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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 17 January 2018

Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Education and Skills, Public Services, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Robert Burns (Economic Potential)


Education and Skills

Schools (Local Authority Budgets)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out on the impact on schools of its proposed reductions to local authority budgets. (S5O-01674)

The Scottish Government continues to treat local government fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the United Kingdom Government. The 2018-19 financial settlement for local government foresees an increase in revenue and capital investment as part of a wider package of measures. Together with the additional power to increase council tax, that will generate an increase of 1.6 per cent in the overall resources to support local services.

In addition, we are investing £179 million in the next financial year—up £9 million from last year—in raising attainment and closing the attainment gap, targeting funding at the schools and local authorities that will benefit the most. That funding contributes to our commitment to provide an extra £750 million for education during the current parliamentary session. The investment in Scottish education has enabled a total of 666 additional teachers to be recruited over the past two years.

The Scottish Parliament information centre says that the real-terms cut to council budgets under this year’s draft budget will be £157 million. The cuts that local authorities have been forced to consider include a cut of £7 million from the teaching allocation in South Ayrshire, and a cut of £2 million by reducing curriculum subject choice and teacher numbers in Falkirk. Is the cabinet secretary seriously suggesting that, if he was running a council in Scotland today, he would be able to set a budget that did not include any cuts?

I have long experience of looking at the financial proposals that are made—invariably by council officials—to elected members of local authorities. I also have just as much experience of seeing elected members reject those proposals when it comes to setting budgets.

There is a reason for that. The latest data shows that education budgets in Scottish local authorities increased by £144 million in 2017-18, which was a 3 per cent increase on the previous year in cash terms. On top of that, we have allocated the £120 million of pupil equity funding. Clearly, there are a lot of discussions still to be had about the budget. There will be a debate on some of those issues this afternoon and the full budget process has yet to take its course. As the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has made clear, the Government will remain actively engaged in dialogue with other parties about how to take forward the budget provisions that were set out to Parliament in December.

Can the Scottish Government give an indication of whether funding has risen recently and what the ratio is for individual pupils in primary and secondary schools?

Spending on education and training in Scotland rose by 4.1 per cent in 2016-17. Since 2006-07, the average spend per pupil in Scotland has increased in cash terms by at least 10.8 per cent for primary pupils and 13.1 per cent for secondary pupils. Since the Government came to office, total revenue spending on schools has risen by £349 million, or 7.6 per cent in cash terms.

The cabinet secretary recently told the Education and Skills Committee that he has concerns about the low retention rate of experienced teachers, more of whom left the profession in the academic year 2016-17 than expected. Clearly, that places additional pressure on other teachers, but it also places budgetary pressures on local authorities to recruit sufficient support staff. What work is the Scottish Government undertaking in co-operation with local authorities to collect the relevant data about numbers of support staff and to assess the relevant gaps in schools?

The Government is actively involved with local authorities on a wide variety of issues on workforce planning but principally in relation to the number of teachers in the teaching profession. That work is bearing fruit because, as we saw in December, the number of teachers in our schools has increased by 543 as a consequence of the measures that we have taken and by more than 800 since I became the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. I very much welcome the increase in the active teaching population in Scotland. It is for individual local authorities to decide on and agree the deployment of staff in individual schools, and that will extend far beyond the teaching workforce. However, we certainly actively collaborate with local authorities, through the teacher workforce planning group, on the identification of an appropriate number of teachers for the education of our children.

On Monday, when the Education and Skills Committee met teachers in Glasgow, we spoke to additional support needs teachers and heard their concerns about a range of issues affecting ASN education, which included funding issues. Has the Scottish Government assessed the impact on ASN education of its budget cuts in previous years and in the coming year?

The data speaks for itself and is on the record: there has been an increase in the number of staff working with pupils with additional support needs in our education system. Obviously, we work with our local authority partners to ensure that the needs of young people with additional needs are fully met. I recently set out revised guidance on mainstreaming to ensure that considerations about the needs and interests of young people drive appropriate decisions about the educational placement of young people. That is as it should be, and it is how the process is envisaged in legislation. Obviously, local authorities are required to make the necessary planning arrangements in terms of staffing to support such decisions.

Higher Education Students (Accommodation)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure there are appropriate levels of accommodation available for higher education students attending courses at campus. (S5O-01675)

Universities are independent autonomous bodies and, as such, they have responsibility for their staffing, admissions, subject provision, curriculum, research and student accommodation. The Scottish Government and the Scottish ministers are therefore unable to intervene in internal institutional matters such as student accommodation. However, as the member will be aware, the Government is absolutely committed to the higher education sector in Scotland, which is why we have invested more than £1 billion per year in it since 2012-13 and why, in 2018-19, we will deliver a real-terms increase in Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council funding, demonstrating our sustained commitment to the achievement of excellence and equity in education.

The growing success of Heriot-Watt’s campus in Stromness in my constituency has presented challenges in relation to student accommodation. I was contacted recently by a constituent who offers accommodation to eight of the university’s students each year. Unlike larger accommodation providers, he does not qualify for an exemption from the new private residential tenancy agreements introduced under the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. That means that he cannot guarantee that students will leave after the term ends and, in turn, that he cannot offer accommodation to students for the next academic year because he does not know that the rooms will be vacant. Does the minister agree that that is not in the interests of students, the university or the wider Orkney economy, and will she agree to consult ministerial colleagues on how those provisions might be island proofed?

As Liam McArthur will be fully aware, Heriot-Watt relies very heavily on private landlords to provide student accommodation in Orkney. It has a dedicated staff resource to ensure that every student is accommodated—through, as he knows, private landlords. I am more than happy to take up the details of the issue that he has raised and discuss that with other ministers, particularly the Minister for Local Government and Housing.

It is clear that we have a problem across Scotland. At the University of Stirling, 180 first-year students did not have accommodation last year. Under-18s cannot rent in the private sector, care leavers and international students struggle to find guarantors for private contracts, disabled students very rarely find appropriate private accommodation that meets their needs and rents on campuses are increasing. Will the minister commit to researching and providing the data on those issues, and then convening a summit of university accommodation providers and student union representatives to tackle this widely occurring problem?

As I said in my answer to Liam McArthur, as autonomous institutions the universities are responsible for student accommodation. It is not for me to interfere in their internal arrangements for how they deliver the resource allocation that they give student accommodation and how they dictate who comes first in their lists for that provision. I recognise that there were issues at the University of Stirling at the beginning of the last academic year, which followed a very significant increase in demand from students. Priority was given to students under the age of 18 and those with known health considerations, to deal with some of the issues that Mark Ruskell has raised. Autonomous bodies such as the universities should deal sympathetically with every case when there is surplus demand that they cannot accommodate within their own provision.

Instrumental Music Education

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides for instrumental music education in primary and secondary schools. (S5O-01676)

The Scottish education system devolves decision making to local education authorities to make choices that meet their local circumstances and needs. Scottish Government investment of £109 million since 2007 in the youth music initiative has made a huge impact, helping young people across the country to access opportunities. Since 2012, we have provided £2.2 million to Sistema Scotland, which is a charity providing opportunities for young people to get involved in its big noise orchestras. It reaches 2,000 children weekly.

Instrumental music tuition is, of course, a discretionary service provided by local authorities. I have received representations about the future of the service in West Lothian, and the 2017 survey from the Improvement Service shows varying service across Scotland in relation to numbers of pupils and the charging regime. Although the number of pupils has risen, charges have increased by 15 per cent over the past two years and the number of teachers is falling. I was surprised that the cabinet secretary did not make reference to the specialist music schools, which I look forward to meeting him to talk about, because I understand that they receive funding support from the Scottish Government.

Given the widely known benefits of instrumental music, can the cabinet secretary tell me what work is under way to review whether the recommendations of the instrumental music group have been fully implemented and will he consider the introduction of statutory guidance on the provision of instrumental music education across Scotland?

There are a number of issues for me to respond to in that question. On the music schools, the Government took a decision in 2007 to devolve funding for music schools to individual local authorities, on the basis that we expected them to maintain and continue those music schools and that the devolved money would not be used for another purpose. That would be wholly unacceptable and I reiterate the Government’s expectation in that regard.

On the question of instrumental music tuition, Mr Wightman is correct to say that it is a discretionary service—that is the existing position. I am able to give consideration to whether it should be made into a statutory provision.

One of the factors that would weigh in that consideration would be the enormous benefits, which I recognise, that come to young people as a consequence of involvement in musical activity. On many visits around the country I have seen the tremendous fulfilment that such activity brings to young people and the transformative change that it can have on young people’s lives.

However, the question gets rather to the heart of some of the issues that we wrestle with regularly in Parliament, around how much discretion individual local authorities should have to operate services in a particular way that they consider to be appropriate in their locality. I know that Mr Wightman is interested in those issues, and obviously they are issues that the Government seeks to make considered and sensitive judgments about. I will certainly give consideration to the issue that Mr Wightman has raised.

On the point that the cabinet secretary has just made, it is my understanding that 22 out of 32 local authorities are making some charge for instrumental music tuition. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the playing field should be levelled to ensure access for all? Perhaps he might give a bit more detail on how that could be done.

We come back to some of the issues that I have just raised with Mr Wightman. I regularly stand here and face pressure from the Opposition to allow local authorities to do things that they choose to do and not to interfere in what local authorities want to do. However, Mr Lindhurst now wants me to interfere in what local authorities want to do.

In addition to wanting me to interfere in what local authorities want to do, Mr Lindhurst, I presume, wants me to put more money into the system to level the playing field, because in all of my experience, Government generally does not level the playing field by any means other than putting more money into the system. The Conservatives persistently come here and tell us that they want to reduce tax and reduce the money that is available for public expenditure, but then people such as Mr Lindhurst come here and ask us to spend more money. I have news for Mr Lindhurst; it is not possible to have it both ways.

What importance does the Scottish Government, as a matter of policy, attach to children learning a musical instrument?

Is the Scottish Government concerned that almost every council has increased charges for lessons, and some of them have increased charges to £378? Notwithstanding what the cabinet secretary said in relation to local government, how can we protect children from the poorest families who have an aptitude for music, but who might be excluded because of these policies?

Does the cabinet secretary think that there is any scope—notwithstanding the powers of local authorities to make decisions—to work in partnership with local authorities to ensure that the poorest children in particular are not losing out in learning to play a musical instrument, which I think we agree can be life enhancing for those children?

As I said to Andy Wightman and I will happily reiterate to Pauline McNeill, I see enormous benefits in young people being able to be involved in musical activity in schools. It is a core part of the curriculum—it is a core part of the curriculum for excellence—and that is why every young person has the opportunity to participate in music through our curricular model. I see that opportunity as transformative for some young people, particularly young people from deprived backgrounds, where it may be a route into their wider learning that may not otherwise be possible because of other experiences and obstacles that those young people may face. I will be crystal clear with Parliament that I think that this is a beneficial approach.

As I was trying to outline to Mr Lindhurst and, to an extent, Mr Wightman, the Government is asked to respect the discretion of local authorities and not to interfere in the activities of local authorities, but I understand Pauline McNeill’s concern that some local authorities may be charging what would be considered to be inappropriate levels of money for such services. There is a debate to be had about what the correct balance is.

The Government is very happy to work in partnership on all those questions, but we have to take into account the fact that local authorities might wish to undertake different approaches in different ways. I would encourage a focus on taking forward that activity in a fashion that enables young people, regardless of their background, to participate in it.

Returning Qualified Teachers

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to encourage qualified teachers who have left the profession to return. (S5O-01677)

We have supported our teacher education universities to develop new routes into teaching, and included in those new routes is a return to teaching course that was brought forward by the University of Edinburgh.

The university has developed its current return to teaching course to create a new and national online course that helps prepare qualified teachers who have been out of teaching for a while, or those who have never taught in Scotland, for the classroom. There were 31 students in the first cohort of the course, which started in October 2017, and there are 23 in the second cohort, which began in January this year. The course brings participants up to speed with the latest education policy requirements as well as pedagogy and other educational issues.

All teachers in Scotland are on the same pay scale, and the subject taught is not a consideration in the level of pay received. There are no circumstances in which a school or local authority can offer a different pay arrangement based on the subject that is taught, and that can militate against attracting back into the profession teachers who may have retired early. The workload of teachers varies considerably according to subject; for example, teachers of English have to read and mark dozens of essays most weeks. Would recognition of that difference through better pay not help to reduce the shortage of teachers in key subjects?

I understand the point that Mr Gibson is making but, in my experience, regardless of the subject discipline in which teachers are active, they are all hard-working and dedicated professionals who have a very significant workload to deliver.

Teachers’ pay is determined by the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. The SNCT provides flexibility such that a council may increase the salary of a teacher if, in the particular circumstances of the post, it considers the salary to be inadequate.

The recent SNCT pay deal commits all three sides to undertake a strategic review of pay and reward for the 2018 pay settlement.

According to Scottish Government statistics, there is a growing pool of retired staff who might be willing to return to the classroom for short periods to help cover some of the gaps. Indeed, I have a constituent who is willing to return to the classroom but he makes the point that going on the supply roll could have detrimental effects on his pension. Is the cabinet secretary minded, under the jurisdiction of Holyrood rules, to do something to mitigate that disincentive?

There is a difficulty and an issue in the circumstances that Liz Smith puts to me, and indeed I was just looking at a case that Gail Ross drew to my attention. A constituent of hers made a representation that I suspect is pretty similar to the one that Liz Smith has had.

As Liz Smith knows, there is a very complicated interaction in the pension rules between the areas of responsibility that we can exercise discretion over and the areas of discretion that are reserved to the United Kingdom Government but are also set out in legislation over which I have no control. I am not going to say today that I have completed my analysis of the interaction of those issues. Just this morning I asked for further work to be done, before I reply to Gail Ross on her case, to test some of the issues that might develop.

There is an impediment, which I acknowledge, in the interaction between the supply pay and pension arrangements. However, I am not certain at this stage whether it is entirely within our control to resolve that. I am not saying that it is inconceivable that an agreement could be reached if the issue were to go to the United Kingdom Government, but I have not quite completed my analysis of that point.

I take this opportunity to say that, in the SNCT pay deal that was agreed just before Christmas, there are revisions to the supply pay and conditions that I hope will encourage more individuals to see supply as a meaningful contribution that they can make to meeting the staffing challenges that we face.

I can only agree with the cabinet secretary’s response to Mr Gibson’s supplementary question. However, one thing that would help to bring teachers back into the classroom would be a restorative pay rise for all teachers, which would make the profession attractive again. The cabinet secretary referred to a strategic review of teachers’ pay. What will the parameters of that review be?

The parameters will be set by the SNCT which, as Mr Gray knows, is a tripartite body involving the professional associations, local authorities and the Government. As part of the pay settlement for 2017-18, the SNCT agreed to undertake this strategic review. The Government will participate in the review fully and, obviously, the conclusions of the review will be material to the resolution of the pay awards for 2018-19 and subsequent years, which will be the subject of further consideration.

School Clothing Grants

To ask the Scottish Government how many local authorities pay the minimum level for school clothing grants. (S5O-01678)

We know that the school clothing grant is essential for many families, and local authorities have a duty to make provision for the purpose of ensuring sufficient and suitable clothing of pupils.

We are taking a range of actions to ensure that cost is not a barrier to learning. We already provide free school meals to all primary 1 to primary 3 children, and to all children in primary 4 and beyond who are eligible through qualifying benefits. Through the Scottish attainment challenge, we are working with local authorities to explore further support for schools on removing costs and overcoming barriers.

In my constituency, with enormous backing from the public, volunteers have launched the cool school uniforms service It can provide uniforms for those children in need in weeks, and it has already received around 200 referrals, and counting, from schools and other agencies.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that councils should be paying the minimum level, and does he think that the fairer Scotland duty, which will come into force in 2018, will make local authorities think about this important issue and help to eliminate the need altogether for uniform banks?

First, I pay tribute to the work of the cool school uniforms initiative, which is run by the hope to help voluntary group in North Lanarkshire, and I commend those individuals for the work that they are undertaking.

There are discussions to be had between the Government and local authorities about school clothing grants. Some of those discussions started some time ago and I will continue them. Mr MacGregor is correct that the fairer Scotland duty, which comes into effect this April, will require public bodies including the Government, local authorities and the national health service to consider what more we can all do to reduce poverty and inequality when making decisions. I have set out a range of measures that the Government takes forward, and as part of our discussions with local authorities, we will aim to consider issues such as school clothing grants alongside the fairer Scotland duty, in accordance with which we are obliged to act.


To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage more young people into apprenticeships. (S5O-01679)

The Scottish Government and its partners undertake a wide range of activity to encourage the uptake of our apprenticeship offer, with a focus on young people.

Through our developing the young workforce activity we promote apprenticeship opportunities to school students and we continue to support Scottish apprenticeship week, our national campaign showcasing the benefits of apprenticeships to young people and employers. In addition, Skills Development Scotland actively promotes apprenticeships through a range of channels on an on-going basis, such as its website.

We continue to offer more opportunities. Last week, I announced to Parliament that next year we will grow the number of foundation apprenticeships starts to more than 2,500 from around 1,200 this year, and we will provide 28,000 modern apprenticeship opportunities, up from 27,000 starts this year. Of those 28,000 starts, around 900 will be graduate level apprenticeships, up from 370 this year.

Despite the various measures that the minister outlined, the Scottish National Party’s record on modern apprenticeships continues to be poor. In 2016-17, there was a decline in the number of modern apprenticeship starts by 16 to 24-year-olds and by young people entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics framework modern apprenticeships. Can the minister please explain why, after 10 years of SNP government, the level of apprenticeships for young people in Scotland continues to trail significantly behind that in the rest of the United Kingdom?

I find that, quite frankly, an extraordinary question from Mr Lockhart. In the last full year for which we have figures available, there were 26,262 modern apprenticeship starts, which was an increase from the 25,818 starts the year before. That shows a positive trajectory.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a considerable increase in the number of modern apprenticeship opportunities across all age ranges. The question is even more extraordinary if we consider that, since we saw the morass of the apprenticeship levy that the United Kingdom Government initiated, today on the BBC the managing director of the Confederation of British Industry, Neil Carberry, said that the Tory apprenticeship levy is the latest example of a policy that is not yet right—Mr Lockhart was not paying attention. The levy has been subjected to criticism in The Daily Telegraph, which is not an organ of the press that I normally read. On 7 January, the chairman of Timpson, John Timpson, said that the levy is nothing but a tax, and he criticised the process of drawing down funding in England.

It staggers me that, in the first quarter after the introduction of the levy in England, under Tory jurisdiction, we saw a 59.3 per cent fall in the number of apprenticeship starts from the equivalent period in the year before; there were 48,000 starts, down from 117,800. In the first quarter since the introduction of the levy in Scotland, the figures have remained steady and, after quarter 2, we are well on track to meet our targets.

Widening Access to University

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made on widening access to university, particularly for those from the most disadvantaged areas. (S5O-01680)

This Government’s ambition is that every child, no matter their background, has an equal chance of going into higher education. That is why we established a commission on widening access and have set clear targets for universities to help to achieve that goal. We have appointed a Commissioner for Fair Access; introduced a full bursary for young care-experienced students; and established an access delivery group to drive forward progress.

Between 2016 and 2017, we saw an 11 per cent increase in the number of 18-year-olds from the most deprived communities in Scotland accepted to study at university. That takes the number to a record high and we must maintain that momentum. That is why I have asked universities to increase the pace of delivery for key recommendations, such as the introduction of access thresholds and a guaranteed offer of a place for care-experienced students who meet entry requirements.

What is the Government’s response to the first annual report of the Commissioner for Fair Access? What is the Government doing to encourage universities to increase the number of students who are admitted directly from colleges, which could help?

I welcome the commissioner’s first annual report, which builds on the recommendations from the commission on widening access. I will discuss the report with key stakeholders at the next access delivery group meeting and will respond to the recommendations in due course.

Our colleges play a key role in access to higher education, and that is why we continue to invest £51 million a year to support approximately 7,000 places for access students and those who are progressing from college. We accepted the commission’s recommendation that the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council should seek more demanding articulation targets from some universities, and I strongly support the commissioner’s call for universities to substantially increase the number of higher national diploma and higher national certificate students who enter university. The Government is strongly committed to delivering on that, but it cannot do so alone, nor can the funding council; we need the colleges and universities as autonomous institutions to do similar.

It is all well and good to ask institutions to do more. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that our schools are in a position to offer pupils the subjects that they require in order to meet the entry requirements for specialist institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow School of Art and Scotland’s Rural College?

The Scottish Government takes very seriously its requirement to deliver in the senior phase of the education system. That is why it is undertaking a review of the learner journey from 15 to 24 to ensure that every young person has in front of them the choice that they want to make, whether it is to go into a job, an apprenticeship, college or university. As that development of the learner journey continues, I am sure that we can pick up the points that Oliver Mundell has made today.

Postgraduate Students (Distance Learning)

8. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports distance learning for postgraduate students. (S5O-01681)

I announced on 5 January that, from the academic year 2018-19, students who undertake eligible postgraduate distance-learning courses will be able to access a tuition fee loan of £5,500. In addition, full-time students will be able to access a living-cost loan of £4,500. Those measures build on the expansion of the support package for eligible students on taught postgraduate courses put in place for the academic year 2017-18, and that change has helped contribute to an increase in the number of applications for support from full-time students in 2017-18. It forms part of our wider package, which last year provided £834.6 million in support of 143,110 full-time students in Scotland.

I was pleased to see the 5 per cent increase in the number of Scottish postgraduate students studying at Scottish higher education institutions. Despite that increase, however, does the minister share my concern about the potential impact of Brexit on the number of European Union students coming to study in Scotland’s excellent institutions on postgraduate courses?

I share the member’s concern. This Government recognises the enormous benefits that EU students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level bring to this country, enriching our culture and our communities and contributing to our economy. That is why I am pleased to reaffirm our commitment that eligible EU students considering applying for postgraduate courses in Scotland in academic year 2018-19 will continue to be eligible for tuition fee support at the same level as Scottish students. We will also continue to work with universities and students to discuss the impacts of Brexit and how we can all ensure that Scotland’s universities remain attractive, competitive and diverse.

Teacher Recruitment

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to improve teacher recruitment. (S5O-01682)

The Government is taking a range of actions to help increase the number of teachers, including committing £88 million this year to make sure that every school has access to the right number of teachers with the right skills, investing over £1 million through the Scottish attainment challenge to support universities in developing new innovative routes into teaching, and launching the second phase of our teaching makes people recruitment campaign. That action has halted a period of steady decline in teacher recruitment, resulting in almost 800 more teachers than there were two years ago.

I have been contacted by some of my constituents regarding specialist teachers who are needed not only in science, technology, engineering and mathematics but in subjects such as music and art. What is the Scottish Government doing to attract high-quality individuals from other professions to increase teacher numbers in those areas?

In my earlier answer, I referred to the new routes into teaching. As part of that, we have worked closely with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on its new music teaching degree. As I said in one of my earlier answers, we have supported the University of Edinburgh with its new national return to teach course, which is open to teachers of all subjects, including art and music.

We are taking forward regular dialogue on this. Indeed, I had a discussion last week with the Scottish Council of Deans of Education about the appropriate recruitment and the balance of recruitment of teachers to ensure that we have the appropriate number of teachers with the right specialisms in our schools to deliver the curriculum for young people in Scotland.

Pupil Teacher Ratios (Lothian)

10. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the reported high pupil teacher ratios across the Lothian area. (S5O-01683)

The Government is investing £88 million this year so that every school has access to the appropriate number of teachers, and our investment has enabled councils to improve the overall pupil teacher ratio nationally and halted a steady decline in the number of teachers. Indeed, the number of teachers increased by 253 in 2016 and by 543 last year. I am pleased that the local authorities in the Lothians have either maintained or improved their overall teacher numbers and pupil teacher ratios.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that over the past several years, poor teacher recruitment and retention rates have led to a rise in pupil teacher ratios in schools. In the City of Edinburgh Council area alone, there has been a rise from an average of 4.2 in 2012 to 15.1, which means that the area now has one of the highest ratios in Scotland. Given the Scottish Government’s stated aim of reaching a pupil teacher ratio of 13.7, when does he expect that to be reached in the Lothian area?

The agreement that we have reached with local government is on a national figure for the pupil teacher ratio. That has improved to 13.6, and it has been met around the country. As I indicated in my original answer, the increase in teacher numbers by 253 in 2016, followed by an increase of 543 last year, has significantly assisted that position. I also note that, in the Lothian area, there has been a beneficial reduction in the pupil teacher ratio in East Lothian and a static position in Edinburgh, Midlothian and West Lothian.

The recruitment of teachers assists in our approach to improving the pupil teacher ratio. The Government’s budget supports that not only by ensuring a strong settlement for local government but through the investment of funds through the pupil equity fund and the Scottish attainment challenge.

Gender-Neutral School Uniforms

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on gender-neutral school uniforms. (S5O-01684)

Local authorities and individual schools are responsible for setting their own school uniform policies and rules, taking into account local needs and circumstances. The Scottish Government is clear that all young people should be treated equally and that schools should ensure that suitable school clothing is worn.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will join me in paying tribute to 15-year-old Jess Insall, who has successfully taken a motion through the Liberal Democrat conference endorsing gender-neutral school uniforms. She has rightly received a great deal of media attention for her efforts.

As Jess Insall said at our conference, what she is calling for is

“not about dictating the way anyone dresses ... all it really means is not treating people differently because of their gender.”

I welcome the fact that, over Christmas, ministers indicated that boys and girls should be treated equally, but inequalities cannot be left to regional variations. Will the Scottish Government take steps to require schools to provide inclusive, non-prescriptive gender-neutral school uniform policies, and will it provide support and advice to schools that are adapting their policies to make them more inclusive?

I ask the cabinet secretary to make his answer shorter than the question, if possible. [Laughter.]

I can certainly try, Presiding Officer.

I respectfully ask Mr Cole-Hamilton to reflect on what he has put to me: he has just asked me, at central level, to regulate and dictate to schools and local authorities, despite the fact that he regularly comes here and complains about the Government allegedly dictating to and instructing local authorities. I will therefore share the comments that I made earlier to Mr Lindhurst with Mr Cole-Hamilton—it must be a Lothian condition.

There is no centrally issued guidance. As I have said, the Government is clear that young people should be treated equally, and it is up to individual schools and local authorities to take those decisions.