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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 21 April 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19 (Health), Covid-19 (Justice), Covid-19 (Economy), Topical Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Schools (Reopening)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of press reports of consideration being given to partially reopening schools in mid-May, what plans it has to do so in Scotland. (S5T-02101)

Schools will remain closed until further notice due to the impact of Covid-19. However, this is under constant review. Any decision that we take to reopen our schools will be guided by the science and will include engagement with our local government partners.

As the First Minister has stated, we hope to be able to provide an update to the public in the coming week on the principles of our exit strategy. In the meantime, new guidance was published yesterday to support the home learning of children and young people in the new term.

I welcome the minister’s and the Government’s caution: that is the right approach, but we could do with more clarity. On the radio this morning, the education secretary suggested that schools would stay closed at least until the summer break. We need to plan how we will reopen schools, even if we do not know when we will be able to do so. We need to know what must be in place to allow reopening and how we phase that, how we can ensure the safety of pupils, teachers and support staff, and how we can recover at least some of the lost educational ground. What plans are being made now on how schools can return?

The decision to close schools across Scotland was based on scientific advice that doing so would help to slow the spread of coronavirus. Ahead of that decision being taken, Scottish ministers consulted the chief medical officer and the scientific advisory group for emergencies and engaged with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Education Scotland, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the teaching unions. Whatever decision we take will also be based on public health advice and in dialogue with all those partners.

The Deputy First Minister will have discussions with many of those partners later this week about the issues that need to be considered when managing the eventual reopening of schools. As has been stated many times this week, the First Minister will give more detail later in the week about how we might lift the restrictions that we currently face. However, schools are currently closed and will remain closed for the foreseeable future and the Scottish Government will not risk undermining the effectiveness of the steps that we have taken in halting the spread of the virus.

The First Minister promised us a grown-up conversation about planning for how lockdown will be raised. It would be helpful if some of those discussions were rather more public than the minister is suggesting.

This week, we also saw how wide the attainment gap remains. Pupils from prosperous areas are more likely to achieve five highers than those in deprived communities, who are likely to get just one. Every day of school closure will only widen that gap. When schools return, what new and additional efforts will the Scottish Government make to try to repair that damage?

Let me be absolutely clear that closing the poverty-related attainment gap is the defining mission of this Government. Our commitment to that will remain consistent throughout and beyond this challenging period. We are not waiting until the schools open and are currently working very hard on that particular issue. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a strong focus on equity and excellence, which is why we are continuing with our commitment to invest £182 million from the attainment Scotland fund in 2020-21.

We have also provided local authorities with guidance on flexibility to redirect resources that are aimed at closing the attainment gap to help to mitigate the impacts of school closures on our most disadvantaged families. There will be as much of that as we can possibly manage, because we recognise the disadvantage for many families, who are in a very difficult learning situation at the moment. We are providing as much support as we can to teachers, to families and to children themselves.

Sweden has never closed its primary schools, and Denmark has begun reopening them. According to research by the University of Munich, among others, due to the underexpression of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 regulators in children’s lungs, the physiology of young children makes them less likely to catch Covid-19 and, if they do, to spread it to adults. Is the reopening of nursery and primary schools therefore likely to be scheduled before the reopening of secondary schools, where the risk is greater?

I never expected to go back to my pharmacy physiology days and to be thinking about angiotensin receptors when answering a question in the chamber.

Let me be absolutely clear that the decision to close schools was taken with the best scientific advice that we have in Scotland, and the decision to reopen them will also be taken with that scientific advice. The member is right that the physiology of children does not differ between countries, but the school learning environment may well differ. In fact, there are an awful lot of adults in schools, as well as children.

The Deputy First Minister stated this morning that schools will not open until at least July. Given that lockdown measures may ease before then, what specific criteria have already been applied by the Government that informed the decision announced today? If it transpires that schools in Scotland remain closed when schools in other parts of the United Kingdom are open, will the Scottish Government be transparent with us and the wider public about the rationale behind any such divergence?

The Scottish Government will be very clear about the need for any changes to school closures. The Deputy First Minister was absolutely clear this morning that schools are closed for the foreseeable future, and that the decision to reopen schools will be taken with medical and scientific advice, and in partnership with COSLA, Education Scotland, ADES, SOLACE and the teaching unions. The Deputy First Minister has planned meetings with those partners later this week. There will be transparency about what sort of things need to be managed in order for us to safely reopen schools. The First Minister will set out by the end of this week a plan for the country for removing some of the current restrictions and what needs to happen for those restrictions to be lifted.

There is great concern that the attainment gap will increase while schools are closed and that those in our most deprived communities will suffer the most, as they always do. What additional support—not previously announced support—will be provided to ensure that we close the attainment gap, particularly for those pupils?

I mentioned in response to an earlier question that we are not waiting until schools reopen to tackle that issue. We have provided local authorities with flexibility to redirect resources, right now, that are aimed at closing the attainment gap to help to mitigate the effect of school closures on our most disadvantaged families. That includes flexible use of attainment Scotland funding, pupil equity funding, challenge authority funding, schools programme funding and care-experienced children and young people funding, all of which can play an important part in mitigating the impact of home learning arrangements, which might prove more challenging for our most disadvantaged families to adapt to.

Schools and local authorities are already applying the additional funding flexibility to support disadvantaged learners, including, for example, the provision of laptops and tablets to support digital learning at home, the purchase and delivery of books and other learning materials to children at home, the provision of transport to enable some learners to attend local authority hubs, and support for home-school link workers to maintain regular contact with their children. Those are just a handful of examples of the work that is going on.

Schools (Equal Access to Learning)

To ask the Scottish Government, with the school term resuming, whether it will provide an update on how it is ensuring equal access to learning, including for those with additional support needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds. (S5T-02102)

On Monday 20 April, the Scottish Government published comprehensive guidance to help to support continuity for children and for young people’s learning for the term ahead.

The guidance is for pupils, parents and teachers and was prepared by the Scottish Government and Education Scotland, with helpful advice and input from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and professional associations. It gives an overview of the measures that are in place and the steps that are being taken at the national and local levels to support children and young people in Scotland.

We recognise that children and young people with additional support needs may be finding this time particularly challenging. We have developed advice for parents and carers to enable them to support children and young people with additional support needs when learning at home. The advice will be published by the end of this week on the Parent Club’s coronavirus hub.

We also recognise and value the efforts that colleagues across the country have made to support our most disadvantaged children. As I said in answer to a previous question, the Scottish Government has provided local authorities with flexibility to redirect resources aimed at closing the attainment gap to help t mitigate the impacts of school closures on our most disadvantaged families.

I remind the chamber that I am married to a primary school teacher who is working at the key worker childcare hubs.

It was a heroic effort on the part of our teachers and parents to get learning in place for the 10 days before Easter, but we are now entering a 10-week term with the very real possibility that remote learning may be required throughout. We know how fast children develop and that attainment gaps can widen quickly without proper teaching. Some pupils will be keenly feeling the loss of classroom structure and other support services. One father has told me that there is limited availability online of material that is suitable for his daughter, who needs one-to-one support, with material involving Makaton sign language and other provision. Requests for more material that he and the rest of his family have made have yet to bear fruit. Will the minister ensure that videos and other resources are available online to help children with moderate learning difficulties?

Absolutely. The families of vulnerable children, including some children with additional support needs, have access to childcare through local authority hubs, as Alex Cole-Hamilton mentioned. Support and advice are being provided to the parents of children with additional support needs through the Scottish Government’s Parent Club website and by a whole range of partner organisations, including CALL Scotland, Dyslexia Scotland, Reach and Enquire. Alex Cole-Hamilton’s constituent should be able to find some support from some of those partner organisations, but he is more than welcome to come back to us if his constituent is struggling to find the support that is required.

A month ago, the education secretary told Parliament that vulnerable children would be supported, but he explained that he was not going to be prescriptive about who they were or what form that support would take. Can the minister update the chamber on how many children have been identified by local authorities, how the system is responding to parents who do not engage or who disagree with the needs assessment and how she is ensuring that no child will fall through the cracks?

As Alex Cole-Hamilton can imagine, a great deal of work is going on in Government to identify, reach and support the children we consider vulnerable. However, at the moment, because of the restrictions on every person in society in Scotland, most families do not want their children to leave their home, go to a hub and be supported outside the family. Almost all families have responded to the current threat and the current situation with a sense of wanting to keep everyone safe at home.

We are looking at supporting families in different ways from those that we perhaps originally envisaged at the beginning of the pandemic response. The flexible approach to free school meal provision has been remarkable: some of that provision is happening in school buildings; some is delivered from schools to homes; some is provided through e-vouchers; and some is provided through cash if a family is in a rural area where they are unable to use vouchers or certain supermarket tokens. The flexibility that our local authority partners have brought to the challenges is remarkable. About 140,000 children in Scotland are currently benefiting from free school meals.

I have been contacted by teachers who are concerned that there are still young people in Scotland who do not have access to home broadband or laptops. I have taken on board what the minister has said, but what can the Scottish Government do to make sure that those young people have such access in future?

That is an excellent question. As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I commend Highland Council’s decision a number of years ago to provide Chromebooks to the whole learning population in the Highlands. That caused a great deal of controversy at the time but looks an absolute masterstroke given the current situation.

Great examples have emerged across Scotland of how to tackle the challenge of children not having access to devices or broadband. Led by Aileen Campbell and through the Scottish Government’s no one left behind project, work is being undertaken with industry and other partners to identify and support digitally excluded households. More support will follow this term, building on the positive feedback to date and taking account of the continuing priorities that teachers and other practitioners identify.

Yesterday, the Scottish Qualifications Authority published information on how it will award qualifications, including the information that its appeals service will be based on assessment evidence. However, prelims are taken across Scotland in a wide variety of ways, and any appeals process that is based on that information must ensure that pupils are not unfairly penalised for poor-quality prelim papers or mock exams that they took earlier than their peers. Can the minister clarify how those issues will be taken into account?

I call Maree Todd to answer, but that supplementary was a little wide of the question.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I think that everyone agrees that exceptional circumstances mean that the 2020 exam diet cannot go ahead—it is very clear that it cannot do so. The certification model that the SQA is developing will allow the hard work of learners to be recognised and qualifications awarded. Teachers and lecturers are being asked to make important decisions about how learners might have performed in the exams that they were due to sit this year. To ensure the integrity of the awards, it is right and important that the SQA will be able to check out and validate the teacher and lecturer estimates. That process is being designed to promote fairness and ensure that an A in one school is the same as an A in any other school, that a B in one school is the same as a B in any other school, and so on. The process is being laid out and is as fair as we can possibly make it in the circumstances that we face.

Young People’s Mental Wellbeing

To ask the Scottish Government what steps are being taken to support young people’s mental wellbeing during the Covid-19 outbreak. (S5T-02103)

We know that closing schools and placing restrictions on everyday life have been difficult for everyone and in particular for children and young people. We want guidance and help to be available for anyone who needs them.

The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic means that local authorities are rightly focusing on providing adequate and effective support for our most vulnerable young people. Counsellors and educational psychologists are a key part of that support.

We want to make sure that anyone who needs support can access appropriate services. We are working to support mental health staff to maintain the integrity and quality of services across Scotland during the pandemic. Child and adolescent mental health services continue to support children and young people who are in need of specialist support, although there will be adjustments in how that is delivered to accommodate Covid restrictions

Last week, we launched a digital resource to help children and young people learn about the healthy use of screens and social media. The Mind Yer Time resource will support mental and physical health online. That is especially important now and will continue to be in the future.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many third sector organisations across Scotland that are helping to support many people and their families at this time. We know that waiting times for children’s mental health services in Scotland have doubled over the past decade, so we must act now to develop the support that will be needed as we come out of the Covid-19 lockdown. How many young people have been referred to CAMHS in Scotland during the lockdown? What work have ministers undertaken to increase access to distress brief intervention services?

I, too, pay tribute to the third sector organisations that have supported the mental health and wellbeing of the people of Scotland before and during the pandemic and that will continue to do so after it.

I do not have the specific figures that Miles Briggs asked for, but I am happy to provide them to him. He asked specifically about distress brief interventions. In the past week, we have announced the expansion of DBIs for anyone over the age of 16 from the four pilot sites to right across the country. I am pleased that we have invested £1 million to roll that out nationally.

I hope that that information can be made public on a weekly basis.

During this time, it is important to provide resources to parents and guardians and to develop early support for young people who are experiencing raised levels of anxiety. What plans do ministers have to consider opportunities for additional training for teachers in mental health support? What work is being undertaken to identify the most vulnerable children in our country at this moment, such as young carers?

The Scottish Government is working with a range of partners to support children and families, and to mitigate the impact of the outbreak and the necessary social distancing measures that we see in education and other vital services that support children’s health and wellbeing. We are committed to getting it right for every child. We are supporting services to work together to support our most vulnerable children. As Miles Briggs will be aware, we have provided local authorities with access to mental health training for teachers. I am sure that such provision will be on-going and that the online resource will be added to over the coming weeks.