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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 12, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 12 January 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Inequities in Palliative Care, Education and Skills Organisations (Performance and Role), Business Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Education and Skills Organisations (Performance and Role)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S5M-03298, in the name of James Dornan, on behalf of the Education and Skills Committee, on the performance and role of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

This debate is happening today because the Education and Skills Committee was struck by the views that it received from front-line staff as part of its recent scrutiny of public bodies, in particular the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and wanted to highlight them to Parliament as a whole.

It is also an opportune moment to debate the role of the SQA, Education Scotland, the Scottish funding council and Skills Development Scotland, as they are all covered by the terms of a Government review. The Scottish funding council and Skills Development Scotland come under the enterprise and skills review, and the SQA and Education Scotland fall within the education governance review.

I start with a quick whistle-stop tour for non-committee members of how the committee sourced that valuable evidence. The committee decided that an early piece of work that it should undertake was an assessment of how well the key public organisations overseeing school education, further education, higher education and skills for young people were delivering. The ways in which we gathered views are not new, but the combination of them led to a very credible thread of issues for members to pursue.

From the off, the Education and Skills Committee made inclusivity a strategic priority in its work. To me, that means trying to make the ways in which we invite evidence as unintimidating as possible. Our focus in the public bodies work was to get candid views from front-line staff that we could use to challenge the big bodies. We wanted to ensure that there was a link between practical front-line experiences and the way in which those bodies function. In gathering views, we were aware that submitting evidence to Parliament can be very daunting. Even the language—“submitting evidence”—would, understandably, put a lot of individuals off. That barrier can sometimes prevent us from receiving the most candid, and therefore most valuable, views.

The key to our work was offering anonymity through three means: first, a survey; secondly, anonymous submissions; and thirdly, a meeting with teachers. The meeting was with a relatively random sample of teachers who were coming to Parliament for another reason, as part of our education centre’s work towards the professional development of teachers. That meeting, which I attended with my colleague Ross Greer MSP, was a valuable lesson for me. I had gone into the room with an idea of what I was going to hear, and the views of those teachers certainly rewrote my take on quite a few things.

What was stark from that meeting and from the submissions from teachers was that, especially with the promise of anonymity, there was an outpouring of views from some contributors. It has to be said that the real strength of feeling was about the functioning of the SQA. We need only read the submission from the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, for example, to get a sense of that. What was even more notable was the extent to which the views on the SQA in teacher submissions and submissions from some academics and some other stakeholders were along very similar lines.

Perhaps most notable was the survey response on the SQA. As is appropriate, the Scottish Parliament information centre survey results summary highlights the limitations of the survey. The survey did not use a random sample and therefore is not representative of the views of all teachers. A total of 646 people, including 462 teachers, chose to respond on the SQA, compared with 340 people—including 211 teachers—on Education Scotland. It is telling that more than twice as many teachers chose to respond on the SQA. In the 646 responses on the SQA, 67 per cent of respondents disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement by the SQA that its

“customers and users trust us to get it right for them”.

Even if we acknowledge the limitations of the survey results, that result is hard to ignore.

All that evidence led to a very searching evidence session with the SQA, with detailed and varied comments from teachers’ anonymous submissions adding resonance to the criticisms that committee members put to the SQA’s chief executive. That ability for the committee to act as a mouthpiece for teachers gave the SQA a clear understanding of the challenges that it faces from those in the know—the teachers themselves.

At the end of the session, I made it clear that the committee would expect changes to be made, in particular given the amount of change under way that the SQA is responsible for overseeing, for example changes resulting from the removal of unit assessments. The SQA left the meeting with the very clear message that it needs to make improvements and make them fast.

The committee heard some positive views on the SQA and the SQA highlighted to the committee the positive feedback that it has received through its own independently commissioned work, so there are of course other views out there. However, the SQA accepted the strength of the results that were generated when teachers were given the opportunity to speak freely to an independent committee.

SDS and the Scottish funding council had a positive report card from the survey—granted from a far smaller sample. SDS also reported on its progress on the delivery of the Government’s aims for modern apprenticeships; it continues to meet its overall targets in that regard. Engagement and delivery at a local level and equalities considerations in the delivery of its work were raised in written evidence and therefore were a focus of the evidence session with SDS. I am sure that other members will pick up on these issues in more detail later.

The role of the Scottish funding council was explored in its evidence session, including the importance of being able to demonstrate to key stakeholders such as universities and colleges where it is performing a challenge function to Government. The discussion about its role highlighted the need for further clarity on the exact implications of the enterprise and skills review for the funding council, given that its board will be replaced by an overarching board, as recommended by phase 1 of the review.

The committee decided, having heard that evidence, that it would be prudent to take evidence from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work on these issues. The committee then wrote to the cabinet secretary following the meeting to seek more information on which bodies had suggested the removal of the board of the Scottish funding council, to be replaced by an overarching board. As the committee stated in its letter, we are committed to testing the evidence base for that recommendation and we will undoubtedly give the phase 2 findings consideration in the spring.

The session with the fourth body, Education Scotland, included a focus on the dual role of the body, which members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s education committee have been very prominent in commenting on. Education Scotland refuted the suggestion that there is a conflict of interest and suggested that the distinct roles were clear. Since then, a number of submissions to the governance review have commented on that, so it is another likely theme for today’s debate.

Specifically on Education Scotland, there was a focus on the types and frequency of inspection that would add value to schools, as some of the survey results from teachers suggested that their school inspections had not always added a lot of value from their perspective.

I will quickly comment on some of the themes that arose in relation to the curriculum for excellence. During their separate evidence sessions, the SQA, Education Scotland and education authority representatives acknowledged that the burden on teachers had been excessive, and work is under way at the behest of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to reduce that burden. However, the committee wants to look at how that burden arose in the first place and so, having heard from those bodies, we will hear from the curriculum for excellence management board next week to establish whether everyone is clear on who is responsible for what in order to ensure strong decision taking. That will include looking back at a number of key decisions that were taken in the evolution of the curriculum for excellence and the process of implementation.

In particular, I will be interested to learn whether those who should be acting as a challenge function to ensure that the cumulative amount of information that is produced is not excessive are fulfilling that role. Local authorities, in their role as education authorities and as responsible employers, should see part of their core role as protecting the wellbeing of their workforce and ensuring that the workforce is protected from excessive working demands. Local authority representatives on the board should be well apprised of the practical experience of teachers and other staff working in education through strong lines of communication with the various education authorities that they represent.

The focus of the debate is not education authorities, but I want to highlight the importance of the role that they play in acting as a challenge function to the SQA, Education Scotland and others on the curriculum for excellence management board. In my personal view, the evidence that we received from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities gave the impression that they had not performed the challenge function that teachers would expect of them in the face of excessive guidance going to teachers. In my view, that is not acceptable.

It is also not acceptable to prevent parliamentary committees from speaking to teachers to gather their views. That was the case when one of our members sought to meet teachers local to his area. His education authority told him that he could not do that. I have every sympathy if teachers do not have time to meet members, but for an education authority to deny communication with teachers who are happy to engage is not something that the committee will accept. We have therefore written to the education authority in question for an explanation. It is fair to say that I await its response with some interest. I want to make it clear that the issue was encountered with only one education authority. Other members, including myself, undertook visits to schools in their local area to inform the committee’s work without any issues. I thank the teachers and the support staff who made those visits possible.

I hope that my broad summary of the issues that we explored with the four bodies in question gives members who are not on the committee a sense of the areas that the committee has explored. I should emphasise that we are talking about performance and role today, and our members do not plan to cover details of the future budget provision for those organisations, as that would put us in danger of veering towards budget recommendations that are not yet in the public domain.

Rather, we are looking at the key issues in the paper that was circulated for the debate, which include whether the bodies are delivering on their core functions; whether the roles of the organisations or their structures should change as a result of the education governance review or the enterprise and skills review; whether those organisations are sufficiently mindful of equalities when delivering their functions; and whether those bodies respond effectively to the needs of stakeholders and to constructive advice.

The motion for debate mentions the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, which requires a joined-up approach from back benchers to have the greatest impact. When I became convener, I had not anticipated the number of other committees that would become involved in issues that cross over into our broad remit—on my last count, it was seven other committees. Do not get me wrong—the additional scrutiny is to be welcomed but, as part of my role, I want to ensure that it is co-ordinated and that progress that is made in other committees or in other parts of the Parliament’s work is communicated to us and vice versa. For example, in follow-up work on Audit Scotland’s overview reports on universities and colleges, the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee has undertaken valuable work scrutinising the Scottish funding council.

Co-ordinating scrutiny across committees will be particularly important when looking at the proposals that stem from Government reviews, and how we do so effectively might be a matter for the Conveners Group to consider further.

Understandably, the Local Government and Communities Committee intends to look at any proposals from the education governance review that will impact on the role of local authorities in their role as education authorities and to look at any changes in the associated funding levels.

In addition, the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee took evidence at phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review, including from Skills Development Scotland, and it might look at proposals again at phase 2. The second letter that the Education and Skills Committee received from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work suggested that there would be further consultation at phase 2. Therefore, there is a further opportunity for parliamentary input, and there will be legislation to bring about the proposals that result from the education governance review and the enterprise and skills review.

I want to loop back to evidence gathering. I have placed a good deal of emphasis on the evidence from teachers, and I wish to also give my sincere thanks to those bodies and academics who have taken the time to contribute their views to the committee. It is sometimes a delicate process for organisations that have valuable working relationships with public bodies to provide constructive criticism about those bodies through a parliamentary consultation.

I specifically thank the organisations that we scrutinised, which have all been very accommodating in assisting the committee with its work. For example, a number of members, including myself, visited local SDS offices or projects in the fortnight leading up to the evidence session. The committee thanks SDS for facilitating those visits and, in particular, for tailoring each visit to the specific interests of each of our members. The Scottish funding council, Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority also arranged visits or attended informal meetings with small groups of members to give us more of a sense of their day-to-day activity. In some cases, that included the involvement of more junior staff than those who gave evidence to the committee, which provided a useful insight into the work of organisations at an operational level, as well as at a strategic level.

In future work, the committee will seek to build on its first experience of engaging the views of front-line staff, including on the education legislation arising from the governance review. Engagement with parents, children and young people will be crucial, too, so I will close with a general shout out to those who have something to say but who have a misconception that, before they can express a view, they need to wait to see what a committee focuses on in its work programme, or wait to be invited to contribute in a formal format. That is not how our committee works. If you are a young person or a parent, or you work in one of our schools, colleges, universities or in an organisation that we scrutinise, and you think that things need to change to improve the opportunities and experiences of our young people, we want to hear from you.

One of the teachers who wrote to us stated that the committee’s questioning of the SQA that was based on teacher views

“restored their faith in politicians”.

I venture that we still have a wee bit more to do to convince other people in that regard, but this piece of work is a strong start.

I thank my fellow committee members for their contribution and support, I thank my fantastic clerking team—led by the inimitable Roz Thomson, who is brilliantly supported by Ned Sharratt—and, most important, I thank teachers and others for taking the time to share their valuable experience with us.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the evidence received by the Education and Skills Committee in relation to the performance of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council, and particularly concerns raised by teachers, the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of these organisations and of the Scottish Government's Enterprise and Skills Review and Education Governance Review which, combined, will impact on the role of all of these organisations.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Now that the committee has “restored ... faith in politicians”, I call Mr Swinney to answer on behalf of the Government.

14:44  

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

I welcome this afternoon’s debate, which has been brought to the chamber by the Education and Skills Committee, on the issues that the committee convener covered in his introductory remarks. It is an opportunity for the Government to reaffirm our commitment to doing the very best that we can for children and young people in order to ensure that every one of them can fulfil their potential through their participation in the Scottish education system. That commitment is shared by Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish funding council, which all play a crucial role in delivering and improving high-quality education in Scotland.

The Education and Skills Committee has undertaken considerable scrutiny of the performance of those national agencies, as the convener explained in some detail. It has questioned them on specific criticisms that were raised through its online surveys, and it has identified issues on which it has challenged the SQA and Education Scotland in particular in relation to performance, communication and guidance.

I make it clear to the chamber that I welcome feedback from anyone who has a stake in Scottish education—indeed, I spend a great deal of my time engaged in exactly that pursuit. I will always expect the highest standards from the national bodies that are charged with improving outcomes for young people in Scotland. However, I also want to make it clear—without questioning the importance of holding those agencies to account—that I believe that they contribute a significant amount of positive benefit to the delivery of Scottish education. In the most recent survey, which was undertaken independently on behalf of the SQA and the report of which was published in January 2016, 84 per cent of respondents believed that the SQA had high credibility and 91 per cent believed that it could be trusted as an organisation.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in its assessment of the implementation of curriculum for excellence, said:

“Education Scotland has been a linchpin in providing the guidance resources and quality assurance”

for the implementation of curriculum for excellence.

As well as acknowledging the criticism that can be levelled at organisations—of course, there can be criticism—it is important that we place on record the fact that there is significant strength in those organisations that contributes towards the delivery of Scottish education and the performance that we experience in Scottish education. It is important, at the outset of this debate, that we focus on the question of what all this produces: on the impact and outcome of all this activity. I will go through a number of examples that highlight the current performance of Scottish education.

The overwhelming majority of children in our education system are performing well in school under curriculum for excellence. At least 84 per cent of pupils are achieving the expected level or better in literacy and numeracy by the end of secondary 3. The number of advanced higher passes reached a record high in 2016, while the number of higher passes was second only to the record high in 2015.

More of our population is educated beyond school than is the case in any other European country, and a higher percentage of young people now leave school for positive destinations than at any time on record. We have seen annual increases in the proportion of school leavers who are reaching at least Scottish qualifications and credit framework level 5, from 73.2 per cent in 2007-08 to 85.2 per cent in 2014-15. The gap between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived pupils who achieve that level has reduced from 36.8 percentage points in 2007-08 to 20.9 percentage points in 2014-15. While school leavers from our 10 per cent least deprived communities are around twice as likely as those from the 10 per cent most deprived communities to achieve at least one qualification at higher level or above, that is a notable improvement on the position in 2007-08 when they were almost four times as likely to do so.

The gap between those from the most deprived and those from the least deprived communities in positive follow-up school leaver destinations continues to narrow. For 2014-15, the gap was 10 percentage points—down from 20.2 percentage points in 2009-10, which is the earliest year for which comparable data exists. Finally, in 2014-15, 14 per cent of Scotland-domiciled full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities were from Scottish index of multiple deprivation 20 districts, which was up from 11.2 per cent in 2006-07.

Although there are legitimate grounds for us to consider and challenge, and to press for improvements in, performance in Scottish education, there are very strong foundations on which we are building at this time.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Is the cabinet secretary aware that Universities Scotland and a number of individual universities have questioned the efficacy of using SIMD on its own and not with other indicators? Their concern is to ensure that it is the most deprived pupils who are getting into university rather than more affluent pupils who happen to live in an SIMD postcode.

John Swinney

There might be issues that have to be considered in that regard, but we have appointed a commissioner for widening access to ensure that such issues can be thoroughly considered. However, it is important that we record on a comparative basis the progress that has been made on the important SIMD indicator and demonstrate the strength of the improvements in performance that have been achieved.

As the Government embarks on its reform agenda in education, based on very solid foundations, we have to be mindful of some of the data that we heard about prior to Christmas, which was extremely challenging data about the performance of the education system. Our reform agenda is designed to address those issues, and one of its key aspects is the review of governance, which closed last Friday. At its heart is the presumption that decisions about children’s learning and school life should be made at school level. We will look closely at the responses that we have received, and we will consider the roles of Education Scotland and the SQA, as I indicated at the outset we would do.

However, the delivery of success in Scottish education is not just down to the work of the SQA or Education Scotland; the performance of Scottish education is influenced by a range of organisations, including the Scottish Government and, most significantly, local authorities, which carry the statutory responsibility to deliver effective education for all. The purpose of the governance review is to ensure that every element of the system fulfils its role to the highest standards that we can expect. The Government will bring relevant proposals back to the Parliament in due course that are based on the outcome of the research in the governance review.

Excellent education is vital for our society; it is vital not just for our economy but, most important, for the individual life chances of every child and young person. Our education and training system must support every one of those individuals to make their contribution to our economy. The enterprise and skills review that is highlighted in the motion will help us to achieve that. I welcome the Education and Skills Committee’s scrutiny of that process and the committee’s support for the review’s ambition to take fresh action towards achieving our long-term ambition, encapsulated in Scotland’s economic strategy, to rank in the top quartile of OECD countries for productivity, equality, wellbeing and sustainability.

The focus and purpose of the enterprise and skills review is to establish how, by creating greater alignment and cohesion between the work of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish funding council, we can ensure that we take the necessary collaborative and cohesive steps to improve Scotland’s economic performance and build on the strong foundations established in our education system. As the committee convener correctly said, phase 2 of that process has commenced. The Government will be delighted to engage with Parliament and parliamentary committees on the progress of phase 2 of the review.

Together with improving the learner journey, which we will commence in due course, and the school governance reforms, that work will help to create a more seamless and focused education and skills system in Scotland that will give every young person not only the best opportunity that they can have to prosper through our education system but the greatest opportunity to make a contribution to the economic life of Scotland.

The Government welcomes this opportunity to debate and consider the role of the four agencies concerned, but I stress the significant point that education and its success are a consequence of the work and participation of a range of different organisations, not just the four organisations that we are considering in this debate. I look forward to reflecting on the debate in my concluding remarks later this afternoon.

14:54  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am grateful to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee for setting out the parameters of this debate. He was quite correct to say that we have to scrutinise the public bodies concerned and measure their respective performances against the Scottish Government’s national performance framework, including how they evaluate the quality of their delivery and manage change in terms of the Christie commission and so on.

Good-quality scrutiny is of course entirely dependent on the availability and effective analysis of evidence, and I will examine those aspects. I will do so in the light of my 10 years of attending committee meetings in this Parliament, which I believe are the most important forum for establishing the detail that members and indeed the public need to know before they make political judgments on specific issues and before policy is developed.

As the convener rightly intimated, the committee held four lengthy evidence-taking sessions. That was a result of two things. The first was the volume of the responses that we received, some of which were from an anonymous position to allow free expression, as the convener pointed out. Secondly, the Scottish Government has put such store on education that it was right and proper that there was a comprehensive and wide-ranging review. As such, it is difficult to know where to start, but I will begin with what happened in the committee sessions.

As Parliament is well aware, there were some extraordinary exchanges during the sessions in November and December, which made it all too clear that each of the four public bodies currently faces significant problems, albeit to varying degrees, and that, as such, they have in some cases lost the confidence of some key people in the education profession.

What struck me most of all was the issue of communication within and between the four public bodies. Far too often, the committee was faced with jargon instead of plain English, the irony being that this is at a time when the country is trying to improve literacy and numeracy. As such, the evidence was often muddled and open to different interpretations. At times, it was actually unintelligible and, therefore, the lines of responsibility were unclear. All those issues were matters of concern, and they are slightly different from the fact that we received conflicting views from the agencies and the professionals on the ground—something that is quite normal within the committee system.

The committee convener reflected on the strong views among teachers, and he was right to do so. That matters because, as we tried to reconcile completely contrasting views, it became increasingly apparent—through, I may say, the evidence that was provided by more than one of the agencies—that the criteria by which the evidence was being produced were not consistent, and in some cases it was incomplete. I will come back to that in a minute.

My colleagues will concentrate on specific areas of the evidence, but I want to develop some important general principles—four in particular. First, there are clearly issues about strategic decision making and the respective timescales in which that takes place. More than once, reservations have been expressed about the fact that strategic decision making is compromised by the lack of a longer-term approach. I use as an example the concerns among colleges and universities that their longer-term sustainability, which is so important to the maintenance of their competitive advantage, is threatened by the fact that the Scottish funding council appears to live from year to year rather than looking at a three-year or perhaps a five-year term. That point has been raised by Audit Scotland and it was raised at the Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee on 1 December.

Lack of effective strategy is also the main reason why there have been so many changes to policy and guidelines within the SQA and Education Scotland—the cabinet secretary recognised those changes when he announced his bid to declutter the CFE landscape. The OECD mentioned that crucial point, too, when it flagged up the long list of CFE capacities, attributes, capabilities and levels, and the 1,820 outcomes and experiences. They have all been changed and amended several times, and they have now been replaced with new ones, albeit that they are simpler and fewer in number. We should be clear that it is not the teachers who asked for those edicts, but the agencies. When we hear that the excuse for mistakes being made in exams—we have had some—is that there has been an overburden of workload, it is little wonder that that does not inspire confidence amongst teachers.

What I worry about most, and what I am sure parents are worried about, is the effective delivery of curriculum for excellence, which is the single biggest educational reform in a generation, and the impact on qualifications and on subject choice in the senior phase. Those are really serious issues and the committee is right to be concerned.

Secondly, we heard on several occasions that there are question marks over whether the agencies have sufficient resources and can deploy them properly. Colleges and universities raise the question about the Scottish funding council, asking not about the skill set of its staff but about whether there are enough staff with the skills to ensure that Scottish funding council officers have in-depth knowledge of the institutions and the outcome agreements for which they are responsible. The question is asked about the SQA when it comes to finding sufficient markers at the right time with the right knowledge for the wide diversity of qualifications that are now being sat. The question also needs to be answered by Education Scotland. How does it feel able to take on the dual role of being judge and jury as the main body that implements education policy and also inspects our schools?

On that theme, we had issues about the accuracy of data. In the session with Education Scotland, there was a complete lack of clarity when the organisation came to comment on its table that was supposed to show the number of school inspections. We were left unclear about whether the statistics included projections and, in one case, when arithmetic appeared to tell the committee that the number of inspections had fallen, there was a contorted attempt to say that it had actually risen. That is simply not acceptable and we need to do something about it radically and quickly.

A wider issue about data was picked up in committee evidence and by the OECD: namely, Scotland does not have sufficient relevant baseline data from the start of CFE and therefore is not in a position to do enough proper analysis of exactly what progress is being made.

Questions have been asked about the links between the Scottish Government and its agencies—are the latter, in fact, arms-length bodies or are they being drawn more and more into Government direction? What the management board of curriculum for excellence has been doing for the past nine years is completely unclear, and therefore there are questions about its responsibilities.

The Education and Skills Committee’s November and December meetings were an eye-opener. However, they were also deeply worrying, as the sessions collectively showed exactly why the education and skills brief is providing the Scottish Government with so many headaches.

We whole-heartedly support the work of the convener and we thank the clerks for their work.

We have an awful lot of work to do to bring the education agencies to account. They are simply not doing well enough, and that is a matter of great concern to this Parliament.

15:01  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Scotland’s education system is critical to the future of our country and vital to our young people’s ability to fulfil their potential, yet our once lauded system is falling behind on international measures. The Education and Skills Committee’s work compounds those concerns, as it found serious issues with the organisations that are responsible for our exams, inspections and curriculum. The conclusions point clearly to what we need to fix in Scotland’s education system.

I thank colleagues on the Education and Skills Committee for bringing forward this debate, and I thank the convener, James Dornan, for his thorough summary of the evidence that we looked at. I also thank the clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre for preparing the reports and the information that has been provided to us, specifically the very helpful paper that was sent to all MSPs this week. One thing that marks out the seriousness of this debate is the fact that that paper needed to ask such fundamental questions as whether our educational bodies deliver on their core functions.

I know that not every member was glued to their television screens while the committee was taking its evidence, so the questions might come as a bit of a surprise. I will read from the Official Report of the meeting at which the head of the SQA said that the negative views around qualifications were because of

“the way in which the qualifications have been designed and implemented and the way in which they have worked”.—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 46.]

When a chief executive says, “Don’t worry; the only problems are how we plan, how we operate and how everything works,” we have to conclude that something is seriously wrong.

The significance of the problems was emphasised by a survey that was conducted for the committee, which revealed a crisis of confidence in the agencies among teachers. The committee’s evidence indicates that teachers no longer have trust in the SQA or Education Scotland. Just 20 per cent of survey respondents trusted the SQA to “get it right”. Teachers pointed to unclear documentation, change fatigue and inconsistency. The majority of teachers expressed criticism of Education Scotland’s guidance and support, and more than half expressed reservations about the independence of the evaluation of education provision.

Those initial concerns were compounded by the evidence that we received from the organisations themselves. There has been a failure not only in how the organisations are interacting with teachers but to explain how the organisations are accountable, responsible and delivering what is needed.

The evidence that the committee received showed the SQA’s faults in relation to particular exams, such as the higher maths paper in 2015 and geography last year. It questioned whether, with teaching time of a single year, each exam was possible and who had responsibility for that. Neither the SQA nor Education Scotland was able to explain how the curriculum and the examination system were meant to work together, or, indeed, who was responsible for that integration.

The narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the new exam system was called into question. Moreover, Education Scotland failed to explain the fall in inspections and indeed, could not give an explanation of its independence in that role, given its other functions.

When we reel off that litany of failures by these key organisations, surely we must conclude that instead of the Government’s plans to shift power around, between schools and local authorities, what we need is reform of this part of the system and these government agencies.

The Government has not presented sufficient evidence that its plans will help to improve standards; in the words of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, it

“has not made”

the

“case”.

Moreover, Children in Scotland, which represents 500 bodies across the public, private and voluntary sectors, said that there was “virtually no evidence” to support the view that changing governance will reduce the attainment gap.

Most worrying is the respected worldwide study by the programme for international student assessment—PISA—that came out last month, which showed that after a decade of Scottish National Party stewardship of the education system, we have seen standards go backwards. Across the core measures of reading, maths and science, Scotland has gone from being one of the best to being merely or, indeed, barely average. The children in the study have spent their whole school lives in curriculum for excellence under the guidance of the SNP.

John Swinney

I am interested in Mr Johnson’s point about curriculum for excellence and the experience of young people. Am I to deduce from what he said that he is no longer a supporter of curriculum for excellence?

Daniel Johnson

No. The point is the way in which curriculum for excellence integrates with the examination system. The SQA and Education Scotland were entirely unable to explain who has taken responsibility for the core points of integration of the two elements of the junior and senior phases in senior school. Such a conclusion is highly worrying.

The OECD report published in December 2015 said that curriculum for excellence was at a “make or break moment”. Reading the report one year on, we can see how it imagined the negative scenario, saying:

“A context of criticism and cuts could lead to micro management from the centre and growing tension between government and councils.”

People will rightly ask whether the SNP is walking down that exact road of cuts and centralisation that the OECD so clearly warned us against.

At this make or break moment, surely the focus must be on Education Scotland and the SQA, the bodies responsible for making curriculum for excellence work. Given the body of evidence before us, surely we must conclude that that is where reform must lie. Where is the ambition and, indeed, the effort to—as the OECD put it—unleash curriculum for excellence’s potential?

The First Minister has said that her top priority is education, and the Deputy First Minister has come to his new role, saying that he has got the answers and that his governance review is the thing that will fix education in Scotland. Indeed, he is using the fact that Scottish education is facing the issues that have been highlighted as justification for his preferred reforms. However, these failures are the result of his party’s time in government. It is the SNP that created Education Scotland, which now cannot explain who is responsible for curriculum for excellence; it is this Scottish Government that created the exams that our teachers are struggling to make work; and it is this Administration that is overseeing these bodies, which are experiencing a catastrophic loss of trust from the teaching profession.

Before this debate, we knew the legacy of 10 years of SNP Government: 4,000 fewer teachers in our schools—

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

Will the member give way?

Daniel Johnson

No. That legacy also included 1,000 fewer support staff and Scotland’s fall from being world leading to being barely or merely average. However, today’s debate shows us that the Government is failing not just to fund education properly but to run it properly, given the dysfunction in the two main education agencies, the problems with the way our curriculum and exams work and the crisis in confidence among our teachers.

Yes, we need reform, but the SNP should look to its own record and fix the mistakes that it has made.

15:09  

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, I have great pleasure in contributing to this debate, and I want to start my contribution by paying tribute and giving thanks to the many, many teachers, assistants and various other staff who work tirelessly, day in, day out, in our schools and in the wider education system, including in some of the bodies that have been mentioned by the convener and other speakers.

Members might remember that it was in June 2014—less than three years ago—that the Office for National Statistics showed that Scotland was the most educated country in Europe. It is important to keep that in mind as we go through the debate.

As the convener has said, our scrutiny has been tough at times on witnesses and members. It is important to remember that we have the basis of a world-class education system that is renowned.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Sorry to interrupt, Mr MacGregor. Are members finding that the sound through the microphones is not so clear?

Members indicated agreement.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask the people who are responsible for the recording to do something about the microphones so that the sound is clearer.

I am sorry to stop you in your stride, Mr MacGregor, but we want to hear you properly.

Fulton MacGregor

Thanks, Presiding Officer.

On 16 November, I visited the SQA offices in Glasgow, along with my committee colleague Ross Thomson. Therefore, I think that it is fair that I use my time to talk a wee bit about the SQA, especially as it was, after all, our evidence session with the SQA that brought about this debate.

Ross Thomson and I met Janet Brown and a number of senior officials. We heard about the day-to-day work of the SQA, engagement with teachers and schools, the development of awards and how performance is generally measured. We also had the privilege of meeting some of the staff and heard about customer management, the particular difficulties on results day and how those are handled.

Further to that, we must now take into account the far-from-complimentary evidence that has been received, which the convener has talked about. Teachers have taken time to contact us with their concerns about the SQA and to raise questions about the functioning of the SQA and the pressure on teachers and the organisation, with some questioning whether the SQA is fit for purpose. However, it is worth noting that the survey size was around 400-plus out of 50,000-plus teachers. Over the past few years, we have heard a lot about the silent majority—I had not heard that term until a couple of years ago. What can we say about the 49,500 or so teachers who did not respond? Are they happy or satisfied, or do those who responded speak for all? I cannot say with any certainty, and I do not think that anyone else here can; I merely pose the question. I know that there may be colleagues in the chamber to my left and right who will think that by raising the validity of the study I am somehow not scrutinising the situation. Far from it. I have a slightly different view, in that I do not believe that when we scrutinise, we need to say that things are bad, bad—dare I say it—hashtag bad. I come at things from a different angle, believing that it is possible to scrutinise something through a positive framework. That is how I will continue to proceed—as, I believe, will my colleagues in this party and the Scottish Government.

I do not think that our teachers and other people want us to be negative all the time when we are scrutinising things. I think that Mr Johnson’s approach was particularly negative.

Liz Smith

The member makes an important point when he says that scrutiny is not always about something being bad; it is about something being good, too. However, given some of the good questions that he asked of the education agencies, he will acknowledge that the key point is that we were given muddled and confused evidence that did not allow us to carry out scrutiny effectively. Does he accept that?

Fulton MacGregor

I would like to continue and to develop my point further, and I thank the member for making that intervention. I was going on to say that the views of those who contributed must be taken into account—I do not think that anyone would deny that. I was merely putting those views into the context of how many people responded to the survey.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I would like to quote what I said to Janet Brown and the SQA during the committee’s evidence session. When I read it again, I thought that it was quite balanced. I said:

“There is no escaping the fact that the submissions ... are very damning for you—indeed, you have reflected that view ... Can you convince me and this committee that you will seek to change the nature of the relationship between the SQA and teachers? I would like to get an answer that would make me think that, when you come back next year, things will have changed. I think that you are capable of doing that. Indeed, the team whom we met last week are fantastic ... Your opening statement and your previous two responses have covered the facts, but I want to feel convinced.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 10-11.]

I hope that the improvements that we seek will be made and that we will be able to discuss them in the Parliament at some point in the future.

As members know, I have some excellent educational facilities in my constituency and I take every opportunity to praise them here during debates. Indeed, just yesterday, during an excellent members’ business debate that was secured by Liz Smith, I was pleased to be able to highlight the excellent work that is being done through the curriculum for excellence framework by four primary schools in my constituency in relation to physical activity and the daily mile. Each of those schools tweeted and commented on the debate last night.

However, as the convener mentioned, it was disappointing that North Lanarkshire Council put up significant barriers to prevent teachers from being involved in the committee process—even more so as I have good relationships with each of the schools and some of the senior staff at North Lanarkshire Council headquarters, including Isabelle Boyd, who did not seem to have any significant objections to the process.

I was not going to comment on the issue, but given that the convener mentioned it in his statement, I point out that unfortunately the decision appears to have been political in nature. As it is a local matter and given that both the convener and I have taken it up with the council leader, I will leave it at that. I believe that the council leader will not be satisfied with the way in which the situation was handled.

I will finish off where I started by thanking those involved in the system for the amazing job that they do. Education is the most important part of any society, so the commitment of the Government and the cabinet secretary to make education in Scotland the number 1 priority is important. As we have heard, the Government is committed to funding to reduce the attainment gap.

As other members have said, there is a lot of work to be done in education. Everyone in the chamber, every local authority and anyone who is involved in education, from nursery to university, should be prepared to work together, constructively and in a positive, upbeat manner, to make sure that Scotland retains its status as a world-leader in education.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We have some time in hand, so I can give members a minute or so more to accommodate interventions.

15:16  

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

On 16 November 2016, Dr John Kemp, the interim director of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, appeared before the Education and Skills Committee. He stated that the Scottish funding council’s ambition is that

“Scotland will be the best place in the world in which to educate, learn, research and innovate.”

He added that the SFC’s task is to

“care for and develop the whole system of colleges and universities, and their connections with and contribution to Scotland’s educational, social and cultural life.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 16 November 2016; c 22.]

I do not doubt it—nor do I doubt that its dedicated staff are committed to those ambitions.

However, despite its position as an arms-length non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government, there is significant concern, which has been articulated well by the National Union of Students Scotland, that the SFC must not

“simply implement Ministerial guidance”

but should be

“more than a vehicle through which funding is delivered”.

The line between ministers and the SFC is becoming increasingly blurred. What is more, the people at the SFC and those who are in charge of our higher education system are aware that the public and our education professionals are losing confidence in how education is being managed in our country.

One of the major initiatives of the SNP Government in further education has been the creation, through mergers, of regional colleges. To say that the reaction has been mixed—not least in the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee meetings—would be to put it mildly. In November 2015, the Educational Institute of Scotland published a survey of college lecturers, in which it had found that 89 per cent did not believe that their merger had improved learning and teaching quality, 91 per cent did not believe that their merger had improved management of their college and 94 per cent did not believe that their merger had improved staff morale.

Gillian Martin

Will the member take an intervention?

Liam Kerr

I will not, because it is important that members hear this. If Gillian Martin wants to write to me afterwards, I undertake to respond.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am afraid that that is rather pompous, but go for it. [Laughter.]

Liam Kerr

I want to make sure that I get all my words in, Deputy Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would give you an extra minute if you were to take an intervention, but it is up to you.

Liam Kerr

Oh, go on, then. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was not very graciously put—but there you are, Ms Martin.

Gillian Martin

I am grateful to Liam Kerr for allowing me to make this intervention. He will know that I used to work in one of the colleges that he is talking about. He is a member for North East Scotland: has he visited North East Scotland College and asked the board or any of the staff directly about the merger in our area?

Liam Kerr

I thank Gillian Martin for her intervention and I thank the Deputy Presiding Officer for allowing me the opportunity to say, “Yes—I have”.

The Government and the SFC point to savings of £50 million, but Audit Scotland’s report from August 2016, “Scotland’s colleges 2016”, which was scrutinised at the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, says that the savings

“arise mainly from a real-terms reduction in funding to the sector as a whole and not just merged colleges.”

Audit Scotland says that it remains

“unclear how much of these savings are as a direct result of college mergers”.

The same report also raises serious concerns about the SFC policy of cutting funding for part-time courses. Audit Scotland states that that has led to a decrease of 53 per cent in female part-time student numbers. It is that level of parliamentary scrutiny and openness that is mandated if Parliament and the people of Scotland are to have confidence in the system.

John Swinney

Will Liam Kerr give way?

Liam Kerr

I would rather not, thank you, cabinet secretary.

Universities Scotland put it well when it said that the SFC should be an independent

“expert body at arms’ length from government that can develop detailed policy on how to support the ... sector’s success within broad overall strategic guidance from government.”

However, as Dr Kemp told Johann Lamont:

“When we speak to ministers, we speak to them in private, because that is the ... way to give advice.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 16 November 2016; c 23.]

Are private discussions really how an arms-length organisation should operate? As Liz Smith pointed out at the same meeting, Audit Scotland is increasingly of the view that the SFC’s long-term strategy lacks transparency and sufficient scrutiny.

That leads neatly on to the motion’s focus on the Scottish Government’s enterprise and skills review. So many organisations, individuals and MSPs find the proposals that are outlined in phase 1 of that review concerning, particularly in relation to the

“creation of a new super-board”.

The Government proposes that it will

“create a new Scotland-wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of HIE and SE, including SDI, SDS and the SFC.”

The proposal will possibly—or probably, with a minister in the chair—make the SFC more political. There will be another arm of Government accountable to Government ministers. That will have a detrimental impact on the vital academic independence of our universities and higher education establishments.

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Will Liam Kerr give way on that point?

Liam Kerr

No, I will not.

In November 2016, Universities Scotland rightly said that we need to make sure that

“universities are independent actors—that we are working in partnership with government, but we are still working as autonomous charities, that we are another force of initiative in society and not being brought in to a directive relationship from government.”

What of the impact of a new superboard? The Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee was concerned to hear from Alastair Sim that

“the more we come into the sphere of influence of and direction from Government, the higher the risk of being reclassified”—

for Office for National Statistics purposes—

“which means that we cannot earn entrepreneurial income or hold reserves”.—[Official Report, Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, 1 December 2016; c 21.]

That aside, what would be the impact of being under the governance of a superboard that has as its remit enterprise and skills rather than the full range of further and higher education institutions’ missions?

In summary, further education and higher education are under immense strain. Audit Scotland has expressed concern that the SFC’s relationship with Government lacks transparency. The Education and Skills Committee is concerned that decisions on the funding and future of our educational establishments are too often taken in private. The merging of colleges has led to a slashing of part-time courses, which is having a detrimental impact on female students—

Gillian Martin

Will Liam Kerr take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member is in his last minute.

Liam Kerr

It remains unclear to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee and to Audit Scotland whether the apparent £50 million of savings that were promised as a result of mergers have been achieved because of the mergers or simply through budget cuts.

Perhaps most troubling to anyone who believes in open and transparent governance and to those who cherish the independence of academia are the blurring of the line between the arms-length SFC and the Government and the possibility that the independence of our institutions may be put at risk through the proposals in the enterprise and skills review.

15:23  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am an elected member of South Lanarkshire Council.

I am pleased that Parliament is getting the chance to give closer scrutiny to the important evidence that the Education and Skills Committee has gathered, during its pre-budget scrutiny sessions, from the SQA, Education Scotland, SDS and the Scottish funding council.

Some of the evidence that has been given to the committee during recent meetings is troubling. Concerns over the SQA’s effectiveness, alongside concerns about the role of Education Scotland and the funding council, are deeply worrying. It is imperative that Parliament takes them seriously.

The education system faces significant challenges, which is borne out by the spate of damning statistics that have been released over the past few months. When our Education and Skills Committee is now also exploring key issues that question the very core functions of the key education bodies that deliver and regulate the education system, it seems to me to be clear that there are serious challenges that must be addressed.

Last month’s damning PISA statistics tell us that after a decade of this Administration we have seen Scottish education go backwards, with falling standards in reading, mathematics and science, while the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and pupils from the most deprived backgrounds persists. Meanwhile, we have 4,000 fewer teachers than we had when the SNP came to power. The number of pupils with identified additional support needs has substantially increased, but the number of additional support needs teachers fell by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2015, according to the Scottish Government’s statistics.

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

Because the argument has been well rehearsed in the chamber, Monica Lennon will know that although additional support needs teachers are trained to deal with pupils with, for example, autism or dyslexia, the definition of additional support needs was expanded to include, for example, periods of bereavement and other short-term needs that require support above and beyond that which is normally delivered in the school setting. Therefore, the two are not necessarily directly analogous.

Monica Lennon

The fact remains that we now have more information about the needs of children, but there has been a decline in support. The children’s charities are telling Parliament and the Government that they fear that there will be a lost generation when it comes to opportunities for young people with additional support needs. I hope that we can continue to debate that.

Christina McKelvie (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)

Will Monica Lennon give way on that point?

Monica Lennon

I will make some progress, if I may. [Interruption.] I will make way for Christina McKelvie.

Christina McKelvie

Will Councillor Lennon tell us how many special educational needs teachers were sacked by South Lanarkshire Council last year?

Monica Lennon

Christina McKelvie needs to reflect on the comment that she made. I have never heard her raise any concerns about the budget pressures that South Lanarkshire Council faces. In fact, we hear from SNP members that councils are receiving fair settlements but what is happening in local government and their communities is not at all fair. Christina McKelvie can, perhaps, clarify her position at another opportunity.

The cutting of resources means that hard-working teachers are forced to pick up extra workload, which puts the sector under ever-increasing strain and means that the educational experience of our young people ultimately suffers.

The teacher submissions to the committee regarding the SQA show beyond doubt that the authority and the Government have lost the full confidence of teachers. When teachers express their experience of the SQA as being that it is—to quote some of the submissions—“entirely negative”, “hugely inconsistent” and “not fit for purpose”, it is clear that there is a serious problem, although others may choose to ignore that.

Rather than addressing those real problems, the Scottish Government and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills are, I fear, looking in the wrong place for solutions to the challenges. The school governance review puts the emphasis on reforming where power lies in relation to schools, in a misguided attempt to restructure local government responsibility for education that only risks creating yet more layers of bureaucracy and confusion for parents and pupils, and will do little to affect outcomes. Our education system needs more resources. That means more teachers and more support staff so that our children have the support that they need to succeed. That means using the Parliament’s powers to invest in our schools and protect education budgets, not rushing into wrong-headed reforms.

The Government should listen to the experts about its education governance review. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council is right to have expressed concern about how accessible the consultation was to parents. It is telling that the majority of respondents skipped the questions about the governance review. That highlights where parents’ real priorities lie and should be a signal to the Government that it is focusing its attention in the wrong place.

As Daniel Johnson said, Children in Scotland is among the latest organisations to have questioned the plans this week by expressing concern that the current proposals for governance reform will have virtually zero impact on educational attainment. The view of parents, teachers and education professionals across the sector is clear: lack of proper resource, not school governance, is where the problem lies.

It is concerning and, perhaps, telling that there is a common thread of critique from teachers and parents across the education system about miscommunication and complex, inaccessible information, whether that relates to experiences of dealing with SQA documentation or attempting to access the governance review. We must remember that the most important thing about the debate is that we improve outcomes for our children. We can all agree on that, even though we may disagree on the best way to go about it.

Behind the statistics on cuts to staff numbers, cuts to support staff and falling attainment are the individual experiences of teachers who are under pressure and pupils who are not getting the experiences that they deserve or the support that they need to fulfil their potential.

To close the attainment gap and tackle inequality, I believe that we need to take a broad view of what support our education system can offer to pupils. A fully rounded education has to be about more than just attainment, important though it is. It must also be about ensuring that our children have a rounded experience and that their health and emotional wellbeing are considered. The provision of counsellors in every school would be a huge step in the right direction.

I believe that we must take a whole-system view with regard to improving the educational experience of our young people, and that that should be included in any considerations of what the roles and functions of our education bodies are, or should be.

15:30  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I would like to raise two key issues that have arisen out of the Education and Skills Committee’s scrutiny of the education and enterprise agencies: the proposed new superboard that would replace the boards of the Scottish funding council, Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and the performance of the SQA and the breakdown in teachers’ trust in the authority. I am disappointed that the Scottish Government has insisted on pushing ahead with its centralisation agenda, despite the concerns that have been expressed across the political spectrum, by local authorities, by our partners in education and by experts including the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The Government has insisted that the review of enterprise and skills is premised on evidence and focused on a step change, but the proposed new superboard meets neither of those principles. The Education and Skills Committee has been acutely aware of the fact that there is little evidence to support the idea of a new superboard replacing the existing boards for the education and enterprises agencies. When we asked Keith Brown to produce such evidence, he highlighted four submissions out of the more than 300 responses that we received to our call for evidence. On inspection, it turns out that those submissions do not actually call for the existing boards to be abolished. They call for clarity and consistency in the direction of Scotland’s economic strategy—I am sure that we all share that concern—and they highlight the potential for a Scotland-wide strategic board, but they do not call for the existing boards to be abolished.

In the case of the Scottish funding council, the fact that the board of the funding council is the funding council has been the subject of much discussion by the committee. It appears that the cabinet secretary has been rather liberal in his interpretation of the evidence that has been provided, in that he has interpreted legitimate concerns about the complexity of the existing structures as an endorsement of the Scottish National Party’s push for centralisation and closer Government control.

The evidence—to me, at least—seems to suggest the opposite; it seems to suggest that there are concerns and opposition to the Government’s superboard plans. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, the University and College Union, the NUS and Universities Scotland have all raised concerns about the independence of the Scottish funding council following the creation of a superboard. The proposed superboard also goes beyond the step-change remit of the governance review.

The Government has so far refused to rule out the new board being chaired by a minister. Such a step would significantly enhance Government control over the agencies in question and would potentially end their status as arm’s-length bodies. It would also severely endanger the independence of Scotland’s universities, which is absolutely vital to their world-class competitiveness and their ability to attract funding.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I reassure Ross Greer and Liam Kerr—who did not give me the opportunity to do so earlier—that the Government will do nothing to jeopardise the independence of the higher education institutions or, indeed, to risk their reclassification by the ONS. We are categorical about that, and we have said so to Universities Scotland.

Ross Greer

The minister raises an issue that I am just about to come to. The Government seems to have reached a conclusion and will now assess how it can make that conclusion work, despite the fact that it has not assessed what the effects will be.

In their appearances before the committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills were unable to provide anything approaching evidence of the effect that the superboard proposal could have on, for example, research funding. There is significant concern about the risk of higher education institutions being reclassified as public bodies, as the minister mentioned.

I have been left with the distinct impression that regardless of the conclusions, which I feel are misguided, the process has been flawed in the extreme. It seems that the Government has reached a conclusion—one that I expect it would have reached regardless of what evidence was submitted—and has decided unequivocally to press ahead with that conclusion, and will only now assess what the impact is. In phase 1 a conclusion was reached, and in phase 2 the Government is going to assess what its impact will be. That is not the right way to proceed; it is not evidence-based policy making. It is not acceptable.

There are further concerns about the suitability of a superboard that would, according to the Government, be tasked with bringing

“greater integration and focus to the delivery of ... enterprise and skills”

and would oversee further and higher education funding. Scotland’s colleges and universities are certainly important for the skills of the nation, but they are also much more than that, and the agencies that are involved in the proposals have remits that go far beyond enterprise and skills.

Education and research is a goal in itself. The freedom to pursue lines of inquiry even where they do not appear to contribute directly to economic development is absolutely vital to the freedom of our universities. None of us questions that. Many of humanity’s greatest discoveries have occurred quite by accident—for example, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident during his research at St Mary’s hospital. Our funding for colleges and universities cannot be dictated, diluted by or have its focus taken away by a focus on enterprise and skills goals. I ask for assurances from the cabinet secretary that he will rethink the Government’s proposals to abolish the existing boards and at the very least ensure some level of independence for our universities by guaranteeing that any new superboard will not be chaired by a minister.

In the Education and Skills Committee’s scrutiny of the education agencies, it has become increasingly apparent that an alarming breakdown in trust has occurred between the SQA and the teachers whom it works with, and that, crucially, the SQA does not seem to recognise that breakdown in trust. The development of new qualifications under the curriculum for excellence has contributed to unsustainable workloads and a lack of clarity for both teachers and pupils. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary recognises that and has worked towards workload reduction, but we have seen that there are issues. Exam scripts that have contained significant errors have been used—we have discussed them in Parliament—and there has been a significant variation in the quality of the marking of some exams.

It is apparent that teachers do not always feel comfortable about openly raising and discussing the problems that face the SQA and implementation of the curriculum for excellence. The convener of the committee mentioned the value of the anonymous submissions that we received. The fact that we received so many submissions with such consistency from so many teachers was informative and deeply alarming, as was the discussion that the convener and I hosted in the Parliament with a group of primary and secondary teachers. The evidence is unlike any other evidence that I have seen in my short time in Parliament.

We need to consider how to improve oversight of the SQA and repair the trust of teachers. The Scottish Government should consider the proposals that the EIS has made for greater teacher representation, including on the boards of education agencies, and particularly the SQA.

Scottish education is world-renowned. However, we know that although staff and students put in incredible effort, something is not working, at present. In reviewing the four agencies, the committee has uncovered a number of areas in which clear improvements can be made and in which the Scottish Government’s current efforts are perhaps misguided. I hope that the Government will carefully consider them.

15:37  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

On Ross Greer’s central point about evidence, it strikes me that there is a slight disconnect between the argument that there is no evidence for the proposal to have a superboard and abolish the other boards—I am talking not about the principle that the cabinet secretary outlined but about the argument that Ross Greer made—and the argument that people have made that there is something slightly wrong with the number of representations that the Education and Skills Committee received from teachers, which raises the question whether that evidence really reflects teachers’ views and concerns about the SQA and some of our other bodies. We cannot have it both ways. There has been evidence to the committee, whereas evidence failed to be presented for the superboard. I want the Government to at least reflect on that in the phase 2 considerations, as it has not taken Parliament with it on the proposal.

I will address a slightly wider issue, but I first apologise to members for having to leave early. The weather is such that I am going to try to catch an early flight to Sumburgh, although snow may stop that.

I thank James Dornan for the careful and, indeed, cheerful way in which he convenes the Education and Skills Committee. That is not an easy task, given the varied quality of its members—I very much include myself in that.

I will address a point that the cabinet secretary made in his opening remarks. He was right that teachers are at the core of the debate; that, as Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson also said, our biggest educational challenge is implementing curriculum for excellence; and that we as a committee have established that there is concern—one’s views about the level of that concern are open to interpretation—about how curriculum for excellence has been implemented and, crucially, about the role of the curriculum for excellence management board, which includes the SQA, Education Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities and which is chaired by the Government.

As the convener said, we will take further evidence on that in due course, but any objective assessment of the evidence that we already have, by the Government or any outside body, would have to say that something has not worked; otherwise, the Royal Society of Edinburgh would not have said in its briefing for today’s debate:

“In our view, coherent strategic leadership, especially at an educational professional level, has been virtually non-existent, and implementation of CfE has suffered profoundly from inadequate attention having been given to how change should be managed.”

Maybe the royal society is overdoing it but, even if it is half right or a quarter right, that is a profound finding about what has been going on in the past nine years. The Government must reflect on that in the review that is under way.

The cabinet secretary rightly set out some changes that have taken place in relation to Scottish education and performance, but he also has to reflect on the PISA findings, as he did, and on the new focus—it is new—on literacy and numeracy by him and his Government. They are right to do that but, if nothing else, that is an admission that not all has been well and that the implementation of curriculum for excellence has not gone as it should. That means that we need to ask some fundamental questions, in particular about Education Scotland and its structure.

The OECD report that the cabinet secretary cited said some fairly damning things about Education Scotland in relation to the implementation of curriculum for excellence. At page 45, the report talked about the comprehensibility of curriculum for excellence. At page 77, it described the “scattergun approach” to strategic planning, and on page 109 it cited the need for “simplifying the simplification process”, if that is not an oxymoron.

There are fundamental questions about Education Scotland’s effectiveness. A study of the employees’ views of the organisation has recently been published. The most damning point in it is on Education Scotland’s woeful performance in the key category of managing change, which is what the process has been all about. In 2016, only 11 per cent of Education Scotland’s employees thought that change was well managed by Education Scotland. If the education secretary or a local authority leader were to find a school with such results, the demand for change would be clear. The headteacher would probably be looking for a new position, or there would certainly be lots of continuous professional development and so on.

I suggest to the cabinet secretary and his colleagues that we cannot ignore the reality of what has happened and the need for change. The change that I advocate is simple. I strongly believe that Education Scotland should be split to reflect its two functions. The inspection of not just schools but other parts of the education regime is a profoundly different function from giving policy guidance to ministers, which Education Scotland must do. I say to Liam Kerr that some of that guidance must be private. I take his point, but Education Scotland should brief any cabinet secretary in private. That is a very different function from conducting the inspection regime and, if I may be so bold, I point out that the two are quite separate.

My committee colleagues have provided a range of evidence on the SQA. It seems to me that the challenge function and the scrutiny of how the SQA has co-ordinated its activities on exams, their design and the assessment process with Education Scotland and the other bodies that are involved in the management board have not worked. It is difficult not to come to that conclusion in the first instance. I hope that the Government will reflect on that and find a way in which the management board can start not to bring the organisations round the table—by definition, it has been doing that—but to get them to concentrate on what needs to happen to make the lives of our teachers much more straightforward and their ability to teach successfully much more powerful.

My final point is on the Scottish funding council. Ross Greer, Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson among others have made the case for leaving that organisation well alone. I believe the Government when it says that it does not want to interfere with the independence of higher education institutions or the university sector more broadly, but it should therefore do the sensible and logical thing based on that position, which is to leave the board alone. Alice Brown and her board provide the required challenge function to the chief executive and the executive team. That should stay that way, and I urge the Government to ensure that that is exactly what happens.

15:44  

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

The profession with responsibility for our country’s teaching and learning is one of the best and most important professions out there. Teaching is the career that I previously chose—I was a college lecturer—as did my husband, who is a secondary school teacher. I know how hard those on the ground worked over the years to implement the curriculum for excellence; if I forget, my husband will surely remind me. The cabinet secretary rightly points out that the curriculum for excellence is a collaborative enterprise between teachers, local authorities and all the various agencies.

I say honestly that scrutiny of our education system from the confines of a committee room in Parliament has been a challenge for me, particularly given my knowledge of the tremendous work that is going on in the schools and colleges that I know from personal experience. I am always mindful of that when levelling any criticism.

I found it quite distressing at First Minister’s question time today to hear Willie Rennie say that our schools are failing, particularly when pupils and teachers from Balwearie high school in Kirkcaldy—one of the top-performing schools in Scotland—were sitting in the public gallery. Our schools are not failing. We should never lump the whole school system in with any comments on individual agencies, although those comments are absolutely valid. Anyone who says that our schools are failing should think about how that is received out there in our schools. I got a text later from a friend who is a teacher, who was watching FMQs in their lunch hour, which said, “Cheers, Willie.” How does what was said make them feel?

An education system must always be in development to apply to changing times. That is why we must always reach out to practitioners to see where the system can be improved. It is noted that we are just at the end of the first whole cycle of the new system. My son left sixth year last year and is a living and breathing product of the first cycle of curriculum for excellence. The curriculum has worked well for him. The whole person, broad curricular approach allowed my son—who I do not think would mind me saying is not particularly academic in the traditional, bookish sense but is driven in other ways—to find out what he is good at. It equipped him with skills that I see him using at his college—I mention to Mr Kerr that it is a top-performing Scottish college. This might be a good point for Mr Kerr to intervene on me and give me more detail on the conversations that he has had with my former colleagues on what they think about the merger process. No? Okay.

My son’s experience, if I can use it as an example, does not equate with the bad press that the education system has had in the past couple of months. In fact, let us put that bad press into perspective. More school leavers are reaching positive destinations than ever before. Higher pass rates last year were very high, and college and university application numbers are at an all-time high. This week, we heard from the Institute for Public Policy Research that youth unemployment is at its lowest level since 2001 and has been consistently lower than the overall United Kingdom unemployment rate. The cabinet secretary outlined an awful lot more.

Modern apprenticeships are providing positive destinations all over Scotland and industry is getting more involved in learning. Colleges are, rightly, focusing on courses that lead to employment. Let us nail the part-time course thing once and for all—although I doubt that I will be able to, because I feel that I am on my feet defending it every single week. I will not accept the well-worn line from Opposition members that the level of part-time courses is to the detriment of people’s education. We now have more people going into work as a result of their experiences in colleges.

The work of SDS on early intervention to identify pupils who might not reach a positive destination is crucial, as is a refocusing on achievement that is not just aligned with academia. If we recognise the diversity of skills that children have an aptitude for and which have career opportunities, that will benefit our society and economy as a whole.

I note that some chambers of commerce and economic development agencies have urged SDS to be more mindful of diversity and to adapt to local needs, particularly in rural areas. The report from the commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce cited gender stereotyping as an issue and wanted improvements in the involvement of black and minority ethnic, disabled and care-leaving young people in modern apprenticeships. At the Education and Skills Committee on 9 November 2016, I highlighted to SDS the issue of involving more small and medium-sized businesses in modern apprenticeships, which is a concern that has been raised with me.

It is true that, in reaching out to stakeholders, we have seen issues with the education agencies consistently raised. Teachers pointed to things that hindered rather than helped them. The SQA is still struggling to rein in the copious amounts of guidance materials, which we were told were often impenetrable and used confusing and contradictory language. Serious instances of a lack of consistency between the curriculum guidance and exam papers are well documented and are simply unacceptable.

The inspections system at Education Scotland also came in for criticism. Teachers told us of the stress and pointlessness of working during evenings and weekends to print evidence and documents for the inspection. Education Scotland assured us that it is working hard to change inspections. My exchange with Alastair Delaney of Education Scotland on 30 November 2016 outlines the commitments that Education Scotland has made on that.

I have seen evidence of such work by Education Scotland. I recently visited a primary school in my constituency that did not do well in a stressful inspection years ago, which meant that staff morale had been low. It was recently reinspected and the headteacher told me that that inspection was an entirely new experience for the school—a positive experience. It focused on support rather than judgment; on teaching and learning rather than paperwork; and on professional development and ideas rather than box ticking. I congratulate Newburgh Mathers primary on how it has turned its inspection report into one that it can justly be very proud of. However, the inspection culture change is not complete, as is evident from responses to our committee consultation.

The implementation and development of a curriculum is a work in progress. The committee has identified where more work is urgently required, and the agencies that have appeared in front of the committee have been left in no doubt as to where our correspondents think that their attention should be focused.

15:51  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I welcome the debate and thank the convener of the Education and Skills Committee for bringing it to the chamber. I am not a member of the committee; I come as a local councillor and as a parent. I waded through the different reports over the past couple of evenings with an interest in seeing where we are, particularly in regard to Education Scotland.

I am sure that most members, as they woke up with a clear head on 1 January, reviewed the previous year and then looked forward to making resolutions for the year ahead. The same could be said as we start a new year in relation to looking at Education Scotland. This is a good time to review its function and operation to see what is working and what needs to change.

The first function of Education Scotland is to develop policy, but it is interesting that teachers gave evidence to the committee that it is failing in that role; teachers are confused and do not understand what is put before them. When evidence was being taken by the committee, there were 20,000 pages on the Education Scotland website. How is a local primary or secondary school teacher with a busy life meant to find information?

I accept that the number of pages has been reduced, but we have to ask how we got to that situation in the first place. Who allowed that? Who was monitoring and scrutinising the situation so that they could see that it was not acceptable?

If Education Scotland failed to develop policy, it certainly failed to do quality assurance. It is there to scrutinise what is going on, and that brings us to a very interesting question that we all have to look at as politicians. Is Education Scotland there fundamentally to help and support teachers or is it there as an arm of the Scottish Government?

The Scottish Government might be clear on that, but I do not think that teachers and others who gave evidence to the committee are. It is difficult to be judge and jury. I would love to have gone to university, sat my paper and then marked it myself, but that would have been unacceptable—yet that is what we ask Education Scotland to do.

John Swinney

That gets to the nub of one of the key points, because that is precisely not what Education Scotland is asked to do. Education Scotland supports the development and delivery of policy in communities, but it then inspects the delivery by schools of that policy. It does not judge itself and is not judge and jury of itself; it judges the implementation of agreed policy by individual schools to help to drive improvement in education. That is the fundamental error that is at the heart of Mr Balfour’s argument.

Jeremy Balfour

That might well be the cabinet secretary’s understanding, but it is not what came out in the evidence. If that is the case, why is Scotland one of only four countries in the world to have such a system? Almost every other country has two bodies to do the two separate functions. Why do we not have that system?

Another issue that is important to raise is the decline in inspections. Whatever the figures are—I admit that, in the end, I gave up trying to work out the exact numbers—it is clear that there are fewer inspections in our schools today than in 2010.

Gillian Martin

That does not necessarily correlate. If there are fewer inspections, the quality of inspections actually improves. We do not have to have lots of inspections—in fact, they are very time consuming for teachers to undertake.

Jeremy Balfour

I accept Gillian Martin’s point, but my point is that, if there are fewer inspections, fewer children and parents know whether their schools are acceptable. I totally accept that that does not deal with inspection quality—that is a separate issue—but fewer schools are inspected now, so people who live in a certain area will not know how schools there are doing.

I would have thought that, as the curriculum for excellence has been implemented across Scotland during the past years, there would be more, not less, need for inspection. However, as far as I can see, no evaluation of the curriculum for excellence is going on. Before anybody from the Government benches jumps up, I say that we are not against the curriculum for excellence.

John Swinney

Mr Balfour has been extremely generous in taking interventions and I am conscious that I am popping up from the Government benches. The Government invited the OECD to evaluate the curriculum for excellence. That has been done and we could not have been more open about that.

Jeremy Balfour

However, that is not the baseline. What has come out of that and the PISA results is that we do not have a good system at the moment, yet nothing is being done about it.

The final issue is subject choice. A number of parents, particularly from Edinburgh and the Lothians, have contacted me about that. They feel that their children are being pushed too early down paths that they do not want to go down. There is a lack of subject choice and, depending on the school and the region that they live in, people are not being allowed to do subjects that they want to study. If we are not careful, we will end up with a lottery that depends not only on regions but on catchment areas in cities, towns, villages or other areas.

My time has gone, so I cannot answer the many questions that I have asked. We need to come to those questions not just so that we can scrutinise Government agencies and fill up two or three hours of parliamentary time. Far more important than that is the fact that, if we do not get it right for parents, pupils and teachers, we will be failing not only a generation but Scotland in the 21st century. My fear is that Education Scotland is not doing what it should be doing.

15:59  

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

As a member of the Education and Culture Committee in the previous parliamentary session and of the Education and Skills Committee in this session, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the motion today.

As members will have noted from the motion and from the convener’s opening speech, part of the committee’s recent remit has been a focus on scrutiny and evidence gathering on the roles of four national organisations: the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish funding council. The committee secured answers to the following questions. Are the core functions of those bodies correct or are there alternative approaches? Are the bodies delivering on those core functions? Should the roles or structures of the organisations change as a result of the governance review or the enterprise and skills review? Can the organisations demonstrate their performance, reflecting the best use of taxpayers’ money? Are they sufficiently mindful of equalities in delivering their functions? Are they sufficiently independent of Government, acting as a sufficient advisory and challenge function to Government? Do they respond effectively to the needs of stakeholders and to constructive advice?

It is clear to me—and, I hope, to my colleagues—that the process was both rigorous and effective in identifying the present situation in each organisation. In particular, the process allowed a wide range of stakeholders to express their opinions. To allow for a maximum range of opinion, the evidence gathering took a variety of forms. The online surveys that ran from 2 October to 1 November provided a total of 1,171 responses from teachers and lecturers through to parents and pupils. Those surveys were widely disseminated through social media as well as through the Parliament’s education services newsletter, which is widely read by teachers, and they were sent to political correspondents at major Scottish media and educational establishments. The success of those methods is evidenced by the substantial range and number of responses.

Evidence was also gathered in person when the committee held an informal meeting with teachers. To build on that evidence, committee members individually arranged to visit a local educational establishment to speak directly with stakeholders. I visited Newbattle high school in Dalkeith. I was keen to canvass the thoughts of the teachers at Newbattle, as the school is located in a catchment area that covers three of the most socially deprived areas in Scotland. Around 69 per cent of pupils at the school are sourced from areas of multiple deprivation. The staff and teachers at Newbattle high do incredibly well under those circumstances and, in meeting them, I was able to understand at first hand whether our local and national institutions are providing the required amount of support and guidance and to feed that back directly to the Education and Skills Committee.

To return to the surveys, they included questions that were designed to reflect how each organisation contributed to a range of the Scottish Government’s national outcomes. While some of the surveys had fewer participants than others—there were 646 respondents to the SQA survey in comparison with 83 respondents to the colleges and universities survey—the responses were enlightening, and they revealed clear mismatches in understanding in respect of the work of each organisation.

On the national outcome that states,

“Our young people are more successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens”,

colleges and universities were thought to make a valuable contribution, with almost half of respondents saying that they contributed “a great deal”. The modern apprenticeship scheme was also valued, with roughly a third of respondents rating its contribution similarly. Conversely, Education Scotland was highlighted as an organisation that did not contribute as well to the national outcomes that were listed in the survey. In the case of the above outcome, 62 per cent of respondents felt that Education Scotland’s guidance and support contributed either “a little” or “not at all”, while 63 per cent responded with similar answers for Education Scotland’s inspections. Those responses were broadly similar to those for Education Scotland regarding the second national outcome in the survey, which states:

“We are better educated, more skilled and more successful, renowned for our research and innovation”.

The surveys and the evidence that was gathered shed light on a range of issues surrounding the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Generally, participants were on the fence in responding to the above queries on outcomes, but more than two thirds of respondents disagreed with the SQA’s values statement that

“Our customers and users trust us to get it right for them”.

The differences between how the SQA perceives itself and how its work is regarded by end users is clearly an issue, even though the SQA is a valued organisation. Almost three quarters of survey participants agreed that SQA qualifications

“enable learners to access and progress within further and higher education”.

The survey picked up a variety of issues with the SQA, including the fact that its documentation is unclear; its assessment standards are not well understood; marking is inconsistent; and—to put it simply—there are too many changes. The anonymous submissions included the following comments:

“SQA has not been able to communicate information in a clear concise manner”;

“There have been so many mistakes ... that we no longer trust anything that comes from them”;

“SQA has lost the respect and trust of Scottish teachers”;

and, perhaps most pertinently,

“I cannot communicate strongly enough how discouraging it is to see keen, talented, hardworking pupils walk away from my subject with a C when they deserved an A or decide not to continue with art because they cannot deal with the physical workload.”

Those opinions were reinforced by others that I heard in my discussions at Newbattle high school, with teachers stating that qualifications and assessments had been dictating the curriculum in recent years and, in particular, what teachers concentrated on delivering in the classroom to get the pupils through examinations.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Can you close, please, Mr Beattie?

Colin Beattie

I thank all respondents for their participation and the committee clerks for their hard work. I look forward to being part of the next steps that the committee takes on the issue and seeing how that work informs the roles of other committees.

16:05  

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I am not a member of the Education and Skills Committee, so I have not been privy to all its evidence sessions. However, I will offer my reflections on an issue that is close to my heart, and I thank the committee for the important scrutiny that it is undertaking.

When I was listening to the opening speeches by the committee convener, Mr Swinney, Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson, I was extremely worried to hear about the confusion and lack of confidence in our key education agencies. We should all legitimately be very concerned about that, because we do not have to look that far back to remember a time when the SQA was seen as a real hallmark in Scotland and a benchmarking institution with rigorous standards—I like to think that it was so when I passed my highers, but I think that the SQA was generally thought of in that light.

The SQA has not been without its problems since devolution, under different Governments, but the lack of confidence in the SQA among teachers that the convener outlined earlier in the debate is of concern to me and—I think—every member of the Parliament and to parents across the country. Of more acute concern to me, however, is how that is contributing to education in every school in this country and to the performance generally of education, which is the lifeline for opportunities in our communities.

It was with great sadness and a bit of despair that I read the PISA results at the end of last year, and the statistics released by the Scottish Government on 13 December caused me and many colleagues further grave concern and confusion. I will make two points on that. Liz Smith outlined concerns about the rigour of data, and I think that she was referring to Education Scotland and the SQA. I was confused and perplexed by the data that was released on 13 December, as I think many colleagues, journalists and other people were, and I will give an example to illustrate that. The data showed that 20 to 30 per cent of pupils at Fintry primary school in Dundee achieved the expected levels of writing at primary school but that, by the time they reached secondary school, their writing achievement levels had shot up to 90 per cent. Even council officials in Dundee have indicated to me that those statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt, which leads me to question the efficacy of that work and ask how, if it is just an experiment, it will improve.

Of graver concern to me than the bare statistics, however, is that they are another clear indicator that our education system is struggling more than it used to. The PISA and 13 December statistics represent a trend in the wrong direction. The more statistics we have monitoring that trend, the less we can ignore it or be complacent.

On 13 December, I was reflecting on those statistics and my mind wound back to a discussion that I took part in at the University of Dundee during the Scottish referendum campaign. I hope to be excused for making a political point in this committee debate, but I said during that referendum debate that we should be concentrating our political energies on domestic concerns such as education, because education in Scotland was not as good as it used to be. Shona Robison immediately dismissed my concerns as talking Scotland down, but I note now that this stuff has come home to roost and that, especially since the publication of the PISA data, the Scottish Government has had to wake up to the realities and the funding decisions that are being made.

Dundee City Council will have to make budget cuts of £12.5 million in February, after paring budgets back year after year. Teachers in attainment schools in Dundee tell me that they do not know how they can be expected to raise attainment when classroom assistants have gone from their very classrooms; when all the early years practitioners who are trained in literacy support were stripped out of those schools in deprived areas to cover the Government’s childcare hours commitments in nurseries; when Dundee has seen a 28 per cent reduction in additional support needs teachers, which is twice the national reduction; and when, to my confusion, none—not one penny—of the £4.8 million attainment money that was allocated to Dundee has been spent on additional specialist teachers in literacy and numeracy. Instead, a handful of modern apprentices have been employed, but I am not really sure what qualifications young modern apprentices have in raising attainment and raising standards of literacy and numeracy in our schools.

The new secondary school building in Dundee, Harris academy, which Mr Swinney opened in December, is already scores of children over capacity and overcrowded after the SNP closed and merged Menzieshill high school last year.

I wish the Education and Skills Committee all the best with its scrutiny of a critical issue for the future of Scotland. Shedding light on the efficacy of the SQA and Education Scotland must bear fruit for our pupils in our schools across the country as we seek to reverse the downward trend that the statistics report.

16:11  

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, I begin by congratulating our convener, James Dornan, on summarising very well in his opening speech the issues that arose from the evidence that we took on the agencies.

In my few short months as a member of the committee, I have been struck by the myriad factors that impact on the ability of children in Scotland to learn and the quality of education that is delivered in our schools, universities and colleges and through the other agendas. They are enormously complex. Today, the focus is on the agencies and the role that they play, and I will refer to many of the issues that arose from our taking evidence on the SQA and Education Scotland. However, it is worth saying at the outset that education is about a lot more than agencies. Gillian Martin touched on an important point in that regard.

Recently, I visited Speyside high school and Keith grammar school in my constituency. I have visited many schools over the years, as many other members have. When I go in and speak to the teachers, the other staff and the pupils, they talk about the future of education. They do not say to me that we should scrap the SQA or Education Scotland. They talk about many of the wider issues in our society and the impact that they are having on our children’s ability to learn. They talk about how the children who are coming to school with empty stomachs can have a proper ability to learn. They talk about the chaotic lifestyles that many of our families have and the impact that that has. Of course they talk about issues that can be linked to the performance of the agencies, such as teachers’ workload, which I will move on to, but we have to recognise that the agencies are just one small part of a wider jigsaw and ensure that we keep the other issues in focus as well.

This afternoon’s debate is focusing on the results that we got from the survey of 211 teachers out of the 50,000 who work in Scotland. It is also important to keep that in perspective. That is not to demean the concerns that were expressed by the 211 teachers, because all members know from speaking to constituents and visiting schools that the burden on teachers, teachers’ workloads and some of the other issues that we are discussing today are common concerns for teachers right across Scotland—for many of the 50,000 and not just the 211. However, we must keep that statistic in perspective.

As an Opposition member of the Parliament between 1999 and 2007—like the cabinet secretary, John Swinney—I regularly raised the issue of teachers’ workload with the education ministers at the time. It is not a new issue. Many of the issues that we are discussing today are not new, but they are the subject of a new focus because of some of the statistics about the direction that Education Scotland is taking and some of the global statistics that members have highlighted. We now have a golden opportunity to address some of the issues, and that is why I welcome the fact that the education secretary has made doing that such a focus.

Over the past few years, the agencies have had to cope with the implementation of curriculum for excellence, which has soaked up a huge amount of time and energy, and now we have the Scottish Government’s welcome and bold commitment to close the attainment gap over the course of the current session of Parliament.

As I said, the agencies alone cannot close that gap. We cannot focus too much on schools in the debate; we must look at the factors in wider society that I was referring to. When I speak to educationists, as I have been doing today, they reiterate that we must look at pre-school education and our pupils’ ability to learn when they come into P1. The issue is not just about our primary and secondary school education systems; it is part of a much wider debate. Local authorities, the Scottish Government, Parliament and our leadership in schools must all work together to wrestle the big challenges.

In the evidence that it received from the SQA and Education Scotland, the committee identified issues such as the complexity of guidance, the lack of clarity, the constant changes and revisions, and the burden that those things put on teachers’ ability to teach, and those issues must be addressed. We got some very welcome commitments from the agencies that they are being addressed. We know that the cabinet secretary and the Government are determined to address them as well, which is very important.

We must address the jargon. One of the big issues is ensuring that the debate takes place not only in this chamber among MSPs. It must be a debate that is understood by the people of Scotland, particularly parents and pupils—and teachers, of course—and everyone else who has a direct interest. We cannot have transparency and openness if we have to concentrate on so much jargon; we must move away from it.

In the committee, I learned what “Es and Os” stands for: it is—for the purposes of the Official Report—“experiences and outcomes”, not the song by Ellie King that I have been listening to recently called “Ex’s and Oh’s”. I keep getting the title of that song wrong because of the Es and Os phrase being used at the Education and Skills Committee far too often. When she appeared before the committee, Janet Brown, in answer to one of our questions, spoke about associated personalised areas. I still do not know what that means. It is important that the leaders of all our agencies with a role in education—we are not picking on the SQA or Education Scotland—speak in language that can be understood by people, not just MSPs, politicians and the Government.

In my last minute, I will address the teacher crisis in Moray. We have a shortage of teachers, which will affect the ability to close the attainment gap. I have been told today that 23 adverts will be placed in the press tomorrow for teachers to work in Moray, but overall there are 33 vacancies. That shortage is causing big problems in our schools in Moray and other places, including some of our cities but mainly rural areas. Workforce planning is important and I welcome the steps that the Government is taking to address the issue. Clearly, the number of vacancies means that the remaining teachers in our schools have to carry an extra workload burden, and it will affect the ability to teach some subjects from August 2017. I urge the cabinet secretary to continue to speak to Moray Council and other local authorities that are affected, because it is now a matter of urgency that must be addressed.

I thank the committee and my colleagues for all the work that they have done to highlight these important issues and I wish the cabinet secretary well in grasping what is a big issue for the future of Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The time for the last two speakers will have to be very tight.

16:18  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. I also declare an interest as a former marker for standard grade and higher modern studies at the SQA and as a national qualifications development officer while I was seconded to Education Scotland.

I recall one of my first meetings at Education Scotland. My line manager at the time followed me out of the meeting, took my face in her hands in a motherly fashion and said to me, “Jenny, you’ve got to stop showing what you think on your face.” I am well aware that my face gives me away in this place every single time I get up to speak about schools, because when it comes to our schools, we politicians have to be extremely careful of the narrative that we use in Parliament, as my colleague Gillian Martin so eloquently said in her speech. Right now there are pupils sitting their prelims in our schools, and right now teachers are preparing assessments, entering grades into reports, planning their lessons for tomorrow, sorting materials, photocopying handouts and marking jotters. Make no mistake, Presiding Officer: how we talk about the work of our teachers impacts on staff morale.

Ross Greer

Will the member take an intervention?

Jenny Gilruth

Can I make some progress, please?

If we are serious about closing the attainment gap, then we all, regardless of political persuasion—even Daniel Johnson, although I see that he is not here now—need to get serious about how we motivate professionals who for too long have been booted about like a political football. We have excellent teachers in Scotland, and they need our support as MSPs and the support of organisations in order to get it right for every child.

Today, I want to focus on the role of Education Scotland and the SQA in that context. As my colleague James Dornan said in his opening remarks, the Education and Skills Committee’s survey results showed that 67 per cent of teachers disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement that the SQA’s

“customers and users trust”

it

“to get it right for them.”

As the only MSP in this chamber who has ever delivered the new qualifications, I cannot begin to explain how removing the outcome and assessment standards would reduce workload. We do not often talk about the specifics in the chamber, so I will do just that.

In my national 4 and national 5 modern studies class, I had 30 pupils. Every pupil has to sit 13 unit assessment standards at national 5 level, while those at national 4 have to pass 18. I should point out that that is before the final exam for national 5—national 4 pupils do not sit a final exam. That meant that I had to track at the very minimum 390 assessments for one class in one academic year. As most classes were mixed ability, the truer figure would probably have been closer to 450—and, as I have said, that was for one class alone. Therefore, the cabinet secretary was absolutely right to move on the matter by removing unit assessments at national 5, higher and advanced higher levels. The bureaucracy associated with the outcome and assessment standards detracted from learning and teaching, and it caused the profession unnecessary stress.

Conversely, we cannot allow a narrative of failure to be presented unfairly when it comes to the exam board. Indeed, my experience as an SQA marker was perhaps the single most valuable piece of professional development that I ever undertook. It allowed me to go back to my department and share what I had learned; it meant that I could focus my pupils on developing their responses and gaining credit accordingly; and it developed my teaching style as a professional.

However, I know that professional development is currently being hindered as a result of some headteachers’ reluctance to release their staff to attend CPD, because they cannot afford supply staff. The Government must look at how the SQA provides funding to schools for supply teachers in order to promote staff development. If we are to close the attainment gap, we need teachers who understand the requirements of the final exam; we do not need a profession that is scared to ask out of school. Indeed, we know that collaboration is key to driving up standards, as per the recommendations from the OECD—in other words, collaboration that is underpinned by relevant CPD opportunities for all staff.

As for the role of Education Scotland, the organisation was formed in 2011 from the amalgamation of Learning and Teaching Scotland and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education—a move that I was not surprised to hear Tavish Scott lament earlier. While seconded to Education Scotland, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing course support materials for the new national qualifications, something that the previous cabinet secretary, Michael Russell, had committed to with support from the unions. Course support materials for every national 4, national 5 and higher course now sit on glow, the intranet for teachers and pupils in Scotland, but to access those resources, teachers need a glow password and an account to log into. On the other hand, Learning and Teaching Scotland had a front-facing website that allowed staff to access support documents more freely. If we are serious about our teachers engaging with the requirements of the new qualifications, Education Scotland needs to think strategically about how it reaches out to the profession and gets them to engage with those resources.

Although the Parliament was founded on the principles of openness and transparency, our education system had not been operating in such a fashion for too long a time. The SQA was the gatekeeper of the exam system, while HMIE would send its boxes to school offices across the country—the calling card of an imminent visit. Things have changed, and we now have a reformed and more supportive approach to school inspections. In Education Scotland, we have an organisation of professionals who should be readily able to engage with and support the teaching profession. Indeed, that is where most HMIE development officers and senior education officers began their careers—in front of a class of children.

In his evidence to the committee, Education Scotland chief executive Dr Bill Maxwell stated:

“How we implemented CFE was a collective decision.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 30 November 2016; c 23.]

Let us now work collectively and collaboratively to ensure that we have organisations that are fit for purpose in supporting our teachers and enabling them to get it right for every child.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I now call Jamie Greene, who is the last of the speakers in the open debate. Your speech must be under six minutes, please, Mr Greene.

16:23  

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I will try my best, Presiding Officer.

First of all, I thank the Education and Skills Committee for bringing this debate to the chamber. Although it is not my committee or indeed my brief, I have a substantial interest in the subject matter.

The debate is topical and timely, too, given that in First Minister’s questions, mention was made of the recent IPPR report highlighting an emerging skills gap in Scotland that needs a clearer national focus. I think that all of us in the chamber want Scotland to achieve the highest standard of skills training and, for that reason, I want to focus on the work of Skills Development Scotland, whose very important mission is to grow our economy by ensuring that the workforces of today and tomorrow are equipped with the skills that market conditions dictate and require.

SDS has people working in schools, careers centres and partner locations across the country to fulfil its colossal and important remit. It employs more than 1,200 people and has a grant of more than £180 million. It can influence career choices in schools, although I understand that there is some debate about whether it has people in schools and offices. I noted Tavish Scott labouring that point in the Official Report of an Education and Skills Committee meeting that I read with interest—I thought the committee I am a member of was quite lively until I read that Official Report.

It is fair to say that SDS has a lot of staff in various places, and that modern apprenticeships and career choices in schools account for pretty much the lion’s share of its spend. However, in evidence given to the Education and Skills Committee last year, the Aberdeen and Grampian chamber of commerce said of SQA that

“it is unclear what they are really trying to achieve and what the impact of their activity is.”

Of course, that is just one view, but it is one that was echoed by other people who made submissions.

In a previous debate on skills, I pointed out Audit Scotland’s comments on the bigger picture and noted that it had said that there is a significant absence of measurable targets and clear strategies set by the Scottish Government for its economic development agencies. It is useful to heed that observation in this debate. It is hard to scrutinise an agency or hold the Government to account without a clear measure of successes and failures. I note that, in a meeting of the Education and Skills Committee, Daniel Johnson asked SDS whether it would consider having a more focused set of performance indicators or a more balanced scorecard and suggested that that might be a better way of presenting its research and the vast amount of data that it accumulates.

The purpose of my speech today is not simply to list criticisms of SDS but to raise points that have been made to the Education and Skills Committee. It is important to pick out a few critiques, because they might point to some of the solutions to issues around improving the work of the agency.

Aberdeen and Grampian chamber of commerce and the Scottish local authorities economic development group—SLAED, which represents the economic development officers of 32 local authorities across Scotland—gave some excellent submissions to the committee, which I thoroughly recommend that everyone read. Both of those organisations mentioned the difficulties that they have had in getting in touch with the right people due to the size and complexity of the SDS structure.

In its submission to the committee, CBI Scotland said that

“Challenges include the potential bureaucratic nature of interactions”

with SDS, that there was a risk of duplication and that there were opportunities to simplify the way in which people deal with the agency. In its submission, Colleges Scotland agreed with that, saying that

“the skills landscape would benefit from ... a less complex and administratively burdensome system to monitor activities.”

SLAED also made a number of comments about the lack of a tailored approach that takes account of different local authorities, specifically with regard to rural authorities. It commented on the lack of co-ordination between local authorities and SDS, which is best illustrated by the fact that there is little face-to-face communication, something that can surely be easily fixed. Some local authorities that made submissions to the committee noted that SDS is, quite simply, highly centralised.

The committee highlighted that more needs to be done to evaluate initiatives so that strategies can be applied differently at the national, regional and local levels. In defence of SDS, its chief executive, Damien Yeates, offered a robust written response to the committee on 12 December, saying that SDS had

“taken a huge number of measures to get in front of people who face redundancy in the north-east,”

despite criticism of the agency’s reaction to the downturn in the gas and oil industries. That point is topical, as in the past few hours another set of job losses has been announced in those industries. The work of SDS is now more important than ever.

The issues that I have raised are complex and are more than I can illustrate in a short speech, but I think that there is a commitment among the leadership team of the agency to continue to improve its work. Nonetheless, as I have said before, the Scottish Government must offer a detailed skills strategy for Scotland that shows how all agencies interweave and connect with each other as they play their constituent parts in the overarching strategy. That said, we must make best use of what we already have and, sometimes, it is the simplest changes that have the biggest effect.

I hope that SDS and the Scottish Government are open to constructive criticism because, as today’s motion makes clear, parliamentary scrutiny offers a vital sounding board.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We now move to closing speeches. I have to be very strict with time.

16:29  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

It is traditional to congratulate the committee on the work that it has done leading up to the debate and on the debate that has taken place. I want to do that today because it has been an important debate and the work undertaken by the committee in taking evidence has been very important indeed. I have to agree with the convener, that that is not because the committee has found a way to restore faith in the entire political class—that is perhaps too much to ask. However, the committee has clearly uncovered some very significant home truths about what is happening in our education system.

A number of members have talked about going into schools. We would probably all agree that when we go into schools we find great teachers, doing a great job with very engaged young people, and pupils who are keen to learn and want to do well.

I think that we are entitled, however, to believe and argue that we have a problem in our education system. The cabinet secretary heroically mined the education statistics to find some positive numbers. He is entitled to do that, but he must acknowledge that, objectively, in recent months we have seen a faltering performance in our education system and in schools, with reductions in standards in writing, reading and maths and a drop down the PISA tables. In the Scottish Government’s literacy and numeracy survey we have also seen reductions in enrolment and attainment in national 4 and 5. I would argue that we saw that feeding through into highers last year, with a drop in pass rates there as well. There is a problem.

The problem is not one of failing teachers. Gillian Martin and Jenny Gilruth both spoke about teachers being hindered in their work. That is right. Teachers are succeeding in spite of the circumstances in which they find themselves working. Those circumstances include budget cuts, which mean that there are far fewer teachers, fewer support staff, bigger classes to teach and less investment in resources per pupil.

What the committee discovered and evidenced pretty comprehensively is that those teachers are also hindered by the very bodies that are supposed to be supporting them in working effectively: Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The evidence cannot be denied, particularly the evidence of the committee’s survey. That survey showed that 36 per cent of respondents did not believe that Education Scotland contributed at all to building a world-class curriculum. That is astonishing.

Earlier, the cabinet secretary asked Daniel Johnson whether we in the Labour Party support curriculum for excellence. Of course we support curriculum for excellence. It is because we support it that we are so concerned that the very body charged with ensuring the effective delivery of curriculum for excellence commands so little support amongst teachers, parents and others in the education system. As Tavish Scott—who is not here now—pointed out, as a body, only 24 per cent of Education Scotland’s own staff thinks that it is well run. That has to be a serious problem.

In some ways that point was overshadowed by the evidence on the SQA that was gathered by the committee. Two thirds of the respondents to the survey said that customers could not trust the SQA to get it right. Colin Beattie ran through a number of the quotes, which were trenchant and telling. I will not repeat them.

Tavish Scott made the important point that the cabinet secretary and the Government are obliged to try to respond to the problem, for the obvious reason that they are responsible for our education system, but also because Education Scotland and the SQA are both creatures of the SNP Government. Education Scotland was formed as a body by the SNP Government, and although the SQA predates any SNP Administration, the exam system that has caused so much difficulty does not. It is important that the cabinet secretary listens to the committee’s evidence and acts on it. His governance review may refer to Education Scotland and the SQA, but only rather peripherally.

To Fulton MacGregor, who asked us to be positive in our scrutiny, I say that the body that came out of the committee’s work most positively was the Scottish funding council, yet that is a body that the Scottish Government proposes to abolish. That move is supported by nobody—it is not supported by universities, colleges, students or, indeed, staff in those bodies. The proposal is a manifestation of a narrow, utilitarian view of what our universities and colleges are about.

The debate is important, but its importance lies in the degree to which the cabinet secretary listens to it and changes direction in his reforms.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Ross Thomson. I would appreciate brevity, please.

16:35  

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

I, too, extend my thanks to the Education and Skills Committee convener for opening the debate, and recognise the contribution of all committee members who, since May last year, have worked extremely well together to scrutinise the public bodies and agencies responsible for delivering Scottish education.

The thrust of my speech will be on the SQA and Education Scotland.

I, along with Fulton MacGregor, had the opportunity to visit the SQA in Glasgow to discuss a range of issues with officials prior to our formal evidence session in the Education and Skills Committee on 23 November. That was extremely helpful.

From both the visit and the evidence that the committee heard from Dr Janet Brown, it is clear that, with the SQA going through an intense period of assessment redesign for diet 18, on top of its programme of transformation—which is beyond the commercial activity that it undertakes and business as usual—there are quite serious resource issues.

In answering my question on that very issue, Dr Brown confirmed that the SQA fully expects “to require additional resources” and that, in developing and delivering the new qualifications, it “will be a challenge” to engage with teachers—the very people who we expect to deliver the qualifications. As both Daniel Johnson and Ross Greer mentioned, that comes at a time when the committee has received a substantial body of evidence from teachers that communication from the SQA is poor and that there has been a clear breakdown in trust.

One submission stated:

“I am afraid that my current experience of the SQA is almost entirely negative ... Documentation is highly complex, repetitive and difficult to access”.

To quote my committee colleague Johann Lamont, the SQA is living in a “parallel universe” if it thinks that it has a “strong working relationship” with teachers.

Similarly, in responding to the Education Committee’s survey, a majority of teachers expressed a view that Education Scotland does not improve schooling and that it either contributed “not at all” or “a little” to building a world-class curriculum, improving performance or promoting high-quality professional learning.

The committee’s evidence has pointed to teachers being swamped by guidance and documentation. One teacher cited 81 pages of guidance in five different documents across three different websites. The amount of bureaucracy has caused committee members to warn that the SQA is

“in danger of sinking in a sea of jargon”.—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 20.]

That is almost identical to the concerns raised in relation to Education Scotland, which prompted action to remove 90 per cent of 20,000 pages of examples and case studies in a move to reduce and to clarify guidance.

Further, there was serious criticism from teachers that some exams were the worst they had ever seen. Mistakes and inaccuracies plagued national 5 computing exams and higher maths and geography. In his evidence to the committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills stated:

“It is intolerable if there are errors ... in exam papers”.—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 2 November 2016; c 20.]

Dr Janet Brown stated:

“We should not have errors in our exam papers”,—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 9.]

yet those errors are happening. Teachers raised concerns with the committee, saying that

“There have been so many mistakes—from the exam to the UASP”—

a unit assessment support package—

“and ... we no longer trust anything that comes from”

the SQA.

That issue has been touched on by members, particularly Fulton MacGregor. I have to admit that I draw a slightly different conclusion on exams overall, because there is powerful and consistent criticism from teachers about the lack of effective scrutiny and transparency. The SQA believes that mistakes are happening because

“people are working extremely hard”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 9.]

and that there is a need for it to have “appropriate engagements with institutions” in place to improve quality assurance.

From the evidence, it is clear that the resource issues and failings in leadership need to be addressed. The fundamental fact is that the SQA and Education Scotland have lost the trust and confidence of teachers and that should raise the most serious of concerns for us all. If teachers do not have faith in them, how on earth can we expect parents to have faith in those institutions and to have faith that the system provides quality education to their children?

Fulton MacGregor

Will Ross Thomson give way?

Ross Thomson

I would like to make progress because I have a tight six minutes.

That situation highlights the urgency of the action and intervention that is needed to restore trust and confidence.

The committee’s work since May has uncovered a number of serious issues that require urgent resolution. If we are collectively to achieve our ambition to close the attainment gap and provide the best possible education to our young people, there is a lot of work to do. It is clear that the committee is playing a critical and constructive role in that on-going education debate. It could not be clearer that the decisions that have to be taken must be based on a sound foundation of evidence. That point was extremely well made by Ross Greer during his contribution on the SFC and the Scottish Government’s enterprise and skills review.

Conservative members look forward to continuing to work constructively to propose new ideas. That is why we will support the motion in the convener’s name.

16:41  

John Swinney

Three of my colleagues have made important points about the narrative that underpins the debate and the importance of ensuring that it is correctly and effectively described. What members of the Parliament say in parliamentary debates has consequences and implications in a wider audience.

Gillian Martin rightly and fairly raised the comment that Willie Rennie made at First Minister’s question time. His comment was that our schools are in crisis. I utterly refute that point, so I am glad that she called him out for it.

Jenny Gilruth talked about the fact that, while we are considering all the issues in the debate, others are preparing for prelims or setting coursework and making important judgments on those matters. Richard Lochhead made the point that, while we are having the debate, local authorities will be trying to recruit teachers to fill the vacancies that I acknowledge we have in schools around Scotland. Does it look like an attractive profession to come into when some of the narrative is as negative as it is?

Iain Gray said that I had heroically mined all sorts of things to come up with data. Yes—I have presented data that is representative of Scottish education. To complete the picture, as I said in my speech, I made two statements to Parliament before the Christmas recess about the PISA statistics and the performance data, which I acknowledged was uncomfortable reading. However, Daniel Johnson’s characterisation of Scottish education was atrocious. I am all for a balanced and fair debate about it, so I invite members to make considered contributions.

Ross Thomson has just talked about effective scrutiny. I am all for effective scrutiny. I can take criticism—I have taken it for nine and a half years as a minister—but we must be conscious of the consequences and implications of what members of Parliament say to a wider audience.

Ross Greer

Will the cabinet secretary give way?

Daniel Johnson rose—

John Swinney

I will take Mr Johnson first, because I named him.

Daniel Johnson

It does not get more brutal than the chief executive of the SQA saying that the issues that we face are to do with the way that the agency plans and implements matters and the way that the examinations work. I am not plucking that from the air; the SQA’s own chief executive is raising fundamental questions about the way her agency and the exams work. Is that not fundamental and brutal? Does it not justify the concern?

John Swinney

I invite Daniel Johnson to go back and read the speech that he delivered at the start of the debate, and to judge whether that it is the type of contribution that helps us to have a constructive debate about the direction in which we are moving to progress Scottish education. That is what I am interested in, and I am interested in having an open debate about how we do that. I accept that all members of Parliament want Scottish education to be successful, but we will have difficulty turning around the teacher shortage problem that Richard Lochhead rightly highlighted if the narrative on Scottish education is presented as dismally as it was by Daniel Johnson earlier in the debate.

In the independent survey on SQA performance—a survey is carried out annually by an independent third party—84 per cent of respondents said that they believe that the SQA has high credibility and 91 per cent said that they believe that the SQA can be trusted. I am not saying that there is no need to improve performance. Ross Greer has properly raised with me issues to do with the accuracy of exam papers. I have given him honest and open answers in which I have said that that is not acceptable and must be addressed, and I have addressed the issue face to face with the chief executive of the SQA. However, we must keep—as Richard Lochhead did—a sense of perspective about some of the data and information that are presented.

I want to move on to address some of the issues that Tavish Scott raised. I am very sorry that he is not here, although I understand why he is not here. He talked about implementation of curriculum for excellence. Curriculum for excellence has been implemented by a management board. I want to read out to Parliament a list of the members of the curriculum for excellence management board: the Association of Head Teachers and Deputes in Scotland, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the College Development Network, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the National Parent Forum of Scotland, School Leaders Scotland, the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, the Scottish Teacher Education Committee, the SQA, Skills Development Scotland, Universities Scotland, Education Scotland, the Scottish Government and Community Learning and Development Managers Scotland.

That body is responsible for advising ministers on the implementation of curriculum for excellence. A flick through all the responses that I have received in the governance review reveals that they are littered with people saying to me, “Don’t disturb the consensus,” and, “Make sure that there’s always a consensus.” That board has operated by consensus. I can find only one occasion on which ministers overturned a recommendation of the board. In fact, it was not a recommendation of the board; a majority view was taken when the board could not operate with unanimity.

Iain Gray rose—

John Swinney

Criticism has been levelled about the implementation of curriculum for excellence. Members know me well enough to know that I will take criticism on the chin—I am well able to do that—but I and my predecessors acted to work in consensus with that range of bodies to make sure that we took people with us in implementing curriculum for excellence. Therefore, some of the criticism that has been levelled at our bodies, which suggests that they have acted unilaterally, is unwarranted.

I will let Mr Gray intervene, if he still wants to.

Iain Gray

The point that I was going to make relates to the fact that the cabinet secretary has about 40 seconds left. Is he going to address the issues that have been raised by the work of the committee, or is he just going to read out another big long list to fill up the time?

John Swinney

That was a pathetic intervention. Of all the pathetic interventions that I have had from Mr Gray, that is at the top of the list. The point that I am making is that education involves taking a range of organisations with us in a cohesive fashion, and that is how curriculum for excellence has been implemented.

Liz Smith

I have made a submission to the governance review that might not be quite as consensual as some of the other ones.

Although the board has been operating on a consensual basis, the delivery mechanism that the committee has been scrutinising is blurred and there is a lack of clarity about the data that have been presented. The fundamental question that the committee is asking is about the fact that, at this stage, we cannot properly measure the delivery of curriculum for excellence. That is the problem.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You have only seconds left, Mr Swinney.

John Swinney

There are many issues in all that. I will look carefully at all of them as part of the governance review. I hear what the committee says, and I have reflected on all of those issues in my opening remarks. I simply make the significant point that we have operated by consensus in taking forward curriculum for excellence and have involved a wide range of bodies in an implementation group that is a subset of the board, to take forward changes. That has been the model of operation that we have used.

The Government will, of course, look at the issues carefully, because what drives our determination is improving Scottish education and ensuring that education can deliver the best for the life chances of young people in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Johann Lamont to wind up the debate. You have a very tight 10 minutes, please, Ms Lamont.

16:50  

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

I suspect that it will feel a lot tighter for me than it will for you.

I thank the Presiding Officer for the opportunity to contribute to the debate in my role as deputy convener of the Education and Skills Committee. That role provides me with a number of challenges. I have 10 minutes to speak, and it has been quite a while since I have had the opportunity to speak at such length in the chamber. That is something of a challenge for me, although I suspect that it will be a greater challenge for the rest of the members in the chamber.

Given the importance of the issues that we are discussing, they inevitably generate partisan and robust exchanges, as we have already heard. Unusually, it falls on me to be the voice of reasonableness and consensus. I am sure that my fellow committee members will draw it to my attention pretty quickly if I fail in that responsibility.

I intend to do a number of things, and I shall resist the temptation to respond in the way that I would perhaps normally do. In particular, I want to highlight the important issues that need to be explored and to emphasise the degree to which there was consensus in the committee on scrutinising the critical roles of the SQA, SDS, the Scottish funding council and Education Scotland. The purpose of the debate is to highlight to the Parliament and the Government evidence on the performance of those bodies and to bring those issues to the attention of non-committee members. It is a pressure on all of us as elected members to understand what is happening in our education system, and we should not operate in the silos that are created by our committee membership.

The debate is an opportunity to highlight and prompt further debate on the Government reviews of those bodies and how those reviews will assist rather than hamper Government policy, and to inform the work of other committees. If ever there was a need for joined-up working, it is in education and how it relates to the economy, economic and social opportunities, and equality. Scrutiny should not be a series of episodes; it needs to be robust, far reaching and coherent.

As Richard Lochhead pointed out, education is not just about the curriculum; it can be about the many things that children bring with them into school or the many things that we experience as adults. That does not mean that we should not drill down on the specifics in the Education and Skills Committee, but I urge other committees and members to look at the broader questions and how they impact on people’s capacity to learn.

I put on record in particular my thanks to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee, James Dornan, for his great good nature and capacity to bring the committee together, to other committee members, and to the clerks. We have proved to be an effective team in drilling down into the evidence and producing compelling reflections on the challenges ahead. As the convener did, I emphasise that that work remains an act in progress, and our commitment to all those who have taken the trouble to respond individually and all the academics and organisations that care passionately about education and have taken the time to engage fully to provide their expertise and thinking that we shall persist with that work.

We need to reaffirm the importance of education and skills in the work of the Scottish Government, local authorities and the agencies that we scrutinise, and to reflect on why that matters. A coherent approach to education and skills is fundamental to any notion of a fairer society, a strong economy and shared prosperity. Education matters in ensuring that individuals can achieve their full potential, no matter where they are. The challenge in education is to provide that opportunity, but we have to be alive to the possibility that it may compound inequality rather than address it if we get things wrong.

We know that a highly skilled and educated population is an important factor in economic opportunities. That is why the bodies that are charged with delivery need to rise to that challenge. We need to reflect on the concerns about their capacity that have been expressed. It is essential that there is confidence in the education system. Much of our evidence identified the need for leadership and many concerns about the apparent lack of leadership in those agencies.

At a time of significant curriculum change, there needs to be confidence in those delivering it if confidence in the change itself is not to be undermined. That means that, if we believe that the curriculum for excellence is the right way forward, we need to address issues that may suggest to people that it is too much hassle and is not working, so we should try something else.

I say to the Government ministers and to others that we ought not to shoot the messenger when people raise concerns. As a teacher of 20 years’ standing, I understand the fear that a number of members have articulated that raising concerns about the system could be seen as an attack on teachers and young people. However, there was a consensus in the committee about the need to serve the interests of teachers, young people and educators by insisting that those who work for them are doing their job.

I will make a number of observations on the committee’s considerations that I hope will inform the chamber further. The response of teachers when given the opportunity to comment anonymously was profoundly thought provoking and ought not to be underestimated. Of course, we might choose to explain that away, but we do no one a service in doing that. In all my years serving on committees of the Parliament, I have never been so struck by the number of responses and the passion and compelling arguments of those responding. I think that the SQA’s instinct was to say that they were the usual suspects. I worked with the usual suspects when we introduced standard grade, but what comes out from the responses is a passionate commitment by teachers and professionals to make curriculum for excellence work rather than comments from those who are so conservative that they do not want the trouble of it.

The frustration of committee members when hearing evidence from the SQA and others about responsibilities, workload and advice was evident. The committee is concerned not just about who is responsible but about how that responsibility is being delivered. There is a lack of clarity in that regard. Of course there is a concern about the cluttered landscape and the complexity. These things are difficult, but that landscape and that cluttering were person made. I recognise the work of the cabinet secretary in addressing the question of workload, but there has to be a rigour in addressing that cluttered landscape and making the system work for people who care about education. There needs to be an energy in the bodies that we are scrutinising to sort out the problems rather than to use them as an alibi.

Another significant theme that I want to highlight is the question of evidence in underpinning Government action. An important example of that is the phase 1 review of enterprise and skills and the action on an overarching body, particularly in relation to the Scottish funding council. The committee may or may not have been persuaded on that, but it did not have the evidence to make that decision.

We understand that there is no baseline evidence to help to assess the effectiveness of the curriculum for excellence. That is a significant problem, because the danger is that we conflate issues and think that the falling standards may be explained by the curriculum for excellence when that might not be the problem at all. Through the statistics, we need to know what is actually happening. That question also relates to school governance.

In my remaining time, I will emphasise the committee’s strand of work on equalities and identify a number of issues that are worthy of further consideration by the Parliament and the Government. First, although we all know that there was a general commitment to the curriculum for excellence, one of the questions that the committee asked was who decided that there should be no external examination for national 4. To me, that is a question of equality, and I doubt that I would have supported that decision if I had been asked. In all our evidence, we could not get clarity on who made the decision and why. Indeed, on being asked about the advisability of such an approach, Janet Brown told us:

“That is one of the conversations that Scotland as a whole needs to have.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 42.]

If Scotland needs to have that conversation, somebody needs to initiate it, and pretty soon, too.

Secondly, concerns were expressed by the NUS and others about the decision to cut part-time places in the college sector by 48 per cent, as we were advised in evidence. The issue is not whether there are successful learners coming out of colleges under the new policy; it is that the policy chooses disproportionately to disbar women, carers, adult learners and people with disabilities. The Government cannot ignore that impact if it is committed to equal access.

The issue of access also came up in the committee’s discussion on modern apprenticeships. It was a concern to the committee that Skills Development Scotland did not see itself as having a role in ensuring access to modern apprenticeships for different groups in our communities. If public money that has been identified for improving skills is less likely to be spent on women, people in the black and minority ethnic community and disabled people, there is a problem. It is not good enough for Skills Development Scotland to say that it is a societal problem and therefore not to address the fair distribution of public funding.

In its work, the committee explored education policy and whether policy choices make sense. In this debate, the committee has reflected on the challenge of putting policy into action. It is reasonable to seek clarity on the progress of policy delivery and how it is lived by teachers and students, and not just to discuss the issue from a theoretical point of view. There is some anxiety that SDS and other agencies are not in control of the agenda. The committee convener wondered whether we had increased the credibility of politicians. I think that this issue shows a gap between politics and the real world; in this debate, the committee has sought to bridge that gap.

I trust that members and the Government will reflect on the committee’s evidence and that, rather than picking holes in it or explaining it away, will view it as a significant contribution. We must draw on that evidence to ensure that our commitment on education is delivered fully by the agencies that are given that responsibility and given voice to by the Scottish Government. I commend the report and the evidence of the committee to Parliament and look forward to continuing this work in the next stage.