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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 06 October 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, United Kingdom Budget Delay, Topical Question Time, Coronavirus Acts Report, International Development (Covid-19), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Miscarriage


Contents


Topical Question Time


Covid-19 (Restrictions) (Education)

1. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will clarify the role that education settings would play in any circuit-breaker strategy. (S5T-02441)

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

Discussions are continuing on what further steps are required to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in Scotland. Those include the possibility of a package of stricter measures being put in place over a relatively short period of time to reduce prevalence. If we were to decide to implement any such package, keeping education settings open would continue to be a priority. We will look carefully at the current arrangements, but given the low levels of transmission in such settings, I would not expect the measures to impact significantly on the guidance that is in place for children, young people, learners and staff in our schools, childcare services, colleges and universities.

Jamie Greene

If I read that response correctly, it is to be welcomed, because the reality is that thousands of children have already undergone significant disruption to their education this year. Parents who are watching this will be looking for comfort and direct reassurance that schools will not experience any additional closures outwith those that are already planned for the school holidays, or that are reactions to localised management and control of virus outbreaks. Can the cabinet secretary offer that direct reassurance? Can he confirm that current proposals on school closures will apply to all education settings, including nurseries, colleges and universities?

John Swinney

The Government has worked very hard with our partners to secure reopening of education services in our early learning sector, schools, colleges and universities because we recognise the enormous benefit that being in full-time education brings to children and young people in Scotland. It is therefore an absolute priority for the Government to ensure that our education settings remain open.

Obviously, we will have to follow public health advice on particular localised virus outbreaks, but I hope that members of the public will take reassurance from what I am saying to Parliament, which is that the Government is absolutely focused on and committed to ensuring that we keep our education settings open full time, and that our planning and actions will be designed to support that objective.

Jamie Greene

I thank the cabinet secretary for that further reassurance.

I am reading between the lines somewhat, but I am looking for a more direct commitment that there will not, if there are further national restrictions, be school closures outwith planned school holidays or management of localised outbreaks. It goes without saying that any circuit-breaker strategy or proposal would cause significant disruption to people’s lives, especially the lives of those with children. The Deputy First Minister will also be aware of the need to command the confidence of the Parliament and the wider public in any such restrictive national measures.

Can further confirmation be given that, in coming to any conclusions on new measures, the impact on parents’ ability to work if childcare and education are disrupted will be taken into account and, indeed, mitigated in that decision making, and that disruption to education will be kept to an absolute minimum in any nationwide restrictions?

Finally, will the cabinet secretary commit to publishing the scientific evidence or data that is driving the decisions, so that elected members of the Scottish Parliament are able properly to scrutinise, debate and, ultimately, vote on any further nationwide restrictions before they are introduced?

John Swinney

There was a lot in that question. I have answered quite a lot of it already by clarifying that the Government attaches absolute priority to keeping the school and education environment open full time. I remind Parliament that Scotland was the first part of the United Kingdom to restore full-time education to all pupils; I want to keep it that way.

Mr Greene asked about parliamentary processes. Mr Russell has undertaken discussions on the First Minister’s behalf on that question in relation to the parliamentary dialogue. I understand that the Parliamentary Bureau discussed the issue in scheduling business for this week, so that Parliament will have the opportunity to discuss those matters. The First Minister will make a statement to Parliament tomorrow on the next stage that we have to confront.

Mr Greene asked about publication of information—as if, somehow, the information about the pandemic is secret. A huge amount of information is published daily about the numbers of cases. There are 800 new positive cases today. I repeat—800. That is a significant increase on where we were a few weeks ago. The number of positive cases have been of that order for some considerable time.

I do not think that it is in any way a secret that the pandemic is accelerating in Scotland. We have taken action already to try to stem the rise, and it might be necessary for us to take further action. Parliament will hear from the First Minister tomorrow, and will be able to discuss and consider any issues that flow from announcements then.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has been clear in its commitment to striking the right balance of measures—most importantly, to control spread of the virus and save lives, but also to ensure that our schools are able to remain open, which we know is vital for the development and wellbeing of our pupils.

What engagement has the Covid-19 education recovery group had with teaching unions, parents and carers ahead of the October break, to ensure that staff and pupils have confidence in the measures?

John Swinney

The education recovery group has continued to meet weekly since the resumption of full-time schooling in August, and met very regularly over the period of lockdown.

We issued guidance prior to reopening the school system. We have updated and strengthened it in relation to wearing of face coverings in secondary schools, and we keep it under active review.

We look weekly at the feedback from the professional associations, including the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and our local authority partners to ensure that we are taking all the necessary decisions to address the situation. I give Clare Adamson the reassurance—because I know that she has a close long-term parliamentary interest in the issue of safety—that safety is uppermost in our consideration of that guidance. If there are further measures that we need to take to make our school estate safe, we will be prepared to take those actions.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that many vocational courses that are offered by the college sector include components that cannot be delivered through remote learning. Many of those courses have already been considerably impacted by previous and existing coronavirus restrictions. Can the cabinet secretary advise what further impact any circuit-breaker restrictions would have on delivery of those courses? What discussions has he had with the college sector to help to mitigate any impacts?

John Swinney

Obviously, our determined effort is to minimise impacts on learning and teaching. Maximisation of learning and teaching opportunities is a significant priority for me and weighs heavily in some of the decisions that I am taking on other questions.

Ministers are regularly involved in dialogue with the college sector to ensure that we are taking all possible steps to fulfil the educational opportunities of students. Like universities and schools, the college sector has adapted significantly in how it has deployed courses to meet the challenges. We will continue to support that work.

Of course, we have taken a number of practical steps through distribution of resources for digital access to ensure that individuals’ circumstances are not a barrier to their accessing resources and capabilities. We will continue to keep all measures under review to ensure that that remains the case.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you very much. That concludes topical questions. We will move on to the next item of business after a short pause.