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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 21, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 April 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Ferry Services (Public Ownership), Portfolio Question Time, Blue Carbon, Antimicrobial Resistance, Health and Care Bill, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the portfolio this afternoon is education and skills. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question. I make the usual plea for brevity in questions and answers, so that we can get through as many as possible.

Question 1, from Alex Rowley, has been withdrawn.


Universities and Colleges (Industrial Action)

To ask the Scottish Government what communication it has had with Scottish universities and the University and College Union Scotland about the four fights and Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions disputes, in light of the recent reballoting for industrial action by staff. (S6O-00975)

I have regularly met university leaders and trade unions, including UCU Scotland, to discuss the on-going disputes on pay, working conditions and pensions.

Although our universities are autonomous bodies and, as such, have responsibility for making their own decisions on pay, working conditions and pensions, I will continue to urge both sides to continue to engage in constructive and meaningful dialogue in order to resolve the dispute, and the underlying issues, without the need for further industrial action.

The minister will be aware of the deep dissatisfaction among staff and students in higher education. In addition to the UCU reballoting, the University of Dundee’s Unison workers are out on strike, as we speak.

Does the minister agree that university principals need to account for the almost £80 million of Scottish public money that they are planning to use to meet a deficit in the USS, even though the USS has stated that the deficit no longer exists because it was a result of Covid? Could Scottish ministers offer to work with Scottish principals to make the case that a revaluation of the scheme and a reduction in the £80 million spending is necessary?

Maggie Chapman mentioned the situation at the University of Dundee, so I also make it clear that I have engaged with the university and unions to discuss the issue.

In respect of the wider issues around the USS, we should remind ourselves that it is not a Scotland-specific scheme; it applies UK-wide. It is also not a Government-funded pension scheme, so it does not fall within the devolved responsibilities of Scottish ministers. I would, therefore, not be able to determine whether there should be a revaluation. However, as I said earlier, I will continue to engage with university leaders and unions to discuss the matter and will press them to resolve the issues without the need for further recourse to industrial dispute.

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.

A survey of university staff by the UCU highlighted that up to two thirds are seriously thinking about leaving the sector during the next five years. Their pay has fallen by 25 per cent in real terms during the past decade, and changes to USS pensions are set to leave staff up to £240,000 worse off. The minister must recognise the harm that is being done to university staff by year-on-year real-terms pay cuts and cuts to pensions. Can the minister share with us what action the Scottish Government is taking to encourage university principals to address staff concerns seriously?

As I have said a number of times today, this is a matter on which I continue to engage in dialogue with unions and university management. I actively discuss issues with them; the subject that Ms Villalba has asked about will be one of them.

However, when push comes to shove, I cannot resolve the dispute. It is for university management and unions to come together to discuss the issues. I urge them to do so along the lines of the fair work framework under which we operate, by ensuring that there is proper and meaningful dialogue and that workers’ voices are listened to. Ultimately, I hope that they can resolve the matter together.

The minister speaks the language of dialogue and discourse, but does he not recognise that 13 years of flat cash and no increase in the unit of resource that goes to universities is leading to the challenges and creating the conflict between management and workers and the tough decisions that have to be made? If the matter is going to be resolved, the Government will have to make sure that it resources higher education properly.

We are resourcing higher education properly. This year, we will again provide more than £1 billion of public expenditure to our universities to support their continued financial sustainability. I would have thought that that would be recognised as a fairly substantial investment. In recognition of some of the challenges that have been experienced over the pandemic period, we have invested more than £190 million in direct additional funding to support universities through the difficult circumstances.

We are stepping up to the mark and investing in higher education, and we will continue to do so.


Education (Support for Young People at Risk of Exclusion)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to help young people at risk from exclusion from mainstream education. (S6O-00976)

Our publication “Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: A Positive Approach to Preventing and Managing School Exclusions” provides national guidance on school exclusion. It makes it clear that exclusion from school should be “the last resort” and should be used in the context of prevention, early intervention and support for positive relationships, learning and behaviour; that it should be

“a proportionate response where there is no appropriate alternative”;

and that it must be

“for as short a period as possible with the aim of improving outcomes for the child or young person.”

The guidance also sets out schools’ and education authorities’ responsibilities in line with their power to make decisions to exclude.

Such situations are often complicated and complex, so we need to make sure that appropriate support is in place for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Scottish Conservatives support the establishment of family hubs that bring together health, education and social care services. Would the cabinet secretary agree to a pilot project in Scotland to establish how that model could be developed and rolled out across the country?

There is a substantial amount of policy on education and health services working together to help some of the most vulnerable people in society. One example of that is the whole family wellbeing fund, which is being funded for the current financial year and the rest of the parliamentary session, as we seek to establish full support for all families for a range of issues, not just those surrounding exclusion.

In the spirit in which Miles Briggs asked his question, I would be happy to hear more about the suggestion. I have mentioned some of the plans that we already have in place, but I am always more than happy to hear about another party’s alternatives, should he wish to provide me with further details.

Sadly, the percentage of excluded pupils with additional support needs is increasing, while the percentage of children in schools who are identified as having such needs is rising astronomically. Given that we have 600 fewer specialist teachers with ASN qualifications than we did in 2012, what is the Scottish Government doing not only to encourage more people to come into the profession and more teachers to stay in the profession but, specifically, to attract teachers who want to specialise in ASN, which will keep such children in mainstream education?

All teachers provide teaching and support to pupils with additional support needs. I am sure that Martin Whitfield will be well aware of the Bute house agreement that we have with the Scottish Greens, in which we have agreed to work together to ensure that we work with the profession to ensure that more teachers are available to support pupils who have additional support needs, and that their career progression can be supported.

I would be happy for Martin Whitfield to provide positive reinforcement of our policies with the Scottish Greens, and to hear more suggestions about how we can improve in this respect.


Refugees from Ukraine (Home Fee Status)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what plans it has to offer home fee status to Ukrainian refugees in Scotland, or those displaced following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (S6O-00977)

On Thursday 14 April, I announced that displaced Ukrainian nationals settling in Scotland who have submitted an application to the homes for Ukraine scheme, the Ukraine family scheme or the Ukraine extension scheme will be eligible for home fee status and living cost support from the 2022-23 academic year.

I thank the minister for that news, which is most welcome. Will that provision include the considerable number of other nationals who have been displaced by the conflict in Ukraine?

It will cover all the nationals whom I mentioned. I must concede that I do not quite follow the precise nature of the question. The nationals to whom the member referred are encompassed within the provision that I outlined in my initial answer. If there is a specific cohort that she would like to write to me about, I would be happy to respond to her in writing.

What support is the Scottish Government providing to international students studying in Scotland who find themselves in financial hardship?

That question is not directly related to the conflict in Ukraine.

The question is directly related to the conflict in Ukraine, in that, on 14 April, we announced a newly created £1 million international students emergency fund, which will support Ukrainian nationals who are already studying here, and other international students who face financial hardship as a result of significant changes in their circumstances. Eligible students will be able to apply for immediate financial assistance through their college or university.


Review of Foundation Apprenticeship Provision

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to the findings of the HM inspectors of education review of foundation apprenticeship provision. (S6O-00978)

Since their launch in 2016, more than 11,000 pupils have taken up the opportunity of foundation apprenticeships.

Given the significant increase in foundation apprenticeships, and to ensure the continued best outcomes for young people, the Scottish Government commissioned in 2020 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to undertake a review of the delivery of FA programmes. We acknowledge the review’s findings and will use them as the basis for driving improvement. We have also established a stakeholder group to support that engagement and will set out further steps following that process.

I am on record as being an enthusiast for foundation apprenticeships, but the HMIE review must give us all cause for concern. The review noted real weaknesses in the ability to access foundation apprenticeships across Scotland’s schools and in the promotion of apprenticeships to young learners and noted confusion among schools and providers about how the frameworks operate. It also acknowledged that

“In many schools, withdrawal rates are very high, ranging between 50% and 100% of young people leaving their programme early.”

I recognise the issues caused by the pandemic, but the minister must acknowledge that serious alarm bells are being rung about the policy and that many of those alarms predate Covid. Foundation apprenticeships have the potential to make a real difference. What will the minister do to ensure that those opportunities are not squandered due to a lack of support from Government?

On that last point, there is no lack of Government support for foundation apprenticeships. I again make the point that more than 11,000 young people have now undertaken them. There were 346 young people who started foundation apprenticeships in cohort 1; by cohort 5, we had 4,240, as a result of Scottish Government support.

Let me be clear: I recognise that the report has identified inherent issues. We commissioned that report so that we could hear what the issues might be. We are committed to listening, to learning from those issues and to implementing a programme of improvement, in line with our continued commitment not only to the concept of foundation apprenticeships but to their delivery as life-changing opportunities for our young people.

We cannot just say that foundation apprenticeships are a good thing; we must be clear about why they are a good thing. They can give young people a head start in a career by providing the qualifications and experiences that employers are looking for. Will the minister commit to ensuring that foundation apprenticeships remain a vital and central part of our skills and training system?

I absolutely guarantee that, and I again emphasise our support for them. We are committed to responding to the report in order to drive further improvement and to continuing the delivery of foundation apprenticeships in 2022-23. We will continue to deliver, to learn and to ensure that young people get a meaningful experience that does precisely what Bob Doris says by getting them ready for the world of work.


School Curriculum

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the school curriculum should be free from party political bias. (S6O-00979)

It is important that our pupils understand the democratic process in Scotland, the UK and further afield. Learning and teaching should be conducted on a non-partisan and non-party-political basis. Individual schools develop their own curricula at school level, and Scottish ministers have no direct control of or influence on those curricula.

The Scottish Government agency Education Scotland has told school children that the Loch Ness monster can help them form a view on an independence referendum. One education campaigner has described that as nationalist “propaganda” and an attempt to

“brainwash pupils into believing that Scotland is the victim of a wicked conspiracy”.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish National Party’s exploitation of our beloved Nessie is wrong, and will she commit to the removal of such embarrassing and ridiculous propaganda from the curriculum?

The resource in question was, of course, developed by two primary school teachers in conjunction with Professor David Martin-Jones at the University of Glasgow. Professor Martin-Jones is very well respected in his academic area, and the material was based on his research. I make it very clear that that resource, which was not developed in-house by Education Scotland and certainly not by the Scottish Government, is part of a resource for teachers.

There is no fixed national curriculum in Scotland, and we have no direct control or influence over the curriculum. I trust our teachers to deliver that curriculum—it is a shame that the Scottish Conservatives do not.

Teachers throughout Scotland do a fantastic job educating our children about political literacy in an impartial and responsible manner. Will the cabinet secretary recommit to empowering our teachers, through the curriculum for excellence—which the Tories want to tear up—to equip our young people with the knowledge, skills and understanding that they need to succeed in life?

Kaukab Stewart is quite right. As I alluded to in my original answer, we absolutely remain fully committed to the empowerment of our school leaders, staff, parents and pupils, including on decisions that affect learning and teaching. It is absolutely correct that we should empower our school leaders and teachers. They know their children best, and it is quite right that the Scottish Government and our agencies provide them with the support and resources to allow them to do that.

Does the Scottish Government agree that the school curriculum should contain education on racism and colonialism and that such reforms are not party political, but are sensible and reflective measures on our common history?

Foysol Choudhury raises an exceptionally important point that I hope that we absolutely agree on. A great deal of on-going work is being done on race equality education, and a lot of work is being done by the race equality and anti-racism in education programme, which I am sure Foysol Choudhury is aware of. The Government is committed to looking at the issue very seriously, to empowering our stakeholders to take it very seriously and to taking action on it. I look forward to the work that those stakeholders are taking forward as part of REAREP. As I have said, it is a very important issue that we need to tackle across the chamber.


Higher Education (Letter from Academics)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the joint letter reportedly signed by 111 University of Edinburgh academics expressing deep concern about the future of higher education in Scotland. (S6O-00980)

I have received a copy of the letter that Richard Leonard has referred to, and I have responded.

As I have said in answer to other questions, I meet university leaders and trade union leaders on a regular basis, and I have met them on a regular basis in recent months to discuss many of the matters that are raised in that letter. Although universities are autonomous bodies, central to our fair work approach is the expectation that employers, workers and trade unions should work together to reach the right decisions and ensure that workers are treated fairly.

The letter, which is signed by more than 100 academics, is damning. Let me quote it. It says:

“Staff morale is lower than ever, eroded by job insecurity, gendered and racial disparities in pay and unsustainable workloads ... Meanwhile, university leaders fixate on driving through massive unjustified pension cuts”.

I raised the University and College Union pay and pension dispute with the minister last month. He told Parliament then:

“meaningful dialogue should take place on the basis and according to the principles of our fair work approach.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2022; c 49.]

Does the minister have any shred of evidence that that is what has happened? What is he doing to resolve the long-running dispute in higher education, which, just this week, has been joined by a new dispute in further education? He is the minister for higher and further education. When is he going to act?

I can assure Richard Leonard that I act day in, day out to try to ensure that those who work in our university and college environments have the best possible experience of the world of work and, indeed, that our students have the best possible experience of higher and further education. However, I am afraid to say that there is no escaping the fact that there is no direct role for the Scottish Government in resolving those matters.

What I will do, what I am committed to doing and what I have laid out in previous answers to Mr Leonard’s questions and in various answers today, is that I will continue to engage with all parties to ensure that they speak to one another in a culture of mutual respect to try to resolve matters amicably. That is what I want to see, and I am sure that that is what Mr Leonard wants to see, too.

There are a couple of supplementary questions. The first is from Jackson Carlaw, who joins us remotely. No—his is question 8.

There is a supplementary question from Michael Marra.

Anybody working in the college or university sector across Scotland will be dismayed at the standard of the minister’s answers today to the various questions about the situation faced by our colleges and universities across Scotland and the real, tough and worsening conditions that our staff are working under. What does he have to say about the fact that research funding capture has declined in the past eight years from a 10 per cent lead over the rest of the United Kingdom to parity now? He talks about the great funding package that he believes he has put forward for our universities, but this is an active role that he is taking and a decision that is being made by him and his Government colleagues—they have frozen the unit of resource for 13 years in a row. What can he do about that?

I come back to my earlier point, although what I did not mention is that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has made it very clear that, this financial year, we are operating against a backdrop of a 5.2 per cent cut in real terms to the Scottish Government’s budget across the entirety of Scottish Government expenditure. In our higher education sector, we are maintaining expenditure worth more than £1.8 billion. Again, I would have thought that Michael Marra would welcome that.

Again, I make the point that there is no direct role for the Scottish Government in resolving that dispute in higher education. Universities are and should be, as I think everyone agrees, autonomous from the Scottish Government. It is my responsibility to engage with all parties and encourage them to resolve this matter.

I just put on record that further and higher education will always welcome more resources. Can the minister tell us whether the Labour Party has, at any point, identified how much more resource it would give or where the money would come from—or is this just hollow and empty rhetoric in the chamber?

I leave others to conclude what the Labour Party’s rhetoric is, but it has not come forward to me with any proactive or positive suggestions.


Teachers (Permanent Posts)

We move to question 8 and it will surprise nobody to hear that, as previously billed, Jackson Carlaw is joining us remotely.

8.

I do so after a moment of some consternation, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its progress in increasing the number of permanent teaching roles available. (S6O-00981)

The recruitment and deployment of teachers, including permanent teaching posts, are matters for local authorities. We have provided £240 million of additional investment over two financial years, and a further £145.5 million of permanent funding from April this year, to support the employment of additional teachers and support staff. There are more than 2,000 more teachers in Scotland’s schools than there were before the start of the pandemic in 2019.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer but, according to the Scottish Government’s most recent annual statistical publication for schools, there was at the last count an increase in the proportion of temporary teachers. There are thousands of temporary and supply teachers in Scotland; many would like nothing more than a guarantee that their job is permanent and secure, but they are continuously being let down by what appears to be a fairly ancient and utterly inflexible recruitment system.

Several of my constituents who are affected by the situation contact me regularly, and the uncertainty and worry that it causes them are considerable. The annual battle just to keep their job is completely demoralising and, sadly and even more worryingly, I know that the situation is contributing to a number of teachers leaving the profession for good. Will the Scottish Government offer a plan that would fundamentally address and update the process and, in so doing, secure the continued availability and commitment of many of those teachers and their futures?

I have much sympathy for where Jackson Carlaw is coming from, but I point out, as I did in my original answer, that the process that he is talking about is one for each local authority to determine. The role for the Scottish Government is around resourcing. As I have mentioned, we have provided and baselined £145.5 million to ensure that local authorities have the resources to turn temporary staff posts permanent.

We were told that one of the issues stopping permanent contracts being given was that some of the funding that had come through during Covid was in itself temporary and could not be relied on, and we have listened to that and have acted to ensure that that funding has been baselined. I therefore see no reason for the number of temporary contracts that we have. However, I must point out to Mr Carlaw that, unless he is saying that the Scottish Government should take over a process that, at this point, is for local government, we have done what we can. I am happy to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the issue, but it is a matter for every individual local authority to look at the process involved.

Stephanie Callaghan has a brief supplementary question.

Can the cabinet secretary give us an update on the pupil-to-teacher ratio in classrooms and how that will benefit pupil wellbeing and attainment?

The current pupil-to-teacher ratio is 13:2, which is the lowest since 2009. We now have more teachers than at any time since 2008. Having more teachers per pupil will undoubtedly help support pupil wellbeing and attainment, which is one of the reasons why the Scottish Government has been very adamant that one of our top priorities for this parliamentary session is the recruitment of more teachers and support staff.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business to allow members on the front benches to change.