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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 December 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Oversight Board, Education (Performance), Human Rights Defenders, Code of Conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament, Decision Time, Miscarriage


Contents


Education (Performance)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a statement by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, on performance in Scottish education—the programme for international student assessment 2018 results and achievement of curriculum for excellence levels 2018-19 statistics.

14:56  

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

I welcome the opportunity to update Parliament on the latest performance information that we have on the Scottish education system.

Last week, the PISA data from the 2018 survey was published and this morning we have seen the 2018-19 achievement of CFE levels data, as well as the 2019 summary statistics for schools, which include the latest data on teacher numbers. That material provides a range of information that sets out the progress that is being made in Scottish education.

I start by paying tribute to the hard work of all the teachers, children and young people in our schools. I visit schools up and down the country, where I see at first hand the talents of our young people and the commitment of the teachers and other school staff who support them to achieve their potential.

The school census data that we published this morning demonstrates that the action that we are taking on teacher recruitment is working. The data shows that teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row: the number of teachers in our schools has risen by 288 to 52,247 in 2019, which is an increase of more than 1,500 since 2014. That represents excellent progress; we now have a 10-year high in the number of teachers. Even more striking is that primary-school teacher numbers are at their highest level since 1980—the highest for 39 years.

I also draw members’ attention to the figures that were published on 15 November, which indicate that permanent teacher vacancies for primary and secondary schools combined have fallen from 606 to 382 in a year.

The ratio of pupils to teachers nationally remains at its lowest since 2013. I am pleased that a large number of local authorities have either maintained or improved their teacher numbers and pupil to teacher ratios. We will continue working with partners to ensure that children in all local authorities benefit.

Our focus on maintaining teacher numbers has allowed local authorities to take flexible decisions on how best to meet the needs of their schools and to prevent increases in class sizes. The decrease from 511 to 267 in the number of primary 1 pupils in classes of 26 or more in 2018 is encouraging. The figure equates to about just 10 classes in the whole of Scotland. The contrast with the situation when we took office, when there were more than 16,000 P1 pupils in classes of 26 or more, could not be clearer.

That is real progress, but work to further improve recruitment continues. We are supporting universities in development of new and alternative routes into teaching, including a focus on increasing the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers. Over the past two years, those routes into teaching have attracted 800 people who might otherwise not have entered teaching.

We are again offering bursaries of £20,000 for career changers to undertake teacher training in STEM subjects, where the demand is at its greatest. A new phase of our recruitment campaign is also under way, and we have added Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University as teacher-education providers.

It is also important to recognise the role that other staff have in supporting children and young people in our schools. Our decision to have counsellors available to support young people’s mental health in every secondary school in Scotland—the first of whom will begin work this year—is a significant step forward, as is the £15 million a year that we announced in the programme for government to provide enhanced support to children with additional support needs.

I am encouraged by today’s achievement of CFE levels data. First, I welcome the chief statistician’s decision to remove the “experimental statistics” label from the data. That is a clear indicator of the positive work that teachers and local authorities, supported by Education Scotland and the regional improvement collaboratives, have done to ensure the quality and consistency of teachers’ professional judgements.

Secondly, I am encouraged because the data itself is positive, demonstrating, as it does, that Scotland is moving in the correct direction.

The international council of education advisers has indicated to me that we should aim to make a series of incremental gains—of the type that are now evident in Scotland—in order to deliver sustainable improvement.

The data on achievement of CFE levels shows, for the second year running, increases in attainment across all four key outcome measures. For example, there has been a rise of about one percentage point in primary literacy and in secondary numeracy. The latter is particularly welcome in the light of last week’s PISA results, which showed that we have progress to make in maths.

The data, when it is looked at in more detail, shows an improvement in the results on most indicators in reading, writing, listening and talking and numeracy at P1, P4 and P7. Secondary 3 results show a similar picture at third level and fourth level.

I am also pleased to see that the data demonstrates that we are making progress on equity. Attainment in numeracy at all stages, and in reading and writing at P1, P4 and P7 rose among the most disadvantaged children and young people. The attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged has narrowed, in most indicators. For example, the gap in P1 literacy has closed by 1 percentage point, and in P7 literacy it has closed by almost 2 percentage points.

Although the overall picture is positive, there are, of course, local variations in the figures, so we will work with Education Scotland and local authorities over the coming year to support improvement.

Although this is only the fourth year of ACEL data, it clearly demonstrates that we are on the right track. We are beginning to see the system-wide benefits of the system-wide reforms that we have introduced.

We are seeing some progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap. That is encouraging and has been further emphasised by the data that we see today. In order to keep up the momentum, I signal to the education system today that the Government will maintain its focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Today, we have published the updated “2019 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan”, which sets out that continuity of direction. I am determined that the system should benefit from a clear focus in order to ensure that the improvement work that is being undertaken across the Scottish education system has time to become embedded.

The international council of education advisers advises me that the challenge now is to deepen the level of progress and impact, so that is what we intend to do.

I turn to last week’s PISA results. It is important that Parliament hears accurately the outcome of the survey and what the PISA data shows us. It shows a sharp recovery in results on reading, which is very welcome and comes from a determination after the previous PISA results to make improving literacy a focus of our attainment challenge.

According to independent statisticians, performance in maths and science is stable. However, I do not deny that there is a challenge in that respect. Although performance is in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, it must improve. Initiatives that we have under way, such as our STEM education and training strategy, the STEM bursaries and the work on the “Making maths count” initiative are all about making sure that we improve performance.

It is also really important that we see the PISA data in context. I have already spoken about the positive CFE levels data; there is a wealth of other evidence. Performance in higher exam passes is improving in terms of the proportion of young people who leave school with highers and in terms of closing the attainment gap in higher exam results. How those things are counted has changed over the years, so we cannot always make direct comparisons. However, where we can, we find that the amount of pupils who get a higher or better is up from 50.4 per cent in 2009-10 to 62.2 per cent in 2017-18.

We are now seeing record numbers of young people from all backgrounds achieving positive destinations, and more young people from more disadvantaged communities going to university. There is a lot of good news in Scottish education, which is tribute to the hard work of young people and their teachers.

It is not “Job done”, however. The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to ensuring that we continue to see sustained improvement across the education system. Teacher numbers are at their highest in 10 years, and we are seeing incremental gains in attainment across the broad general education. Although parts of the attainment gap remain stubborn, there are initial signs of improvement.

In September, the ICEA was clear that I should not let the PISA results—no matter what they show—be a distraction from our long-term goals. The council advised that, on the basis of the evidence, Scotland is heading in the right direction and is taking the right approach to improving education. I value and welcome that advice. I believe that the direction of travel is the right one—the data supports that view. Our responsibility is to keep a strong focus on continued improvement. Now is the time to stay the course, as per the advice of the experts, so that is what the Scottish Government intends to do.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions. I will allow 20 minutes for those, after which we must move on.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. I am pleased that, notwithstanding some welcome improvements in the trends that he mentioned, he admits that significant challenges remain in the Scottish Government’s education policy and its aims.

In that context, I ask the cabinet secretary three questions. First, can he explain why he is convinced that we have better school attainment data than we have ever had before? That is what he said last week, but that opinion is completely at odds with the view of Scotland’s educational experts. That includes the view of the commission on school reform, which said last week that the data set is

“the poorest that it has been since the 1950s”,

and the view of Professor Paterson, who argues that, in light of the situation, effective policy making is undermined.

Secondly, will the cabinet secretary now accept the recommendations of the commission on school reform, which are that Scotland should rejoin the international measures of both the progress in international reading literacy study and the trends in international mathematics and science study, and that there should be a new sample survey of performance in the key curricular areas of broad general education?

Finally, will he tell the Parliament why, despite some improvement in teacher numbers, there are 2,835 fewer teachers since the Scottish National Party came to power while the pupil cohort is increasing, and whether he believes, as many secondary schools do, that that has a negative effect on subject choice?

John Swinney

Let me address Liz Smith’s first two questions together, as they relate to the same issue, which is the quality and range of available information. We participate in the PISA exercise, which is an international survey whose latest results were published last week, and we intend to continue to participate in it. The problem with sample surveys, such as the Scottish survey on literacy and numeracy, is that when an issue needs to be confronted—there was such an issue in 2015—the sample survey tells us generically that there is an issue, but it does not tell us where the problems lie. I am interested in solving where the problems lie.

The data that is now available to us, which is assembled pupil by pupil, across every school in the country, gives us a picture of performance. That data allows Liz Smith to compare the relative performance of local authority areas—in my statement, I highlighted the fact that we need to confront that local variation as a country to ensure that the educational needs of young people are met.

All of that flows into the national improvement framework data that we gather and on which we published an update today. It sets out the various measures that we look at, which we consulted on and on which I thought that we had reached some broad agreement that they were the measures that required to be looked at to assess the closure of the poverty-related attainment gap. I firmly believe that we have a comprehensive dataset that enables all of us to judge the progress of Scottish education.

Liz Smith’s final point was about teacher numbers. I am really pleased that teacher numbers are at a 10-year high: that is really welcome and it has come about as a consequence of the investment. She asked me to explain what the challenge has been with teacher numbers. I shall give it to her in one word: austerity. It has been due to austerity by the Conservative Government. If Liz Smith does not know that austerity has been the problem undermining our public services for the past nine years under the Conservative Government and if she does not understand austerity, she does not understand the suffering that has been experienced by people in Scotland and why we should get rid of the Conservative Government on Thursday.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. I agree with him about the hard work and achievement of our teachers and young people, yet that has been in spite of one of the heaviest teacher workloads in the developed world.

Twelve years ago the Scottish National Party Government was elected on a promise to cut class sizes to fewer than 18 in primaries 1 to 3. The figures released today show that, in fact, since 2007 we have 2,853 fewer teachers, that average primary class sizes are bigger and that the pupil teacher ratio has increased. There are more pupils in early primary classes that are bigger than 18 pupils than there were when the SNP took office, never mind none, as promised. As for there being only 10 primary 1 classes with more than 25 pupils, nine years ago we legislated to make 25 the maximum P1 class size, so perhaps the cabinet secretary should explain why there are any classes at all of that size in primary 1. Instead of blaming others or picking random years for comparison, will the cabinet secretary just be honest and admit that the SNP record on education is fewer teachers and bigger class sizes?

John Swinney

I suppose that it was predictable that Mr Gray would trot out the same response. As for me blaming others, the only people I blamed in the statement were the Conservatives for austerity. From what I could make out from all the shouting that was going on while I was answering the question, it seemed as if the Labour Party was supporting the Conservative Party on austerity.

Mr Gray has acknowledged that we have more teachers in our classrooms today. I am really pleased that teacher numbers are at a 10-year high; that shows that the investment the Government is making, despite austerity, is having an effect on the presence of teachers in our country.

Mr Gray will know from the negotiations we have undertaken with our professional associations that the Government is tackling the issue of teacher workload. Much progress has been made on that through the work that we have undertaken on unit assessments and other work to streamline teacher workloads through the pay agreement. I hear Mr Gray muttering about the Educational Institute of Scotland. The EIS is fully working in partnership with us to tackle teacher workloads: he should get out a bit more and speak to his trade union colleagues.

Finally, it is really welcome that we do not have 16,000 P1 pupils in classes of 26 or more any longer: that is now down to 267 because of the investment that this Government has made.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call Ross Greer, the first two questioners were entitled to ask long questions, which got longer answers, but 11 members want to ask questions and I want to get them all in. I want short questions, please, and snappy answers, if possible.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement, although I have to say how frustrating it is that his obfuscation is trying to hide the fact that there are 2,800 fewer teachers than there were when the SNP took office—no spin can hide that.

I accept that the S3 attainment data—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I asked for a question and I want a question. Show what can be done.

Ross Greer

I accept that the S3 attainment data is used to measure the attainment gap, but the S4 attainment data shows that the gap is growing at five times the rate that it is closing in S3. Does the Deputy First Minister know why? If not, will he undertake to find out and report back to the Parliament?

John Swinney

Mr Greer will see from the data that 90 per cent of young people now achieve level 3 in S3, which is exactly what we want them to achieve, and growing numbers of young people are achieving level 4 as part of their achievements in S3.

Obviously, in S4, young people move on into the senior phase and are able to make choices about the pathways that are appropriate for them; they will make their judgments accordingly, based on the wide range of choices that is available in Scottish education.

We are determined to ensure that, at every stage in our education system, poverty is not a disadvantage to young people who are trying to achieve their potential. We see the fulfilment of that in the improving position on access to university for young people from deprived backgrounds.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The SNP Government has spent the best part of a week celebrating stagnation and our having far fewer teachers than we had when it took office.

Teachers are at their wits’ end with this Government. Will the Scottish Government show them the respect that they deserve and relieve the pressure on them by commissioning a McCrone 2 to fill in the gaps and restore support in our classrooms?

John Swinney

Despite the austerity that was ushered in by the Liberal and Conservative Government in 2010, the Scottish Government has managed to increase teacher numbers to a 10-year high.

If Mr Cole-Hamilton had been paying attention, he would have noticed a comprehensive pay deal with the teacher professional associations earlier this year, which related not just to pay but to workload and a variety of other issues, and which was supported—by a massive margin—by the teacher professional associations. I think that that support represents a degree of satisfaction with the negotiation that we were able to conclude with the professional associations.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The curriculum for excellence levels data that was published today on an individual pupil basis, which includes primary and secondary school pupils, shows an improvement in achievement in almost all areas and particularly in numeracy. Given the concerns about the PISA results last week, should the data reassure parents, carers and pupils that the actions that this Government is taking are the right ones?

John Swinney

In the attainment challenge, which was formulated in 2015, we prioritised improvements in literacy, and we saw the manifestation of that in the PISA survey last week. We are now seeing, in the broad general education in primary and secondary schools, a much stronger focus on enhancing numeracy activity and numeracy interventions. The indications in today’s data are encouraging and, given the clarity that I have provided on the constancy of direction in education policy, schools can rely on the support and investment that we have provided to increase performance in numeracy.

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest: I am finance director of Relationships Scotland—Couple Counselling Central Scotland.

The decision to have counsellors available in every secondary school to support pupils is very welcome, given the rise in schoolchildren who are affected by mental health issues. Although many counsellors for adults are available, there is a shortage of appropriately trained and qualified counsellors for young persons. What is the Government doing to address that shortage so that it achieves its commitment to place counsellors in every secondary school?

John Swinney

We are involved in a recruitment and training exercise with our local authority partners, to enable that to be the case. Alison Harris highlights the importance of early intervention through the availability of mental health counsellors in secondary schools, which is exactly why we have taken the steps that we have taken; we are working with our local authority partners to ensure that the recruitment and training process can be undertaken to ensure that that capacity is in place during the school year.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The school census data that was published this morning clearly demonstrates that the Scottish Government’s action on teacher recruitment is working. Can the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament how the ratio of teachers to pupils in Scotland compares with the ratio elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

John Swinney

I can. In primary schools, there are 15.9 pupils per teacher in Scotland, compared with 20.9 in England, 22 in Wales and 22.3 in Northern Ireland. In secondary schools, there are 12.4 pupils per teacher in Scotland, compared with 16.3 in England, 17 in Wales and 15.7 in Northern Ireland.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

If we are to learn the lessons from the PISA results, we need to be frank about what the results say. If we acknowledge that they are part of a 20-year downward trend, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that the reading results that he describes as an improvement are simply a return to 2003 levels, as is stated in the report?

John Swinney

Those results represent an improvement in the performance in reading, so we are moving in the right direction in reading. [Interruption.] I am not overclaiming; I am claiming that we are moving in the right direction. Our interventions are stimulating an improvement in reading practice. We now need to make sure that the same happens in relation to maths and science, and the curriculum for excellence levels data indicates that the steps that we are taking are supporting that direction of travel.

I am entirely focused on delivering improvement in the Scottish education system—that is what I am here to support and encourage. From the detail that we have seen today, evidence is emerging of that improvement in practice.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The 2019 summary statistics for schools, which were also published today, add to the range of information that sets out the progress that is being made in Scottish education and include data on teacher numbers. What further action is the Scottish Government taking to improve teacher recruitment?

John Swinney

We have put in place nearly a dozen new routes into teaching that are attracting new candidates who, ordinarily, would have found it difficult to pursue the traditional routes into teaching. We have put in place STEM bursaries, which are encouraging people to move from careers in the STEM subjects into STEM teaching training. The £20,000 bursary arrangement is attracting a range of candidates.

I am very pleased with the way in which those new routes have attracted people to make a contribution to teaching. Many of those people are now making their way into the education system, where they are having a profound effect on teaching and learning, both for young people and by supporting their colleagues to enhance their continuing professional development.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Given the clear challenges that we have heard about today, does the cabinet secretary take any personal responsibility for the state of Scottish education?

John Swinney

Mr Mundell knows me well enough; I do not shirk my responsibilities. Of course I take my responsibilities deadly seriously. I am here to improve Scottish education.

Equally, however, Mr Mundell must take responsibility for the shocking levels of austerity that his Government in London has inflicted on young people in Scotland, which has had the effect of massively increasing child poverty and forcing children to go to school hungry. That is what Mr Mundell has delivered for Scottish education.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary feel that the PISA system, which has been criticised by academics around the world, gives an overall view of the whole of Scottish education? The emphasis seems to be on mathematics, science and reading. Although those are important, physical, moral, civil and artistic education are ignored.

John Swinney

The PISA data is one element, but not the only element, of the information that we must look at; the same goes for the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data. We must look at a range of evidence. That is why the Government produced the national improvement framework. All the measurement data that it contains gives us a broad picture of the wider achievement of the education system.

A development in the PISA system that will look at wider competencies will address some of the issues that Mr Mason raised. That information will be available in due course—if my memory serves me right, I think that it will be available in 2020. That is not an element of the survey that we are compelled to be part of, but we have opted to be part of it, because we recognise that it will give us valuable information on the breadth of the effect of curriculum for excellence.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

Although the marginal improvement in narrowing the attainment gap is welcome, statistics show that the gap still increases as children progress through school. What specific steps will the Scottish Government take to tackle that damaging trend?

John Swinney

We must make sure that we support young people constantly, at every stage in their development, to ensure that we close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is why we are making the investment that we are making in the early years sector. We want to act at the earliest possible opportunity to narrow that gap and to support the learning of young people. That can be done in a variety of ways. An important element is the provision of family support for learning, which is critical in ensuring that young people can fulfil their potential.

As we take forward the expansion of early years provision and support for family learning and family engagement, I want to make sure that we address the individual needs of young people who face challenges in our education system—especially those who do so because of their background—in the way that is envisaged through the Scottish attainment challenge, which has a focus on making sure that every young person can fulfil their potential.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

In 2018 the ICEA said:

“the ICEA wishes to commend the Scottish Government for its dual focus on excellence and equity, which is now central to policy formation and policy implementation within the Scottish education system.”

Given those comments in recognition of the evidence of progress in closing the gap, can the Scottish Government emphasise the importance of keeping focus on that long-term task?

John Swinney

In my statement I made it clear that the Government would remain very firm in its focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap through the pursuit of excellence and equity within our education system. That is designed to give utter clarity of purpose to those in the education system that they will not have to deal with some change in Government policy in the foreseeable future. The Government is committed to that agenda, and the education system has responded powerfully and emphatically on it. I hope that the clarity that I have given today responds adequately on the issue that Mr Kidd has raised and gives a line of sight for our education system across the country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank all members: we have been able to get everyone’s questions in.