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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 20 September 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Economy (EU Referendum), Decision Time, Eye Health Week


Topical Question Time

Teaching Practice Placements (University of Strathclyde)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the teaching practice placements for teacher training students at the University of Strathclyde, which were due to have started on 19 September. (S5T-00070)

Earlier today, 100 University of Strathclyde students were yet to have their placements confirmed. Student teacher placements are arranged using the student placement system, which enables the matching of student teachers to school places throughout Scotland. The General Teaching Council for Scotland hosts the student placement system, but the system is entirely reliant on universities providing good information about students and local authorities providing adequate places for students in schools for successful matches to be made.

Supporting student teachers is a fundamental professional responsibility of local authorities, schools and experienced teachers. I expect all schools to be willing to offer placements to students. It is vital that there is co-operation between the General Teaching Council, universities, local authorities and schools to ensure that sufficient places are secured. I have discussed the matter with the chief executive of the GTC and he has assured me that everything possible is being done to secure placements for the students concerned as quickly as possible. My officials have discussed the issue with the GTC, the University of Strathclyde and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and are continuing to work with those bodies to deliver an early solution to the problem.

It emerged this morning from a report in The Herald that more than 110 students at universities across Scotland, not just the University of Strathclyde, were unable to begin school placements yesterday, and dozens of those students locked out of the classroom have been in touch with me for assistance. I have dozens of emails. One of the students wrote:

“I have not been able to get a confirmed school ... I am now sitting in my University library feeling that Scotland hates its new teachers, and that talent and potential is being wasted.”

Those are emotional words. What assurances can the minister give to reassure the students currently without a placement that they will very soon be allocated one that will allow them to fulfil their training requirements? Can a deadline be given for that action?

The first thing that I want to say is that I understand entirely the frustration of the young people who are affected in that way and I find it wholly and utterly unacceptable that this situation has arisen. Monica Lennon will understand, as I explained in my first answer, that the system is reliant entirely on universities providing good information about students and local authorities providing adequate numbers of places for students in schools. They therefore have the responsibility to ensure that the system works adequately and effectively, which means that sufficient placements should be identified within schools, and universities should be able to identify the correct information on individual candidates in order to secure a resolution.

What I can assure Monica Lennon is that a substantial number of placements have already been arranged. There are 6,526 students in the cohort currently seeking placements and the data that I have available to me shows that 128 students require to be placed around the whole of Scotland, so the overwhelming majority of placements have been secured. However, that is not good enough for the 128 young people who are affected by the current problem.

As I explained in my previous answer, I have discussed the issue with the General Teaching Council for Scotland, which hosts and facilitates the system, but it is entirely dependent on the universities, and on the schools coming up with the placements. A number of actions have been identified to advance the issue. The General Teaching Council has asked School Leaders Scotland to communicate with its members, who are principally head teachers and senior management teams in schools, to encourage them to offer placements. The University of Strathclyde will engage directly with local authorities to identify placement matches for students. The Association of Directors of Education has agreed to communicate with all directors of education in the western partnership and encourage them to offer placements, and the General Teaching Council will facilitate a manual placement process to ensure a quick turnaround.

The Government will take follow-up action to ensure that those actions are being taken to try to draw this matter to a close as quickly as we can.

Again, I welcome some of those remarks. These students are our next generation of teachers and a practice placement is a vital part of their training to ensure that they are equipped to meet the targets set by the Scottish attainment challenge. However, it is not the first time that this situation has happened. When similar issues with practice placements emerged in September 2014, the GTC said that the new system required time to address the issues to lead to a smoother operation in the future. It is now two years down the line and the students on placement now, or who are hoping to be on placement, will have further placements throughout the rest of the year. Can we be assured that the Scottish Government will exhaust all avenues to make sure that the student placement system leaves no student behind?

I have every interest in ensuring the successful placement of aspiring teachers in the system, but I would have thought that that would have been the priority for everybody. We are experiencing just now—we hear points about this in Parliament—a shortage of teachers, which therefore suggests to me the importance that every local authority in the country must attach to ensuring that there are adequate numbers of school placements available for trainee teachers.

I cannot direct schools to make placements available; local authorities run Scotland’s schools and they must take responsibility for ensuring that an adequate number of places are available. It is in all our interests to ensure that there are placements for young people so that they can get on with their teacher training and fill the vacancies that exist in the teaching profession.

I am absolutely committed to ensuring that these young people are able to fulfil their teacher training, but I call on Scotland’s universities and local authorities to do what is entirely within their responsibility—to ensure that there are an adequate number of school placements available and that there is good-quality information from universities to resolve the issue. In that way, we will be able to do what Monica Lennon rightly asked for in her question: ensure that these aspiring teachers can make a substantial contribution to the future of Scottish education. That is what I want to see them do.

I, too, have had a number of constituents raise concerns with me over the matter. Cabinet secretary, I am glad that you have clarified that the system is run by universities in partnership with councils. Some of the questions that have been raised today should be put to the appropriate local authorities.

As Monica Lennon has described, this has happened before. If local authorities cannot deliver, is it time that we reviewed the process to ensure that a process that is so important to teachers who are under training is carried out effectively?

I refer Mr Crawford to one of my answers to Monica Lennon. The overwhelming majority of placements have been undertaken in a timely fashion. However, a number of aspiring teachers have not been able to secure their placements, which is frankly not acceptable to me. I will ensure that the actions that I have set out, which I have agreed will be taken forward, will be pursued by the relevant bodies. I will remain very close to this. I stress to those who complain to me about the shortage of teachers that it is in everybody’s interests to take all necessary action to ensure that we can properly place teachers in our schools and enable those individuals to make a contribution to the future of Scottish education.