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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 25 February 2020 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Proposed Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Seclusion and Restraint in Schools


Topical Question Time

Education Review (Remit)

To ask the Scottish Government how the recently published analysis of SQA exam attainment will influence the remit of its review of secondary education. (S5T-02035)

I can confirm that agreement was reached this morning between the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Scottish Government on the remit for an independent review of curriculum for excellence. I will publish that remit tomorrow and will ensure that a copy is placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre. The Government will bring forward a debate in Parliament to enable members to express their perspectives on issues that will be covered during the review.

In line with the view of Parliament, I expect that the review will cover the broad general education and the senior phase, and the articulation between the two. We will provide the OECD with a broad evidence base to inform its review, which will include data on attainment and information on emerging practice.

I expect that the review will also consider the recently published analysis of the 2019 exam diet. The vast majority of data that is included in that analysis was published in full at the time of the announcement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority results. The analysis outlines a series of measures that build on current approaches around understanding standards, enhancing learning and teaching and encouraging collaborative working in education.

It is important to note that curriculum design will be a key focus of the review. That will include the approach to assessment, qualifications and other achievements and how well they articulate with the curriculum, learning and teaching.

That is welcome news, because analysis of the SQA results showed a drop in attainment in 32 out of 46 subjects, and by as much as 10 percentage points in a single year in some subjects. The review is supposed to consider the context of that fall in attainment. The context is a narrowing curriculum, an explosion in multilevel teaching, and the fit between the broad general education and the senior phase in schools.

However, the Deputy First Minister has at every stage had to be dragged towards getting to the remit for the review. Parliament insisted that the review take place at all. Parliament insisted that it cover the broad general education, and now Parliament has insisted on that analysis being published. It sounds as if it has also influenced the remit of the review. Would not it be far more straightforward if the Deputy First Minister faced up to the problems in education without having to be dragged there by Parliament?

I face up to the issues in education every day. That is why I said in my answer that the steps that are being taken in the review of the SQA results outline a series of measures that build on current approaches around understanding standards, enhancing learning and teaching, and encouraging collaborative working in education. All those are central to the agenda that the Government has constantly pursued to support improvement in our education system.

I welcome that Iain Gray indicated in his response to my answer that he supports examination of the issues that we are raising in the review. That is healthy. I want the review to proceed in a way that helps us to strengthen learning and teaching in the years to come.

It is also incumbent on me, as well as demanding improvements in education, to recognise both the strength that exists in our education system and the fact that our young people are performing well and achieving significantly in that system. I encourage members to echo my commendation of the achievements of young people and of teachers in Scottish education.

In the spirit of Mr Swinney facing up daily to the problems in education, I note that when the figures that the analysis deals with were first known, he described the fall in the higher pass rate as an “annual variation”. The analysis makes it absolutely clear that higher pass rate did not drop just for a single year but that there is a trend of falling attainment. Will he face up to that and confirm to us that the OECD’s remit for the review recognises that trend of falling attainment and will consider the reasons behind it?

As Iain Gray knows—because he follows the arguments that I put forward on education—that I consider the 2018-19 exam results to be a strong set of results. I say that for two reasons. The first is that in national 5, the pass rate went up: in the previous year, it had gone down. In anyone’s book, that represents volatility in examination performance. Secondly, although the higher pass rate went down by 2 percentage points, the pass rate was still 75 per cent. Of course, I accept that that is lower than 77 per cent, which is essentially what it was for the three years before that—there is no statistical difference between the performance in each of the three years before we get to 2018-19. So, in 2018-19, the national 5 pass rate went up and the higher pass rate went down. That is volatility.

Yes—we should explore those issues. That is why I commissioned work in the aftermath of the exam diet in August 2019, and that is why the Government constantly engages with our education system in order to secure improvements in our schools the length and breadth of the country.

The cabinet secretary has mentioned the importance of standards in learning and teaching, and also of collegiate working. How can the regional improvement collaboratives support the improvement of learning and teaching standards in Scotland?

The regional improvement collaboratives are an important reform that I introduced to the education system in 2017 as a result of the acknowledgment of the need to strengthen collaborative working, which was one of the recommendations of the OECD review in 2015, to support the enhancement of the quality of learning and teaching, to provide a better platform for teachers to enhance their professional development and to ensure that, as a consequence, standards in Scottish education were improved.

I am pleased with the progress that regional improvement collaboratives are making. They are increasingly deeply involved in classroom activity, which provides classroom teachers with an opportunity to enhance their practice and to enhance learning and teaching. Those interventions will strengthen Scottish education, and I am pleased with the co-operation that we have had from local authorities as we take forward that agenda.

There are no questions from members on these benches about the quality of our teachers or the enthusiasm of our pupils, but genuine questions arise from the report that was published last week.

The cabinet secretary knows that the Education and Skills Committee has on several occasions found it difficult to elicit full transparency from the Scottish Qualifications Authority about who has been responsible for taking some of the key decisions relating to SQA qualifications and exams.

Over the weekend, following the release of the statistics in the report, I have spoken to a number of teachers, many of whom expressed concerns about the pass rates. A 10 percentage point drop in the rates in some subjects is not volatility. Clearly, there are underlying issues that need to be addressed.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that teachers and parents have genuine concerns, and how is he going to ensure that there is full transparency and trust in the SQA and our qualifications structures?

First, I welcome Jamie Greene to his post on the Conservative benches, and I look forward to discussing with him issues that are relevant to the future of Scottish education.

It is crystal clear that the SQA is a body that acts independently of Government. The SQA is an independent examining body. It takes all its decisions about the performance of pupils independently, and ministers have no oversight of those operational decisions, nor should they have. I assure Mr Greene that that is absolutely the case.

With regard to strategic issues about the examination system, we listen to a wide body of opinion through the curriculum and assessment board, which has broad membership, including the professional associations, Education Scotland, the SQA and a variety of stakeholders who inform and engage on decisions. For example, the curriculum and assessment board recently held a discussion about whether it would be appropriate for an examination to be applied at the end of the national 4 qualification process. There was no unanimity on the board on that question, so the decision came to me, and I decided that there would be no examination. That is a policy decision. It is a world away from the SQA deciding who passes or fails or gets whatever mark in an individual qualification. I assure Mr Greene that I believe in the importance of that being carried out independently.

I listen very carefully to teachers’ views, on an on-going basis—something about me that Mr Greene will come to find out is that I spend a lot of my time listening to individual teachers on my many visits to schools and in my informal and formal dialogue with teachers, and that I assure teachers of my constant attention to the issues that they raise with me.

The report that was released late last Thursday went into varying detail about individual subjects. It offered no suggestions as to why the pass rate in higher history has declined by 10 percentage points, whereas it suggested that the small increase in science pass rates might be down to greater emphasis on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics strategy. Will the Deputy First Minister say whether subject-by-subject work to identify the specific problems in each area will be undertaken as part of the OECD review? If not, who will lead that continuing work, which it is essential that we undertake on a subject-by-subject basis?

I suspect that Mr Greer is familiar with the fact that the SQA provides an annual subject-by-subject report on performance in individual examinations. Some of his questions about individual subjects will be answered by those subject reports, which are published some time after the conclusion of the examination diet.

Obviously, in the exercise that we are talking about, I was looking in more detail at whether there are issues that we must draw out. Of course, we have drawn out some of the issues, which are highlighted in the report that has been published. A series of actions is included in the body of the report, which are about strengthening the understanding of standards. I think that that will get to the heart of some of the issues that Mr Greer raised about individual subjects, because an important point—and we get feedback in this regard in relation to certain qualifications—is that there might not be an understanding of standards between the SQA, in terms of what it and examiners expect, and practitioners in schools, in terms of what they are actually doing. That is obviously an area for further inquiry, and that is part of the on-going responsibilities of the SQA.

Analysis shows that exam performance is declining, efforts to close the attainment gap are stalling and teachers need much more support. The number of additional support needs teachers is at a record low, despite pupil ASN identification increasing by 68 per cent. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the OECD will consider classroom support and specialists, given their value in the context of attainment?

Before I answer that question, I must correct the point that Ms Wishart made about attainment falling. Attainment is not falling. Young people are acquiring more qualifications today. More young people secure one or more passes at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 4, 5 and 6 than was the case in 2009-10—and, in many circumstances, before that. I will quote the data that we published this morning—if the Presiding Officer will allow me the time to get to the appropriate chart; it is currently escaping me. What the chart shows is that, since 2009-10, there has been an increase at SCQF levels 4, 5 and 6. Those are the facts on performance and attainment. Yes, there will be annual volatility, but compared with 2009-10, attainment is up.

On the point about additional support for learning, Beatrice Wishart will be aware that I commissioned Angela Morgan to explore the issues on the Government’s behalf. I saw Angela Morgan last week for an update on the work that she is undertaking. She has carried out an extensive exercise in this respect and I expect to receive her report shortly. Of course, her report will be published and can be the subject of debate in the Parliament.

The Government has put in place £15 million of additional resources for additional support for learning. Of course, that is contingent on the Parliament supporting the budget on Thursday. I heartily encourage Beatrice Wishart to give positive consideration to supporting the budget, to enable that expenditure to be deployed in our local authorities to support the needs of children and young people in Scotland.

There might be a chance for you to find the relevant page, Deputy First Minister, as there are two more questions still to come.

If we are going to review secondary education, will one of the factors to be looked at be positive destinations? As I understand it, in 2009-10, 87 per cent of our young people went on to positive destinations, but last year 95 per cent did so.

The data that came out this morning demonstrates that 95 per cent of young people went to positive destinations after leaving school. That shows significant improvement in the performance of the education system. There is also very encouraging data about young people leaving school to go on to higher and further education—enabling people to move on to further education opportunities is one of the articulation principles of curriculum for excellence.

The information on positive destinations is critical for monitoring and analysing the journeys of young people through the education system and for enabling them to acquire all the capacities and capabilities that we want them to have, so that they are able to navigate the modern world.

Given the widening of the remit of the review, can the cabinet secretary lay out the timescales for the review, as well as the earliest date at which any recommendations might be implemented?

As I have indicated to Parliament before, because we are expanding the remit of the review beyond that of the senior phase review that we wanted to carry out, we have agreed a timescale with the OECD that the recommendations or conclusions of that process will come back by February 2021.

If we are going to do the exercise, we have to give it enough time to be done properly. I want to maximise practitioner and pupil engagement in the exercise, so that we can hear the voices and experience of the practitioners whom Mr Greene talked about, as well as those of pupils. It will be for ministers and Parliament to consider the implications of material that arises out of the review at that time.

That concludes topical questions.