidance came out before the summer holidays. What came out yesterday gives detail in addition to that. The SQA is right to work with stakeholders through the national qualifications group to look at what guidance can be put in place and to put that out as expeditiously as possible once it has been agreed. It is sensible for the SQA to do that in stages, when agreement is reached, rather than to wait too long. Often, the SQA and other organisations are criticised for taking too long in their approaches.

On the contingencies for which the SQA gave further detail yesterday, it stressed the fact, for example, that there is no increased workload for teachers. I think that that statement was useful and I hope that it will be reassuring. It was right to do things so quickly and, as I have said, it will provide further guidance in due course, once that has gone through stakeholder consultation via the NQ group.


Climate Change (Information and Resources for Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what information and resources schools will provide to engage pupils with the issues that will be discussed at the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. (S6O-00150)

Although it is a matter for schools and authorities to decide the details of how to engage with COP26, Education Scotland is co-ordinating a package of learning materials and live online engagement with schools, education authorities and national partner agencies. Schools are also supported to engage with COP26 through the Scottish Government-funded eco-schools and climate-ready classrooms initiatives, which support schools in planning action on climate change and other environmental issues, through providing resources and training for educators and pupils.

The Scottish Government may be aware of the Scottish Youth Film Foundation’s COP TV programme, which will feature films and interviews created by young people from all over Scotland during COP26. COP TV will be broadcast into schools across the USA, due to the foundation’s partnership with The New York Times. Is the cabinet secretary willing to liaise with the foundation’s organisers and with Education Scotland to ensure that that programming is also made available to pupils in Scotland, and can she offer any assistance so that the young people who are involved with COP TV can access the conference of youth that is to take place?

I was delighted to hear about the Scottish Youth Film Foundation’s COP TV programme. We are working with organisations across Scotland, including Youngo, the UN’s official youth constituency, which is hosting the conference of youth, to ensure that children and young people in Scotland have as many opportunities as possible to make their voices heard on the global stage.

Education Scotland is liaising with the Scottish Youth Film Foundation to explore how young people can engage with COP26 through its plans. Screen Scotland is also providing funding towards the climate challenge 1.5° films project, working with Film Access Scotland and other partners to support climate change film making with young people in eco-schools.


Skills and Labour Shortages (Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of any sectorial skills and labour shortages in Scotland following Brexit. (S6O-00151)

The office of the chief economic adviser to the Scottish Government has been working closely with Skills Development Scotland to carry out an analysis of official labour market sources, in order to provide insights into sectoral skills and labour shortages in Scotland following Brexit.

In July, I, along with the Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work and the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, met a number of business representative organisations in order to better understand their recruitment challenges, many of which have been directly linked to the United Kingdom Government’s immigration policy. We have continued to engage with business on mitigation measures and to press the UK Government to hear the concerns that have been raised and act accordingly.

Brexit has impacted on many sectors in my constituency, leaving many businesses with skill shortages and increasing labour shortages. What discussions have been held with the UK Government on its post-Brexit immigration scheme, and, in particular, on the tier 2 entry requirements? Does the minister agree that the best solution to the issue in the future is an independent Scotland that can make its own arrangements?

As I set out in my initial answer, we seek to engage regularly with the UK Government on such matters. For instance, Richard Lochhead wrote to the UK Government in July on the post-Brexit immigration policy, urging it to rethink in the light of skills shortages, and Marie Gougeon wrote in August to highlight some of the challenges in the food and drink sector.

On where we are now, I believe that the UK Government should consider the paper that we have pulled together—“Migration: Helping Scotland Prosper”—which outlines how the devolution of migration could work. However, I agree with the member that independence is ultimately the best way to shape an immigration policy that is fit for Scotland’s circumstances.


School Leavers (Impact of Pandemic)

 

4.

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the positive destinations of school leavers. (S6O-00152)

The Scottish Government has responded to concerns about the impact that the pandemic has had on young people by introducing the young persons guarantee, providing £70 million of funding this year in addition to the £60 million that was allocated last year. The 2019-20 data showed that 92.2 per cent of school leavers were in a positive destination at the nine-month point after the end of the school year. The 2020-21 figures will be available in due course.

In Falkirk, the number of apprenticeships has dropped from 587 last year to 160 this year. That fall is replicated right across the country. Without whataboutery, and without any defensiveness, does the minister recognise that that is a disaster for young people, for businesses and for all of us? Is he satisfied that enough is being done to address that issue?

Of course we saw a significant impact on the number of apprentices being recruited in the past year; how could we have seen anything but, given that we are in a global pandemic and demand was suppressed? However, what satisfies me is the positive news that, in the first quarter of this year, there were 3.7 times as many modern apprenticeship as there were in quarter 1 of the previous year. We are, therefore, recovering.

In relation to Stephen Kerr’s point about “whataboutery”, I take that as a reference to what is happening in Scotland by comparison to the rest of the UK. I will update the chamber with regard to that.

Briefly.

In 2016-17, we had 26,262 apprenticeship starts; by 2019-20, that number was up to 27,875. Over the same period in England, by contrast, the number of apprenticeship starts declined by 172,400.

We will take a brief supplementary question from Kaukab Stewart, who joins us online.

How is the Scottish Government supporting Scotland’s young people into employment, education or training?

We have a range of initiatives under way. For example, our developing the young workforce activity is now well embedded and is being accelerated and enhanced by the nearly 300 DYW school co-ordinators who are employed across every secondary school in Scotland. The young persons guarantee, which I mentioned, will provide at least 24,000 new and enhanced employment, education and training opportunities over a two-year period in addition to all the activity that we already have in place.


Outdoor Education

 

5.

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is putting in place to support outdoor education. (S6O-00153)

In addition to the £2.5 million that we have provided to the sector over the past 18 months, we work with the sector on an on-going basis to support schools to access and use outdoor centres and to ensure that our Covid-19 guidance provides clear advice on safe and supported visits to centres. The most recent update to that guidance, which removed caps on the number of young people within dorms and tents, was issued on 19 August.

The programme for government contains a number of commitments, including commitments to trial Scotland’s first outdoor primary learning facilities, to provide support for children to go on curriculum-related trips including primary 6 and 7 residentials, and to give secondary school pupils the right to go on at least one optional trip during their time at school.

I thank the minister for that update. One of the most urgent concerns remains the future viability of around a third of our outdoor education centres. Even more important is the future employment of the very highly specialised members of their staff, whose skills are absolutely crucial to the education of our young people, especially after the Covid pandemic. I therefore press the Scottish Government on what it is doing to secure the future of our outdoor education centres.

Liz Smith may be interested to know that, on 10 August, I met the Outward Bound Trust Scotland Scouts and the chair of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres. Some of the issues that Liz Smith has raised were raised during that meeting, and it was agreed that officials would follow up in order to gather more detailed information and evidence. A further meeting between officials is being arranged for sometime in the next few weeks.

I will allow a supplementary question from Collette Stevenson if it is on outdoor education.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the climate emergency is reflected in children’s and young people’s learning?

I ask the minister to tie that back in to outdoor education.

Our learning for sustainability action plan, which includes climate education, contains actions to support teaching skills in sustainability education, to develop and promote qualifications relating to sustainability and to encourage schools to take a whole-school approach.

To coincide with the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—summit, Education Scotland is providing a series of online countdown-to-COP26 events for schools, and the learning for sustainability awards 2021, which will be announced on 27 October, will also help to gather and share examples of sustainability education across Scotland. I am sure that that will include outdoor education, Presiding Officer.

Saved at the last.


Upper-secondary Education Student Assessment

To ask the Scottish Government how it will take forward the recommendations in Professor Gordon Stobart’s review of upper-secondary education student assessment in Scotland. (S6O-00154)

Professor Stobart’s work looks at approaches to qualifications and assessment that are taken around the world and sets out options for consideration in a Scottish context. We will draw on that work to inform wider conversations and ensure that our future qualifications and assessment approaches better align with the early stages of our curriculum and are accessible to all learners, including those with additional support needs and those from more deprived backgrounds.

I will provide a further update to Parliament in October, as part of an update on the on-going implementation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recommendations in its review of curriculum for excellence.

Professor Stobart’s international comparisons between high-stakes exit examinations and robust and adequately moderated continuous assessments highlight real opportunities to rebalance Scotland’s model of certification and make it less reliant on such high-stakes exams. Having spoken to members of the Scottish Youth Parliament and fellow members of the Education, Children and Young People Committee yesterday, I know that many young people would not only welcome that work but would be keen to be involved in shaping it.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any additional update to Parliament on the Scottish Government’s latest thinking in that area? Can she also reassure young people that they will be meaningfully involved in discussions on reshaping Scotland’s model of certification to ensure that young people receive the qualifications that they merit?

We are committed, as a Government, to ensuring that the voices of young people, parents and teachers as well as practitioners are at the centre of our education policy. We want it to be the norm that children and young people are involved in those decision-making processes.

On 22 June, I outlined that we will reconvene the Scottish education council, and we will ensure that the council includes young people’s representatives. In addition, we are establishing the children and young people’s education council to sit alongside the Scottish education council, and they will have parity of esteem. Along with wider engagement, that will help to ensure that children’s and young people’s voices influence education policy, including by shaping the reform of qualifications.

The cabinet secretary should not need a further review or committee to answer this yes-or-no question. Will she give a simple guarantee that Scottish pupils will still have the opportunity to gain an externally assessed exam-based qualification before leaving school?

As I have said on numerous occasions, the Government is open to the opportunities that we have.

Yes or no?

With the greatest respect, I say to Mr Mundell that it is not a simple yes-or-no answer, because we are having serious and detailed conversations about what assessments will look like. “Yes or no?” does not quite cut it in government, although it might do for Mr Mundell’s press release.

As I was saying, Presiding Officer, the Government is very open to considering the best way of doing assessments and qualifications in the future, and Professor Stobart has given us a range of options. Many of the opportunities that we have are based on combining assessments at the end of term—exams—with more continuous assessment, ensuring that we give everyone in Scotland the opportunity to develop to their full potential.

I am determined to do that. I hope that the Opposition rises to the occasion, gets past asking for yes-or-no answers and joins the detailed conversation on the role of exams, in the current set-up and in any future set-up, and how we can take things to the next level to provide the best opportunities for Scotland’s young people.

Yesterday, the Scottish Qualifications Authority published a two-page document that stated that the final decision on national qualifications in 2022 will be made next March. It lacked any detail of the criteria that will be used in making that decision—particularly around whether disruption will be assessed on a pupil-by-pupil, school-by-school, council-by-council or national basis. Will the education secretary make a statement to Parliament to clarify that important issue?

In its statement yesterday, the SQA gave further detail of what will happen in different scenarios. One aspect that the SQA looked at relates to a scenario in which there is increased disruption but exams are allowed to happen. Those changes can be made very late on in the process, because they relate to what will happen in the exams themselves. The other scenario that the SQA considered relates to what happens if exams cannot happen because of the pandemic. That is why the SQA has given the reassurance that assessments will inform the process and that that will not create an additional workload for teachers. Yesterday’s announcement gave a lot of certainty and reassurance to teachers, young people and parents.

As we go through the year, the situation will be fluid and flexible. I am not sure whether Mr Marra has a crystal ball showing what the pandemic will look like in a couple of months, but I certainly do not. That is why we and the SQA are continuing our discussions with stakeholders, including parents, teachers and young people, to develop our understanding as we go. Of course, the SQA will give further detail in due course, once those discussions reach the point at which announcements can be made.


Children with Additional Support Needs (Support for Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports schools in delivering high-quality education for children with additional support needs. (S6O-00155)

We are committed to ensuring that all children and young people get the additional support that they need to reach their full potential.

In October 2020, we published our joint response to the independently chaired review of implementation of additional support for learning. Angela Morgan’s report sets a clear direction for how we will continue to work with partners to build on progress in that area. The joint action plan sets out the measures that we will take to implement her recommendations.

Borders parents whose children live with ASN have expressed how, due to children and adolescent mental health service waiting times, they find it difficult to gain a diagnosis, with some having to pay for a private assessment. Even then, private assessments are sometimes not accepted. In the light of such difficulties, what additional resources can be made available to ensure that more assessments are done, so that children with ASN receive the educational arrangements to which they are entitled?

I thank Rachael Hamilton for her question. If she provides my office with further detail of the specific local concerns that she has raised, I will be more than happy to provide further detail.

Rachael Hamilton is absolutely right to point out that children and young people, including children with additional support needs and those who might be awaiting a diagnosis, have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Additional funding has been given to support local authorities and health boards, and additional support has also been given to CAMHS. As I say, if Rachael Hamilton has a particular issue in her local area, I am more than happy to follow that up with her.

I want to take two supplementary questions, but they will need to be brief—and the answers likewise.

What steps have been taken so far in appointing a commissioner for learning disability, autism and neurodiversity, and what role is the commissioner expected to play in ensuring a high-quality education for children with those specific additional support needs?

As the First Minister announced in her programme for government, we are carrying out scoping work on the remit and powers of a learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill in this parliamentary year, which will include work on a learning disability, autism and neurodiversity commissioner.

Will the Scottish Government set out its plan for a transition strategy, to which it committed in its recent programme for government?

I know that Pam Duncan-Glancy is particularly keen to press the Government on the issue and ensure that we deliver on it. We have made progress with that work, in terms of meeting stakeholders and working groups. I know that there was a meeting on the matter recently, although I was not at it. I will ensure that the minister—I think that it is Clare Haughey, who is involved as part of the work that she is doing with Christina McKelvie—provides further detail to Pam Duncan-Glancy.


Mental Health in Schools Working Group

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of the mental health in schools working group. (S6O-00156)

The mental health in schools working group has overseen the development of new resources for school staff, including a new online professional learning resource, which was introduced in June 2021, and new guidance to support whole-school approaches to mental health and wellbeing, which was published in August 2021.

The resources help school staff to understand and respond to the range of mental health and wellbeing concerns that young people might experience. The Scottish Government will continue to work with the mental health in schools working group to embed those approaches across Scotland.

The working group’s whole-school approach framework includes access to school counselling services. However, Aberdeenshire Council has identified a shortage of qualified and accredited counsellors in the north-east, which means that the counselling service will not be at full capacity until January 2023. Given the pressures on children’s mental health, what action is the Scottish Government taking to support the delivery of school counselling services?

As Ms White will know, the Scottish Government has provided support to local authority partners to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services, because we want to ensure that those who require that support receive it. If there are workload issues in obtaining staff in particular areas, that is clearly a concern. The Scottish Government will take all the measures that it can to improve access to counselling services, and we will work with our local authority partners, which have responsibility for recruitment and retention in relation to such issues.