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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 23 November 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Rail Services, Social Security, Business Motion, Decision Time, Year of the Dad


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

Good afternoon. The first item of business is topical questions—sorry, general questions. [Interruption.] I mean portfolio questions. [Laughter.] So long as we are clear.

Question 1 was not lodged.


University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University (Revenue Grant Reduction)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the reported reduction to revenue grants from the Scottish funding council has had on the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University. (S5O-00366)

Notwithstanding the context of continued United Kingdom Government fiscal austerity, the Scottish Government has in 2016-17 invested more than £1 billion in Scotland’s universities for the fifth year in succession. The University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University, alongside all Scotland’s other higher education institutions, continue to benefit from that substantial investment, which enables them to attract a range of additional funding.

I am sorry that the minister did not see fit to answer the question about the impact of the reduced funding on those universities. She will acknowledge that Aberdeen university and RGU had among the largest reductions in teaching, research and innovation grants in the current financial year—they lost 3.9 per cent of those grants. She will also be aware that both have since made staff redundant and that further redundancies are planned. In light of the impact of this year’s cuts, will the minister say whether universities in the north-east should expect to be among the hardest hit again when indicative grant figures are published for the next financial year, or will ministers take a different approach this time?

Decisions on funding for individual institutions are made by the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, which considers a number of factors. The settlement may be challenging for some universities, and it comes at a challenging time for the north-east. However, we are working with the SFC and the sector to secure greater efficiencies, maintain the benefits for learners and ensure that core outcomes remain a key priority. Decisions for future years will be made as part of the spending review.

What is the Scottish Government’s assessment of the risks that are posed to universities in Scotland by the double hit of withdrawing from the European Union and its research funding programmes and the UK Government’s reluctance to consider Scottish universities as being eligible for post-study work visa programmes?

Scotland is an outward-looking and inclusive country that has benefited socially, economically and culturally from students from the rest of the EU coming to study here and from the EU researchers and staff who we have. The UK Government’s consistent ambiguity on the status of EU nationals and the planned point of Brexit is hampering our universities, including those in the north-east, from protecting Scotland’s interests.

We will consider how we can ensure that the higher and further education sectors continue to attract the best students from the EU and globally. We are disappointed that Scottish universities are being excluded from the English tier 4 visa pilot. We continue to press the UK Government to introduce a post-study work visa in Scotland that meets the needs of our universities and our economy.

In spite of the minister’s protestations in reply to Mr Macdonald, the recent Audit Scotland report made it clear that funding for higher education has, in fact, fallen year on year in recent years. Will she commit to protecting the higher education budget in next year’s budget, which is due next month?

Despite Iain Gray’s invitation, I will not write Derek Mackay’s budget today.


Moray College UHI (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support it provides to Moray College UHI. (S5O-00367)

Moray College funding is provided through the regional strategic board of the University of the Highlands and Islands. A combination of grant funding from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and UHI provided a total of £8.467 million in the 2014-15 financial year. In 2015-16, the funding through the UHI regional strategic board was £8.483 million for the academic year.

The minister may be aware that Moray College UHI, which is in my constituency, has provided evidence that after the regional strategic body has divided the funds among the various colleges, Moray College is underfunded by about 10 per cent, which equates to about £500,000 in its budget. I understand that the Scottish funding council is giving technical support to review the allocation formula.

I would be grateful if the minister investigated the issue. It is clear that the college has been underfunded recently and I hope that the formula can be fixed so that that does not continue. For Moray College UHI to develop new degrees and continue to do its good work, it must have an equitable share of the funding.

The distribution of funding for UHI colleges is a matter for the regional strategic body, UHI. I understand that UHI remains in active discussion with Moray College on its funding for future years and is waiting for further material from the college to move the process forward. I am sure that UHI will want an equitable settlement for the colleges across its region that is consistent with the envelope of funding that is available. Since the matter is more for UHI, I will ask it to respond directly to Richard Lochhead with further details and keep him updated.


Colleges (Response to Employers’ Needs)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has introduced to assist the college sector in responding to the needs of employers. (S5O-00368)

The college sector has seen increased involvement from employers as a result of the college merger process. Through outcome agreements with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, colleges are committed to delivering vocational pathways, apprenticeships and workplace learning in partnership with employers.

Over the Scottish National Party Government’s first eight years, the number of part-time students who are aged over 25 fell from 179,685 in 2007-08 to 82,402 in 2014-15, which is a staggering reduction of 54 per cent. Will the Scottish Government commit to revising its decimation of college places and improve the current situation for students and employers?

The Scottish Government has a target of 116,000 full-time equivalent places, which we have fulfilled. We are ensuring that our college places are based on what the economy needs. That includes not just full-time places but part-time places, which are funded. In particular, places are funded to ensure that they are based on the needs of the local economy and local employers. That applies to both part-time and full-time courses.

I recently learned of the fascinating skilled trade of scientific glass blowing, which is carried out in East Kilbride. It struck me that recognised skills shortages are coming up and I have been told that there is a great concern about a skills shortage in scientific glass blowing. Are there particular initiatives that offer incentives and help to start up college courses when there is a recognised potential skills shortage?

Colleges respond well to meet employment demands from particular employers in their areas. Linda Fabiani mentioned a demand that is specific to her area, and I believe that the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers has applied to the Scottish Qualifications Authority for an award qualification. If that request is granted, colleges could offer that qualification and ensure that people could meet the demand and receive a progression route into existing higher education courses.

The Audit Scotland report on colleges that was published over the summer identified that there has been a 6 per cent fall in teaching numbers and cited Unison and Educational Institute of Scotland surveys that indicated high levels of dissatisfaction. What is the impact of the reduction in teaching numbers on the ability of Scotland’s colleges to deliver high-quality education?

The Audit Scotland report on colleges also highlighted that students have positive feelings towards the courses that they are doing and that there is a high level of satisfaction. I am pleased that that is the case in our colleges. In many ways, that is because of the policies that the Government has put in place to ensure that we have a financially stable college sector that is built on what the economy needs and which delivers for local people.


Educational Institute of Scotland (Meetings)

5. Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government when ministers last met the EIS and what matters were discussed. (S5O-00369)

I last met the EIS formally on 1 June 2016 when a wide range of issues was discussed. In addition, I addressed the EIS’s annual general meeting on 11 June and its headteachers conference on 7 October. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science met the EIS further education lecturers association on 9 November and I will see EIS representatives later this afternoon and again in December.

When the cabinet secretary meets the EIS representatives later this afternoon, will he be prepared to discuss the performance of the Scottish Qualifications Authority? This morning, evidence was provided to the Education and Skills Committee that, for the physics higher assessment, there had been three versions of the assessment in three years and 81 separate pages of guidance had been issued. In the light of the widespread concerns that have been expressed to the Education and Skills Committee in this parliamentary session, is the cabinet secretary prepared to look at the SQA’s performance?

It is very important that the SQA is constantly mindful of the feedback that it receives from various stakeholders in the field of education in preparing the necessary examination processes and it must ensure that those processes command confidence among a variety of stakeholders. I am determined to ensure that the SQA undertakes that role and that it engages constructively with a variety of different parties as it prepares for the examination diet.

As part of my discussions yesterday with the chief executive of the SQA, we discussed the further raft of changes that have been agreed—not by the SQA, but by the assessment and qualifications group. It is very important to remember that many of the changes and reforms that are made to the system are not made unilaterally by the SQA; they are made following discussions involving a wide range of stakeholders. For example, in the assessment and qualifications group that I chair, there are about 20 stakeholders in the room and we have to reach agreement on the necessary changes to take forward. I assure Mr Scott that the issues that he raises are uppermost in my mind and in my discussions with the SQA.

The EIS has said that any education review must clearly set out what benefits it would bring to schools, teachers and pupils, but a great degree of uncertainty remains surrounding the proposed regional boards. What practical benefits will the proposed structural change bring to teachers and pupils? Will the cabinet secretary confirm once and for all whether he will rule out allowing schools to opt out of local authorities?

I have answered the second part of that question in Parliament on previous occasions in response to Mr Gray.

On the first point, regarding the practical benefits of regions, I am concerned to address the fact that, on the information that is publicly available, there is a very wide range in performance by local authorities in adding value to the educational experience of young people in schools. As Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I am not prepared to turn a blind eye to that. It is not good enough that some local authorities are not as good as other local authorities in providing educational development resources and support to schools.

One practical benefit of the review that I am undertaking is that young people around the country would benefit from a stronger educational development resource as a product of the increased collaboration that should exist in Scottish education, and which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development called on us to ensure is the case. That would be deployed not just for some pupils in Scotland, but for all pupils, which is my priority as education secretary.


Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to disband the board of the Scottish funding council. (S5O-00370)

Phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review recommended the creation of a new single strategic Scotland-wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. Our intention is that, once established, the overarching board will replace individual agency boards while retaining the separate legal status of each of the bodies.

The cabinet secretary must be aware of concerns in the higher education sector that autonomy will be compromised if the Scottish funding council goes the way that he has just described. Last night, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science assured Universities Scotland that it should not worry and that she understood the importance of the institutions’ autonomy. However, I think that they will find those two statements to be entirely contradictory. Will the cabinet secretary think again? Will he maintain the Scottish funding council and thereby the autonomy of our higher education institutions?

The autonomy of the higher education institutions is derived from the status of the higher education institutions. There is total consistency between the answer that I just gave Parliament and the statement that was made by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science at the Universities Scotland event last night.

Of course I am aware of the unease within the universities—I read the newspapers and watch BBC Scotland. However, I am also absolutely determined that our university sector will be an autonomous sector that is able to exercise the same academic independence that it has today. We have to handle with great care the issues in connection with the board of the Scottish funding council in order to ensure that we can protect the independence of the university sector and guarantee that there is no reason for the sector to have the concerns that it currently has.

In terms of what the minister said last night, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments today about preserving the autonomy of our higher education institutions, which was such an issue in the previous session of Parliament.

That reassurance notwithstanding, when it comes to phase 2, the real concern is that the new board will potentially be chaired by a minister. That is where the concern about the issue of autonomy arises in phase 2. Can the cabinet secretary rule out any circumstance in which there will be Government control of the universities?

I am happy to rule out Government control of the universities. I can give that absolute cast-iron commitment to Parliament today: there will be no Government control of the universities.

On the issue of the arrangements around the exercise of phase 2, the Government will consult comprehensively around those questions. In its response to the publication of the enterprise and skills review, Universities Scotland said:

“Universities fully support the drive to increase Scotland’s productivity and inclusive economic growth and we believe that Scotland has the assets we need in our research base ... We totally agree that Scotland must take a ‘no-wrong-door’ approach to businesses, public and third sector organisations”.

Universities Scotland went on to say that it looks forward to close engagement in phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review, and that is exactly what the Government will deliver.


Physical Education Teachers (Primary Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government how many specialist primary school PE teachers there are. (S5O-00371)

The 2015 teacher census reports that there were 156 primary school physical education teachers based in schools and 77 local authority centrally employed PE teachers in Scotland.

Given the recent worrying reports on the continuing decline in our children’s activity, is it not about time that the Scottish Government recognised that physical education is as much a specialism as every other subject?

Under this Scottish Government, since 2011, the number of PE teachers in Scotland has decreased dramatically, by 17 per cent. That is a major area of concern that was raised with me by teachers at the recent Scottish PE teachers conference. The commitment to provide two periods of PE in schools is hugely devalued if specialist teachers do not take the class. Will the cabinet secretary take the physical education of our schoolchildren seriously, recruit more primary school PE teachers and reverse that decline in teacher numbers?

This is not the first time that I have answered a question from Mr Whittle on the issue of physical education in schools, and I am genuinely perplexed about what he is trying to achieve, given the way in which he characterises the issue. If I can summarise what I have just heard—which is what I heard the last time that Mr Whittle questioned me on the subject—it was essentially a pretty negative assessment of the presence of physical education in our schools.

This morning, I have opened two primary schools—the fact that I opened two brand-new schools just this morning goes to show that the Government is building a lot of schools in our country. Both of those schools champion the use of the daily mile as part of the young people’s physical education activity. If the daily mile is not good enough for Mr Whittle, I do not understand his point, because the daily mile is part of the physical activity of young people in our schools and is part of their activity.

There is another question that the Conservatives need to wrestle with. Last week—it might have been the week before—Liz Smith came to the chamber to demand that we had specialist science teachers in our primary schools. At the same time, the Conservatives come here and demand that we have more of a focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools.

Far be it from me to point out that the Conservatives seem to be all over the place in their approach to primary education in Scotland. Worse still, they are prepared to devalue and belittle the commitment of the teaching profession to encourage—

Nonsense.

Well, they seem to be prepared to belittle and demean the amount of activity and the concentration on exercise in our schools. If Mr Whittle wants to influence the debate, he could take a more constructive approach to doing so.

Will the cabinet secretary outline in more detail how the daily mile initiative helps children and young people’s future health and wellbeing?

The focus on the daily mile is an integral part of encouraging young people to become involved in daily and regular exercise and to take an interest in their wellbeing. Of course, it is an integral part of the broad general education to encourage young people to be more aware of their health and wellbeing. It also contributes directly to ensuring that young people exercise regularly, which we all know to be of significant benefit. The commitment that has been made to the daily mile initiative and the support that has been demonstrated for it are integral parts of advancing the agenda of encouraging young people to be active and benefit as a consequence.


Secondary School Building (South Lanarkshire Council)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with South Lanarkshire Council regarding the building of secondary schools. (S5O-00372)

Government officials have had no recent discussions with South Lanarkshire Council regarding the building of secondary schools. I am aware that all 17 of the council’s secondary schools are currently classified as being in good condition. However, through the Government’s schools for the future programme, we are currently replacing three primary schools in South Lanarkshire—Spittal primary, Halfmerke primary and West Mains additional support needs school, and Burnside primary—with the Government providing approximately £11.6 million towards those projects.

There has been a significant increase in house building in my constituency over the past 10 years, particularly in the Halfway and Newton area of Cambuslang. Unfortunately, poor planning by South Lanarkshire Council means that there is a dearth of facilities to support that otherwise welcome expansion. Although there is new primary school provision in the area, changes to school catchment areas require pupils in Halfway and Newton to travel considerable distances to attend secondary school. Given the strength of feeling in the community for provision of a new secondary school in Halfway, what support can the Government give to South Lanarkshire Council to progress that initiative?

The statutory responsibility for planning schools capacity rests with local authorities under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Management of the schools estate is, accordingly, part of their responsibilities. The Government has co-operated with South Lanarkshire Council on a number of projects to enhance that capacity, but I recognise the significance of the issues that Clare Haughey raises on behalf of her constituents. I would be happy to have further discussions with her and South Lanarkshire Council on that question to try to do all that we can to address the local issue that she has raised.


Hate Speech (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the European Union referendum has led to an increase in hate speech in schools and, if so, what action its education directorate is taking to tackle it. (S5O-00373)

All forms of hate crime and prejudice are unacceptable. I am concerned by recent reports from Moray House school of education and the Educational Institute of Scotland about incidents of that nature, which highlights the need for constant vigilance. We want all children and young people to learn tolerance, respect, equality and good citizenship, in order to address and prevent prejudice.

I welcome the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s interest in prejudice-based bullying and have sought its input to development of the refreshed national anti-bullying strategy for children and young people. I will carefully consider the issues that the committee raises, as well as anything further that can be done to support our diverse communities, over and above our holistic approach to anti-bullying.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer. He has, in essence, answered my supplementary question at the same time.

That is excellent timekeeping.


Gifted and Talented Pupils (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that gifted and talented pupils in all schools are properly supported. (S5O-00374)

Under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, education authorities must identify and provide the support that their pupils require to overcome barriers to learning. That includes the additional support that is required by children and young people who are able pupils.

The Scottish Government also funds the Scottish network for able pupils to support development and sharing of good practice in supporting such pupils.

As the cabinet secretary will know, at several Royal Society of Edinburgh events in recent years there have been interesting discussions about how best to support particularly gifted and talented pupils from all parts of the country and all social backgrounds in order to ensure that they receive specialist teaching that is appropriate to their needs. Will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that gifted children in whatever academic discipline are vital to development of Scotland’s economy? Could he update Parliament on what support is being provided?

I acknowledge the point that Alison Harris makes, and I recognise the importance of able and gifted pupils’ being able to make a significant contribution and to fulfil all their potential in Scotland.

The Government currently funds the Scottish network for able pupils, which is a network of support to schools and teachers, to assist, through sharing of ideas and practice, the enhancement of educational support for such young people. SNAP also runs workshops for young people and provides advice to parents to assist them in that respect. A number of resources have been developed for practitioners and parents to help them to support highly able children, including a number of what are called SNAPshots, which can be used as a starting point for developing activities for highly able learners.


Training (People over 25)

To ask the Scottish Government what training opportunities are available for people over the age of 25. (S5O-00375)

Skills Development Scotland, our national skills agency, provides professional careers advice and training support to individuals of all ages. We also fund in-work support via the Scottish Trades Union Congress’s Scottish union learning programme. We support people into employment through a range of programmes, including modern apprenticeships, skills training, employability and work experience through the private, public and third sectors.

I know that I am probably among other members who have many constituents over the age of 25 who say that they cannot get apprenticeships or get into training opportunities. Can the minister provide assurances that people over 25 will be afforded the same level of opportunity as those who are under 25?

I do not know the specific circumstances of Sandra White’s individual constituents, but I can tell her that there are a number of specific modern apprenticeship frameworks for which people over 25 are eligible. I have a long list of them here, which I will be happy to provide to Sandra White. I can also say that, at the end of October, I committed to assessing whether we can look at embedding further flexibilities across other frameworks.

I will always be willing to consider whether there are other things that we can do, but Sandra White or any other member who has any specific issues to do with a specific constituent or constituents can write to me. I will be happy to consider what we can do.


Guidance for Schools (Resources to Raise Attainment)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will issue guidance to schools regarding how the money that is raised through its council tax reforms can be spent to raise attainment levels. (S5O-00376)

Next month, we will launch a framework of fully evidenced and proven educational interventions and strategies to help to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. The framework will inform the decisions that schools make to spend the additional funds, and we will monitor the impact on improving children’s progress.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, and I welcome the production of the framework. Regardless of the reasons why councils find themselves in very difficult financial circumstances at the moment, the fact is that they do. The cabinet secretary will be aware that cuts are being made to service-level agreements and additional support across Scotland. That is having an impact on the workload of teachers and their ability to innovate, in particular around literacy and numeracy. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that schools are able to spend funds on whatever is appropriate for driving attainment? That could involve filling gaps in SLAs, additional support for learning or behavioural support.

I acknowledge the relationship between teacher workload and the ability to deliver learning and teaching that closes the poverty-related attainment gap: I accept that there is a connection between the two things. That is why I have spent so much time in the past few months trying to reduce what I would describe as unnecessary teacher workload. The purpose of that work is to create space to enable the concentration on learning and teaching that Mark Ruskell highlighted in his question.

Many of the techniques and interventions to which Mark Ruskell referred will undoubtedly be part of the framework that we will bring forward. We will look to individual schools to implement that framework to make a profound impact on the educational attainment of young people. I accept Mark Ruskell’s argument about the importance of schools being able to make those judgments, so the framework that we will put in place will assist schools in doing that.

What specific steps have been taken to reduce teacher and pupil workload? What role will the new benchmarks play in that respect?

The purpose of the new benchmarks is to ensure that we address the uncertainty that exists in the teaching profession about the levels of achievement and attainment that young people should reach at different stages in their education journey. The feedback that I have had from members of the teaching profession suggests that the benchmarks that have been published so far have significantly enhanced teachers’ ability to do exactly that. The benchmarks provide clarity that can remove some of the workload that is created when the teaching profession tries to search for those answers, and they open up opportunities for a greater concentration on learning and teaching, which is exactly the point that I made to Mr Ruskell.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether some of the money that is raised for the attainment fund in one council area could be spent in another council area?

I would have thought that Liz Smith would be aware that all council tax money that is raised in a local authority area is retained in that area. The Government has set out its position, and we are engaging in discussion with local authorities about how we implement the policy commitment more widely. I reiterate that all council tax money that is raised in an area will be retained in that area.


Protecting Vulnerable Groups Scheme (Review)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to review the protecting vulnerable groups scheme. (S5O-00377)

On Monday, the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, spoke at Disclosure Scotland’s stakeholder event in Glasgow. He outlined the broad themes that the protecting vulnerable groups scheme review would cover, including digital delivery of services, the importance of safeguarding vulnerable groups and the financial sustainability of the scheme. Between now and the end of February 2017, Disclosure Scotland officials will continue to engage with stakeholders to develop terms of reference for the review. Once that work is completed and ministers have agreed the terms of reference, I will write to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee and arrange for the information to be provided to the Scottish Parliament information centre.

The minister has provided very welcome and up-to-date information. Disclosure Scotland plays an important part in ensuring that vulnerable groups are protected. Can he provide further information about how the disclosure system might emerge from the review that is now being undertaken?

The review will cover both aspects of the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007: the listing and barring functions under part 1; and the vetting and disclosure functions under part 2.

With regard to what Mr Stevenson says, the important point is that we ensure that there is strong stakeholder engagement as part of the review. During the stakeholder event on Monday that I mentioned, officials offered attendees the opportunity to become involved in the work to devise the terms of reference for the review. In response, 39 individuals who represent organisations in the regulatory, public, private and voluntary sectors in Scotland signed up. Officials will take forward further discussions with those individuals and with Who Cares? Scotland, the recruit with conviction network and members of the Disclosure Scotland stakeholder advisory board with a view to presenting terms of reference for the review to me by the end of February 2017. Once we have had the opportunity to flesh out those terms of reference, that will be an appropriate point at which to respond to Mr Stevenson on what the review will cover.

Question 14 has not been lodged.


University Student Numbers (Effect of Leaving the European Union)

To ask the Scottish Government what effect it anticipates leaving the European Union will have on university student numbers studying in Scotland. (S5O-00379)

The continued ambiguity of the United Kingdom Government on the future immigration status of EU students and, for that matter, students from across the world is hampering planning by universities in Scotland. We have responded to university and student concerns by ensuring that current eligible EU undergraduate students and those starting courses next year will continue to be entitled to free tuition. However, the UK Government urgently needs to share its plans on the immigration status of EU and other students.

In 2014-15, more than 13,000 EU nationals studying full-time degrees at Scottish universities were funded from the same public pot as Scottish students. Audit Scotland has recognised that Scottish students are finding it increasingly difficult to access university. If—it is of course only if—EU student numbers fall, will the Government be better placed to meet its target for getting more Scottish students from poor backgrounds into university, or will it continue to fail on that front?

The number of Scotland-domiciled students from poor communities is rising and the Government is committed to ensuring that we follow all the recommendations of the commission on widening access, which will improve the situation still further.

It beggars belief that the Conservatives are asking the Government to make a policy on the issue when we do not know what the immigration status of EU nationals will be, when any change will happen, whether it will happen at all and what the timetable is for any of the Brexit negotiations. Given that background from the UK Government, it is a bit rich of the member to ask the Scottish Government a hypothetical question and to ask us to take a decision on EU national students.

The minister makes a valid point. Does she agree that it is rich for a Tory member to ask the Scottish Government about the impact of something that his colleagues in the UK Government have caused? Does she agree that decisions by the UK Government such as its refusal to include Scottish universities in the post-study work visa pilot scheme are deeply damaging to our universities?

George Adam raises an important point. As I said to Gillian Martin earlier, the actions of the UK Government on immigration are highly damaging, whether that is the decision to exclude us from the English tier 4 visa pilot or the implication in what the Home Secretary has said that we should somehow further limit the number of international students, who contribute so much to our economy and community. We will continue to press the UK Government to introduce a post-study work visa for Scotland that meets the needs of our communities and universities.


Free Childcare (Access to Entitlement)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that every eligible child has access to their entitlement to 1,140 hours of free childcare provision. (S5O-00380)

We have published the consultation “A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland”, which sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for transforming early learning and childcare. That vision is underpinned by the four principles of quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability. The consultation seeks views on the key policy choices that are required to deliver the vision, including future funding options and models of delivery. We will publish our response to the consultation in spring 2017.

Birthday discrimination remains a problem. Groups such as fair funding for our kids continually highlight the issue. Surely the Scottish Government can agree that it is unacceptable that the month in which a child is born can dictate their allowance of childcare.

Peter Chapman raises a point that the Conservatives have raised on more than one occasion. It is worth noting that local authorities have the flexibility to offer early learning provision to the children to whom he refers should they choose to do so, and some local authorities do just that. However, for that to be applied across the board, we estimate that it would cost in the region of £26 million over and above what is currently being spent. If the Conservatives wish to spend extra money, they have to tell us where they would find it.

How much money has the Scottish Government provided to local authorities to deliver 600 hours of free early learning and childcare and how much of that funding have councils spent?

The financial review of early learning and childcare, which was published in September, highlighted that we had provided £329.2 million of additional revenue and £170 million of additional capital to support the delivery of the expansion of entitlement to 600 hours. The review indicated that, over the same period, local authority spending on early learning and childcare increased by £189.1 million in revenue terms. Capital spending was £17 million in 2014-15, yet additional capital funding of £71 million was provided in that year.

Although the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has provided new information to the Education and Skills Committee, we consider that the original figures, which were provided to us by councils and reported in the financial review, remain robust. We will, of course, study COSLA’s letter and information with interest, and I am sure that the Education and Skills Committee will continue to maintain its strong interest in the matter. However, it is clear from the information in the financial review that we have fully funded our commitment on early learning and childcare expansion.