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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 23 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands), Farming and Crofting (Support), Portfolio Question Time, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1, Consumer Scotland Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The next item of business is education and skills portfolio question time. I advise members that questions 2 and 5 are grouped together.

Modern Languages Qualifications

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to increase the number of young people taking Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications in modern languages. (S5O-04035)

Language learning equips young people with skills for an increasingly complex and globalised world, helps to build literacy and fosters tolerance and respect. Since 2013, we have provided nearly £40 million to fund local authorities and partners to support the implementation of the one-plus-two languages policy. Evidence from local authorities shows that the approach is working and that more young people than ever are learning languages.

I share the cabinet secretary’s view that learning modern languages is vital to equipping young people with the skills that they need for the future economy. However, according to research by Professor Jim Scott, there is a serious issue with schools not teaching modern languages in S1 to S3, while, at the same time, modern languages are being squeezed out in the senior phase as a result of schools offering six subjects at S3 rather than the eight subjects that many offered previously. What more can the cabinet secretary do to address that concern?

Young people have an entitlement to language learning as part of their broad general education, and there should be appropriate provision for language learning in that education. As we have rehearsed in previous discussions, there is a multiplicity of opportunities for young people to take SQA qualifications in the senior phase of curriculum for excellence if the senior phase is approached as the three-year experience it was originally envisaged to be. I encourage schools to ensure that young people have the opportunity to pursue language learning when they are interested in so doing.

Schools (Disruptive Incidents)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to address the reported rise in disruptive incidents caused by pupils in schools, and the impact that this has on teaching staff. (S5O-04036)

We are clear that no teacher should have to suffer abuse in the workplace, whether that be verbal or physical abuse.

We are supporting local authorities and schools through various guidance and programmes to promote positive relationships and tackle indiscipline, including good behaviour management, restorative approaches and programmes to support social, emotional and behavioural skills.

We are taking a range of actions to support teachers’ wellbeing, improve recruitment and retention rates, improve teachers’ pay and tackle workload. Those actions include clarifying and simplifying the curriculum framework, removing unnecessary bureaucracy and increasing teacher numbers.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers found that 85 per cent of teachers across Scotland believe that there is a widespread problem with pupil behaviour in schools. According to the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, indiscipline has worsened because of the reduction in the number of specialist teachers and educational support. What is the cabinet secretary doing to provide extra support for teachers and pupils alike who are experiencing those pressures?

By coincidence, in the past hour or so, I have just completed my annual meeting with the NASUWT, during which we discussed those issues. The NASUWT acknowledges—as do other professional associations—that the overwhelming majority of pupils in Scotland’s schools behave well but that, if there is unacceptable behaviour, it must be tackled by the policy approach that we have set out, which has been developed jointly by the Government, local authorities and professional associations. That is exactly how it should be, so that we take the correct approaches to encouraging the creation of positive relationships and tackling indiscipline.

On staffing, the number of teachers is at a 10-year high of 52,247, and an increasing number of individuals are working with young people with additional support needs in our schools. I assure Mr Corry that every effort is being made to strengthen schools’ capacity to operate in such a way. We have a policy framework in place, which has been agreed with our partners, to make sure that schools are well informed about all the steps that they should be taking to de-escalate incidents and to ensure that a positive behavioural ethos is encouraged in all our schools.

School Exclusions (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with local authorities regarding pupils who are excluded from school. (S5O-04039)

The number of exclusions has continued to fall, year on year, since 2002-03, with the rate of exclusions now being almost two thirds lower than the comparable figure for 2006-07.

In June 2017, the Scottish Government published refreshed guidance on preventing and managing school exclusions. The guidance focuses on the importance of early intervention to prevent the need for exclusion, it promotes positive relationships in schools, and it recognises that exclusion should be used only as a last resort and when it is a proportionate response. Since the publication of the guidance, we have engaged with 400 stakeholders across Scotland, including some from local authorities, to support its implementation.

I know about the work that the cabinet secretary is doing in regard to this. However, over the past few months, I have been contacted by parents of young primary school children who are being excluded from school due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioural problems. Parents feel that schools and local authorities, particularly North Lanarkshire Council, are not dealing with the problems quickly enough.

What action can the Scottish Government take to resolve the issue for my constituents, and will the cabinet secretary ask North Lanarkshire Council to desist from excluding young children from school?

I assure Mr Lyle that the focus of our policy approach is on making sure that children and young people receive the support that they require, whatever their needs, to enable them to fulfil their potential. Our guidance on inclusion in schools is framed on exactly that premise.

The policy framework should support young people. I am conscious of the fact that, when young people present with conditions such as ADHD, they will require specific and focused support to meet their needs—that is only fair on them and on the other pupils in mainstream settings with whom they may be educated. Fundamentally, the issues are for local authorities, but, if Mr Lyle gives me the specific details, I will be happy to raise the matter directly with North Lanarkshire Council on his behalf.

I thank Richard Lyle for raising the issue, and I remind members in the chamber of my own diagnosis.

Just over a year ago, the report “Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school” was published. I held a members’ business debate on the report, and the cabinet secretary gave an undertaking to consider the recommendations and to meet stakeholders. What communications has the cabinet secretary had with education authorities about ending a policy that results in the unlawful exclusion of children with neurodevelopmental disorders, and what changes in policy and practice have been made in relation to those communications?

As Mr Johnson knows, the issues that he raised in his member’s business debate were the subject of active debate at that time. That debate was followed up by a round-table discussion in which I drew together a number of the authors of the report with local authorities and other stakeholders in Scottish education, to advance the issues that Mr Johnson fairly raises with me today.

As a consequence, we have been working and in discussion with the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Human Rights Commission on the formulation of policy guidance that can be applied in our education system to ensure that we have a human rights-based approach to the inclusion in education of young people who are in the circumstances that Mr Johnson recounts. We have had a good dialogue with the commissioners on that question, and they have accepted my explanation that we need to take time and care in preparing that guidance, to make sure that it can be applied and implemented swiftly. I hope that Mr Johnson understands that.

We have agreed to have on-going dialogue about the progress of the design and implementation of that guidance, and, as time takes its course, I will keep Parliament updated on those matters.

Digital School Registration

To ask the Scottish Government how many local authorities offer digital school registration. (S5O-04037)

Local authorities and schools determine the most appropriate methods to record pupil’s school attendance; therefore, the Scottish Government does not collect that figure. For all young people to achieve their potential, schools should consider each pupil’s positive engagement with learning.

To support schools, we published revised guidance last year—“Included, Engaged and Involved Part 1: A Positive Approach to the Promotion and Management of Attendance in Scottish Schools”—which provides advice on good practice, including that

“schools should have a clear ... strategic plan to promote and manage attendance”,

including “identified personnel and systems” to track and monitor attendance, and requirements for classifying and recording attendance and absence.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response.

In West Scotland, only two out of seven councils have an online option to register a child for primary school. What further work can the Scottish Government do to encourage more local authorities to offer online registration, thereby making it easier for parents, especially those who might lose hours at work and, in some instances, income, in order to register a child in person?

I am happy to explore that with local authorities. The issue will be associated with the operation of the SEEMiS system, which is handled entirely by local authorities. As I have discovered with various issues that we have addressed, it takes time to amend that system.

If Mary Fee wishes to write to me with further details, I will be happy to explore the matter on her behalf and to advise Parliament accordingly.

Further Education (Financial Sustainability)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the financial sustainability of the further education sector. (S5O-04038)

Scotland’s colleges are operating in a complex and changing financial environment, with added uncertainty due to Brexit. However, the college sector has a strong track record of adapting to change and managing challenges.

The Scottish Funding Council will continue to monitor individual institutions and engage with colleges to provide support where required.

I thank the minister for that answer.

Last year, Audit Scotland identified that the college funding settlement would stretch only to covering changes in staff pay and conditions, with capital funding falling short of the cost of maintaining the college estate. We have heard about the cost of those funding constraints, not only in the University of the Highlands and Islands colleges in my region, but across Scotland.

Yesterday, ministers published their refreshed economic action plan, proposing that our college sector, as a world leader in skills and training, is to have a significant role in change. Ahead of the budget, can the minister clarify whether the already struggling college sector will be expected to find additional resources? Will there be a real increase in funding to match those expectations, or will grand ambitions around lifelong learning be watered down?

I could do with shorter questions.

I will try and answer a proportion of the member’s questions.

We have the potential to have a world-leading college sector in Scotland, and are well on the way to that. I am impressed with what I see around Scotland’s campuses.

Since 2007, we have invested more than £7 billion in Scotland’s colleges. Against a £2 billion real-terms cut by the UK Government—Jamie Halcro Johnston’s party’s Government—to our resource block grant over the past decade, we continue to support colleges by having allocated more than £600 million to them in the 2019-20 budget. In forthcoming budget discussions between his party and the Scottish Government, it is open to Mr Halcro Johnston and his party to make college funding a priority.

Colleges Scotland has identified the sum of £29.4 million additional revenue funding, above baseline, that it will require in the next financial year in order to achieve financial stability. Will that request be granted?

I am sure that Mr Gray will not be surprised to hear that I will not pre-empt the budget announcement.

We listen closely to representations from the college sector and we recognise the financial challenges. However, the challenges are shared by many sectors and by the Scottish Government because of the tough financial settlements from the United Kingdom Government in recent years. We will listen closely to the college sector.

Brexit (Impact on Learning Opportunities)

To ask the Scottish Government how learning opportunities for young people in the Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency could be impacted by Brexit. (S5O-04040)

Scotland’s young people benefit enormously from our relationship with the European Union, and in particular from participation in the Erasmus+ programme. Exit from the EU risks there being a significant reduction of learning opportunities for young people if participation in the Erasmus+ programme and any successor is not maintained. The negative impact will likely be felt in our youth work provision, school exchange programmes and the life-changing opportunities that are available in our colleges and universities.

The Scottish Government is absolutely clear that all the advantages of European Union membership must be retained so that our young people can continue to reap the benefits of those vital programmes.

Royston Youth Action in my constituency believes that Erasmus+ has been a key opportunity that is worth its weight in gold, and that ending it would be a statement of stagnation and backwardness in community learning and development. Will the minister meet young people from Royston Youth Action to hear first-hand about the contribution that Erasmus+ has made to learning? Will he join me in urging Boris Johnson to visit Royston, too, so that he can see for himself the benefits of Erasmus+?

I would be delighted to take up Bob Doris’s offer to visit Royston Youth Action. It is important that all members of all parties in Parliament remember that although people often think of Erasmus as being about college or university students on European exchange programmes—of course, that is a fundamental part of Erasmus—it also benefits other young people and youth work in Scotland. Proportionally, more people in Scotland participate in Erasmus than is the case in other parts of the UK. Therefore, any dilution of our association with Erasmus and exiting the EU will have a disproportionally damaging impact on Scotland. Royston Youth Action, which Bob Doris mentioned, is a fine example of what is happening around the country and of what we must protect for the future.

Boris Johnson and his party voted against full membership of Erasmus just last week in the UK Parliament. He would do himself a favour if he were to visit initiatives such as the one in Royston.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education

To ask the Scottish Government when the next annual report on its STEM education and training strategy will be published. (S5O-04041)

The next annual report on the STEM education and training strategy will be published in March. As we are all aware, Scotland is a science and research nation: we punch above our weight and enjoy a global reputation for our research and innovation. STEM is an integral part of our future economic and social development.

One of the central aims of the strategy is

“to build the capacity of the education and training system to deliver excellent STEM learning”.

Is the minister satisfied with the pace of progress in implementing the strategy, given that the latest programme for international student assessment—PISA—results show that performance in maths and science is at a record low?

Our PISA performance in science and maths is in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. Of course, that always needs to be improved, and we accept that.

I think that we are making progress in STEM. Last week, I was at Kinloss primary school in my constituency, and was bowled over by the excellent teaching of STEM that I saw in all classes in the school. That is replicated in primary and secondary schools throughout the country. Are we making enough progress? We can, of course, make more. It is important for Scotland’s future wellbeing that we meet the STEM agenda.

Fair Start Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to figures recording that 4.1 per cent of participants in the fair start Scotland scheme were still in work after 26 weeks. (S5O-04042)

We are supporting people towards and into work through fair start Scotland, which is a voluntary service that treats people with dignity and respect, without the fear of sanctions. The statistic that Mr Lockhart has cited has been taken out of context—wilfully or otherwise—and represents 26-week job outcomes after only 12 months of service delivery. Participants have significant barriers to employment and have often been left behind by previous UK Government initiatives. That is why intense pre-employment support is available for up to 18 months.

Despite what the minister has just said, the reality is that only 4 per cent of participants in the fair start Scotland scheme were still in work after 26 weeks. That means that 60 per cent did not engage in the scheme or dropped out of it at an early stage. Is the minister happy with the dismal performance of the scheme? Does he accept that the scheme’s voluntary nature means that the vast majority of the people involved are not seriously engaging in it, as is shown by the huge drop-out numbers?

No—I think that the voluntary nature of our scheme is the right approach. It ensures that people can engage in the scheme meaningfully because they want to be there and are not under threat of sanction.

Dean Lockhart’s mask has slipped: his agenda is the same old nasty Tory agenda of using employability services as a means of levering people off benefits. If he is interested—hitherto, I have never noticed him being interested; I think that he has not questioned me about the matter previously—I can tell him that in the first year of fair start Scotland we have supported the equivalent of 9 per cent of the unemployed population of Scotland, whereas the Department for Work and Pensions has supported the equivalent of only 4 per cent of the unemployed population of England and Wales through its work and health programme. The DWP’s work choice programme reached the equivalent of 12 per cent of the unemployed disabled population in Scotland in the last year that it operated here, whereas in its first year fair start Scotland has reached the equivalent of 19 per cent of the same population, and 92 per cent of the people who have taken part in our programme have told us that they feel that they were treated with fairness and dignity.

Fair start Scotland is a programme that I am proud of. Mr Lockhart should be ashamed of the agenda that his party promotes on employability.