Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 February 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Prisoner Voting, Urgent Question, Local Government Funding, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Citizens Advice Scotland


Portfolio Question Time

Economy, Fair Work and Culture

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the campus.

The first item of business is portfolio questions. As per my usual mantra, I say that in order to get in as many members as possible, questions should be short and succinct, with answers to match, preferably.

I remind members that questions 2 and 3 have been grouped together. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question they should indicate that in the chat function by entering R during the relevant question. I will take supplementaries at the end of the grouped questions.

Fair Pay Practices (Promotion)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to promote fair pay practices. (S5O-05041)

Workers must be paid—and paid fairly—for the work that they do. Fair pay is fundamental to fair work and we are committed to promoting payment of the real living wage and to employer accreditation for that.

We have included payment of the real living wage in the criteria for our flagship fair work first policy, which is a key mechanism for driving fair pay in Scottish workplaces. There are now more than 1,900 living-wage accredited employers in Scotland. At 84.8 per cent of employees, Scotland remains the best performing of all four United Kingdom countries in relation to the proportion of employees who are paid the living wage or more.

Fair pay practices are the mark of a dignified society, so it is regrettable that some care workers have been left behind. They have worked in really difficult circumstances during the pandemic to support the people whom they look after. What action is the Scottish Government taking to support the objectives of the GMB trade union campaign to secure care workers pay of £15 an hour for the work that they carry out?

Of course, the first thing that I observe is that I absolutely share—[Inaudible.]—that we owe our care workers a great deal of thanks at all times, but particularly in the current context.

I recognise that proper remuneration for our social care workforce is important. In that regard, we have worked closely with the sector and with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and local government more widely, to ensure that all those who work in the commissioned care services sector are paid the real living wage. That includes the resource allocated over the past two years to cover extension of the real living wage to sleep-over hours during 2018-19, which will continue through this year.

We need to recognise that we must play a role in ensuring that social care workers are properly paid; we will continue to play that role.

I do not know whether anyone managed to hear that—I certainly could not determine all of what was being said. I am not sure whether it is the minister’s connection or whether it is something to do with the systems here. We will check it out. I suggest that you check the Official Report, Mr Kelly, because I do not think that that was clear at all. We will see how we get on.

Gillian Martin has a brief supplementary.

Will the minister provide more detail on how the Scottish Government will apply its fair work guidance for public sector economic development, particularly in green ports?

Having heard you, Presiding Officer, I will shout at the computer screen in the hope that you will be able to hear me better.

As early adopters of fair work first, our enterprise and skills agencies started implementing the policy last year. Last December, Fiona Hyslop and Kate Forbes jointly wrote to all public sector bodies setting out the expectation that all public bodies will adopt fair work first criteria, in their capacity as employers, from March, and that they will from April apply the criteria to grants, funding or contracts that they award.

We are serious about the fair work agenda. As we progress our green ports plans, we are making sure that fair work first is a central part of them, too.

I am afraid that the problem seems to be with your connection, minister. I ask Ms Martin to check the written answer. Fortunately, that is the only question that you are answering in this portfolio, minister. That is helpful, because otherwise we would all be on a bit of a mystery tour.

Young Person’s Guarantee (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on delivering the young person’s guarantee for 16 to 24-year-olds in the Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency. (S5O-05042)

Through our £60 million investment in the young person’s guarantee this year, and the commitment to a further £70 million investment next year, we are building on existing education, employability skills and training infrastructure to provide new opportunities and enhanced support to young people.

The guarantee is based on the principle that local partners are best placed to identify and deliver the opportunities and support that are needed by young people in their areas, and to respond flexibly to emerging challenges.

In Glasgow, the guarantee will provide additional resources for local partners to strengthen provision for 16 to 24-year-olds. That includes extending existing activity such as the Glasgow guarantee, the supporting growth programme for unemployed young people and Glasgow code learning, as well as creating new opportunities through colleges and Skills Development Scotland.

For any 16 to 24-year-old who is unclear about how they could benefit from the Scottish Government’s young person’s guarantee, could the cabinet secretary clarify the various points of contact to which they can reach out to secure that very welcome support?

The young person’s guarantee website provides details of the range of opportunities that are on offer and additional points of information for young people and employers. The guarantee builds on the strong foundation of support that already exists through schools, further and higher education, apprenticeships, training and employment, for example.

We have intentionally adopted a “no wrong door” approach so that delivery partners across different sectors can point people in the right direction. School co-ordinators for the strategy on developing the young workforce will be particularly important. The investment that we are providing will ensure that all schools will be able to have such co-ordinators for that group of people.

Local authority employability support offices, colleges and specialist service providers in the third sector all know about, and are prepared to point people towards, the umbrella of the young person’s guarantee in order to ensure that they can access whichever programme, development, support or employment links with local employers they need so that they can benefit from the guarantee.

Young Person’s Guarantee

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made towards implementing the young person’s guarantee. (S5O-05043)

Since we launched the young person’s guarantee in November 2020, we have created around 18,000 new and enhanced opportunities for young people aged between 16 and 24 to help them into work, education or training. Those opportunities include new provision through local councils, colleges, new apprentice pathways and the third sector.

Through the Scottish budget—if it is passed—we will provide additional investment of £70 million to build on that and to achieve our ambition of supporting every young person, with a focus on those whom we know have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

With Young Scot, we have established a leadership panel that will work with us to help to shape the guarantee and ensure that young people continue to be at the heart of its delivery. We will also continue to work with employers to gain their commitment to supporting young people as the economy begins to recover.

Surely the parties in Parliament will not be mad enough not to pass a budget that would give an extra £70 million to help every 16 to 24-year old in my constituency and constituencies across Scotland.

The guarantee should surely help us to recover from the loss of opportunity that has been brought about by the pandemic. How does the cabinet secretary see the guarantee helping to prevent young people from becoming a forgotten generation, after the pandemic?

That is a serious question. Young people are likely to suffer most, particularly when the furlough scheme ends and we see the expected increases in unemployment in quarters 2 and 3 of this year.

Much as I could be tempted to get into a debate on the budget, I say instead that the young person’s guarantee deserves the support of every single party and member. That would enable people to have confidence in it, and it would encourage employers in members’ areas to support those who are leading recruitment for employment opportunities in every part of Scotland. Having mentioned achieving such consensus, I will not be tempted into a political debate.

We now have two brief supplementaries.

I turn to the important matter of what is happening in the kingdom of Fife. Can the cabinet secretary clarify what progress is being made in Fife in implementing the young person’s guarantee, in terms of the number of young people who are benefiting from it, and can she advise how the Scottish Government is encouraging employers in Fife to sign up?

I must redefine “brief”. Cabinet secretary?

I know that Annabelle Ewing is a great champion of Fife. I was interested to find, when I spoke to Fife Chamber of Commerce, that it is a great champion of developing the young workforce and that it has used the model—particularly the employer-led focus—to ensure that the needs of local economies can be matched to opportunities for young people.

The experience of school co-ordinators in Fife has been instrumental in shaping how we are rolling out the young person’s guarantee across Scotland. We are using resources from that experience to ensure vital school-employer links, through the co-ordinators who are placed in every school.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the United Kingdom Government’s kickstart programme, which is available across the whole UK. Does she agree that it would give our young workforce the very best chance if the Scottish Government were to work with the UK Government’s kickstart programme in order to get the biggest bang for its buck?

I am keen to work with the UK Government on that and have already had a meeting with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey. One of the issues is that we must make sure that there are opportunities for local organisations and local government to be the leads in relation to co-ordinators for kickstart. There are issues for some local authorities—I think, perhaps, including in the region that Brian Whittle represents—so perhaps he could take the matter up with the UK Government as well, because those links are really important.

We want to provide a two-year programme. Kickstart is a six-month programme, but, if we were to add kickstart to the employer subsidy that we deliver through local employer-led council initiatives in Scotland, we could produce a meaningful package to ensure that young people do not become, as James Dornan said, “a forgotten generation”.

Young people are our future, but they are also our present, which is why we all need to pull together to help to deliver on the young person’s guarantee.

Value for Money (Investment in Private Companies)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures value for money when investing in private companies. (S5O-05044)

The guidance that is contained in the Scottish public finance manual outlines the Scottish Government’s approach to investment in private companies. The guidance is clear that an investment must be supported by a clear economic and commercial rationale and must demonstrate value for money for the public purse. In support of those considerations, appropriate expert commercial and legal advice is provided as to the commercial aspects of the proposal.

I welcome the news that two of the three Burntisland Fabrications yards have been bought out of administration. However, that still leaves the question of whether we taxpayers will get our £50 million back. In relation to BiFab, the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee has tried and failed to get hold of the pre-acquisition business plan. Neither the Government nor DF Barnes was prepared to share it, citing confidentiality. Ministers and DF Barnes signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement, the terms of which expired on Monday. That means that there is nothing preventing—

Can you get to your question, please?

I am coming to it.

No, you are not. You had better do it now.

That means that there is nothing preventing the cabinet secretary from releasing that agreement now—will she do so?

Thank you. You made your point in the lead-up.

I am not sure, because of the interruptions, whether it was the business plan that the member was referring to or a commercial agreement. The member will be aware that all Governments working with companies in an area will always have commercial in-confidence issues, particularly when there are market listings and so on. In my evidence, I made it quite clear that I thought that the original business plan should be shared but, at that point, it was not our document; it was the company’s document. For a Government to share a third party’s document is an issue.

To be honest, I had difficulty catching the tail end of the member’s question. I will read it carefully to look at the dates and the issues, and I will give that due consideration. It was always my view that it would have been helpful to the committee if the business plan had been published.

Mr Simpson, I heard your question but read the tail end of it again. It was the point about the date.

Ministers and DF Barnes signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement, the terms of which expired on Monday of this week. My point is that there is nothing now preventing the cabinet secretary from releasing that, but she has answered the question. I appreciate that she has not read the agreement, but she can go away and do so now.

That is fine. I had heard that point, but I thought that the cabinet secretary had not heard it, because of the point about dates, but it is cured now.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Prime Minister wasted £940 million on vanity projects while he was the mayor of London, including £57.5 million on the subsequently cancelled garden bridge, the Thames estuary airport and so on. As Prime Minister, he has authorised expenditure of £252 million on unusable face masks and £14.3 billion on botched outsourcing projects. Does the cabinet secretary therefore agree that the Scottish Government has been a paragon of financial probity by comparison?

Our public investment has been to save jobs, deliver public services and support communities. The member makes a pertinent point about judging Governments on their investment.

On a more serious point, questions should be asked about public investments in private companies in relation to Covid contracts. I am sure that, in the cold light of day, all will be laid bare with regard to the connections and who profits. I think that the few have benefited from the hardship of the many. Covid contracts will be one of the serious issues that have to be addressed in considering the use of public money in relation to private contracts.

Covid-19 Economic Impact (Highlands)

I will go back to a sensible question.

To ask the Scottish Government what the projected impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is on the economy of the Highlands for the current financial year. (S5O-05045)

Scotland’s economy grew for six consecutive months, but the further restrictions on economic activity that were needed to suppress the virus led to a fall in gross domestic product in November and a slight fall in December. The economy is recovering and continues to broadly track the United Kingdom economy as a whole. However, the recovery is fragile, will be gradual and is subject to uncertainty about the impacts of Brexit.

The most recent Highlands and Islands Enterprise business panel survey showed that half of businesses in the Highlands and Islands are operating below the level that they were operating at before Covid-19 and that tourism businesses were more likely to anticipate a contraction in the next year or two. In the first nine months of 2020, exports of Scottish food and drink—around a quarter of which originate from the Highlands and Islands—were down 22 per cent compared to the same period in 2019. Dampened demand and new Brexit bureaucracy are presenting additional barriers to the previously free movement of trade.

We are liaising with local authorities and enterprise agencies to better understand the impact of Covid-19 and the wider action that is required to enable recovery in their local communities and wider regions. We will continue to examine regional impacts to ensure that Scotland’s regions are supported to meet their specific needs.

As you know, cabinet secretary, tourism is vital to the Highland economy. Highland Council is still awaiting guidance from the Scottish Government regarding the bed and breakfast support fund, which was announced on 21 January and which is a follow-on to the fund that you announced last year. The funding was meant to be open from 15 February. Can you confirm, cabinet secretary, that the money and the full guidance have been given to Highland Council?

I know that it is easy to slip into this, but please do not use the term “you”; please refer to “the member” or “the cabinet secretary”. I know that you understand that, Mr Mountain—it is an easy mistake to make.

The impact on tourism has been serious and extreme, which is one reason why we are extending business rates relief for 12 months in relation to the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors. There are a number of specific schemes in Scotland that have not been available elsewhere. I know about the issues for B and Bs, particularly those that do not pay rates but pay council tax. That is why the scheme has been made available.

As the member will appreciate, I used to be the tourism secretary, but I am not now. However, I will try to ensure that we provide him with the details of the scheme and the guidance and information on availability. The scheme was due to be open, and it needs to be open. We need to support tourism businesses until they can reopen safely. It is essential that we all support our tourism industry. I am certainly looking forward to my staycation which, if the member advertises it, will potentially be in the Highlands and Islands.

Scottish National Investment Bank (Regeneration)

To ask the Scottish Government how the Scottish National Investment Bank will support the economic regeneration of communities when the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. (S5O-05046)

At the same time as supporting businesses and communities as part of our immediate response to the pandemic, we are also focusing on our longer-term vision for the country.

The second mission of the Scottish National Investment Bank—its place mission—is about investing in places and regeneration to reduce inequality and to improve outcomes and opportunities for people and communities. That mission will allow for investment in the kinds of communities in which people want to live and work—places that are good for health and wellbeing, and which involve the local community.

What support is being considered for local development trusts and high streets to help them to survive the impact of Covid-19?

As the member might be aware, the town centre action plan review was published earlier this month. It contains lots of important ideas about what can be done to help to redevelop our town centres. Only this morning, I was involved in a quad call on town and city centre regeneration with representatives of the Welsh, Northern Irish and United Kingdom Governments.

We have established a place-based investment programme in Scotland, which is backed by £105 million for 2021-22, and an empowering communities programme, which has a budget of £13.6 million, to help with such activity. Members might be interested to learn that community development trusts, which are very involved in high streets and local areas, as Colin Beattie indicated, can apply for that funding.

Although a place-based programme is welcome, should we be looking at a people-based programme? We need to find out what the major barriers are to regeneration in communities. Much of that must be to do with skills and supporting people to access employment. Is that being looked at?

The Scottish National Investment Bank, which the initial question was about, would not necessarily invest in that area, in which we have plenty of organisations and plenty of funding. The £1.1 billion jobs and skills allocation in this year’s budget is precisely for such activity.

I think that Mr Rowley is reflecting on the local aspect of regeneration. We must identify the economic drivers in our towns to ensure that aspects such as our colleges and the young persons guarantee can be aligned with local employers and local places. Mr Rowley is right to draw attention to the importance of localism and awareness of where regeneration can come from. We must invest in and support our people. We cannot go back to the situation that we had in the 1980s, when there was mass unemployment and no opportunities for young people or other members of society to recover through good, locally based employment opportunities.

Economic Resilience (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure better economic resilience in the north-east post-Covid-19. (S5O-05047)

Although suppressing Covid-19 and ensuring the safety of Scotland’s workforce is our priority, we must also sharpen our focus on rebuilding for the future. We have an opportunity to invest for the future and to design an economic recovery that works for all of Scotland’s people and which delivers wellbeing, sustainability and fair work. We are working with partners in the north-east to deliver that through our £62 million investment in the energy transition fund and the £125 million investment in the Aberdeen city region deal.

As the cabinet secretary knows, there is a great deal of technical and engineering knowledge in the north-east, as a result of its having had, for decades, an economy that has been largely dependent on oil and gas. How can we ensure that that talent and expertise are built on as we prepare to transition to low-carbon technology, and that workers do not find themselves having to pay for expensive retraining and recertification when they already have transferable skills?

It is essential that we have a just transition as we move from carbon-based developments into renewable energies. The national transition training fund has continued funding into next year precisely to provide the opportunity to reskill and upskill. Gillian Martin mentioned the issue of costs. Part of the support is to ensure that those costs can be supported. She also spoke about transferable skills. Work should be done to identify pre-existing skills and their transferability, and to match those with employment opportunities.

I return to the point that there is an opportunity for the north-east to be a powerhouse in the way it approaches a variety of areas of renewables. For example, there is some very exciting work on hydrogen, which the member will be aware of. We need to consider how we can ensure that the transfer of skills and individuals is as easy as possible and to use the fantastic skills base in the north-east to develop the economy of the future.

The Scottish National Party will end oil and gas trade support before the end of the year. According to Professor Haszeldine in his evidence to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee,

“in Scotland we do not have a clear industrial road map”.—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 2 February 2021; c 23.]

Will the cabinet secretary commit to addressing those twin failures?

We certainly do have a programme for industrial development, not least in advanced manufacturing and indeed the industries that I have just referred to. I mentioned the serious investment of £62 million in energy transition for Aberdeen.

The member might not be aware of this, but the United Kingdom Government has made it clear as part of its road map to the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—that it will be ending export support for oil and gas. Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, has engaged with the oil and gas industry because we know that, for those companies that are transitioning, support for the transitioning work is really important.

I do not think that the member is aware of the more severe and large-scale reductions in export support that have been announced by the UK Government. As he knows, much of the oil and gas industry is reserved. He might want to take a closer look at that announcement as well.

Question 8 has not been lodged.

Education and Skills

I remind members that, if they want to ask a supplementary question, they should type the letter R in the chat function.

Out-of-School Care Providers (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support it will make available to out-of-school care providers experiencing financial difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05049)

We recognise that the on-going Covid-19 restrictions and changes in demand for childcare have had an effect on school-age childcare providers, which raises concerns about the sustainability of those essential services.

Day care of children and childminding services have been able to draw on the range of financial support that has been made available by the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments, in particular the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employed income support scheme and the newly self-employed hardship fund. In addition, the Scottish Government has made available £22 million of dedicated support to private and third sector nurseries and school-age childcare services since the start of the pandemic. School-age childcare settings that are open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers can access the temporary restrictions fund, which will total £11.4 million between January and March.

In the light of the reopening of the early learning and childcare sector from 22 February, we are considering how we can best utilise the temporary restrictions fund that has been identified for March and support those in the school-age childcare sector. In particular, as restrictions continue for school-age childcare services, we recognise just how vital they are to the recovery of the economy but also to children’s outcomes and support for families. We are determined to see them survive this period of restriction.

Full details of future rounds of the fund will be made available as soon as possible.

I do not want anybody to take this personally, but short questions and succinct answers are terribly handy, as they help us to get through everybody’s questions.

I thank the minister for that detailed response. Out-of-school care providers in Glasgow have contacted me to raise their serious concerns about the very survival of the sector, with some providers facing collapse.

I understand that, although primary 1 to 3 children have now returned to school and more age groups will follow, out-of-school care providers can still provide care only to the children of key workers, and vulnerable children. If that is still the case, will the minister look to change it as a matter of urgency, given the impact on parents’ and carers’ capacity to work and the impact on the income of a sector that is already very hard hit?

Will the minister engage directly and seriously with the representatives of those providers to ensure that all necessary action is taken to ensure that they survive?

Absolutely—I am happy to give that commitment. We recognise how essential childcare providers are and we know that they are very concerned about their sustainability and their ability to continue to offer what we consider to be an essential service.

We engage with the Scottish Out of School Care Network and my officials meet it regularly. It is included in the early learning and childcare sector recovery working group, which meets regularly.

We are taking a very cautious approach to the gradual reopening of services. As the member is aware, only part of primary school is open. We take regular advice from the coronavirus (Covid-19) advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. We will continue to engage with the Scottish Out of School Care Network on those issues to ensure that services are able to fully reopen as soon as it is safe for them to do so, as we recognise the vital role that they play.

Student Final Year Grading (Lockdowns)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it plans to have with colleges and universities regarding the grading process for students who have been adversely impacted by recurrent lockdowns in their final year of study. (S5O-05050)

The Scottish Government expects universities and colleges to be mindful of the continuing impact of Covid-19 on students and their studies, ensure that there is fairness to all learners and maintain the integrity and credibility of qualifications.

My immediate priority is to enable final-year students in colleges and universities to complete their studies and allow them to move into employment or further study. I thank students for their patience and understanding as we work though the best and safest way to do that. To support that priority, I have established a short-life ministerial learner journey task force, with the aim of moving in a rapid and agile manner to collectively provide solutions to issues that students face as a result of the extended disruption to learning and teaching caused by Covid-19 restrictions.

I have been contacted by constituents who are in their final year of study and have struggled immensely with working from home, minimal access to libraries and little or no face-to-face teaching or seminar discussions. The effects have been particularly hard on students who are parents of young children, as well as those in difficult living circumstances in poor-quality and cramped housing. Given the adverse impact of the current lockdowns on undergraduate studies, has there been any indication that first-class and upper second-class honours degree classifications will be adjusted this year in a bid to reflect the difficulties that students face?

Bill Kidd has outlined very well some of the challenges that some of our students face at the present time. As autonomous institutions, universities are, of course, responsible for their own assessment policies. However, we absolutely fully expect institutions to adopt a fair approach to assessment that supports students in obtaining the qualifications that they deserve, despite the challenges faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities Scotland, on behalf of all 19 higher education institutions, has published a statement that seeks to reassure students that fairness will continue to be a defining feature of the assessment processes for the current academic year. The statement explains that all institutions are carefully reflecting on their policies for assessment, including procedures to recognise and mitigate exceptional circumstances that might otherwise adversely affect individual students’ performances.

Bill Kidd has had his two questions. We have a very brief supplementary from Jamie Greene.

The minister will, no doubt, have read with interest Professor Jim Scott’s report into last year’s grading process, which identified a number of systemic failings in governance. Will the Scottish Government allow experts such as Professor Scott to independently inspect the framework for overseeing this year’s exams and awards processes, to ensure that we do not see a repeat of last year’s shambles?

The Scottish Government will continue to take advice from appropriate experts in the field, and the universities are working hard on the issue. As I explained, universities are autonomous bodies that are responsible for their own assessment processes. It is fair to say that they have understood the desire of members of Parliament and society at large to ensure that our young people are not disadvantaged by the pandemic.

In addition to thinking about this year, students will be thinking about next year. What discussions has the minister had to ensure that students can return to face-to-face learning and that virtual learning is minimised by the next academic year?

It is clear that the short-life task force that I mentioned in my response to Bill Kidd’s original question is looking at all those issues—not just the very short-term issues of helping students at the moment to complete their courses and ensuring that they are supported should any of them require to repeat next year, but any potential consequences for the next academic year and the next cohort of students. However, it is clear that when face-to-face learning will return very much depends on the course of the pandemic in Scotland. As the First Minister outlined yesterday, very steady and positive progress is being made to ensure that students can, we hope, return to our campuses sooner rather than later.

Class Sizes (Multilevel Teaching)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to decrease class sizes and reduce the prevalence of multilevel teaching. (S5O-05051)

Average class sizes in primary schools have been decreasing and are now at their smallest since 2012. There are now more teachers than there have been at any time since 2008, and the ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest since 2010.

We have committed to investing over £300 million in education recovery over 2020-21 and 2021-22. That has helped to recruit an additional 1,400 teachers and more than 200 support staff. Those additional staff may be used to reduce class sizes where appropriate.

Multilevel teaching has long been part of Scottish education, and teachers are well skilled to take account of the needs of their pupils.

Just last week, the Scottish Conservatives revealed that almost 40 per cent of Edinburgh’s schools were teaching classes that combined three or more year groups. It is shocking that 17 per cent are teaching four or more year groups. The Scottish National Party Government is failing my constituents. What is going to be done about that?

Mr Lindhurst ignores the fact that multilevel teaching has long been a part of Scottish education. One of the reasons for that is to enable young people to exercise as much choice as possible over the subjects and options that they pursue, because it is inevitable that very small groups of pupils can be involved the broader the choice is. If Mr Lindhurst is saying that we should reduce the choice that is available to pupils, I am not prepared to sign up to that. I want to maximise the choice that is available for pupils. That choice is, of course, far more extensive in the subjects and options that are available to them now.

Schools are best placed to make judgments on how that learning and teaching can be delivered sustainably in different parts of the curriculum. I trust the teaching profession in Scotland to make those judgments.

If we are to reduce class sizes and the prevalence of multilevel teaching, we need the new cohort of teachers entering the profession in the next school year, but their training will have been disrupted through the disruption to their teaching practices. What support is being provided to them to help them as they enter the profession?

Extensive and pragmatic discussions are going on between initial teacher education providers, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and local authorities, with co-operation with individual schools, obviously, to ensure that trainee teachers are able to secure the necessary teaching experience. Some of that is being delivered through remote learning. Obviously, that concept is very different from the normal face-to-face teaching environment. That work is under way to ensure that individual students are supported so that they can continue to make their contribution to the teaching profession.

When we faced an abrupt end to the school year last year, arrangements were put in place to ensure that students were able to make that contribution. I am confident that the same will be the case in this academic year.

Developing the Young Workforce (Impact of Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the developing the young workforce programme. (S5O-05052)

As it has in many areas of Government policy, Covid-19 has resulted in changes to the way that we have implemented the developing the young workforce programme. Since the outset of the pandemic, we have prioritised working with partners and employers through our network of DYW regional groups. That work has focused on the online delivery—

I am sorry. Will you halt there, minister? It sounds as though you are underwater. I know that you are not underwater, because I can see that you are not. Can you switch your visuals off? Let us see whether the sound improves then. We will start again with your answer, please. We do not need Ms Ross’s question again; we just need the minister to give his answer to her question.

I shall start again. Certainly the visuals might have improved, if not the sound.

As it has in many areas of Government policy, Covid-19 has resulted in changes to the way that we have implemented the developing the young workforce programme. Since the outset of the pandemic, we have prioritised working with partners and employers through our network of DYW regional groups. That work has focused on the online delivery of activity to support summer leavers in 2020 and the creation of e-DYW, the DYW skills academy and Scotland’s biggest parents’—[Inaudible.]

The publication of the report from the advisory group on economic recovery saw Sandy Begbie being appointed to lead the Scottish Government’s young person’s guarantee. An integral part of that is the roll-out of DYW school co-ordinators across Scotland. Those roles are being funded by the Scottish Government. They will help to drive partnerships with education and employers, and they will be delivered by the employer-led DYW—[Inaudible.]

That was only slightly better. We had hope initially, but the sound disappeared. Ms Ross, you can ask your supplementary and look at the written answers later.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will do that.

I thank the minister for that answer—I think. Can he tell me whether any of the ways of working that we have become accustomed to throughout the past year will be used for the developing the young workforce programme as we move forward?

I certainly can. Through the programme we have embraced a lot of different ways of working—[Inaudible.]—continue to do that, including virtual engagement—[Inaudible.]—many areas of activity—[Inaudible.]—geared towards a post-Covid way of working and—[Inaudible.]—our young people’s education—[Inaudible.]

Mr Hepburn, I suppose that you have to keep going for the Official Report, as long as the official reporters can make out what you are saying. We cannot.

Okay. I was nearly finished. Do you want me to start again?

No, no, no. The sound is not getting any better. It is not your fault. I think that the best way to resolve this is for you to finish what you are saying, and we will hope that the OR picks it up. Otherwise, you will just need to write the answer.

“And that they are prepared for the future economy” is what I was going to say, Presiding Officer.

And there we end that little session with Mr Hepburn.

Schools Reopening (Orkney)

To ask the Scottish Government—although perhaps not Jamie Hepburn—what discussions it has had with Orkney Islands Council regarding the reopening of schools. (S5O-05053)

Orkney Islands Council wrote to me at the end of last year in relation to reopening of schools and early learning and childcare. My officials have also been in touch with it more recently about the new arrangements for phased return of some pupils from 22 February.

As a rural authority, Orkney Islands Council makes use of composite classes, where pupil numbers are low. Decisions as to when composite classes will be used and when they will be effective for learners and teachers need to be planned at school level. The long-term shared ambition of national and local government remains to safely maximise the number of children and young people who are learning in schools, as long as it remains low risk.

Although some senior phase pupils who are undertaking some practical subjects have been able to return to school this week, that is not the case for those who are studying for physical education qualifications. With Orkney in level 3, some new sport can now take place in the community, but the on-going restrictions that apply to PE in schools make it very difficult for PE staff to work with pupils for their required teaching and assessment.

Will the cabinet secretary or one of his ministers agree to meet me to discuss what more might safely be done to enable pupils in Orkney who are undertaking PE qualifications to maximise their chances of securing the grades that they deserve?

I am very happy to have further discussions with Mr McArthur on that question.

Orkney Islands Council has raised with me the different circumstances that it faces. In the guidance that we have made available for resumption of face-to-face schooling from 22 February, we have given flexibility around certain matters, including composite classes, so that decisions can be left to local authorities so that they can exercise flexibility with regard to the numbers that can return.

When it comes to matters such as PE qualifications, the national guidance applies. However, I am happy to hear the points that Mr McArthur wishes to raise with me. I am working actively to secure the return of as many secondary school pupils as possible at the earliest safe opportunity. I hope that we are, as part of that process, able to advance on questions such as Mr McArthur has raised with me.

Schools (Lost Teaching Time)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to help pupils catch up on lost teaching time. (S5O-05054)

The first part of my answer to that question must highlight the fantastic work of teachers and other professionals in the education system who have provided high-quality remote learning during difficult times for school pupils around the country.

It is vital that schools and local authorities are provided with the resources to support learners to engage with their learning at all times, as well as the required flexibility to tailor the support to local circumstances. We have already committed to £300 million of additional funding in the current and next financial years for safety mitigations that support in-person learning, as well as to accelerate learning recovery as part of a longer-term programme to enable children to redress the time that they have spent out of school. That commitment recognises the need to tailor support to the needs of the school community and has, for example, helped to recruit 1,400 additional teachers and to supply 60,000 digital devices to young people around the country.

With the loss of full-time education, it is clear that the pandemic has created a national emergency for our children. The Scottish Conservatives’ catch-up plan to address that monumental challenge contains several proposals, including a national tutoring scheme and a major drive to recruit 3000 teachers. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether he is willing to commit to any of those proposals?

I am actually doing a number of the proposals already. I do not need to wait to hear from the Scottish Conservative Party.

We have already recruited 1,400 additional teachers, and I have provided local authorities with the flexibility to recruit more teachers should they judge that more are required in order to supplement learning. In addition, a national tutoring program is available through e-Sgoil to learners around the country.

Local authorities and schools are already providing an extensive programme of remote learning. During the Easter holidays, many schools and local authorities will be supporting young people to make progress in their education.

I am always interested to hear alternative proposals, but I assure Annie Wells that we are making a sustained effort to ensure that the issues are properly addressed, and that the learning of young people is supported throughout the country.

Question 7 has not been lodged.

Teaching and Education Unions (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of teaching and education unions. (S5O-05056)

We meet the teaching unions and organisations on a regular basis to discuss a range of matters relating to teachers and education. Those meetings provide me with valuable insight into any issues and concerns that teachers have.

The teaching unions are also represented on a range of Scottish Government education working groups, including the Covid-19 education recovery group, which I chair weekly.

Many teachers will welcome returning to the classroom this week, but there will also be some trepidation. What steps have been taken to improve access to personal protective equipment and training on infection control? More important, what steps is the Scottish Government taking to listen to feedback from teachers so that those measures can be improved, especially as we look forward to returning more school years to the classroom in the coming weeks and months?

If PPE is required in a school setting it must be available. That is one of the essential measures in the education recovery guidance. In all circumstances, the requisite PPE must be available.

On infection control, Public Health Scotland works closely with individual schools and advises them on how to handle outbreaks, should they happen. It also supports, through proximity tracing, identification of children, young people and staff who might be affected.

Finally, Mr Johnson asked me what measures are being put in place for us to listen to teachers. I have direct dialogue with teachers through a number of channels of communication. The teaching unions are, as I said, represented on a range of Scottish Government education working groups and they can, and do, feed in issues that are of concern to teachers. Their contribution has substantially informed the detailed guidance that the education recovery group has made available.

I am grateful to the professional associations for their thoughtful and substantive input to identifying issues of concern so that we can put in place mitigation measures to address those concerns, which is a fundamental building block of a safe education system, in these challenging times.

That concludes questions on education and skills. I say to members in this and the previous question sessions who could not hear Mr Hepburn’s answers clearly that the only way to resolve that is to lodge the questions as written questions. I ask the minister to expedite answers, because the official reporters could not pick up all of what was said, either. If the minister could do that, that would make matters clearer. It is the best solution.

We will shortly move to the next item of business.