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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 24, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 February 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Torness Nuclear Power Station, Portfolio Question Time, Ports, Ukraine, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn while moving around the chamber and the wider Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions, and this afternoon’s portfolio is education and skills. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question. Again, as ever, I would appreciate succinct questions and answers, to allow us to get through all the questions.

Teaching Assistants (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support expanded recruitment of teaching assistants. (S6O-00772)

Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided £240 million of additional investment, specifically for the recruitment of more education staff, including classroom assistants. In addition to that funding, we are providing local authorities with permanent funding of £145.5 million per year to support the recruitment of extra teachers and support staff on permanent contracts.

Since 2019-20, we have also invested an additional £45 million in pupil support assistants for additional support for learning, and we will continue to provide extra support to local authorities by investing an additional £60 million over the next four years to support that.

Over the course of the pandemic, many pupils from lower income backgrounds, especially in areas of high multiple deprivation, were disproportionately impacted by the requirement to learn at home. Reasons for that greater impact range from cramped environments for studying to having fewer studying resources available at home. What resources is the Scottish Government providing to local councils to allow them to provide more teachers and teaching assistants? How will that benefit pupils who live in areas of multiple deprivation?

In my original answer, I mentioned the £240 million that has been provided since the start of the pandemic. That has allowed local authorities to recruit additional teachers and school support staff and maintain them in the system. For example, there are now more than 2,000 more teachers in Scotland’s schools than there were before the start of the pandemic in 2019. As I am sure Mr Kidd is aware, the Government was elected on a manifesto commitment to support the recruitment of 3,500 additional teachers and 500 support staff over this parliamentary session. That will mean a significant injection of resources, which will bring much-needed resilience into the system.

Can the cabinet secretary explain why her Government has cut the total marketing spend on teacher recruitment? In response to a freedom of information request, her Government revealed that, between 2017-18 and 2020-21, there was a cut of £163,000 in funding. Should the Government not use every tool possible to recruit the teachers?

We absolutely should use every tool available and do so as effectively as possible. Of course, every year, we analyse not just the marketing material that goes out but our ability to use different channels. Social media and digital communication are exceptionally important and remain a main part of the campaign as we continue to provide for marketing for recruitment of new teachers.

Teaching Unions

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with the teaching unions. (S6O-00773)

The Scottish Government meets the teaching unions frequently through the offices of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, and has regular meetings with the teaching unions to discuss a range of issues relating to education, including through the Covid-19 education recovery group and the Scottish education council. I also meet the teaching unions biannually to discuss a range of topics.

Last October, the Educational Institute of Scotland estimated that as many as one in 10 teachers in Scotland were on short-term contracts. The teaching profession is absolutely vital to this country and our recovery from Covid, and that is no way to treat it. The cabinet secretary has been asked several times exactly how many teachers are on those short-term contracts and what her Government intends to do about it, but she has been unable to tell us. Is she any wiser today?

Figures are published on the number of teachers who are on permanent and on temporary contracts. I mentioned them in my answer to Bill Kidd and, for the sake of time, I will not again go into the details of our commitment to provide resources to local authorities to ensure that teachers are being recruited on permanent contracts. That is exactly why we baselined that £145.5 million—to ensure that we see more permanent teachers and more support staff in our schools. The Government has taken action and will continue to take action to ensure that teachers are recruited and to encourage them to be put on permanent contracts. I would also make the point that recruitment and retention is a matter for local authorities.

How are university students being supported in their learning and degree progress, in light of on-going strike action?

We absolutely take that issue exceptionally seriously. I understand that the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training set out in a letter to the member that universities are autonomous institutions, and therefore staff pay and conditions are matters for universities to determine. Although ministers have no locus to intervene in such issues, I would expect universities to make every effort to minimise disruption for students, particularly in what is yet another difficult year for our university and college students.

The Educational Institute of Scotland has joined parents in opposing the creation of one super headteacher post to cover nine schools in Largo and the east neuk of Fife. In response to parent outrage, Fife Council has delayed that decision but has not ruled it out. From the cabinet secretary’s position of leading education across the country, what advice does she give the council about that proposal for a super headteacher?

Willie Rennie and his party are very keen to encourage Government not to step on the toes of local authorities. Local authorities have responsibility for recruitment and retention issues in relation to all teachers, including headteachers. However, I recognise that there has been major concern in the area about that issue, and I recognise the strength of feeling of parents on it. As with all issues that concern government, whether local or national, we would of course expect all elected members to respond carefully when there is that level of concern. The decision is for Fife Council, but I am sure that it has heard very clearly—as have I—the concern from parents in the area. If the council is to make changes in that area, it must absolutely ensure that it justifies them and takes parents with it on that journey.

Curriculum for Excellence

To ask the Scottish Government how curriculum for excellence meets the needs of colleges and industries in providing appropriate learning to young people to allow them to progress to the next stage of their training. (S6O-00774)

The curriculum for excellence helps our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century. It enables strong school-college and school-employer partnerships and has stimulated an expansion of vocational opportunities, which ensure that our learners are prepared to progress to the next stage of their journey, whether that be further learning, training or employment.

The learner destination statistics that were published this week show that the proportion of 2020-21 school leavers in a positive initial destination was 95.5 per cent, which is up from both 2018-19 and 2019-20 figures. We are committed to continuous improvement, and our response to the review of the curriculum for excellence by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that was published last summer will help ensure that.

I recently visited Perth College of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and was blown away by the range of services and courses that it offers students and the wider community. However, one issue that was raised with me was the apparent lack of parity of esteem between vocational and academic pathways. Can the minister say what Government can do to strengthen the links between colleges and schools so that vocational opportunities are given the same level of support as academic ones?

I was very pleased to visit Perth College last year, and I was equally impressed.

I am conscious of the issue that Mr Fairlie has raised in relation to parity of esteem. I think that we are in a better place than we were previously due to the range of developing the young workforce services that we have in place. There is evidence of a year-on-year increase in the number of school leavers who have attained vocational qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 and above since 2014. In 2013-14, 7.3 per cent of students achieved that but, by 2020-21, 26.1 per cent of school leavers were achieving it. That has happened on the basis of strong and effective school-college partnerships. Of course, there is more to do and our developing the young workforce activity will continue to take forward that journey of ensuring greater parity of esteem.

A key consideration set out by the curriculum for excellence is that it maximises opportunities for learning and creates clear links to future skills opportunities. However, the Audit Scotland report has highlighted how little progress has been made on skills alignment due to the lack of leadership and oversight by the Scottish Government. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the lack of progress on skills alignment is a major obstacle to maximising opportunities for learning?

I have literally just read out the figures on the significant progress that we have made on the creation of qualifications at school level. I take the leadership role that I have, and that the Scottish Government has, in relation to the alignment journey very seriously. That is why I engage regularly with the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland to make sure that the matter is a focus of concerted activity.

We continue to take forward that programme through a range of means. Just recently, we set up a shared outcomes assurance group in Government that will involve both organisations operating to a framework, the details of which will be available soon. Just as the Auditor General suggested, we will reflect some of the findings in his report in the new letter of governance to the agencies, emphasising once again the importance of skills alignment.

Children and Young People (Mental and Emotional Wellbeing)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken in schools to promote the mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people. (S6O-00775)

We continue to prioritise support for mental health and wellbeing in schools. The mental health in schools working group recently developed a whole school approach framework to assist in supporting children and young people’s mental health in schools. That complements earlier work to provide a professional learning resource for school staff to support the wellbeing of children and young people. We also continue to support our local authority partners with £16 million in funding to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services.

During the pandemic, there has been an increase in the use of social media platforms as our young people have tried to stay connected with one another. Unfortunately, there have been reports that that has meant an increase in the levels of cyberbullying—something that has been raised in the past few weeks and months by a number of my constituents. The cabinet secretary will be aware that I have raised some very harrowing cases in the chamber. What action is the Scottish Government taking specifically to combat cyberbullying and the impact that it has on young people’s mental health?

Fulton MacGregor raises a very important point. I recognise the work that he has been doing on the issue for some time.

Online bullying should not be treated differently from face-to-face bullying and it is addressed effectively when it is part of our whole anti-bullying approach, not as a separate area of work. All of the Scottish Government’s policies include advice on online bullying. There are specific experiences, outcomes and benchmarks in the technologies area of curriculum for excellence that allow an explicit reference to cyberresilience and internet safety, allowing schools to incorporate learning around those issues.

The Scottish Government also continues to fund respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, whose website contains information and practical advice for children and young people, and, importantly, for parents and carers, on dealing with online bullying.

“Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future”

To ask the Scottish Government what the reasons are for its decision not to publish the draft of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, “Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future”, that it received in January 2021. (S6O-00776)

The OECD report, “Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future”, is an independent review carried out by an independent and internationally respected body. The timing of its publication was determined by the OECD. The report, which was published in full on 21 June 2021, backed curriculum for excellence, and the Scottish Government has accepted its 12 recommendations as part of our commitment to continuous improvement.

The Scottish Government has not released the draft report, as it is deemed to be subject to a freedom of information exemption. The Scottish Government applied the exemption regarding confidential information obtained from another international organisation in good faith. We consider that to be an entirely valid approach. The OECD’s code of conduct, which it applies to all publications around the world, prohibits the sharing of confidential material, and the draft report was clearly marked confidential.

That is the stuff of fantasy. Has the cabinet secretary asked the OECD whether it would object to the release of the draft and, more importantly, the Scottish Government’s response to it, which is, as I understand it, the property of the Scottish Government?

I refer Mr Mundell to my original answer on the issue and to the OECD’s code of conduct, which applies to all the publications that we have. The OECD is—[Interruption.]

I am afraid that Mr Mundell is not interested in the answer, but I will carry on for the sake of the rest of the chamber, who are interested. The OECD is an internationally renowned organisation and it has given an expert, trusted opinion to the Scottish Government. Fact checking ensures that reports and recommendations reflect the best and the agreed understanding. The UK Government takes the same approach, as has been seen with many reviews and reports in the past.

We will of course continue to take our freedom of information requirements exceptionally seriously, and we did so in this case. I believe that the FOI exemption that I have talked about with regard to international organisations has been the correct decision, and we applied the exemption on that point.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that grandstanding on important educational issues has no place in the Parliament, and will she join me in thanking the OECD for its independent review of the curriculum for excellence? Does she agree that being open to external challenge is crucial to ensuring that our education system remains world class?

I am happy to repeat my thanks to the OECD for its work, both in the most recent report and in the past. It is important that, as a country, we open ourselves up to scrutiny from internationally renowned and respected organisations such as the OECD. It is imperative that any Government, as part of its continuous improvement drive, invites the OECD to do that work and, importantly, acts on its recommendations, which we continue to do.

That was not fact checking. The Government wanted a major rewrite. The report was not published before the election because John Swinney did not like its contents.

Communications from the Government to the OECD are owned by the Government, so the education secretary is perfectly entitled to publish them without anyone else’s permission. She cannot hide behind the OECD. Will she just get on and publish?

Rather than discrediting the Government with that question, Mr Rennie discredits the OECD. As I said, it is an internationally renowned organisation and its work in an educational setting is seen to be expert and trusted. The OECD was fully entitled to present its report to the Government to have it fact checked, but the idea that the Scottish Government can somehow manipulate an internationally renowned organisation such as the OECD to change its recommendations is fantasy from Mr Rennie. It absolutely discredits the OECD and the very commendable work that it has done.

Rona Mackay joins us remotely.

Scottish Education Exchange Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the development of the Scottish education exchange programme. (S6O-00777)

The development of a Scottish education exchange programme is a programme for government commitment and will help maintain Scotland’s place as an outward-looking, internationally connected destination for work and study.

We are engaging with stakeholders from across the education spectrum, including higher and further education, community learning and development, youth work and adult education and schools and sports, and will develop the programme to ensure that it is fit for Scotland.

Stand International is a charitable organisation that is based in Kirkintilloch in my constituency. It regularly took disadvantaged young people on trips abroad under the Erasmus scheme, so sadly lost due to the United Kingdom Government taking us out of Europe. Does the minister agree that, if possible, our own exchange programmes should include young people from all backgrounds, who will benefit enormously from such life-enhancing trips?

If I recall correctly, I met Stand International along with Rona Mackay and Amy Callaghan MP, and was pleased to do so. I am grateful to the organisation for the work that it undertakes.

I agree with the premise of the question. I believe that the replacement scheme that we take forward should be as encompassing as possible. It should have a particular slant towards supporting people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in order to ensure that they have access to life-changing opportunities. One of my great regrets is that the Turing scheme has gone in exactly the opposite direction. Rona Mackay and other members have my commitment that, when we design our scheme, it will not follow suit.

Education (Net Zero Targets)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans for a flexible skills and education system that can help meet net zero targets, as referred to in its programme for government 2021-22. (S6O-00778)

The Scottish Government is already undertaking significant action to equip individuals with skills and training to meet the needs of a net zero economy. That includes the publication of the climate emergency skills action plan in December 2020, the launch of the green jobs workforce academy in August 2021 and a suite of green skills training projects that have been delivered through the national transition training fund over the past two years.

We are implementing our learning for sustainability action plan and are continuing to engage with young climate activists through the Teach the Future campaign.

The number of green jobs in Scotland is declining. According to figures that were released last week by the Office for National Statistics, the number of jobs in the low carbon and renewable energy economy fell from almost 22,000 in 2019 to just over 20,000 last year.

The minister refers to the green jobs academy but, in giving evidence to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, the Scottish Trades Union Congress highlighted that that is merely a website listing jobs. Will the minister confirm whether the green jobs academy is an academy with teachers providing training and other assets that we normally associate with an academy, or is it merely a website?

It is certainly more than merely a website. It ensures that we harness the capacity of the system that we have in place through the range of initiatives and measures that I have laid out to be responsive to the great challenge that we have with climate emergency skills. I am pleased to say that, as of 17 February, nearly 5,000 users have accessed the resources that are available via the green jobs workforce academy.

Six months from the academy’s launch, Skills Development Scotland will undertake a detailed impact assessment of it through information from and profiles of the users and sectors that have used it, which will help to inform the development of its next phase. I am sure that Mr Lockhart will take great interest in that.

Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported comments of Glasgow City Council’s new executive director of education regarding reinstating the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. (S6O-00779)

We remain committed to teacher professional judgment as the means of assessing progress in the broad general education phase, through the annual achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data. National standardised assessments will continue to have a role to play in supporting that. As we set out in our response to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report last year, we will explore options for a sample survey approach to assessing progress across the four CFE capacities.

Why is it so difficult for the cabinet secretary to reinstate that well-regarded survey? Any government that is serious about restoring educational standards would recognise that collecting and tracking the right data is essential to an evidence-based approach to education. Does the cabinet secretary accept that many parents and teachers will simply draw the conclusion that the Scottish National Party Government would rather hide its failings than make things better for our young people?

With the greatest respect to Dr Gulhane, he is wrong on this issue. The reason why there have been changes is that a national survey provides us with greater information to ensure that we know what is happening in schools and local authorities. The SSLN—[Interruption.] I am afraid that Mr Mundell is, once again, not interested in the answer.

Cabinet secretary, hold on a second. Mr Mundell, you have shouted from a sedentary position on numerous occasions now. I have allowed you to get away with it to date, but that is enough. Please treat the answers with as much respect as the questions.

As I was saying, the SSLN did not provide data about performance at school or local authority level. When the data showed a decline in literacy and numeracy between 2014 and 2015, it was decided, as part of the national improvement framework work, to move to a census-based approach to allow us to monitor progress in literacy and numeracy in order to provide support where it was required at school and local authority level. That simply was not possible with a survey such as the SSLN.

I note that, in the 2015 OECD report—the OECD is getting quite a few mentions today—it said that the sample approach of the SSLN did not give national agencies enough evidence.