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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 19 March 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 (Education), United Kingdom Coronavirus Legislation, Business Motion, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Business Motions, Decision Time


Covid-19 (Education)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on education: Covid-19. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Responding to the coronavirus pandemic is a matter of the greatest national importance, and the scale of the challenge in front of us is truly without precedent. Every aspect of our national life has been affected by the crisis, and sustaining our education system has been at the forefront of my mind. My priorities are to ensure the health and wellbeing of our children, young people and staff, and to maintain teaching and learning wherever possible, guided by the advice of the chief medical officer and public health experts.

I would like to place on record my sincere appreciation for the extraordinary work that all of the teaching and non-teaching staff in our schools and early learning and childcare settings have been doing to maintain educational continuity in these unprecedented days. [Applause.]

The approach of the Scottish Government to the crisis has been to deliver clear and open communications with members of the public. When circumstances change, we need to set out the basis of that change, and we reached that point yesterday in relation to our schools. First, scientific advice now highlights that closing schools will help to suppress the spread of coronavirus. Secondly, as people follow the advice issued on Monday, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain education provision. As a consequence of those two factors, the First Minister set out yesterday that school and nursery closures for pupils are now inevitable.

I want to be clear at the outset that what we are advising is this: at the end of tomorrow, schools and nurseries should, ordinarily, close for children and young people. Teaching, learning and support will continue, albeit in different ways for different groups of children. For the majority, that will be through distance learning and online learning, with different forms of on-going contact with teachers rather than in-school, face-to-face teaching. Teachers and other staff who are well will continue to work. Senior phase pupils with coursework for national qualifications to complete will be informed by their schools how to complete it. For vulnerable children and those who have parents or carers employed as key workers, local authorities are developing approaches to support them at this time.

My statement today will provide more detail on what those things mean in practice, and on how our teachers and our education workforce can refocus their work to support pupils in a range of different ways in the weeks and months ahead.

We want our local authorities to be able to exercise the necessary flexibility in the use of school buildings and other settings to enable the education workforce to operate in new and different ways to support learners. There are three ways in which that should be the case, and we have discussed and agreed this approach with local government.

The first is that we need to continue to support vulnerable children. We will not cut adrift vulnerable young people, who often rely on school life for hot meals or for a safe, nurturing and supportive environment.

The second is that we want to deliver as much educational continuity as possible. We want local authorities and teachers to do all that they can to ensure educational continuity for our children and young people, with a particular focus on secondary 4 to secondary 6 pupils who need to complete coursework for national qualifications. Teachers can provide educational continuity for children in the broad general education in a variety of ways, for example through setting weekly learning tasks and emailing those to families where possible, or by using the Glow website and other online learning platforms. I am confident that the teaching profession will respond in a variety of imaginative, creative and stimulating ways to support continuity in learning for pupils.

The third way relates to key workers. We are clear that we must support local authorities to put in place arrangements that ensure that the children of key workers who do not have another parent or carer at home who can look after them during the day have continuing access to all-age learning and childcare that allows their parents or carers to participate in the national response to Covid-19. For example, our doctors and nurses must continue to be available to support the fight against this virus.

I will go on to set out what that is likely to mean in practice. However, I would like to be clear about one thing—that may mean that local authorities opt to keep some settings open with reduced staffing, but operating in a very different way, or they might create local hubs and use community facilities in different ways. It might also mean that they work with private and third sector providers of childcare, including childminders, to deliver childcare to key workers. Indeed, I would strongly encourage them to prioritise the use of those facilities to ensure continued support for that critically important sector.

In all of those models, we will balance the extent of physical provision in buildings with the risk of undermining the health interventions. In doing so, we will be led by the advice of the scientific advisory group for emergencies.

Speaking specifically to parents and carers whose children do not fall into those categories, I say this: we know that this is a difficult time, and there will be support for you, too. We know that a lot of parents will be thinking about how they can balance working from home with looking after children. Those parents are not expected to be a teacher or to recreate the school day. However, we want to ensure that they feel supported to help their children, and the support to do that will be available through schools, through the provision of resources and suggestions, as the first point of call in providing that advisory support.

I highlight the excellent advice that has already been provided to children and young people by Young Scot. We will be working with a range of partners to find the best way to keep children and young people updated and supported with the latest information.

I will, of course, take questions at the end of my statement. However, I make clear now that we do not pretend to have all the answers at this stage.

We are working with local authorities and partners to ensure that vulnerable children and young people can continue to benefit from the learning, care and support that schools and nurseries provide for them.

Local authorities will need to take into account issues of child protection, welfare, poverty, children with complex additional support needs and the need to provide access to food for young people who need it. I am not going to set a definitive definition of what a vulnerable child is; our schools and local authorities know our children and families well and are best placed to identify which children need care, protection and support the most during the period that lies ahead.

In planning to support young people, the needs of young people will be taken into account. Those with complex additional support needs who are learning and living in residential special schools will continue to receive the care and support that they require. Plans will specifically take into account any long-term health conditions, in order to protect the health and wellbeing of that group. I know that local authorities are creatively considering different ways of supporting young people with different needs during this period, such as using outreach models and joining up available staff to provide care, support and continuity.

We have made great strides in recent years through increasing multiagency working, and now is the time for professionals and services to work together in new, dynamic ways that meet local needs.

All chief social work officers have been asked to ensure that special consideration is given to identifying and supporting vulnerable children at increased risk, such as those with lone parents who have become too unwell to look after their children.

We have already stated our commitment to work with local authorities to continue the provision of free school meals, which reduce costs to families and ensure the provision of healthy and nutritious food. Multiple options are being planned for by local authorities, including the successful model that is already deployed in Shetland, where direct payments and vouchers have been provided to families whose children are entitled to free school meals. Other local authorities are considering opening community campuses to provide meals or to enable young people or families to collect food.

A £350 million package of support for our communities was announced yesterday, which includes establishing a £70 million food fund to support households who are worried about accessing food. The additional funds will also support the continued provision of free school meals, ensuring the continued support, in their communities, for families who need it.

Elsewhere, we will relax the guidance on the use of pupil equity funding to provide further flexibility for headteachers and local authorities to support our most vulnerable children and their needs during this time. That flexibility will also apply to schools and local authorities that are in receipt of challenge authority and schools programme funding.

I believe that that approach, taken together with our local authority children’s services and community partners, will enable the continuation of vital support for Scotland’s vulnerable children and young people.

I turn to the 2020 exam diet. In all our history, Scotland has never cancelled the exams. Since 1888, they have been held every May or June without fail. In the midst of two world wars, the exams went ahead. It is a measure of the gravity of the challenge that we now face that I must today announce that the exams will not go ahead this year. I am aware of how significant a step that is. Indeed, it is an unprecedented one in unprecedented times. Scotland’s exam diet has never been cancelled before.

Although the protection of life is our overriding priority, we must do our utmost to ensure that we protect the interests and life chances of our young people who are due to sit exams from the end of April this year. Their achievements must be rightly and fairly recognised. I want the 2020 cohort to be able to hold their heads high and gain the qualifications and awards that they deserve after many years of hard work. I know that they will be very worried about the situation that they face and I want them to be assured that we are doing all that we can to deliver the best outcome for them.

Scotland’s chief examining officer has advised me that, with the support of the wider education system, a credible certification model can be put in place that can command confidence in the absence of the exam diet and can ensure that young people in our schools and colleges who, through no fault of their own, are unable to sit exams are in no way disadvantaged.

I anticipate that the model will use coursework, teacher assessments of estimated grades and prior attainment as the basis of certification. In order for such an approach to be effective, the Scottish Qualifications Authority will require relevant units to be completed, and coursework and teacher estimates of grades to be submitted by the agreed deadlines or sooner, where that is possible. We are facing significant disruption at this time, but I appeal to our teachers and practitioners to do all that they can—safely—to meet the deadlines to allow qualifications to be awarded to their young people.

My ask is clear: schools should submit coursework and teacher estimates as soon as they can and certainly by the dates provided. I stress that those elements form part of the suite of materials that is provided to the SQA every year when a full exam diet has been in operation.

In addition to thanking teachers for their hard work and on-going commitment, I thank the chief examining officer, Fiona Robertson, and all the staff at the SQA for their significant efforts already and for the efforts that they will deliver in achieving this task. I am aware of the scale of the task that they are facing, but I believe that it is in the best interests of our young people. They deserve to have their achievements recognised and to be able to take their next step in learning, life or work, and we cannot achieve that without the vital contribution of the SQA.

The Scottish people are key to our efforts in tackling this virus. Throughout the pandemic, we will need to ensure that provisions are in place that allow key workers, for example national health service staff, to continue to play their vital role in the national response. The workforces of our health service, our care services and our emergency services have led the way in addressing this challenge; enabling those staff to continue to work will help to save and protect lives across the country.

At a national level, we view key workers as those who work in posts that ensure that essential services can be delivered, or those who cover tasks within the local community that support the vulnerable and aid community resilience. To best serve local priorities, the exact definition of a key worker might vary across the diverse range of localities in Scotland. Urban and rural communities will rely on different key people doing their jobs in order to keep them safe, healthy and with access to the food and medicines that they need, for example.

I am humbled by some of the early and highly creative thinking of our local authority partners. It was encouraging to see that, in a response to its circumstances, Shetland Islands Council has been able to implement a hub arrangement to provide care and support for the children of key workers.

Another authority plans to create a number of hubs to provide care, learning and a range of stimulating activities for children who might be vulnerable or whose parents are key workers. Authorities are drawing together a range of staff—teachers, active schools co-ordinators, community learning and development staff and others—to provide a high-quality experience for the children who need us most during these unprecedented times.

We will continue to work with local partners and colleagues across the rest of the UK on provision for key workers as the situation develops.

On early learning and childcare provision, it is likely that many local authority nurseries will close, as I said. However, we do not expect or want all nurseries to close. Our priorities are to ensure that key workers who need childcare can continue to access it and that we sustain private and third sector providers during this period of considerable uncertainty and challenge.

We are advising private and third sector childcare providers that they can remain open, as long as they refocus their operating models to support solely the children of critical workers and families who are most in need of support. Childcare providers can make a huge contribution to enabling key workers to remain in work.

Local authorities are making plans for the provision of emergency childcare services to school-age children in their areas. In developing those plans, I have asked authorities to make maximum use of local childcare providers in the private and third sectors, so that they can keep their doors open.

The Scottish ministers are committed to supporting our private and third sector childcare providers to remain viable. We are reviewing the package of general business support measures that the United Kingdom Government announced this week and we are working closely with our partners in the sector to identify what other support we can provide.

As a first step, the First Minister guaranteed earlier today that the Scottish Government will continue funding streams that allow contractual payments to private and third sector providers, including childminders, for statutory early learning and childcare hours to continue. That is worth around £220 million to the sector in the year ahead. We are working closely with local authorities to ensure that they can adopt that position and provide assurance to providers that funding will continue as we all work together to respond to the pandemic.

The Care Inspectorate is today publishing new operational registration guidance for all services, including the children’s daycare and childminding sector, which will confirm a range of regulatory flexibilities to support the sector to function in these unprecedented times, while ensuring that the safety of children remains paramount.

Our response to the Covid-19 pandemic will clearly have an impact on the delivery of our early learning and childcare expansion commitment from August. We will provide a more detailed update to Parliament in due course. The Scottish budget delivered additional revenue funding of £201 million in 2020-21 to support local authorities in delivering the expansion to 1,140 hours. I will confirm to local authorities today that they can deploy that funding as flexibly as they need to do, to support families and childcare providers during this period.

Colleges and universities operate in different circumstances, combining learning and research. We recognise that universities and colleges are introducing measures that are intended to minimise the potential disruption for students and staff and to ensure their wellbeing. Many universities and colleges are withdrawing face-to-face teaching and are making arrangements, where possible, for online teaching. The handling of that transition on the ground—in extremely challenging circumstances—is, obviously, key to reducing stress on students and staff. We look to our colleges and universities to make appropriate decisions in relation to their operations, while prioritising the health of staff, students and the wider public.

On student funding, the Student Awards Agency Scotland has robust business continuity measures in place to ensure that its business services remain functioning. We will endeavour to continue to fund students on time. Given the nature of these unprecedented times, we will keep students updated throughout.

We are working closely with the Scottish Funding Council and institutions on business continuity actions that will support institutions, students and staff. This week, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science had additional calls with college and university principals, campus trade unions and the National Union of Students Scotland.

We will continue our engagement with local authorities, and expect to work on further details into next week. We would like to see the refocused provision for the three key groups of children and young that I have mentioned—those who are vulnerable, those who have parents and/or carers who are key workers and those who have coursework to complete for qualifications—in operation during next week.

Most, if not all, schools will have pupils in those groups, and all headteachers and staff who are well will need to be a part of the offer. Strong partnership working and clear communication between local authorities and their communities about the arrangements being put in place will be vital in the days ahead.

I understand that people will naturally want clarity on how long these measures will last for and when the education system will return to full provision. The truth is that, at this stage, we cannot know. People should not assume schools and nurseries will reopen after Easter—as the First Minister said yesterday, they may not be able to do so before the summer break. We will keep that under constant review.

I am also aware that, during holiday periods—such as Easter—many schools, local authorities and out-of-school care providers offer services for children and their families. I would, again, encourage colleagues leading those services to look at how they can continue to provide for the three key groups that I have highlighted today—looking after vulnerable children and the children of key workers; and, in the case of young people completing national qualifications, continuing with planned approaches to supporting Easter revision activities.

Now will be a time when we must pull together and harness the strength of our local communities and the various professional groups that support children and families across Scotland. The continuation of education, and the continuation of the health and wellbeing for our children and young people, should be at the centre of all that we do.

In summary, to the teachers or other education professionals listening to this, I encourage them to channel their professional knowledge and skills in different ways over the weeks and months that lie ahead. That may include teaching and learning in different ways, for example, through the use of technology. It may be that their school will operate a skeleton staff to continue to support vulnerable children or children whose parents are key workers, or their local authority may offer those services through local hubs, examples of which I have cited today.

We need our teachers and our education workforce more than ever over the weeks and months ahead, and I am confident that they will rise to the challenge with determination, creativity and, above all, with the interests of the children and young people who need them most at heart.

Following this statement, I will send a letter to all local authority chief executives and directors of education and children’s services setting out the expectations that I have discussed during this statement.

I, again, offer thanks to the local authorities for their efforts to take decisive action in the best interests of children and young people, teachers and staff. Those foundations will be invaluable as we strive to deliver the education that our children need in the most difficult of times.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I, too, thank staff who work in all places of childcare and learning.

Yesterday, the First Minister commented that closing schools and nurseries is arguably one of the most difficult decisions that a Government will ever have to take. To that, I would add that a huge light has been shone on the importance of schools and nurseries and their role in society, especially in these extraordinarily difficult times.

I do not envy the Government for some of the difficult decisions that it has had to take today, and I know that not everyone will be happy with them. However, Conservative members commit their full support to the Government on the issue. We do that today and we will do that tomorrow and every day in this unprecedented crisis. [Applause.]

I would like to pick up a few important points that have been raised in the statement. The first point relates to early years. On the assumption that the majority of publicly controlled nurseries are indeed closing, providers will be looking for absolute clarity on whether private, voluntary and independent sector nurseries are being told that they must close, and that they are able to stay open only if they offer assistance with childcare for key workers.

That leads me to the children of key workers in Scotland, which I accept is a fluid issue. Local authorities will have some flexibility, but parents will be asking where they will send their children and when, and how they will know whether they qualify.

My final point is about the important issue of SQA examinations. Given that exams are now not taking place, many parents and pupils will want to know how awards will be given, when grades will be awarded and whether that will be done in time for pupils to make the important move into further and higher education in the next academic year.

I thank Jamie Greene for the expression of support for the Government on these questions. He is absolutely right that the decisions are difficult to take. I am certain that my decision on the SQA exam diet in particular will not be universally welcomed. However, having weighed up carefully the three options that I expressed in my answer to Graham Simpson in the Parliament on Tuesday, I consider that it is by far the most robust option that we can take forward.

On early years, in my statement I tried to be as clear as I can be. We expect state schools and nurseries to close in respect of the ordinary learning activities that are undertaken there, but the buildings may of course be used to provide support for vulnerable young people and for the children of those who are key workers in the anti-virus effort.

I cannot direct PVI sector nurseries to close, but I ask them to follow the advice, which means that they should close. However, I am encouraging local authorities to work closely with the PVI sector, to identify how the children of key workers and of families with vulnerability could be supported in a different operating model in the PVI sector, if that is possible. I recognise that that alone would not provide sustainability to the PVI sector, which is why I have set out our commitment to maintain the payments to the PVI sector, despite the fact that children will not be there, to sustain income. I have also set out some flexibility around the resources that are inherent in the 2020-21 budget, which are to be deployed flexibly to try to provide sustainability. That is in addition to the measures that Fiona Hyslop set out yesterday in relation to business support in general.

Out of all that, I hope that we are able to actively support the PVI sector. The minister responsible for early years is at my side, and she will be actively engaging with the sector to ensure that we understand the difficulties and challenges.

On the second point, in relation to key workers, I would encourage any individual who has a critical contribution to make to our economy to talk first to their school or early learning setting, to identify whether they can be provided with some support to ensure that their children can be educated or cared for in this period. That will be the first port of call, and our local authorities will be supporting that effort.

On the point about the exam diet, as I set out in my statement, the chief examiner’s current thinking is that the material that will be used as part of the assessment will include the coursework that young people are ordinarily required to contribute for their exams; assessments by teachers of young people’s expected performance, which should be submitted to the SQA annually; and information about prior attainment, which is particularly relevant to higher candidates. The chief examiner will set out further details of the approach that will be taken.

On the dates, the chief examiner is working on the basis that the awards will still be made on 4 August 2020 at the latest, which will enable young people to secure university entrance. It may well be that the results can be posted at an earlier stage. If that is possible, we will try to do that. However, we will be aiming to achieve that on 4 August.

We supported the cabinet secretary in the difficult decision that he took to keep schools and nurseries open when many thought that they should be closed. That was right, and we support him in the equally difficult decision to close them now that it is right to do so. I also echo his tribute to teachers and other school and nursery workers who have kept our education establishments open in difficult times.

Many pupils have already been provided with study packs and access to online teaching resources, which will perhaps be critical given the decision on the exam diet and the importance of coursework. However, that varies from school to school and even from teacher to teacher. Surely there is a role for Education Scotland to provide some consistency of curriculum and learning opportunity nationally. What is Education Scotland’s role in this crisis?

Secondly, with regard to key workers, I hear what the cabinet secretary said—and indeed what the First Minister said earlier—said about flexibility of definition, but there is widespread confusion. Surely there is a case at least for a core list. Will key workers include supermarket workers, for example?

Finally, in the welcome agreement to continue public funding for private and independent nurseries, what assurances has the cabinet secretary sought and received from the sector regarding commensurate protection of employment and pay for those who work in those establishments?

I am grateful to Mr Gray for his support for the difficult decision that we have made and for his tribute to teachers and all the other workers in the education system, because these have been very challenging days for them, given the level of anxiety and the fact that we have managed to sustain education provision to the extent that we have. The fact that, today, we have only 16 schools closed out of 2,500 is a significant tribute to the efforts of those individuals.

In response to Mr Gray’s questions, I note that Education Scotland is fully involved in supporting individual schools and local authorities in the continuation of educational provision. Indeed, in my letter, which has probably now been issued to local authorities on my behalf, I have set out the support that is available from Education Scotland at the local level. It is important that it provides that support to individual schools and local authorities in order for the approach to be effective.

On Mr Gray’s point about key workers, we have to be careful to strike the right balance, and I tried to address that in as much detail as I could in my statement. There will be different challenges and different requirements in different parts of the country. There will be a universal requirement for healthcare workers to be involved because of the nature of the challenges that we face, but it is important that we provide sufficient flexibility for local communities to be able to take decisions that will enable individuals to make their contributions to the efforts that we need to be undertaken.

Local authorities have asked us for that degree of flexibility, and we are actively working to make sure that that is clearly understood at the local level so that we can maximise the number of individuals who can be supported to make the contribution to the efforts that we need them to contribute to.

An inordinate number of members want to ask questions and I do not think that we are going to get through them all. I suggest that, if people feel that their question has been answered in response to a previous questioner, they withdraw. That might help. I also ask members to make their questions as short as possible.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and the commitment on the funding to deliver Government commitments from the private sector.

Can we have a bit more detail about the advice that will be given when people are being asked to change their practices? We do not want to move the risk that is associated with keeping the schools open into a different place in the community. What advice will be given to private nurseries, after-school clubs and childminders, who might be expanding or changing their model of working from today? What impact—if any—will there be on parents who enter into pooling arrangements for their childcare under legislation on disclosure or child protection?

A key point to be observed in all the issues that Clare Adamson raises is the general health advice that was given on Monday. At First Minister’s question time, the First Minister went into detail on the components of that general health advice, and I reinforce the point that, in all settings and circumstances, it must be followed. That will be critical in enabling us to overcome the coronavirus outbreak.

In relation to individual settings, careful account must be taken of the health advice by anybody who is operating in them, whether that be a headteacher in a school or a childminder in their own home.

On Clare Adamson’s final point about parents providing childminding facilities for a number of children, that would have to be considered very carefully by individual families, because of the general health advice.

There will be a little change to what I said. I will take Willie Rennie, followed by Ross Greer.

I thank the education secretary for advance sight of his statement, especially as he prepared it during difficult personal circumstances.

With a 15-year-old son who is preparing for his nat 5s right now, I have a bit of a window into the practical as well as the emotional issues that are at play. However, I want to press the education secretary a little bit further on the issue of key workers, because it is important. Will there need to be a bit of self-declaration, or will line managers and employers have a role? Will councils make the designation if it is not going to be made centrally?

On nurseries, we have talked about the flexibility of the regulations. Does that mean that we are changing the ratio of nursery teachers to pupils? Is there any limit on that change if it is the case?

I am grateful to Mr Rennie for his opening remarks.

On the first point, about key workers, we must be able to leave room for local flexibility in establishing the key skills that will be required in individual localities around the country. We also have to balance that against creating a list of key tasks that does not narrow down those who might be eligible.

That leads to the second point that Mr Rennie raised. There will be limited provision available to accommodate children within the education and early learning system. If we do not limit provision, we will defeat the object of closing schools and nurseries. There is a fine balance to be struck there, and what must be the controlling influence in that judgment is scientific opinion about what will help to tackle the virus and what will hinder tackling it. Mr Rennie should not therefore think that there will be a dramatic change to the operating model, to somehow allow more children to be accommodated; it will be quite the reverse.

Like my colleagues, I thank the Deputy First Minister for his work.

I appreciate the work that councils are doing to look at cash and voucher systems and collection points for free school meals, but I emphasise the need for home delivery capacity. Whether it is because of chaotic households where barriers to feeding children are more than just financial, restricted access to shops without public transport, the need for self-isolation, or the stigma of having to go and collect a meal, direct delivery provision will be essential for some children and families. Does the Deputy First Minister agree with that, and will the Scottish Government work with councils and others to ensure that direct delivery is available?

The approach that we have taken, which has been welcomed by local authorities, is to give local authorities the maximum amount of flexibility to determine what will work. Mr Greer raises very fair points about the necessity of ensuring that food gets to young people. One of the biggest issues that I have worried about in making this decision is getting food to young people for whom, without a word of exaggeration, school is the only place where they get a decent meal. We have to make sure that that provision is maintained for the wellbeing of children and young people.

I know that local authorities are exploring the option that Mr Greer has put forward, and there is no barrier to their pursuing that option in the steps that the Government is taking. I use this opportunity to encourage local authorities to consider the suggestions that Mr Greer has made.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the significant impact that home learning can have on parents and guardians. Will he provide further assurances on the support that will be made available to them?

A variety of forms of support will be available from individual schools. Yesterday morning, before the Government made it clear that we intended to close schools, my wife and I received an email from my son’s school, advising us of further details about access to home-learning materials, in case the schools were going to be closed. I know that that approach has been replicated around the country. Such mechanisms will be available, but, of course, some young people will not have access to digital materials. Schools must understand that and ensure that those young people have access to the materials.

Some very good advice is available online through Parent Club, which is a superb resource that gives good, practical and constructive advice to parents about home learning and other aspects of supporting children. I encourage parents to use that resource.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary and others will join me in welcoming the many offers that have been made on social media by current and former teachers to provide advice and support to parents who are helping to educate their children at home throughout this situation.

Will the cabinet secretary outline the role that online learning will play, where additional support might be needed to facilitate it and whether organisations such as the Open University and other remote learning providers will be utilised?

I very much welcome the offers that have been made by various members of the teaching profession. Obviously, we are in a completely different position in handling such an event compared with where we would have been 10 or 20 years ago, due to digital connectivity. We have very extensive connectivity in our country—it is not universal, but it is very extensive. A whole range of digital learning supports are available, alongside the direct support that will be available from individual schools. If that support for young people is reinforced by other providers, sources of learning material and teachers who are living in communities, that will be very welcome.

Of course, there will be active participation in learning by teachers who remain well throughout and who can sit at their own keyboards. From my personal experience, I know that we get materials on support mechanisms at all times of the evening and in the early morning from teaching staff who are at home. Going forward, there will be an opportunity to pursue such an approach, and I know that many members of the teaching profession will be committed to doing exactly that.

Our schools are really good at supporting young people who are transitioning from primary to secondary school. Tomorrow, there will be lots of primary 7 pupils wondering whether it is the last time that they will walk through their school gates. That will be an emotional issue for some members in the chamber.

What support will be in place for those young people and their families? With regard to the brilliant access to free period products in our school estate, what arrangements are in place to ensure that young people can access such products?

Monica Lennon’s point on transitioning is really significant. Our schools have done a superb job in changing the ways in which we support young people to move from primary to secondary school, to make it as seamless as possible. It is one of the issues that we will have to deal with.

Monica Lennon will understand that I am not yet thinking about the end of June. I have barely got to the end of Thursday. We must think carefully about that dialogue with local authorities, because we cannot have young people missing out on the precious experience of leaving their primary schools, celebrating that and moving seamlessly into secondary school. If she will forgive me, I say that in response to both of her questions. We will have to get round to thinking through the issues of transition.

The issue of free period products illustrates the pivotal role that schools play in our society and is a perfect example of how schools do more than just deliver education. Our local authorities are focused on ensuring the wellbeing of young people, and, as part of that approach, I will ensure that such issues are reflected in their priorities.

My question follows Monica Lennon’s point about transition. I declare an interest as the parent of a child with additional support needs who is moving from P7 to secondary 1.

For children with complex additional needs, the transition process is often long and needs to be handled carefully to enable acclimatisation to a new school environment, timetable and way of working. My son recently had his first transition meeting at school, but that process has now been put into limbo. I appreciate that it is a longer-term consideration, but will the cabinet secretary consider flexibility at the start of the coming educational year for those pupils who require a longer lead-in for transition than mainstream P7 pupils require?

Before I answer the specific point that Mark McDonald raises, I acknowledge the significance of the general disruption that the school closures will bring for pupils with additional support needs. I saw that over the summer, when I was dealing with the issues at St Ambrose high school in Coatbridge and the associated secondary school that provides education for young people with additional support needs. The young people were disorientated by the loss of their school, which was an anchor in their educational experience. We have to be mindful of that.

As I look at the transition issues, I will give consideration to the specific point that Mark McDonald has raised, to ensure that we minimise the disruption for young people and maximise the continuity of their education, which is so important to young people with additional support needs.

The cabinet secretary has mentioned that many pupils will feel anxious during this time, which could have an impact on their mental health. Can he provide assurances of the support that will be available for young people’s mental health?

We are in a difficult place as a country, because, as a consequence of the advice that we are all having to follow, people will have less social contact and less opportunity to access support services. Within our communities, it is important that we do everything that we can to support individuals, and, where it is safe and practical to do so, that we give the young people whom I cited—in relation to their anxiety about the examination process or the changes that I announced today—access to the support mechanisms that are available around our schools.

Our schools are broad and diverse communities that provide a range of services to young people. We should ensure that young people can access those services where it is safe to do so, but we must always be mindful of the health advice in that respect.

I have two quick questions. Many workers in the early learning PVI sector will also be parents, or they might be self-isolating or off sick for other reasons. Has the cabinet secretary given any thought to whether state sector workers who will be off if their settings are closed can backfill in the PVI sector?

Will the children who do not pull their socks up until the last minute for their exams get a chance to resit them?

Michelle Ballantyne sometimes has a beautiful turn of phrase. Edward Mountain is confessing that he is one of those people. I encourage him to try harder. [Laughter.]

In all seriousness, Michelle Ballantyne has raised a very significant issue, and the chief examiner will be mindful of all those questions as she considers the approach to take. In all the judgments that we take, it is important that we give due consideration to whether young people are being given a fair opportunity to have their work and contribution assessed. If we do not judge that to be the case, we must find other ways of ensuring that young people are able to progress in their learning. I will relay that particular point to the chief examiner.

On the first point that Michelle Ballantyne raised, about the sustainability of the PVI sector, I hope that I said enough in my statement about the Government’s keenness and enthusiasm to ensure that we sustain it through what I acknowledge will be a very difficult period. Michelle Ballantyne made a suggestion about how that might be made practical and possible, which we will add into the discussions. The Minister for Children and Young People will also take that forward in the dialogue that will happen with local authorities.

With so many teaching and ancillary staff likely to be at home, probably for some months, what steps are being taken to maintain the skills of those staff? In addition, is the Scottish Government examining how staff could be redeployed in the meantime to help their communities during the current crisis?

Last night, I saw the director of education of Glasgow City Council being interviewed on television. It was interesting to hear her talk about how the council had invited offers of volunteering from members of the teaching staff and had an overwhelming response.

Some members of the teaching profession will not be well and some will have commitments that make it impossible for them to contribute, However, where it is possible and where they are able to do so, I am certain that members of the teaching staff will make that contribution to our wider community.

One of the issues that we are always wrestling with in the education system is finding enough time for teachers to take forward professional development. Well, there will certainly be a bit more time available in the weeks ahead, and there are plenty of digital learning opportunities through which professional development can be taken forward. Once we get the model stabilised and operating, I am certain that there will be an appetite among members of staff to continue to develop their professional practice, for which they can of course achieve accreditation with the General Teaching Council of Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of my grave concern about the decision. Although I know that he will have taken it in the best of faith and with real seriousness, I confess that I am very troubled and upset about what I fear will be its long-term and serious consequences for the life chances and opportunities of some of our young people. There is not only a digital divide; there are also all sorts of other inequalities that I fear will be reinforced over this period.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that he will keep the decision under the closest review and, in the medium term, will he plan for addressing those consequences when this is over? Specifically, does he—as I do—recognise that individual schools matter to individual families? Will he confirm the benefits of keeping open as many local schools as possible, because they are seen by many families as a source of support and advice that they can trust? Will he also confirm what he believes to be the responsibility of individual schools to communicate directly and regularly with all families for whom they have a responsibility?

I recognise the strength of feeling that Johann Lamont has on that question. I think that she knows how difficult it was for me to take this decision. Johann Lamont also knows of the policy commitment of the Government to work to close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is my policy focus today, it will be my policy focus at the end of this crisis, and it will be my policy to protect that focus throughout the handling of this crisis, because I want to see no damage done to the life chances of any young people in Scotland, particularly those who come from the most deprived areas.

We will be working hard to sustain education provision as effectively as possible. There is an argument that schools should be able to provide, in a more limited way, the support that Johann Lamont has talked about in their localities. In the approach that we have taken, we have left sufficient flexibility to enable that to be taken forward at local level. It is important that schools communicate with individual families. Schools know their people, and they must support them as effectively as possible. We will create the assistance and support and deliver the flexibility to enable that to happen.

I particularly welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to set aside £220 million for the PVI sector, because it is extremely important that we maintain capacity for the longer-term expansion of early years nursery education. However, can he give a commitment that the payments will be made timeously and indeed urgently? Will he consider sending the payments directly to individual nurseries rather than through local authorities, because that could involve unnecessary delay?

I will explore that, but the existing payment channels are through local authorities, and my judgment is that we might slow things up if we were to make payments on their behalf. However, I will stress the urgency of the issue that Mr Neil raises. There is no good reason for any delay, because the money is in the system and is committed, so it should be possible to distribute it. I will endeavour to ensure that the payments are made timeously to address the significant point that Mr Neil makes.

These are, indeed, exceptional times. I want to mention the exceptional support that is given to vulnerable and additional support needs pupils in the Highlands, which is held in high regard. School closures have caused concerns among pupils in those groups and their parents. The cabinet secretary has indicated what he intends to do, but will he shed a bit more light on what support he would like to be given to those pupils and their families during this time?

Some of the additional support needs provision should be able to operate in a manner that is fairly consistent with the existing model, as long as that is consistent with the health advice that is being issued. To go back to the answers that I gave to Mark McDonald and Ross Greer about additional support needs pupils, the situation is disruptive for everybody, but it is very disruptive for young people with additional support needs. We therefore have to ensure that we do everything we can to minimise the disruption. The opportunities exist. As I have done in my statement today, we will encourage local authorities to maintain as much continuity as possible.

Given that, as the cabinet secretary has said, we are going to need our teachers more than ever, will he talk to the General Teaching Council for Scotland about the requirement for probationer teachers to complete a full school year in order to achieve full registration and join the teaching workforce permanently in the autumn? In the meantime, will he ensure that probationer teachers continue to be employed and paid?

There is absolutely no reason why probationary teachers should not continue to be employed, but I do not have the answer to that at the front of my head, so I will check for Mr Macdonald and write to him after the meeting. Certainly, those probationary teachers should be paid—there is no way that they should suffer disadvantage of that type.

On the regulatory requirements, this is probably trespassing on territory where I should not be, but I will just say that I think that it would be unreasonable for the General Teaching Council not to accredit probationary teachers with a full year of probation because, through no fault of their own, their opportunity has been interrupted. On Monday, the General Teaching Council and the Scottish Council of Deans of Education withdrew teachers who were on placement and said that, provided that they have achieved the necessary standard, they will be judged to have completed their placement activity, even though it has been concluded early. The logic of that decision is that probationary teachers should be confident that this year has been secured, but I will confirm that in writing.

I have decided to allow questions to run until 10 past three, but no later.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the quality of prelims varies hugely from school to school and from subject to subject. His statement refers to

“coursework, teacher assessments of estimated grades and prior attainment”

being used. I have two questions. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that no pupil will be disadvantaged because of such variation, and that some form of quality assurance will be put in place?

Secondly, can he confirm that any difficulties that are faced by pupils in submitting coursework due to home or family circumstances will be taken into account?

Quality assurance will have to be an intrinsic part of the alternative certification model. The chief examiner is exploring all such questions as she develops the process that will give us a diet about which we can be confident. That was the standard that I asked that it be tested against, and I have been given the assurance that that is possible, but it will require that quality assurance be put in place.

The second issue is important. We need to make sure that the situation is tackled in a way that recognises the contribution that young people have made. There might be issues of performance that have to be taken into account in assessment of the coursework that young people have completed. Obviously, there must be mechanisms in place for young people to question the results that emerge from the process, as there is in any exam diet that we take forward. Further details on that will be issued in due course.

I declare an interest in that I am married to a primary school teacher. Provision for key workers will need to continue throughout the Easter holidays and, probably, the summer holidays. How will we provide teachers and pupils with a break during that time, and how will it be decided which teachers will provide cover in person?

Fundamentally, that can work only if we deploy flexibility at local level. I am confident that I would not, if I were to sit in St Andrew’s house trying to decide exactly how this is going to work across Scotland, get it all right. Therefore, we have to delegate such judgments down to local level. I am sure that the genuine questions that Mr Cole-Hamilton raises can be considered as part of that process.

Bailey-Lee Robb, who is the member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for the Cowdenbeath constituency, on his own initiative posted a video clip at lunch time today seeking to reassure his fellow young people in schools across Fife. That seems to me to be an excellent initiative. What can the cabinet secretary do to encourage more such initiatives, so that we provide much-needed reassurance to young people across Scotland?

That is a welcome example of how young people can reassure each other at peer-group level. We spend a great deal of our time working with organisations such as Young Scot on giving reassurance in order to provide trusted and safe encouragement to young people around the country. We will certainly continue to do that. Some very good material on the coronavirus was broadcast the other day as a consequence of the partnership between Young Scot and the Government, which involved Professor Jason Leitch. There is a host of opportunities to do that, and I will certainly take forward Annabelle Ewing’s suggestion.

I will follow on from Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question. I appreciate that the matter cannot be dealt with from Edinburgh, but with the schools closing from tomorrow afternoon, there will be parents who do not have access to email or other ways of communicating. What advice can we give to local authorities on keeping informed parents who do not have access to the devices that many of us have? Questions will come up over the next few weeks and months to which people will want answers, and I appreciate that phoning the local authority and getting through to the right person can often be difficult.

It is absolutely vital that schools know their young people and their families, and that they have reliable and trusted means of communicating with all those people. For some, that will ordinarily be straightforward and will involve use of digital communication, but for others it might require telephone calls or written communication. I encourage all schools to maintain dialogue, to reach individual young people and their families, and to make sure that they can access the information and support that they require.

If we are to get through the current situation successfully, we will need our key workers to continue to be at work. Currently, we are relying on people who are suspected of having a highly infectious disease to self-diagnose. Is the Government looking at the Irish Government’s approach? It has set up testing centres to which people can be referred by their general practitioner, and where they can be diagnosed very quickly. That would enable us to ensure that key workers such as teachers and health professionals could get back to work.

Mr Findlay makes an important point, which is addressed fundamentally by the commitments that the First Minister gave at First Minister’s question time, and which have been set out in more detail by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport.

It is important that we understand the path and pattern of the virus so that we can take all necessary action. That has led us to the very difficult decision to close the schools. The issue that Mr Findlay raises is important and is being addressed as part of the Government’s priorities.

The other day, I asked the cabinet secretary what is to be done for final-year university students, and I ask him that again. His answer was that it is up to the universities. That is true, but thousands of final-year students still do not know whether they will be able to sit their exams or how they will graduate. Therefore, I urge the cabinet secretary to speak to the university sector to ensure that those students get the information that they need in the next few days.

I am glad that Mr Simpson acknowledges that what I said to him the other day is true, because it is. If I were to start specifying to universities the means by which they should assess their degrees, we would be in a different world altogether. I see a member of Parliament who is remotely connected to a university that is not far from Mr Simpson’s area nodding to indicate that I might be in the right space with that answer. That is encouraging, to say the least.

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science has been in dialogue with the principals of universities and colleges. Individual universities are using a variety of methods, including online certification, to ensure that students can complete their courses. Communication on that is being undertaken directly by individual institutions, but because Mr Simpson has raised the point so emphatically with me on two occasions this week, I will make sure that Mr Lochhead reiterates to the universities the need to address the matter.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his statement, which is about creating safety not only for pupils and teachers, but for the families who come into contact with them.

Mr Swinney rightly mentioned key workers. What consideration has been given to key workers who are not in the public sector—such as care workers who work for third sector organisations—and the support that can be given to them, especially if they have caring responsibilities?

That is one of our reasons for not being as prescriptive about the definition of “key workers” as some people might like us to be, because the role of workers such as those to whom Mr Sarwar refers might well be a more significant consideration in one part of the country than it is in another.

I hope that the definition that we are working within with our local authority partners gives the necessary flexibility and enables us to provide the support and assistance that are required in all circumstances.

We have time to squeeze in a final question from Fulton MacGregor.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his leadership on the issue.

I want to raise a subject that has just been raised with me. Will any consideration be given to the special circumstances of students who have experienced illness or other circumstances that were outwith their control in the earlier part of the school year? Is that something that the chief examiner might take into account?

Provision is always made for the individual circumstances of pupils to be taken into account by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. For example, Woodmill high school in Dunfermline and Peebles high school in the Borders have been affected by fire in the past year, and discussions have taken place with the SQA about making sure that those schools’ young people are not in any way disadvantaged by those incidents.

That concludes the questions on the cabinet secretary’s statement on education. We will move on to the next item of business as quickly as possible.