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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 6, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 06 February 2020

Agenda: Point of Order, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Cancer Day 2020, Education, Portfolio Question Time, Budget 2020-21, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time



The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on evidence of excellence and equity in Scottish education. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I welcome this opportunity to set out the evidence of excellence and equity in Scottish education. Education is the highest priority of this Government simply because it can help Scotland’s children and young people to reach their full potential. That goal is governed by the twin aims of equity and excellence. Equity is about closing the attainment gap so that all our young people can achieve to their maximum potential, and excellence is about raising the standard across our education system.

I have always made it clear that we need to work together to ensure the best outcomes for our young people. That was the approach that was taken when creating, developing and implementing the curriculum for excellence—a change that all parties here supported and that has attracted international endorsement. The Government has taken a range of actions, in partnership with our education system, to ensure that we deliver practical action to achieve excellence and equity.

We have expanded teacher numbers to a 10-year high and increased the focus on enhancing learning and teaching, strengthening leadership, reducing workload and promoting teacher empowerment. We have issued curricular guidance that reinforces the critical importance of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing at the heart of curriculum for excellence. Through pupil equity funding, we have empowered schools with the resources and flexibility that they need to close the attainment gap and meet the distinctive needs of pupils and, through the Scottish attainment challenge, we have increased the capacity of the local authorities and schools that face the greatest challenges. We have strengthened the capacity to support improvement in our education system by creating regional improvement collaboratives and expanding the work of Education Scotland.

I am wholly committed to building on those measures to ensure that we focus our efforts on improving the achievements of our children and young people. In considering the performance of our education system, it is vital that we draw on the broadest range of information to inform that judgment. It was for that reason that the Government consulted on a framework that would assess the progress made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. We did not opt for one piece of information to judge that progress, but drew together a range of indicators. I will highlight some specific data and facts that demonstrate that approach.

First, the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels, published in December, show that reading, writing, listening and talking are improving across almost every level. The same is true for numeracy—there is improvement against almost every measure. On the attainment gap, the figures show that among the most disadvantaged pupils, attainment rose at all stages in numeracy, and for literacy it rose at primaries 1, 4 and 7.

Looking specifically at the 11 key measures to assess progress in closing the attainment gap, which were first published in 2017, we have seen improvement in two thirds of the measures for which we have comparable data. When we set our approach to measuring the poverty-related attainment gap, we also published some deliberately challenging stretch aims. Those are unapologetically ambitious and designed to guide progress in closing the attainment gap. They provide a clear and consistent reference point by which Scotland can navigate over the long term.

That long-term approach is reflected in the advice of the international council of education advisers. It has made it clear that Scotland is heading in the right direction. More than that, it has made it clear that achieving excellence and equity is a long-term task and has told us that steady, incremental gains are necessary in order to deliver sustainable improvements towards closing the gap. That is exactly what we are doing. Finally, we agree with the council’s assessment that we now need a period of consolidation and stability to ensure that improvements have time to become embedded.

The performance of the education system can be seen in the academic results that it generates and, of equal importance, in the number and breadth of vocational qualifications that are achieved by our young people. Statistics show that achievement at national level 5 is up. In 2006-07, the percentage of school leavers getting a level 5 qualification, such as nationals, or better was 71.1 per cent; in 2017-18, it was 85.9 per cent.

Although direct comparisons cannot always be made with previous years, because of changes in how qualifications are recorded, we can say, in looking at the past few years, where direct comparisons can be made, that there has been an increase of almost 9 percentage points from 77.1 per cent in 2009-10.

Performance at level 6—highers—has also improved. When the Government took office, significantly less than half of pupils left school with a higher or equivalent, or better. Now almost two thirds—62.2 per cent—of pupils achieve at least that level. Again, direct comparison cannot always be made, but where it can, we find that the proportion of pupils who got a higher or better went up from 50.4 per cent in 2009-10 to 62.2 per cent in 2017-18. The attainment gap is closing here, too. For those who achieve higher level awards or better, the gap between the most and the least well-off has fallen by almost a fifth since 2009-10.

Building on those positive achievements, we can see that the percentage of school leavers who progress to higher education has steadily improved from 36.2 per cent in 2009-10 to 41.1 per cent in 2017-18. The percentage of school leavers who go on to a positive destination has steadily increased and, in 2017-18, it was at 94.4 per cent.

We also see strong performance across a broad range of pathways and awards. The achievement of vocational qualifications at level 5 and above has increased from 7.3 per cent in 2013-14 to 14.8 per cent in 2017-18. The achievement of vocational qualifications at level 6 and above has increased from 1 per cent in 2013-14 to 3.8 per cent in 2017-18, and more than 64,000 skills-based qualifications were achieved in 2019, which is more than a third more than the number that were attained in 2014. [Interruption.]

Taken together, the evidence is clear: improvement is being made in Scotland’s schools. However, I make it clear to Parliament that I highlight those figures not to claim that everything is wonderful in education and nothing needs to change—that is not my message. My message is that we have made a series of reforms to education that are designed to improve performance and which international experts tell us are correct. Those reforms are designed to achieve long-term, sustained improvement in education, and the evidence tells us that they are starting to work. We will continue to focus on and invest in those areas in which improvements are needed.

I turn to the issue that Jackson Carlaw raised at First Minister’s question time last week, which prompted this statement. In highlighting higher pass rates by subject, Mr Carlaw painted a picture of unremitting negativity, but when we look at the big subjects—those that are taken by the most pupils—we can see that pass rates have increased in the majority of the top 10 since 2015. The pass rates in maths, chemistry, modern studies, physics, biology and geography, which are major subjects, are all up. It is not the case that some subjects matter more than others, but it is entirely right that we should look at the whole picture and acknowledge the successes.

We should also acknowledge that there is volatility in pass rates. Last year, there was an increase in the pass rate at national 5 and a fall in the pass rate at higher. We cannot expect there to be a continual increase in pass rates. As Parliament knows and would expect, we always examine any issues as part of our review of performance in the education system. As I said in the chamber on 15 January, I will publish analysis of the 2019 exam diet in due course.

As a result of curriculum for excellence, young people have more choices and options than they have ever had. We should not judge some subjects—some “traditional” subjects, as they are described by some—as being more valuable than others. Scotland’s curriculum places learners at the heart of education, and we want each young person to choose the right blend of courses, achievements and awards to give them the best possible chance of success in life and work.

We can say with confidence that our education system is delivering. A record proportion of young people from all backgrounds are achieving positive destinations; more young people from disadvantaged communities are going to university; and an expansion of choices has led to there being more options than ever before for young people to meet their aspirations.

However, it is essential that we are always open to considering how further improvement might be delivered. Alongside regular monitoring, a full review of the curriculum, which was voted for by Parliament, will seek to identify any areas for potential development to ensure that the curriculum as a whole effectively strengthens the education of Scottish young people. The review will look into the intentions of the policy, analyse the extent to which it has been realised in schools across Scotland and provide recommendations on ways forward.

I have invited all parties to provide their input to the remit of the review, and I will consult local authorities and others in education before I finalise that agreement.

Further improvements can always be made, and we will strive to make them, but the evidence is clear that children and young people in Scotland are achieving strongly through the different educational pathways that they can choose. We have embarked on a reform of Scottish education that is working, is closing the attainment gap and raising standards, and is sustainable for the long term. Now is the time to stay the course, and to have trust in the evidence, in our teachers, our schools and our young people. If we do that, we can help to create a bright future for all our young people.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow around 20 minutes for that.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Presiding Officer, I apologise to you and the cabinet secretary for the earlier noises off while the cabinet secretary was delivering his statement.

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement and for the letter that he issued to the Education and Skills Committee yesterday, in which he set out the Scottish Government’s initial response to the Conservative Party debate on 15 January, following the Opposition parties’ call for a review of the broad general education as well as the senior phase. My response to that letter will be with the cabinet secretary this afternoon.

In the meantime, I will ask the cabinet secretary three things about his statement. What timescale does he envisage for the publication of the analysis of the 2019 exam diet, given that that information must surely already exist? What action will he take to measure the effectiveness of the pupil equity funding, which is obviously critical to raising attainment?

The cabinet secretary knows only too well that a wide range of education experts are concerned that curriculum for excellence has lacked a baseline measure from which it would have been possible to more accurately assess progress in literacy and numeracy over the implementation period and that there is on-going concern about whether we have the best data set for Scottish education. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to that?

John Swinney

I look forward to receiving Liz Smith’s input to the remit for the review. I hope that she understands that, if we are to do this properly, it must have adequate time. The timescale that I set out to the Education and Skills Committee and to Opposition party spokespeople is the timescale that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in our dialogue, has indicated is necessary to undertake such a review.

I will publish our analysis of the 2019 exam diet in due course. We have seen the publication of the subject analysis by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Individual subject reports have been published and are available publicly. The report that summarises the analysis of the diet will be published as soon as it is available.

On the effectiveness of PEF, I decided not to take an approach that would burden the education system with an almost transaction-by-transaction analysis and audit of the utilisation of PEF funds. I said that I would trust the education profession—which we should do—to make the right judgments about how the resources of £120 million should be used, school by school, to close the attainment gap. We would see, in the data set that we put together after wide consultation on the framework to monitor the progress that is being made, how PEF is a contributory factor to that.

It was a matter of judgment, but I thought that it would intensify bureaucracy in our schools if I asked them to perform an audit of every way in which they spent their money. We will see the fruits of that in the closure of the attainment gap and the data that we have put forward.

Opinions are divided on the data set around curriculum for excellence. My view is the one that I formed during the aftermath of the decline in performance in the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. That is a survey, and when it indicates a decline in performance, it does not tell us where that decline is presenting itself around the country. We can get a generic picture, but we cannot identify where the issues are in the education system.

What we have put in place, through the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels, is a much broader data set that measures the performance of young people according to the judgments of teachers at primary 1, P4, P7 and S3. It enables us to look at a much bigger data set, to see where the challenges and the issues are. I can now look at data school by school and see that there are issues to be addressed in certain schools or local authorities, which information the SSLN did not give us and could never have given us.

I appreciate that there are divided opinions, but I assure Liz Smith that I am intensely interested in the data and the performance, as I want to make sure that where it matters, where we need to apply intervention and support, we have the data to enable us to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind the cabinet secretary that he is answering questions, not giving speeches.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement, although it did not really contain anything new. The carefully selected and well-rehearsed set of numbers that he presents are designed not to elucidate what is happening in our schools but to obfuscate it. The basic facts are straightforward. Higher pass rates are down every year for the past four years: that is a trend, not volatility. The attainment gap in literacy and numeracy has barely moved: it increases through the school years and there is no prospect whatsoever of the Government meeting its targets on closing the gap.

As for empowering schools with resources, teacher numbers remain 2,500 fewer than in 2007, and last week’s local government benchmarking framework shows that we are spending less per pupil than we were in 2010—£288 less in primary and £129 less in secondary.

If the cabinet secretary cannot see that he has a problem, the public can. The benchmarking framework shows that satisfaction with local schools has plummeted by 10 per cent in the past five years. We trust teachers and schools, but, until the cabinet secretary accepts the evidence—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Come to the question, please.

Iain Gray

Why should we trust him?

John Swinney

Well, there was certainly nothing new in that question, either.

Mr Gray says that the information that I put on the record is not designed to provide elucidation. I think that it is designed to set out the fact that very real progress is being made in Scottish education, and I deeply regret that there is virtually nothing that Mr Gray can possibly find to welcome and support.

We are seeing improvement in performance against all the indicators that I cited—reading, writing, listening and talking—at almost every level. On the attainment gap, the figures show that, among the most disadvantaged pupils, attainment rose at all stages in numeracy, and it rose in literacy at P1, P4 and P7. Why can Mr Gray not welcome that and say that we are in the early stages of making progress? Because it does not fit his narrative, which is to run down Scottish education.

Mr Gray talked about resources: year on year, for the past three years—if my memory serves me right—we have seen an increase in the resource that is being spent on education at a local level.

Iain Gray

It is less than it was 10 years ago.

John Swinney

Mr Gray says that it is less than it was 10 years ago. Is Mr Gray aware of a thing called austerity? His party just fought an election, demanding increases in public expenditure because of the dreadful austerity that has been caused by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The main obstacle to this Parliament having the ability to make decisions on all the financial arrangements that are in front of us is Mr Gray, because he personally blocked it all in the Smith commission.

If Mr Gray is going to come here and moan about Scottish education, I ask him to refer to the facts that I have put on the record and acknowledge that we have wrestled with an incredibly difficult financial climate that, on another platform, he would condemn as well.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open questions. We are very short of time, but I will try to get through them.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The international council of education advisers has made it clear that Scotland is heading in the right direction but that achieving excellence and equity should be seen as a long-term task. In the light of those comments, and in recognition of the evidence that the poverty-related attainment gap is narrowing, will the Deputy First Minister reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to achieving those long-term objectives?

John Swinney

I am very happy to do so. The international council of education advisers has given us very valuable advice about the need for us to make incremental progress to strengthen the performance of Scottish education, and I think that the data tells us that that is happening.

It is early days, but, as I have rehearsed with Parliament before, educational change takes time. Any of us who are familiar with education know that. However, the Government is determined to stay the course. We have taken a number of steps to improve performance. We are beginning to see the fruits of those steps, and we remain open to taking other measures that will demonstrate that we can close the attainment gap and improve the opportunities for young people.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

The cabinet secretary is right to say that we need to look at higher pass rates as a whole, but we also need to look at trends within individual subjects. Although a definition of volatility would match subjects such as maths or chemistry, it would not match the likes of higher English, which has seen a consistently declining pass rate. Does the cabinet secretary accept that the forthcoming review should look not just at highers as a whole but at trends within individual subjects and at the articulation between national 4, national 5 and higher? In some subjects, national 4 and national 5 are not adequately preparing young people for the subsequent qualification level.

John Swinney

On the fundamental point that Mr Greer raises about higher English, for example, some of the foundations of that will be in the assumption of capacity and literacy, which will take place over a large number of years. Therefore, we must make sure that young people are able to acquire those skills over a long period in their education.

Mr Greer also raises specific issues about the articulation between individual qualifications. In the original envisaging of the qualifications, it was never conceived that national 4 would be a progression to national 5. That relationship existed from previous standard grade arrangements but that design approach was never taken. There are issues with articulating from national 4 to national 5, which need to be reflected on. In the senior phase review, I am anxious not to have an extensive debate about qualifications. I am more interested in looking at the way in which curriculum for excellence is delivered in order to support its objectives, and I do not want it to be defined by the approach to qualifications. We are undertaking an assessment more of the curriculum than of the qualifications. I have written to Mr Greer and I will reflect carefully on the contribution that he makes to the review.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for sight of his statement.

We all agree that we want to create a bright future for our young people. The cabinet secretary claims to be reducing teachers’ workloads, but an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report last year confirmed that Scotland’s teachers work some of the longest hours in the world. Teachers want to do their best, but they spend so much time in front of their class that they do not have time for marking, lesson prep or the personal development that helps them to continue to improve as teachers. If the cabinet secretary is sincere about trusting the teachers’ evidence, how will that be shown in the review?

John Swinney

Both of the substantive propositions in Beatrice Wishart’s question are correct. One of them is that Scottish teachers’ pupil contact hours are among the highest; the other is that there are determined measures to reduce unnecessary workload. I stress the word “unnecessary”, because we will never get to a point where teaching is not a demanding career that requires hard work. People come into teaching wanting to do that, but they want to spend their time on developing learning and teaching, not on pursuing unnecessary bureaucracy. I am trying to attack unnecessary bureaucracy, to enable teachers to use their non-contact time to enhance the learning and teaching of young people. As I look around the education system, I see more and more evidence of teachers engaging in that collaborative activity. The Shetland Islands community that Beatrice Wishart represents contributes significantly to the work of the northern alliance, which fosters that collaboration. I intend to ensure that classroom teachers have the opportunity to be part of that exercise. On Tuesday, I will join the northern alliance in Aberdeen for the launch of its learning hub, which is designed to support teachers across the Highlands and Islands.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Equity is every bit as important as excellence. Therefore, can the cabinet secretary give a commitment today that the proposed review will explicitly look at the impact that curriculum design and delivery has had on the range of educational opportunities that are available to all pupils in Scotland, regardless of where they live? Will he ask the OECD to investigate whether, compared to affluent and urban areas, an unfair gap in provision exists in our deprived and rural communities?

John Swinney

Those are all valid issues for the review to look at. Although I will look in detail at the specific points that Oliver Mundell made, they strike me as entirely reasonable. Inventive ways to support the delivery of education in a way that overcomes geography being an obstacle to equity are being developed. One of them is taking place in the south of Scotland with the launch of the south of Scotland learning and skills network, which I will inaugurate in Dumfries during parliamentary recess next week.

On Monday, I took part in a fascinating discussion at the convention of the south of Scotland, at which the chair of Borders College and the principal of Dumfries and Galloway College shared with us their aspirations for the delivery of education through that approach. It will maximise access to education for young people in what I recognise is the very dispersed geography across the south of Scotland, where it is difficult to get young people into education—transport is a big obstacle—but where there is every opportunity for us to use technology and access to the learning estate to broaden access to learning opportunities.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Scottish Qualifications Authority figures show a 12 per cent drop in the number of senior phase pupil entries since 2013, and a decline in the number of pupils who are passing highers, from 77.6 per cent in 2016 to just under 75 per cent in 2019—a comparison that John Swinney was prepared to make for national 5s. At the Education and Skills Committee a couple of weeks ago, Fiona Robertson acknowledged that those figures illustrate a “fall in attainment”. Is she correct—yes or no?

John Swinney

There are a number of points in Mr Johnson’s question. The chief examiner described the 2019 diet as a

“strong set of results”

Those are the words of the chief examiner, not mine, and I am quite happy to rest on them.

We have to look at volatility in exam performance. We cannot expect exam pass rates to continuously go up. There will be volatility; we saw, for example, that national 5 was down in 2018 and up in 2019. We have to look at that and learn any lessons that are here. However, fundamentally, the data that I put on record today demonstrates that, over the lifetime of this Government, there has been a very significant improvement in the attainment and performance of young people in Scotland.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

The OECD’s 2015 review of Scottish education endorsed curriculum for excellence while urging the Scottish Government to continue to be bold with its reforms to develop a world-leading education system. Does the Deputy First Minister share my view that teachers now need a period of stability in order to focus their attention on the teaching and learning practices in their classes?

John Swinney

I have been anxious to say to the teaching profession that I will do my level best to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, which we are making headway on. I note that we are also making headway on the way in which we are co-operating with the professional associations in taking that forward.

As I rehearsed with Beatrice Wishart, we are also creating opportunities for teachers to be involved in enhancing learning and teaching, which teachers need to concentrate time on. I am keen to make sure that teachers are given clarity of direction, which they have got from me. Excellence and equity will be the drivers of the Government’s education policy for the duration of the parliamentary session, which provides stability and certainty for the teaching profession. I hope that we will have time to reflect on the issues that we learn of from the review, which will become apparent in the spring of 2021, having built on the good foundations that we have established.

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

On the availability of evidence of excellence and equity, what consideration is the cabinet secretary giving to following the advice of numerous educational experts and introducing a new form of the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, as well as taking Scotland back into international studies such as the trends in international maths and science survey and the progress in international reading literacy study?

John Swinney

I dealt with some of those issues in my answer to Liz Smith, because there is a fundamental disagreement. In almost all questions in education, there is never any unanimity. However, there is—possibly—unanimity on pursuing excellence and equity as our objectives. Some experts say that we should be doing what Alison Harris said; other experts say that we should be doing exactly what I am doing.

As I rehearsed in my answer to Liz Smith, I am keen to have available to our education system data that can show where our system is performing well, and where it is not performing well. If we do not have that data, as was the case with TIMSS, PIRLS and the SSLN, we cannot address underperformance in the education system. We need a combination of the data that I have now commissioned, which has acquired the status of official statistics from the chief statistician, who judges the material to be good and reliable data, and international comparisons that come from the programme for international student assessment, or PISA.

To me, that is a reasonable data set for us to build on, because it allows us to see how we are comparing with other countries—of course, in the latest PISA survey we saw a significant rise in reading performance and our science and mathematics performance was on the OECD average although, obviously, we want to improve on that—and the curriculum for excellence levels data tells us how we are getting on school by school and pupil by pupil, which helps us to support young people where they need our support.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Gillian Martin, Mary Fee, Rona Mackay and Alasdair Allan for being unable to reach their questions. I ask members to have a think about how long questions and answers are taking.