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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Education (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report), COP26 Global Ambitions, Urgent Question, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Ferry Services


Education (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on next steps in education, following the OECD report. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


Following publication of the OECD independent review of the implementation of curriculum for excellence, and Professor Stobart’s paper on options for Scotland’s future approach to qualifications and assessment in the senior phase, I signalled my intention to consider a reform process that is underpinned by those findings and recommendations. Today, I will provide Parliament with an update.

It remains a key priority of the Government to ensure that our approaches to curriculum and assessment are fit for purpose and, therefore, guarantee the best possible educational experience for children and young people—not least as we emerge from the pandemic.

It is 10 years since curriculum for excellence was introduced, so it was appropriate to review its implementation. Furthermore, the exceptionally challenging circumstances that were created by the pandemic have led to innovation and creativity in the education system, from which we can also learn lessons.

I am proud to note that the OECD found wide support for CFE, and stated that Scotland’s curriculum

“continues to be a bold and widely supported initiative, and its design offers the flexibility needed to improve student learning further”.

In his paper, Professor Stobart describes CFE as a

“pioneering example of 21st-century curriculum reform”

and highlights that Scotland’s curriculum continues to be viewed internationally as

“an inspiring example equated with good curriculum practice”.

Those findings show that Scottish education remains on the right track. There is no suggestion that any significant overhaul of the curriculum is needed. Instead, the OECD report sets out recommendations for us to build on our current approach and ensure that our curriculum continues to inspire learners now and in the future.

Every education system must be open to further improvement, and I have previously made clear my intention to work with all those who are involved in education to consider the recommendations and deliver the reform that is required in order to improve outcomes. That work should be seen as a supportive process and as part of our continuous improvement to retain Scotland’s pioneering status in the field.

Crucially, the work must be informed by children and young people. I am committed to respecting children’s rights and to ensuring that their voices can be heard clearly and will genuinely inform the direction of travel. That is why I announced the intention to establish a children and young people’s education council, and have ensured that there are representatives of young people and children’s rights experts on the Scottish education council.

It is also important to gain the views of teachers, as the people who are closest to children and young people, and the people who are best placed to take decisions about their education, health and wellbeing. Therefore, we will engage further with front-line teachers through the national teacher panel, and we will seek ways in which the role of the panel can be strengthened and expanded. We will also engage through other routes, including the professional associations.

That engagement is essential if we are to build on the work that began in 2019 to enhance and develop an empowered education system. Although that work was paused during the pandemic, our commitment continues; we must build on the good pre-pandemic work that resulted in effective developments in teacher agency through delivery of bespoke remote learning, community activity and responses to the local needs of families and communities.

I have already taken action on the OECD’s recommendations about structural change and support for education. I announced the intention to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority and to consider a new specialist agency for both curriculum and assessment, while also taking forward reform of Education Scotland, including removal of the inspection function from the agency.

I invited Professor Ken Muir to act as an independent advisor to the Scottish Government to consider and advise on implementation of those reforms. Professor Muir is currently gathering views from stakeholders and will submit his recommendations to the Scottish Government in early 2022. That work will play a crucial role in delivering the foundational infrastructure to support delivery of the curriculum and assessment process, as well as helping to inform the wider reform process.

Today, I am pleased to publish a framework for implementation, which sets out our approach to engagement and priorities, and sequences the initial phase of that work. I chair the Scottish Education Council and have already started a dialogue on that process through that role, but it is clear that we need wider discussions for that approach to reform to be truly co-produced, which is what the framework sets out to facilitate. The implementation framework sets out our initial priorities. They are to re-assess the vision of CFE, to agree a measurement and evaluation approach, to align assessment and qualifications, to clarify roles and responsibilities, and to increase curriculum development capacity.

We will convene and facilitate dialogue to revisit and assess the 2019 “Refreshed Narrative on Scotland’s Curriculum”, which user feedback, Professor Muir’s consultation and learning from the pandemic will inform. That work will support initial considerations for development of a curriculum review cycle, as the OECD recommended, and will underpin the work on the alignment of assessment and qualifications.

We will explore the data and research that are required to inform an evaluation system and to support the systematic approach to curriculum review. Specifically, I will ask the curriculum and assessment board to set up a short-life sub-group to explore options for a sample-based survey that will look across the capacities of curriculum for excellence. The sub-group will specifically consider the workload implications for staff of such a survey. It will be the first time that we have information that looks across the four capacities in such a form, but the process has to be done in a proportionate and manageable way.

We remain committed to teacher professional judgement being the primary means of assessing progress in the broad general education, and we will consider how to better support that process and the achievement of CFE levels data in the future. National standardised assessments will continue to play an important role in that work, the outcome of which will be reflected in the national improvement framework from 2022 onwards.

In addition, we will refresh communications and stakeholder involvement strategies, and we will develop and agree with teachers, practitioners and other stakeholders the next steps towards further school empowerment. I will also continue to work with the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers on the commitment to reduce by 90 minutes per week class-contact time for teachers. We will also work with local government to deliver the commitment to recruit 3,500 additional teachers over this parliamentary session.

Furthermore, we will evaluate current support and access for teachers and practitioners to professional development in curriculum design and development. That package underlines our commitment to the profession and our support for its on-going role in curriculum design, development and improvement.

To enable a coherent and effective response to the OECD’s recommendations, we will ensure that appropriate programme and governance arrangements are in place, which will build on our current structures and put the voices of teachers, practitioners, pupils, parents and carers at the heart of everything that we do.

Alongside publishing a framework for implementation of the OECD’s recommendations, I also want to set out my position on the future of assessment and qualifications, which is distinct from the on-going arrangements for 2022, on which a series of announcements that detail the approach and potential use of contingencies has already been made.

Professor Stobart’s working paper “Upper-secondary education student assessment in Scotland” makes an important contribution to the debate about the future of qualifications and assessment, which is a debate that has intensified in the light of experiences during the pandemic. Professor Stobart does not set out specific recommendations, but suggests options that are based on best practice from around the world. We must explore those as we seek the best way of recognising our learners’ achievements in the 21st century. Professor Stobart’s findings, alongside the lessons that have been learned during the pandemic, create a case for reform.

The issue of assessment and qualifications generates strong and sometimes conflicting opinions. However, given the experience and views that have been expressed during the past two years, I am convinced that the time is right to signal that the Scottish Government supports reform of national qualifications and assessment.

Just as was the case with the work on responding to the OECD’s recommendations, when we consider reform it will be vital that we work with all stakeholders to build as much consensus as possible. To that end, I announce that the Scottish Government will consult on the purpose and principles that should underpin reform of national qualifications and assessment. That will be the first step in a process that must be carried out with careful thought and consideration, while recognising the importance to learners of national qualifications.

I am pleased to announce that Professor Louise Hayward of the University of Glasgow has agreed to lead a reference group, members of which will be drawn principally from the curriculum and assessment board. That group will provide advice to Scottish ministers about how agreed principles can be translated into a design for delivering assessment and qualifications, while ensuring that externally assessed examinations will remain part of the new system. Professor Hayward will begin that work in the new year.

Although I expect the process to lead to reform of our approach to national assessment and qualifications, time must be taken to get it right. I am acutely aware of the impact of the pandemic, so a dialogue leading to a planned and achievable reform programme will be essential.

As I have stressed throughout my statement, the reform process will be collaborative and actions will be co-created with stakeholders wherever possible. I am mindful of our children’s rights requirement, and I hope that all children and young people can feel a sense of ownership of the changes that we will make through the process and its outcomes. Those actions reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that every child and young person in Scotland can benefit fully from an education and can access qualifications that allow them to realise their potential and step confidently into their future choices.

I will allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It will be helpful if members who wish to ask a question press their request-to-speak buttons now.

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement.

Far from restoring standards in our education system and seeking to reverse the 14 years of damage that the Scottish National Party has done to our once-proud education traditions, the statement has confirmed that the only plan that the SNP has is to double down on radical and ill-thought-out reforms that will end exams as we know them. On top of that, we hear continuation of the very denial that got us into this mess in the first place. The Government is glossing over the identified weaknesses in curriculum for excellence, particularly in relation to knowledge.

Will the cabinet secretary tell parents, pupils and teachers why they should trust the SNP to fix Scotland’s schools when it is this Government that got us into this mess?

I can genuinely say that I am still not quite sure that Oliver Mundell has read the OECD report, despite its having come out many months ago. In my statement, I mentioned some of its points, such as how it has endorsed curriculum for excellence and said that it is the right approach for Scotland, and how it does not see the need for fundamental reform. I am not asking parents, young people and teachers to believe any political party; we should listen to the international independent experts who were brought in and the messages that they have given.

I also think that Oliver Mundell did not read the advance copy of my statement or listen to what I said. I specifically said that we are not talking about ending exams; we are talking about having a discussion about the best way of looking at and recognising what learners achieve.

That discussion being held has—the Conservatives aside—been largely welcomed by stakeholders, including people who will get the qualifications and people who will look at those qualifications, whether they are in other parts of the education sector or on the employment side.

Therefore, I say genuinely to Oliver Mundell that it is not too late to drop the soundbite and the press release that he will undoubtedly already have put out, and to take part in a genuine discussion about what the qualifications and assessment process will look like in the future. As a Government, we will look at what the principles will be. I genuinely hope that the Scottish Conservatives will raise their game and take part in that process with me.

We are now, in the cabinet secretary’s own words, “many months” on from the announcement that the Scottish Qualifications Authority was to be scrapped. Far from taking urgent action to begin the much-needed reforms, the cabinet secretary is content to leave the SQA—which she agrees is unfit in its current form—presiding over this year’s assessment process and, potentially, assessment processes beyond that, and Education Scotland presiding over curriculum development and inspections.

More than five months ago, I lodged a motion in Parliament that set out a timetable of ambition for reform that would, by now, have resulted in the establishment, by executive action, of an independent inspectorate and of an interim body for assessment and curriculum while the current consultation proceeds, and the commencement of negotiations regarding a new deal for teachers, the need for which stems from the OECD review. That would have shown real urgency and ambition for young people.

For how many more months does the minister plan to talk about reform, instead of implementing it? By what date does she expect a new assessment and curriculum organisation to be operational? By what date does she expect to take forward proposals to reform qualifications? By what date does she expect class contact time to be reduced for teachers? Alternatively, is this session set to be another wasted parliamentary session for education in Scotland?

I listened very carefully to the proposals in this area that Michael Marra set out earlier in the year. I did so because I hope that, between Scottish Labour and the Government, we can have discussions about how progress can be made.

Michael Marra will know that Professor Ken Muir is undertaking the work on reform. The work that he is undertaking and the way in which he is undertaking it are crucial. While I appreciate some of the demands to move more quickly, I stressed in my statement, and I will continue to do so, that I want to work collaboratively with stakeholders. It is very easy for Government to make statements about a way forward and then try to work out the detail, or to make statements on the way forward and then work out what stakeholders are thinking about. With Professor Muir’s work, we have a process that is well respected by stakeholders and in which very significant numbers of practitioners, parents and young people have taken part. That means that, at the end of January, Professor Muir will come back with considered recommendations that are based on a highly collaborative approach. That is the way that I want to work, and it is also the way that I have encouraged Professor Muir to work on the issue.

Once Professor Muir reports back, I will, of course, look at that very carefully and quickly, and will make further arrangements; I will also make further announcements to Parliament. In the meantime, there is absolutely no doubt that the 2022 assessments and qualifications will continue. The SQA will lead on that process, and it will do so very effectively, as the chamber would undoubtedly expect.

I call Kaukab Stewart, who joins us remotely.

How will the Scottish Government ensure that teachers and staff are central to the process of reform?

I laid out some of the details of that in my statement. I am very keen to look at the role of children and young people and at the role of teachers and practitioners to ensure that they have a central role in the reform process. One of the ways in which we are doing that is through the national teachers panel, which I am looking to strengthen. I am also very keen for Education Scotland to work directly with teachers and schools to build local, regional and national communities of practitioners to lead the shaping and design of the reform work as it proceeds.

I mentioned in my answer to Michael Marra the stakeholder engagement work that Professor Muir is already undertaking, which has been exceptionally well attended by teachers. Nonetheless, I would certainly welcome—from Ms Stewart as, indeed, from other members across the chamber—any further suggestions or proposals about how we can further strengthen the role of teachers and front-line practitioners on this issue.

Beatriz Pont from the OECD education directorate stated in June that curriculum for excellence has

“too many owners, while lacking clarity about their responsibilities.”

She also said that curriculum for excellence is “just moving forward”, and that it has

“no structured approach to look forward, plan and communicate ... with a long-term perspective.”

The statement provided to Parliament today adds more levels of bureaucracy without clear direction. Why has so little progress been made since June?

Progress has been made since June. To give one example of what has been happening since then, the discussions that we have had within the Scottish Education Council on how we take this work forward have been very important. To give—again—just one example, one aspect of those discussions has been around how we look at the refreshed narrative. The framework sets out early timetables for movement on that, which is the first step to the review process that the OECD recommended.

The OECD recommended a way that we could implement the report. It said itself that a long-term approach was required. We have accepted the OECD’s recommendations and the suggestions about how we should implement the report, and not just the actual recommendations in the report per se. That is exactly what we have been doing. I hope that some of the examples that I have given reassure Meghan Gallacher that we are making good progress.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that any sample-based system of measurement and evaluation complements data that has already been collected and protects the professional judgment of our teachers?

It is important that we ensure that teacher professional judgment and the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels—ACEL—data remain the primary means of assessing progress in broad general education.

As I mentioned in my statement, a short-life sub-group will explore options for sample-based surveys for assessing progress across the four capacities. That will include, for example, consideration of how we can provide better support for teacher professional judgment. The consideration of that short-life sub-group will sit alongside the upcoming consultation on proposed changes to national improvement framework measures of progress.

The Scottish Government has promised 3,500 more teachers by the end of this parliamentary session. However, we know that the teaching profession is struggling with both recruitment and retention. Will the cabinet secretary tell us specifically what the Scottish Government is doing to encourage new teachers into the profession and, perhaps more importantly, to encourage existing teachers to stay?

Martin Whitfield raised a very important issue: how we can achieve that target of 3,500 extra teachers? We are undertaking work on recruitment as the usual recruitment campaigns continue. We are working very closely with local authority colleagues to ensure that we are doing everything that we can at a national level to take away impediments such as temporary funding. That is why I was pleased to announce further baseline funding for local authorities that will assist in recruitment to permanent contracts, which may make it more attractive for some people to come into or stay in the teaching profession.

It is also important to add that I will remain committed—as I have been since becoming Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—to very close dialogue with the professional associations to ensure that I am listening closely to what they have to say on both recruitment and retention.

Stuart McMillan joins us remotely.

What steps will the cabinet secretary take to reduce class contact time for teachers, giving them more time to plan their lessons?

As we said in our manifesto, the Government is committed to reducing class contact time for teachers by 90 per minutes per week, with the aim of ensuring that they have more time to develop the curriculum and have the time that they need to teach their classes effectively. Of course, the terms and conditions of service for teachers are not the responsibility solely of the Scottish Government. They are the responsibility of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, and it will be for the SNCT to agree the implementation of the reduction in contact time. That work and the discussions are on-going, and I look forward to seeing the progress that we can make on that.

The cabinet secretary has been left to clean up John Swinney’s blunder over national testing. Having scrapped the national survey just a few years ago, the Government, this time with its tail between its legs, is now bringing it back. Why on earth is the cabinet secretary still clinging on to a national collection of local testing data, even though that leads to damaging school league tables?

I will be very clear about what we have said about the data proposals, particularly those for sample-based surveys. We will ask a sub-group of the curriculum and assessment board to explore sample-based surveys. That does not mean that it will bring back the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. There are reasons why that was taken away and why we moved to a different approach. One of the reasons was that, as I think I said to Willie Rennie in a committee appearance, OECD recommendations in 2015 said that the SSLN did not give national agencies enough evidence. That is why the moves were made.

I appreciate that there are different views on standardised assessments in some parts of the chamber but, as we move forward, we are seeing a greater use of them by teachers themselves. There is a real understanding, as shown in staff feedback surveys in each of the past three years, that reports are providing practitioners with valuable insights into the learning needs of individuals.

I have explained the reasons why we need the change, the reasons for and advantages of standardised assessments and the process that we have in place to look at what we can do to improve the data that we have.

I warmly welcome the proposed children and young people’s education council. Can the cabinet secretary tell us anything more about plans to ensure that students’ legitimate and constructive views on assessment will continue to be valued and respected, and can she provide reassurance that young people’s voices will not be lost in the midst of expert public and political deliberation?

As we move forward with education policy as a whole, it is important that we have a very strong voice for children and young people, which is why I took the decision to establish the children and young people’s education council. It will have parity of esteem with the Scottish Education Council, and I will chair both of them. Children and young people will play an important part in those two bodies, but it is important that we look to encompass children and young people in all the work that we are doing. As I said in my statement, I appreciate that there are differing views on how we can move forward on assessment and qualifications, but I hope that all of us, regardless of our views at the moment, will take a step back and listen to what children and young people want from their future. It is important that we all do that.

Although I do not share the cabinet secretary’s enthusiasm for standardised testing, I welcome the fact that the implementation plan includes a number of Green manifesto commitments, including the reintroduction of a sample-based measurement system and a review of the role of indicators and measures with a view to reducing teacher workloads. How and by whom will that review of indicators and measures be taken forward?

I appreciate that we still have a difference of opinion on some education issues, and robust discussions on those continue. I want to work carefully with all colleagues across the chamber, and particularly my colleagues in the Scottish Greens, to ensure that we can have those robust but constructive conversations.

On the particular issues that Ross Greer mentioned in his question, I would like us to work collaboratively. The Scottish Education Council will play an important part in our discussions. We will also ensure that whatever way we determine to move forward with particular working groups, the voices of children and young people and practising teachers will play an important part in that. Of course, I am happy to continue to have dialogue with Mr Greer on those particular issues, if he should so wish.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is clear that far more must be done to guarantee the best possible education for Scotland’s children. Today’s statement has rightly recognised the need to involve pupils and teachers. What engagement will the Scottish Government have with parents and carers as key partners in educational attainment?

That is a very important point, on which I hope I can reassure Ms Gosal. I share her opinion on the need for us to speak very directly with parents and to listen to their views. To take one example, I was speaking just yesterday to Professor Muir on the work that he is undertaking on reform. He spoke about the number of parents who are coming forward to take part in the webinars that he has organised as part of the reform process.

I can also point to the fact that parent representatives are members of the education recovery group, as we look to Covid, and that—particularly as we move forward with some of the packages that we have been speaking about today—they are also represented on the Scottish Education Council.

Focusing on our young learners, prior to the newly reformed system of national qualifications and assessment coming into place, will the Scottish Government assure the current cohort of learners that they can have absolute confidence in their hard-won qualifications and achievements?

If this is the last question—which is of course entirely up to you and not me, Presiding Officer—we are ending on a very important point: reassuring young people, their parents, teachers and those who will be looking at the qualifications that, while we are undertaking reform of qualifications and assessments, our national qualifications remain highly regarded in their current form, as has been demonstrated by the credibility that has been attached to them over the past 100 years, including over the past two years, despite the efforts of the pandemic.

The current cohort of learners can have every confidence in the value of their qualifications and achievements. That is not necessarily just the view of the Scottish Government and the SQA. I would point, for example, to a letter from many employers, led by Sandy Begbie. They recognise the value of this year’s qualifications

“as much as any other year.”

They also said how every young person should be proud of their qualifications and of their achievements at school and in education.

Before we move to the next item of business, I remind members of the Covid-related measures in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.