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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 25, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 25 April 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International Workers Memorial Day, Portfolio Question Time, Advance Redress Payments, Hutchesons’ Hospital Transfer and Dissolution (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Changing Lives Through Sport and Physical Activity, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Education (Subject Choice)

Just before the recess, I tackled the First Minister on the subject choice crisis in Scotland’s schools. Her response was one of denial but, this week, Reform Scotland published a report that spelled out that whereas, previously, most pupils could study up to eight subjects at secondary 4, under curriculum for excellence, in most cases that figure is now only six. Does the First Minister still refuse to accept that that is a problem?

I have read the Reform Scotland study that was published this week. As much of the work on the topic does, it looks at S4 but, as Jackson Carlaw knows, the senior phase in school does not consist only of S4—it lasts for three years. What matters is the qualifications and awards that pupils leave school with, not just the subjects that they study at S4.

The percentage of pupils who get qualifications at level 5 and above is up and the percentage who leave with highers is up. Back in 2009, the percentage of pupils who got five highers or more was 22 per cent; last year, it was more than 30 per cent. The attainment gap between rich and poor at higher level is at an all-time low, a record number of school leavers are in higher education and the number of school leavers from the most deprived areas in higher education has gone up by eight percentage points since a decade ago. On the day that school pupils across the country start sitting their exams, we should be paying tribute to the excellent work that they are doing.

What matters is the breadth as well as the depth of education and the choices that are available to pupils.

Yesterday, the Education and Skills Committee was told that the problem is curriculum for excellence. Guidance was issued, but it proved so confusing that, in 2016, it was reissued. However, it is still a mess, and it now seems likely that the Scottish Government will have to redraft it yet again. Will it be third time lucky? Perhaps.

Yesterday, witnesses who appeared before the Education and Skills Committee said that a mid-term review, which was recommended back in 2015, was necessary. They also noted that Education Scotland had “other priorities” and that it was “getting round to it”. First Minister, does that not just sum up this Government?

Education Scotland is working on reducing bureaucracy and tackling unnecessary workload for teachers, which Jackson Carlaw has asked us to do in the past. Education Scotland is getting on with the job.

Jackson Carlaw is, to some extent, right when he says that the issue is about the choices that young people have and the breadth of education. Of course, curriculum for excellence is designed to provide those. However, the issue is about choice and breadth across the entirety of the senior phase, not in one year of the senior phase alone.

The problem with Jackson Carlaw’s analysis is that the outcomes from education that we are seeing, which I have just cited to the chamber, do not bear it out. More young people are leaving school with qualifications, the number of young people who leave school with five highers or more has gone up and there are record numbers in higher education, including record numbers of students from deprived areas.

I am the first to concede that we have more work to do. That is why we are getting on and doing it. However, the evidence that I have just read out says that young people in our schools and our education system are performing well, and they and their teachers should be congratulated on it.

The evidence suggests that the First Minister is not the first but the last to concede that more needs to be done. S4 is precisely the stage when pupils should have the opportunity to experience the broadest range of subjects. Scotland was once famed around the world for the breadth of its education; now, curriculum for excellence is narrowing horizons.

It gets worse. Yesterday, we learned that curriculum for excellence is so confusing—added to the fact that there are too few teachers—that pupils at different levels are being taught together, not just at national 4 and 5 level, but at higher level. In consequence, a 14-year-old and even an 18-year-old could be being taught in the same classroom. I do not think that that is appropriate. Does the First Minister?

Again, the problem with Jackson Carlaw’s analysis of those issues is that the results that are coming from Scottish education do not bear out the criticisms that he makes. I know that he does not like the evidence. He talks about breadth of education. Curriculum for excellence means that young people now get a broad general education right up until S3. They then have three years of the senior phase, during which they can study a range of different subjects.

I go back to the evidence. If Jackson Carlaw was correct, we would not have a situation today in which a greater proportion of pupils than ever before leave school with qualifications—national fives and highers. We would not have a situation in which the proportion of young people who leave school with five highers or more has actually gone up significantly over the past number of years. And we would not have a situation in which a record number of young people go on to positive destinations, including a record number who go into higher education.

Those are the results of our education system and they simply do not bear out the analysis that Jackson Carlaw is bringing to the chamber. Those are the facts.

Incredibly, the First Minister’s position seems to be that an increase in the number of qualifications gained by pupils can be achieved only by narrowing the options that are available to them for study.

Curriculum for excellence is only a few years old, so we are only starting to see its impact. All of us want to see the improvement of schools as our number 1 priority, but we cannot just ignore the evidence this week from Professor Jim Scott, a headteacher with 18 years’ experience, who said:

“We are in danger of a whole generation going past who have not had a good experience in education.”

Despite the best efforts of our teachers and despite the hard work of our pupils, a whole generation is being let down on the First Minister’s watch. Can the First Minister not see this for the failure of her Government that it is?

As we debate these things, young people across Scotland are sitting their exams, and to talk down their achievements in the way that Jackson Carlaw just has is an absolute disgrace.

We have a situation in which young people can sit more vocational awards to make sure that they have the skills that they need for the workplace. Again, I note that Jackson Carlaw has not taken on any of the facts that I have cited to him. More young people are leaving school with qualifications, but he says, “Oh yeah, but that’s about a narrowing.” Then I point to the fact that more young people are leaving school with five or more highers. Why can Jackson Carlaw not accept that that is an achievement of our young people, their parents and their teachers?

We will continue to work to improve Scottish education, but as we do so, we will pay tribute to the great work that teachers and pupils are already doing.

Food Bank Use (Income Supplement)

This morning, it was reported that the number of emergency food parcels that have been handed out by food banks in Scotland over the past year has risen again. The shocking fact is that more and more children in Scotland are growing up in poverty. The Scottish Government has said that it plans not to introduce an income supplement to help the poorest families in Scotland until 2022, but wants another independence referendum before 2021. What does that say about the First Minister’s priorities?

What that says about my priorities is that I want this Parliament to have the powers to tackle child poverty. I am not sure what his wanting to leave those powers in the hands of the Conservatives says about Richard Leonard’s priorities.

Let me turn—[Interruption.]

I ask everybody, please, to keep the noise down. Just a few minutes ago, we were talking about the lessons that young people might learn. Please set an example to those young people.

We will bring forward in June our plans on the income supplement. I am sure that Parliament will scrutinise them carefully. However, let us look at the Trussell Trust report that was published this morning. The rise in food bank use is utterly unacceptable: let us hear what the Trussell Trust’s operations manager in Scotland has said about it. She said:

“Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty.

Universal credit should be part of the solution but, currently, the five-week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics.

As a priority, we are urging the Government to end the wait for universal credit.”

Universal credit is the responsibility of the UK Government. The question for Richard Leonard is this: will he join the Labour Party in Wales, which said this morning in response to the Trussell Trust report that the rise in food bank use is not the fault of the Labour Government in Wales, but that the problem is universal credit, and that that is what must change. Will Richard Leonard agree with that?

Of course, a lot of the blame lies at the door of the Tory Government. However, the Scottish Government has powers. Can we clarify what the First Minister has just said? She said that she will bring forward proposals in June, but the Government plans not to implement them for another three years. If the First Minister tells us today that she will fast-track the plans, she will have the support of the Scottish Labour Party. In the end, it is all about priorities—[Interruption.]

I am sorry, Mr Leonard.

Would Derek Mackay and Colin Smyth—and other members—please stop talking to each other across the chamber?

This is a matter of priorities. For example, Labour thinks that the Government should spend the 0.1 per cent of the Scottish budget that is needed to protect families from the impact of the two-child cap. However, over the recess, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People said:

“It’s not our policy to alleviate the two-child cap.”

Can the First Minister explain why that is the choice that she is making?

Last year, the United Nations sent Philip Alston, who is an expert on poverty, here to write a report. He acknowledged the work of the Welsh Government on mitigating the worst impacts of austerity, but he said that

“It is outrageous that devolved administrations need to spend resources to shield people from Government policies.”

“He’s right”—and those are the words of Jeremy Corbyn.

This Government has mitigated the impact of Tory welfare cuts wherever we could. Is Richard Leonard really saying that the answer to the cuts is for a devolved Government to take money out of devolved services to plug the gaps in reserved services, while a Westminster Government holds on to the money? Surely, that is not the proposition of Scottish Labour.

I have given him this opportunity before now: if, as I do, he really wants to tackle the issues, will Richard Leonard join me this afternoon in signing a letter to the UK Government asking that full powers over welfare be devolved to this Parliament? Yes or no?

Given its track record, the Scottish Government would probably hand those powers back.

The First Minister has the powers to protect families from the two-child cap and she has the powers to fast-track an income supplement, but she chooses not to use them. She chooses instead to talk about the constitution: she chooses to play to her party base and she chooses to argue for a referendum that Scotland does not want. In fact, since she became First Minister, she has pledged twice to call another independence referendum. In that time, at least three quarters of a million food parcels have been handed out to families in Scotland.

Is not it the case that, when it comes to a choice between protecting the poor and protecting her party, the First Minister always puts her party first?

If Richard Leonard cannot see the relationship between the constitution—the powers that we have in this Parliament—and Tory welfare cuts that are pushing children into poverty, then he does not deserve, ever, to be in Government in Scotland.

We will continue to do everything that we can to mitigate the impact of those policies. We will bring forward policies of our own to lift children out of poverty. However, unlike Richard Leonard and the Labour Party, we will argue for those powers to lie in this Parliament, and not in the hands of the Tories. As long as Richard Leonard continues to back the Tories on the constitution, the people of Scotland will see him for exactly what he is.

We have some constituency supplementaries, the first of which is from Annabelle Ewing.

Mossmorran Petrochemical Plant (Unplanned Flaring)

The First Minister will be aware of the latest unplanned flaring incident at Mossmorran. My constituents have had to put up with hugely disturbing noise pollution since Sunday, and are rightly anxious about air quality. Surely all the data that is held by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and ExxonMobil on the composition of the emissions should be published. Is not it high time that SEPA used its enforcement powers to the fullest extent?

I thank Annabelle Ewing for raising that issue. I am well aware of and understand the concerns that have been expressed by the local community, following the unplanned flaring at the Mossmorran complex in Fife. SEPA’s air quality monitoring continues to show that there is no cause for concern. That said, I appreciate that noise pollution and light pollution are very significant issues for local residents.

I understand that SEPA announced this morning a formal investigation into the current flaring incident. A range of enforcement powers are at its disposal—which, of course, it exercises independently from the Government. I am, however, very clear that ExxonMobil must take steps to minimise the frequency and adverse impacts of flaring on the local community.

SEPA has advised us that later today it will publish air quality monitoring data on the dedicated Mossmorran online hub. In addition, the Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay independent air quality monitoring review group will publish air-quality data annually.

Wildfires (Highlands and Islands)

The First Minister will be aware of the huge wildfires that have been burning across parts of my region over the past few days—most notably in Moray, where large areas of grassland have been destroyed. Will she join me in thanking all those who have been involved in fighting the fires—most notably the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and other emergency services, but also the many estate workers, farmers and others who have played a crucial role? Can she advise me what support the Scottish Government can offer local people whose livelihoods have been impacted? What will be done to establish the causes of the fires and to prevent more from occurring in the future?

I thank Jamie Halcro Johnston for raising an important issue. As members would expect, we have been in touch with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to offer additional support as it continues to tackle the fires and to consider the causes.

I understand that the incident in Moray is reducing, as are the ones in Skye and Ardnamurchan, but they continue to be serious incidents, so we will continue to liaise closely on them with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

Marches (Local Authority Powers)

I think that the First Minister is aware of the issue of marches in my constituency and, in particular, the recent proposed one by the Apprentice Boys of Derry past a couple of Roman Catholic churches on Easter Sunday. Does she think that the current legal arrangements are satisfactory, or does Glasgow City Council need more powers to reduce or restrict such marches?

We are always happy to talk to councils about the range of powers that are at their disposal. We have faith in Police Scotland to ensure the safety of members of the public and people who participate in marches. Police Scotland works closely with councils to ensure that adequate safety measures are in place, and will take appropriate and proportionate action in the event that problems arise.

I was absolutely appalled—as, I am sure, was everybody in the chamber—by the incident that took place outside St Alphonsus church last year. This is an opportunity for all of us to reiterate that nobody should ever be a target for hatred simply because of their faith. The Scottish Government will always be very clear on that point.

Sri Lanka (Terror Attacks)

I have a large Sri Lankan community in my constituency, which has contributed greatly to the communities that I serve. One of my constituents lost two of his relatives and 13 of his friends in the horrific and evil terror attacks in Sri Lanka. The community is grieving at this hugely difficult time. I will be meeting community members shortly to discuss how we can commemorate their loved ones and show our solidarity. Glasgow’s Lord Provost has indicated her support. Will the First Minister back those efforts and ensure that she or a member of the Scottish Government attends such an occasion to show their support for and solidarity with those who have lost their loved ones?

I thank Bob Doris for raising this issue on behalf of his constituents. As I did yesterday, I express my deepest condolences to all those affected and my whole-hearted support for any efforts to commemorate those who have lost their lives and show solidarity with the Sri Lankan community here in Scotland and around the world. The Scottish Government will be very keen to take part in any events that are held.

We have all been shocked and saddened by these attacks. I have written to the Prime Minister and the President of Sri Lanka on behalf of the people of Scotland to express our sincere condolences. I welcome Bob Doris’s efforts to reach out to members of the Sri Lankan community here at this desperately sad time and I hope that he will convey to them my support, solidarity and condolences.

Independence (Green New Deal)

I am quite sure that the entire chamber will agree with the First Minister’s last remarks.

It is a shame that no one else has yet welcomed yesterday’s very positive announcement about putting Scotland’s future back into Scotland’s hands. It is clear that United Kingdom politics is broken and the UK Government has shown contempt for Scotland, so the Greens agree that change is needed and we continue to take the view that independence offers the chance for the new direction that this country badly needs. In that campaign, we will advocate for the green new deal that we proposed in Parliament yesterday, which the Government voted for, to tackle the climate crisis and inequality together. However, is it not also clear that neither devolution nor a currency union nor the business-as-usual vision that was set out by the Scottish National Party’s growth commission would permit the genuine economic independence that we need to make that transformational agenda possible? Why should we close off the possibilities that independence offers now of all times?

I do not agree with that at all, although I certainly welcome Patrick Harvie’s comments about my statement yesterday and his support for independence. It is healthy that a range of parties are backing independence and putting forward a range of views. The essence of independence is that we decide these issues for ourselves.

As some have noticed, my party conference is taking place at the weekend, when we will have a positive debate about how independence will allow us to emulate the success of other small, independent countries and become more prosperous and fairer as a result. The big question, particularly for the unionist parties in the chamber, is this: given, in particular, the price that Scotland is paying right now for being governed by Westminster, why should Scotland not be independent? Independence is normal—12 of the countries in the European Union that have more influence over our future right now than we do are the same size as or smaller than Scotland. Nobody is going to force them out of the EU against their will and nobody should force Scotland out of the EU against our will. The sooner Scotland is an equal, normal independent country, the better for all of us.

We need to have a clear contrast with a failed UK Government agenda, with its brutal austerity economics. The UK Government has banned onshore wind, scrapped warm home subsidies and solar subsidies, sold off the Green Investment Bank, forced fracking on to local communities and refused to meet the climate strikers. Scotland can—and wants to—do better. Without independence, we have one hand tied behind our back; under the growth commission, we would have the other hand tied behind our back instead, gaining political independence but without the real economic control that we need. People who were open to the idea but not convinced in 2014 are far more likely to back independence if it is based on a positive, bold vision for Scotland’s future. Will the First Minister accept that what the growth commission offers is closer to the failed economics of the UK and that the Scottish Greens’ plans for a green new deal offer the alternative that we need—the foundation of a bold new vision for Scotland?

I do not agree with Patrick Harvie’s comments about the growth commission. It set out the fact that so many small, independent countries are richer and fairer than Scotland. It set out how Scotland, as an independent country, could emulate those countries and create a strong economy but then, crucially, use the strength of our economy to build a fairer, more just society. That is the positive, bold vision that I look forward to campaigning on the next time—within this session of Parliament—that we give people in Scotland the choice of independence. I am more convinced every day that, when given that choice, the people of Scotland will opt to become a normal, independent nation.

Climate Change

This week, I have been lobbied by people who want urgent action on climate change. Young climate change activist Greta Thunberg lobbied Westminster Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford, too. He boasted about the SNP Government’s record. Back in this Parliament, at exactly the same moment, his Government was announcing that it was intent on cutting aviation tax to increase air flights to and from Scotland. Is that something to boast about? Would Greta be impressed?

Unlike most other countries, we take account of all aviation emissions in our climate change targets. To meet those targets, we must reduce emissions across all areas.

Willie Rennie said that we boast about Scotland’s performance but, in February, a former executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change said:

“Scotland has already been at the forefront of climate action and this Bill”—

the bill that is before Parliament—

“confirms that status as a world leader.”

That is what the world says about Scotland and climate change. When the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was in Edinburgh recently, he said that he was

“impressed with the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan and pleased to see it was based on science”.

Scotland is a world leader. Under our current plans, we would become carbon neutral by 2050, but a week today—I see that the environment secretary is confirming that—we expect to get the updated advice from the Committee on Climate Change. If the advice is that we can go further or faster, we will accept it. Everybody across the Parliament should warmly welcome that.

The fact that the First Minister measures aviation emissions does not justify the air tax reduction. I truly do not think that Greta would be impressed.

When I previously raised with the First Minister the issue of domestic waste, she said that I was exaggerating. That was before this week’s catastrophic report, commissioned by the Government, which says that inaction by the Government means that £1 billion will be spent to send Scottish waste to England. That means 87,000 bin lorries being sent down the M74. When her Government banned the sending of waste to landfill in Scotland, did the First Minister know that the waste would be dumped in England? Will she end the planned £250 million tax break for the airline industry and tackle the 1 million tonnes of waste, or will Greta need to come back?

On a point of fact—and for reasons that Willie Rennie knows, so I will not repeat them—the ministerial announcement this week was that the cut in the air departure tax would not go ahead in the coming year. I say that so that Willie Rennie does not inadvertently give people the wrong impression.

We are working with councils to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill. Whether it is on reducing climate change emissions or any other aspect of environmental action, by the estimation not of the Government but of many around the world, the Government is leading the world and should continue to do so. It is right and proper that other parties, pressure groups and activists put greater pressure on us to do more. We will continue to do so, because we are determined to continue to be the world leader and to take the action that the next generation wants.

We have further supplementaries.

Islamophobia (Definition)

Today, we welcome to the Scottish Parliament Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Wes Streeting MP, who are officers of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims. The group’s landmark “Islamophobia Defined” report, which I as convener of the cross-party group on tackling Islamophobia and our secretary, Professor Peter Hopkins, who has done 10 years of extensive research on Islamophobia in Scotland, contributed to, sets out a definition of Islamophobia that hundreds of organisations, academics and communities across the country have adopted.

While the United Kingdom Government continues to dodge and dither on the issue, we have a chance to show leadership in Scotland. I hope that the definition will be adopted by organisations in Scotland, all the Scottish political parties and—crucially—the Scottish Government. Will the First Minister make that commitment today so that we can focus not on whether Islamophobia exists, what it means or how it manifests itself but on what we as policy makers can do to challenge and defeat it?

I agree with that. All organisations should sign up to the accepted definition of Islamophobia, as they should sign up to the accepted definition of antisemitism. I am happy to give the update on the Scottish Government’s position that I certainly want the Scottish Government to do that.

I, too, welcome members of the all-party group to the Scottish Parliament, and I commend the work that Anas Sarwar and my colleague Humza Yousaf have done to tackle Islamophobia. However, it should not be down to Muslim members of the Parliament to lead the fight on their own; every one of us should be shoulder to shoulder with every Muslim across our country in tackling Islamophobia. As First Minister, I am more than prepared to lead from the front in that battle.


I am sure that the First Minister is aware of the UNICEF report that has just been published, which suggests that a large number of children are not being immunised against measles in the United Kingdom. Is the Scottish Government considering that? Is that having any impact in Scotland and, if so, what action is being taken?

The statistics that have been published today by UNICEF are taken from the World Health Organization analysis of measles and rubella data at a UK level. I am pleased to see that childhood immunisation rates across Scotland remain very high. That reflects both the hardworking commitment of our colleagues in the national health service and a recognition of the benefits of vaccination.

It is worth noting that uptake of the first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in children up to age five is 96.6 per cent. That continues to exceed the 95 per cent target. However, Gil Paterson is absolutely right to raise this important issue. We are not complacent, and I want to assure Parliament that we will continue to make every effort to promote and encourage childhood vaccinations.

Period Poverty

This week, I introduced my member’s bill on the provision of free period products. If passed, the bill will make Scotland a world leader, giving legal underpinning to the provision in schools, colleges and universities that has already been rolled out and going further by establishing a universal opt-in system to allow anyone in Scotland to access free period products, should they need them.

I know that the First Minister agrees that access to period products should be a right and not a privilege. Building on the strong cross-party consensus that exists, will the First Minister confirm today whether she backs my bill and will the Scottish Government enthusiastically get behind the proposals?

We will certainly look very carefully at the provisions of the bill. In terms of what the bill is trying to achieve, I am 100 per cent behind that. I pay tribute to all those who have campaigned on the issue. Scotland is already a world leader in tackling period poverty. We already have free sanitary products available in schools, colleges and universities and a growing number of private sector organisations are following suit.

While Monica Lennon is to be commended for introducing the bill, we should not wait for legislation to encourage all organisations and companies to do what we have already done in Government—lead from the front and ensure that no person has to go without sanitary products that they cannot afford. Free access should be the norm everywhere in Scotland.

Social Security

In the year since the Parliament unanimously passed the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, what progress has been made in establishing Scotland’s newest public service?

It is a year since the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed. In that year, almost £200 million has been paid out to almost 80,000 people across the country. There are carers who have extra money in their pockets because of our carers allowance supplement, and there are low-income families who are now getting the best start grant. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People will correct me if the figure that I am about to give is wrong—in the early days of the best start grant, we paid out something like four times the amount of money that was paid out under the previous system controlled by the Westminster Government.

That is an amazing success. There is much more to do, but at this stage I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard to create the new social security agency and have made sure that we have made such a positive start to putting fairness and dignity at the heart of social security in Scotland.

Mental Health (School Pupils)

To ask the First Minister what assistance will be provided to help the mental health of school pupils. (S5F-03275)

Our 2018 programme for government set out a £250 million package of measures to support positive mental health and prevent ill health. As part of that, we are committed to the creation of school counsellors in every secondary school, with availability to local primary and special schools across the country.

To ensure that that commitment is met in full by September next year, we are providing around £27 million in the first two years of implementation. That will support the delivery and employment of counsellors to ensure that school pupils get the mental health support that they need. School counselling will enhance the work that schools already do to support children and young people to learn about mental wellbeing through the curriculum for excellence.

As the First Minister knows, the exam season is now upon us. Does the First Minister share my welcome of the Scottish Association for Mental Health’s excellent testing times campaign? She will be aware that SAMH has produced a range of tips for young people on how to prepare for exams and how to manage the anxieties that exams can bring. Does the First Minister agree that any young person who feels worried or under pressure should not suffer in silence and should not be afraid to seek support?

I thank Stuart McMillan for raising the issue. I welcome the SAMH testing times campaign, which has been launched to coincide with the start of the exam period. Sitting school exams is something of a distant memory for me, but I still remember—as I am sure all members in the chamber do—the sense of stress and anxiety that was associated with those exams.

It is important that we recognise the impact that stress and anxiety about school work and exams can have on young people’s mental health. I agree whole-heartedly with Stuart McMillan that it is really important that young people who are facing exams are able to discuss their emotional wellbeing openly. If they are concerned or upset, they should speak to teachers, parents, carers or peers. All schools should help young people to develop resilience and personal coping skills, and they should have in place measures to support young people.

I thank SAMH for the advice that it has made available and, as I have done already this morning, I wish pupils who are completing assignments or taking exams over the next few weeks the very best of luck.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a significant component of the mental health issues in our schools. Groups that represent children with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and other conditions regularly call for training on NDDs to be a mandatory component of initial teacher education and continuing professional development. Will the First Minister outline how her Government will ensure that all teachers are trained in teaching children with neurodevelopmental disorders?

I remind the chamber of my own diagnosis.

The member raises an important issue. Neurodevelopmental conditions are an important part of our discussions about mental health, and teacher training is extremely important. The Deputy First Minister advises me that the providers of initial teacher education were at the recent summit on autism. Such training is very much part of initial teacher education, but I am sure that the education secretary would be very happy to discuss with the member whether further steps could be taken to embed such training even more firmly.

Mental health issues among young people in rural areas are particularly concerning. What further help can the First Minister give on that specific problem, which is blighting rural Scotland?

That is an important issue. Generally, access to services is often more challenging in rural areas, for obvious reasons, and that can particularly be the case with access to mental health services. It is important that services are available on an equitable basis. For example, it is important that there is proper provision of counsellors in secondary schools in every part of the country. Some of the online and digital services that NHS 24 makes available are helpful specifically to people in rural areas who might find it more difficult to access physical services. I give an assurance that access to services for people in rural areas is a core part of the planning that the national health service and other agencies do to ensure equity of access.

Subject Choice in Secondary Schools

To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government will put in place to reverse the reported decline in subject choice in secondary schools. (S5F-03268)

The purpose of the curriculum is to provide young people with the skills, knowledge and experiences that will prepare them for their lives beyond school and provide them with the best possible opportunities to fulfil their potential. As I have said in the chamber today, our focus must be on the whole school experience, the range of qualifications that are achieved and the destinations of young people when they leave school. We will continue to ensure that that is the case.

Does the First Minister recognise that the biggest concern for pupils and parents is the growing inequity in subject choice? What is her answer to parents who are very concerned that their children receive a choice of only six subjects in S4, whereas children in other schools receive a choice of seven or eight? Many parents feel that their youngsters are being disadvantaged when it comes to college and university applications.

I take those issues seriously. As I said earlier, we will pay close attention to Reform Scotland’s report and to the Education and Skills Committee’s review.

However, I repeat some of the points that I made earlier. I hope that everyone in the chamber accepts that it is not simply the qualifications that young people get in S4 that count, but the qualifications that they get across the three years.

In response to Liz Smith’s question, this is what I say to parents: the evidence shows that more young people are going to university, including more young people from our deprived communities. The evidence suggests, contrary to the assertion that young people, particularly those in deprived communities, are somehow being disadvantaged, that the attainment gap is closing. That is the reverse of the concern that Liz Smith raises.

The truth is that pupils now study a broader curriculum for longer, and when they go on to choose their subjects—[Interruption.] I used to teach it. When they choose their subjects, they study them in far greater detail than they did under standard grades.

Progression and depth are the principles of curriculum for excellence, which is a system that the Tories used to support. Does the First Minister think that Liz Smith is wilfully ignoring those facts, or has she just not done her homework?

I think that all these issues should be taken seriously and we should listen to all views on them. Contrary to what some on the Tory and Labour benches seem to think, I think that we should particularly listen to the views of a teacher, which Jenny Gilruth was before she entered Parliament.

The evidence says that more young people are leaving school with qualifications, more young people are leaving school with five highers or more and more young people are going into positive destinations, including university. Those are the outcome facts and I have not heard any member of the Opposition manage to explain how that aligns with the analysis that they are putting forward.

We will continue to do the hard work necessary to ensure that we continue to see improvements in education.

Unlike Liz Smith and Jenny Gilruth, I was not a teacher, but I was a pupil not that long ago. [Laughter.] Is the First Minister concerned that the Government’s own education agency refuses to acknowledge what a number of studies have now shown, which is that the number of subjects on offer to young people, particularly at higher level, has a direct correspondence with the level of deprivation in their community?

Of course, we will pay attention to all the views that are expressed. Again, I point out the fact that, if all those things were creating the disadvantage that Ross Greer and others are suggesting, we would not be in a situation in which the attainment gap in access to university is at an all-time low. The numbers from deprived communities going into university are at a high.

The evidence suggests that, far from pupils from deprived communities being held back, they are doing better than they have ever done before. We need to concentrate on making sure that that progress continues.

Can I suggest—[Interruption.]

Order, please. Let us listen to the question. [Interruption.] Pay attention, please. [Laughter.]

Thank you. That would not have happened back in the day, I can tell you.

I may not be a teacher now and I am no longer a parent of young children, but I suggest that the First Minister listens to teachers, parents and the evidence from the experts. They are telling us that the system is more unequal than it was before, and they are disturbed that the evidence suggests that the poorest, most disadvantaged young people in our communities are more disadvantaged than they were before. I urge her to look to the evidence and address that question. [Interruption.]

Order, please. That is enough.

We will listen to views and evidence from wherever it comes. [Interruption.] I say in all seriousness to Johann Lamont that what I will not ignore—what nobody should ignore—are the results of our education system. The fact of the matter is that we have a record number of school leavers in higher education. The number of school leavers from the most deprived areas in higher education is up 8 percentage points since a decade ago and, overall, the numbers of people from deprived areas at university are at a record high. The evidence does not bear out the suggestion that the attainment gap—the inequality gap—is growing; on the contrary, all the evidence shows that that gap is narrowing. Everything that we do in Government and in our education system will be designed to ensure that that gap continues to narrow, because that is what all of us should be focused on.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will move on shortly to a members’ business debate in the name of Bill Kidd, on international workers memorial day 2019. Before that, we will have a short suspension to allow members, ministers and those in the public gallery to leave or change seats.

12:45 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—