Meeting date: Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 August 2020
Agenda: One Minute’s Silence, First Minister’s Question Time, Return to School, Economic Recovery Implementation Plan, Business Motion, Decision Time
- One Minute’s Silence
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Return to School
- Economic Recovery Implementation Plan
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
Return to School
Before we get on to business, I remind members of that thing called social distancing, because it appears that we have not been too good at it at some points today. I remind members not to slip into bad habits. I am not looking at anybody in particular; I just happened to land my eyes on Brian Whittle. It has nothing to do with you—you look guilty, though. [Laughter.]
The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on ensuring a safe and welcoming return to school for children, young people and staff. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.
The day our children start school for the first time is a moment that every parent remembers. However, I am aware that, in some parts of the country, although plans were in place to open schools today, roads have been closed due to severe flooding following last night’s storms. A number of schools in Aberdeen city, Aberdeenshire, East Ayrshire, Falkirk, Fife, Highland and Perth and Kinross have sustained damage or have been made difficult to access, and others have been unable to open as planned. For those schools, it was definitely not the start of term that they were planning for, and the weather issues will be the subject of a resilience call this afternoon.
Elsewhere across the country, parents have proudly dressed their children in school uniform for the first time, taken photographs and led them off to school. I know that it is a day that I will never forget.
For older children, the start of the school year is equally a milestone. For many, it might be the first time for months that they have seen, met and spoken to their peers. I am sure that there will be much joy and laughter, along with the excitement of a new teacher, a new classroom and, perhaps, new classmates. Each year marks a step in their growth towards maturity and adulthood. Every year is special, and this year is even more so.
Lockdown’s grip was signalled most powerfully by the closure of our schools. Nothing else quite captured the seriousness of the pandemic as much as the fact that we were forced to send children home from school. Schools that had stayed open through world wars and national crises closed their gates, such was the power of the pandemic. That is why this week marks a milestone, not just in our children’s lives, but in our nation’s recovery from Covid. This week’s reopening of our schools is a step towards growth and renewal.
I know that some people are anxious. That is not surprising, given that it is a momentous step that evokes mixed emotions. On top of all the worry that parents feel every year, everyone knows that the virus is still out there, so people rightly ask how we will keep our schools safe and how we will support our teachers, pupils and young people through the weeks and months ahead. Given all that our nation has gone through and the pain and sacrifice that people have endured, it is a question that we must face and must answer.
The Scottish Government made a choice some time ago. Schools are of such critical importance to the life and wellbeing of our children and of our nation that we could not keep them closed for a moment longer than necessary. We knew that every day they remained closed, although it kept staff and pupils safe from the virus, it imposed other harms on them, on our society and on our collective future. That could not be ignored, so the Government decided that schools must be a priority.
We decided that, as we eased lockdown, we would forgo opening other parts of society and we would give up the chance to do so many of the things that we all enjoy and used to take for granted in order that we could get children back to school. That meant that we had to say “Not yet” to the impassioned pleas of other sectors. It meant that we had to look them in the eye and tell them that they had to stay closed and could not return because there was a higher priority—the return to schooling of our children. This week, at last, that choice bears fruit, and our schools can reopen.
I want to take a moment to recognise that, even while our school buildings have been closed, our school communities have not been. Across the country, thousands of teachers have worked tirelessly to reach out to their pupils through online learning. It was difficult, it was stressful, and it was a shift that proved hard for many, but the dedication and commitment of so many was plain to see, and I should not pass by the opportunity to record my thanks to them for their efforts in these most trying of times.
As we have been planning for the return to school, we have seen that there are real concerns that we must address. Last week’s survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland had responses from almost 30,000 teachers. That is the largest return that the EIS has ever had to a survey. It confirmed that 60 per cent of teachers supported the decision to reopen schools, but that a similar figure had expressed anxiety and a lack of confidence that sufficient mitigations would be in place to make them feel safe.
This morning, I visited Monifieth high school in Angus, where I met pupils and staff at the start of the school day. The preparations that had been made were impressive and the commitment of staff to make them work was beyond question. However, there was an underlying anxiety and uncertainty about what lay ahead, because the arrangements in the school are going to be different. I understand that anxiety and uncertainty, and I give the assurance that I will work constantly to address such concerns. I say to all pupils, teachers and staff that the Government has been listening to the views of all those groups. We will continue to do so, and we will be guided by the latest scientific advice.
Today, I have published a note from the chief medical officer, which summarises the latest science in relation to Covid-19 and schools. The key points in that note are as follows.
The most important factor in reopening schools is the level of community prevalence of Covid-19. We have a very encouraging picture there. Although the situation in Aberdeen reminds us that we need to stay on our guard, the national trend is remarkable. We estimate that, on 31 July, there were around 25 new cases of Covid-19 in Scotland, compared with around 780 on 15 May. The estimated number of people in the whole of Scotland who were infectious on 31 July was around 275. That is in stark contrast to the estimated 10,000 cases on 15 May. Such is the scale of the reduction.
The evidence in relation to young people is equally positive. In Scotland, there have been no Covid-19-related deaths of people under the age of 15, and fewer than 1 per cent of such deaths have involved people aged under 45 years. As at 3 August, fewer than 1 per cent of cases of Covid-19 in Scotland had involved children aged under 15, and around 2 per cent involved children and young people aged under 20. There have been no cases linked to any community school hubs, which have been open throughout the pandemic.
There is strong consensus on a wide range of evidence on other aspects of Covid-19 and schools. For example, children who are infected with the virus tend to become less ill. Linked to that, children are less likely than adults to transmit Covid-19, whether to each other or to adults. That partly explains the international cases in which there have been community outbreaks involving schools, in that it appears most likely that transmission has happened in the community and not in the school.
That is not to say that we can drop our guard at any stage. The reopening of schools will involve mitigating measures such as enhanced hand hygiene, more frequent cleaning regimes and social distancing by and from adults. All those measures are based on clear scientific evidence that applies to children and young people as well as to adults.
There are a variety of views about face coverings. Some studies suggest that, given the low risk of transmission by children, the detrimental developmental impacts of extended use of such coverings may be greater than their potential protective benefit.
There is irrefutable evidence about the value of schools themselves. Not going to school results in considerable harm to children’s educational advancement, wider development and mental wellbeing. Not being in school also means that children and young people are less likely to be in contact with people who could identify harm, and that the impact on those from disadvantaged backgrounds is likely to be disproportionate.
I assure Parliament that ministers will be monitoring developments and progress closely. Covid-19 has created a new pandemic, and we are following the science keenly as it emerges.
Reopening schools is clearly a new development. That is why I am pleased to announce that we are putting in place a programme of enhanced surveillance to allow us to monitor progress and react quickly to developments on the ground. From now—the start of term—that will include the full application in schools of the test and protect system, outbreak management, and rapid testing for all those with symptoms. Schools will be able to register so that staff with symptoms can be referred for priority access to testing as key workers, as well as being able to self-refer. There will be close on-going monitoring of the virus in schools and among school-aged children and staff—again from the start of term.
We are pulling together data from a range of sources so that we have a single, clear data set to allow us all to track progress over time. For example, we will ensure that the education recovery group is briefed regularly on parameters such as Covid rates in school-aged children and young people and teachers, and on school absences.
The data set will be enhanced over the autumn as we introduce other measures, which will include a new record linkage study to allow us to track and compare risks in different staff groups from next month; a new programme of serology testing, also from next month, to measure over time levels of antibodies in staff; and a programme of polymerase chain reaction testing of pupils and staff from a sample of schools, which is designed to cast more light on transmission and prevalence for older pupils and staff in schools from October.
Taken together, those surveillance measures will allow us to report regularly against key parameters and make rapid adjustments in the light of evidence of developments on the ground, whether to tighten measures—nationally or locally—or to reintroduce currently restricted activities, such as assemblies or singing.
However, the surveillance programme is just one element of our plan. We recognise that the staff in our schools and nurseries are worried about the children and, understandably, their own risks. Bluntly, this is a new and frightening virus. It is entirely reasonable for our staff to be concerned about their health and to want to understand what we are doing to keep them safe. More than that, I know that they are often horrified at the idea that anything that they do as an adult might risk the health of the young people in their care.
So today I can announce that we are extending the testing programme. Teachers, nursery and school staff who are concerned that they may have been exposed to infection can now be tested for Covid-19 on demand, even if they show no symptoms. The step has been taken to provide additional reassurance to teachers and other staff as children and young people return to the classroom and to nursery. It is vital that those measures offer credible reassurance to all who have expressed anxiety about the reopening of schools.
That work is set in the context of the moral and educational imperative of delivering education to every one of our children and young people. That drive must lie at the heart of all that we do.
I want to restate our vision and ambition for education in Scotland. Our collective aim is to achieve excellence and equity for all children. Our education recovery mission must be to further improve Scottish education and accelerate progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
However, we must recognise that, even as we rededicate ourselves to that task, our schools are not fully returning to normal. There will be changes, restrictions and constraints. The virus is still with us, so we will provide support. As previously announced, we are making a total additional investment of £135 million to ensure that our children, young people and staff can be welcomed safely back into schools. That includes £80 million to bring additional teachers and staff into Scotland’s classrooms in the new school year to promote education recovery, renewal and a more resilient education system.
The funding is sufficient for local authorities to recruit approximately 1,400 additional qualified teachers, with the final numbers determined by the precise mix of staff recruited and the needs of children and young people. We expect that those additional teachers will provide a range of additional support to help to reframe the recovery work, including supporting schools to alter class sizes and composition where possible, as set out in the guidance.
We are in no doubt that there have been negative impacts of a prolonged period out of school during lockdown. Now is the time to inject energy, pace and a renewed focus on all children achieving their potential. All staff have a vital role in that and, as the new term begins, additional staff can offer support to groups of learners who need more intense support and cover classes for teachers who are self-isolating. They will also be vital in responding to any further local outbreaks of the virus, which could necessitate the implementation of contingency plans for blended learning for a period. In addition, we have been working with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to ensure that retired teachers and registered teachers who are not currently teaching can quickly get back into the profession wherever that proves necessary.
The return to school signals a milestone in the country’s recovery from the pandemic. That is important. It is also important that we continue to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our children, our young people and our staff working in schools.
I have previously indicated that, as people return to school, wellbeing should be a central consideration. It is essential that that remains the case. We know that education authorities and schools have in place whole-school and targeted approaches to support children and young people as they return. That will include counselling support provided through schools, which will be available from this year across Scotland.
In preparation for the return to school, Education Scotland has published new guidance on the resources that are available to support children and young people’s learning about their wellbeing, and to support their wellbeing. We are also working through the education recovery group to develop new resources that are designed to support the wellbeing of school staff.
All those measures will enable children and young people to reconnect to their schools, their friends and their learning, and to benefit once again from the care and support that schools provide.
The virus has imposed many restrictions. It has closed our schools, locked down our society and taken many lives, but we are determined, and we have made a choice: our children are our priority and we will give them back their friends, their classmates and their daily routine.
I remind Parliament that school has always been about more than learning—it is about joy, friendship, community and growth. The virus is still with us, but I make this pledge to the pupils, parents and teachers of Scotland: we will keep our children safe; we will keep staff safe; we will keep our schools safe; and we will get our children back to school.
I intend to allow about 40 minutes for questions on the cabinet secretary’s statement. That sounds like a lot, but 21 members want to ask questions, so the usual caveats apply.
I, too, pay tribute to those who have worked relentlessly to keep schools open during the lockdown and to get them reopened, reacting quickly to policy shifts with patience and a lot of enthusiasm. That tribute is for all school staff, teachers, council workers, transport drivers, and for parents, who have become de facto teachers over the past few months. We wish them all the best this week.
Having spoken to many parents and teachers this week, I know that questions remain, which I will go straight into. The first question is about school safety. We know from a survey that the majority of teachers do not feel safe today. Social media is awash with teachers and parents’ concerns about the sheer volume of people in one place and the inability to properly social distance. What can be done to reassure those who raise concerns about whether schools are safe places?
My second question is about personal protective equipment. Anyone who wants protection must get it. We know that the cost of making schools safe already far outweighs the financial support that councils have been given. If they ask for more resource, funding or equipment to make schools safe, will the cabinet secretary reassure them that they will get what they need?
Thirdly, we know that localised clusters will occur. What assurances can we give to parents that schools will be the last to close and the first to reopen, that we will deal with outbreaks proportionately, through fast testing and tracing, and that schools will reopen quickly and safely? The primary concern of the Government must be that not a single day of our children’s vital education will be unavoidably lost.
The first of Jamie Greene’s three questions is on school safety. That is a fundamental question. The issue of physical distancing has been considered at length by the scientific advisory group that advises the education recovery group and by the ERG itself. The guidance is clear about the position on physical distancing and where it is appropriate for that to be maintained. In response to the guidance, schools have been trying to minimise the opportunities for gatherings of individuals in congested spaces.
I saw at first hand the steps that have been taken in Monifieth high school, and I have also seen the measures that have been put in place in other settings. Ensuring that staff confidence is built and that the guidance is implemented, followed and deployed proportionately in all school settings is an on-going challenge.
On the second question, any PPE that is required for the delivery of educational or support services within a school should be provided. There should be no question about that. On the question of funding, the Government has already made available to local authorities £20 million to meet those costs, and we have indicated that a further £30 million is available, should it be required to meet the costs of reopening schools.
I am glad that Mr Greene acknowledged the possibility of localised closures happening in future. In my statement, I went through, in considerable detail, the measures that we have put in place to monitor and assess the prevalence of coronavirus as part of our wider efforts to suppress community transmission. There will be extensive monitoring, which will be supplemented to look at the position emerging among schools and young people. Obviously, if there is a necessity for us to take the proportionate action of the closure of a facility, that action will be taken. The Government and local authority partners will be determined to reopen facilities only when it is safe to do so and appropriate measures have been undertaken. That will be done as quickly as possible.
There are two members who appear to want to ask questions, but who have not pressed their request-to-speak buttons. If you do not press them, I will not call you.
This is a welcome day, as schools return. I want to pay tribute to teachers, school staff and council officials who have worked so hard to make it happen. Of course, it was made even more challenging when weeks of planning for blended learning and social distancing were overturned at the last minute, but they did it and we can celebrate schools reopening today.
Above all, let me wish pupils the best of luck. They have had a hard time, and returning will be tough in many ways, too. I offer a special word for those who are starting school for the first time ever today. Indulge me, Presiding Officer, if I mention Leo and Soren—my own grandsons, who are in day 1 of primary 1 today. [Applause.] Pictures are available.
Mr Swinney referred to the EIS survey that showed that most teachers support the return, and that is true. However, it also showed—and he acknowledged this—that only one in five is comfortable with the mitigations that are in place. More testing will certainly help, but what further mitigations will be explored? Since smaller class sizes is clearly a mitigation that could help, how many extra teachers does Mr Swinney believe are actually in place?
I wish Mr Gray’s grandchildren well as they start school, and I am sure that it has been a very exciting day. I hope that they got some sleep last night, which is more than can be said for the Swinney household, due to the presence of thunder and lightning in Perthshire for most of the night.
Mr Gray asked a substantive question about the attitudes of teachers, and I have openly acknowledged that there is anxiety and nervousness. I can say that we have had extensive dialogue with teaching professional associations and other staff trade unions to formulate the guidance, and I appreciate their constructive contribution to the process. We have listened carefully to some of the issues, and I hope that what I have said today about testing strengthens the confidence that members of staff feel.
However, I would add that there must be a commitment to engage in further dialogue with the professional associations as the days go on and as we begin to see the issues that emerge from the process of opening schools. There is a meeting of the education recovery group on Friday to assess how the first few days have taken their course. The education recovery group will meet regularly to continue that review and reflection, and I remain open to any further changes in the guidance that would be of assistance.
I have heard public commentary from the EIS general secretary about face coverings, and my mind is by no means closed on that question, in relation to the guidance that we have put out already.
The recruitment of teachers is an issue for local authorities. The Government has made the resources available to local authorities. We do not yet have an update on the recruitment that has been undertaken, but as soon as that is available, I will share it with Parliament as appropriate.
I hope that we can now move on a little more swiftly with questions and answers.
I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance sight of his statement. I have two brief questions. The enhanced surveillance testing programme is welcome, but why is it not ready now, and why will it take until October before it is fully operational?
Further to that, the provision of further testing for any teacher who wants it is welcome. Will it be for teachers to request or will it be regularly and proactively offered, particularly for teachers in areas such as Aberdeen that are experiencing a local outbreak?
On Ross Greer’s first question, the enhanced surveillance programme is taking time for us to build up. Our experience throughout the pandemic is that we have needed to build capacity. However, I assure Mr Greer that in advance of that happening, there is a range of other surveillance measures and mechanisms in place for which we can use existing testing capacity, and we can use other data sets to create a strong picture of any issues that require to be resolved.
On the second question, testing will be available where teachers request it. This is an important point: teachers have to come forward for that. I have set out a position whereby any teacher with concerns can use that route to secure a test, and a test will be delivered to them.
Following Iain Gray’s question about extra staff, I want to know how long it will be before all the extra staff are on the ground. People need security, so what job security will they have? Will the situation mean that every newly qualified teacher will have a job?
Those detailed recruitment issues are for local government. The Scottish Government does not employ teachers; we allocate resources. We have reached an agreement with local authorities about the recruitment of staff and I am confident that local authorities will utilise those resources to the full.
In relation to the timescale, local authorities will wish to press ahead with recruitment at the earliest opportunity to ensure that they have the maximum opportunity to benefit from the contribution that the new staff can make to their efforts.
I have been a bit easy on multiple questions from members but, unfortunately, that means that the cabinet secretary has to take longer to answer. That eats into time, so I ask members to please keep it to just one question.
I want to ask the cabinet secretary about wellbeing, which he mentioned in his opening statement.
These are unprecedented times, before which there was already recognition that counselling is needed in schools. What progress has been made in ensuring that counsellors are available in our schools? What parts can the wider community and third sector organisations play in supporting wellbeing in our schools?
There were a couple of questions in there. Perhaps we will get to having just one question, at some point.
A number of schools have existing relationships with organisations that support the wellbeing of their staff. At Monifieth high school this morning, I heard about recruitment decisions that the school has made to invest in assisting, improving and strengthening the mental wellbeing of young people in the school.
The wider roll-out of the programme of mental health counsellors will be completed by October, which will fulfil the Government’s commitment to putting that capacity in place around the country.
I am sure that we all hope that blended learning, even restricted to localised clusters, will not be necessary. However, in the event that it is necessary, it is important that the digital poverty issues that I have repeatedly raised be addressed.
On 23 July, the cabinet secretary told me that laptops would be with students by “the start of term”. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government has distributed all 25,000 of the promised laptops to the pupils who need them, or to their schools?
I have tried to make it clear to Jamie Halcro Johnston that the Government cannot distribute laptops to individual pupils: that is for local authorities and schools to undertake. Twenty thousand Chromebooks will have been shipped from the suppliers to local authorities by this Friday, and the remaining 5,000 will be shipped to local authorities by the end of next week, 21 August. It will be for local authorities to distribute them to pupils at that time.
Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, despite the specifics of the advice to schools, the overall guiding principles for pupils, teachers and parents are those that are set out in the FACTS guidance?
It is important that the guidance be put in place and that it is followed assiduously at local level to ensure safe reopening of schools. We have to make sure that staff, pupils and parents are assured of the safety of the school environment. That has been at the heart of the work to formulate the guidance and to ensure that it can be put in place.
I welcome the additional mitigation measures for teachers and other school staff.
I have been contacted by a parent who is concerned about face coverings. She has two children, aged 14 and 17, who are required to wear face coverings on public transport and in shops, churches, museums and libraries, but not in school, where they are in daily contact with many people. Will the cabinet secretary review the guidance, particularly for older children, and consider a requirement to wear face masks?
We have had specialist advice from the expert advisory group on that issue, and the position that is set out in the guidance reflects that advice. That said, as I said to Iain Gray, my mind is far from closed on the question. I appreciate the specific contrast that Jackie Baillie referred to in her question, between the requirements outwith schools and the position in schools. My mind is open on the question.
As I highlighted in my statement, use of face coverings in schools might well inhibit young people’s ability to have a strong educational experience, but that has to be counterbalanced by the clinical advice that we receive. However, my mind is far from closed on the question, and I think that the education recovery group will return to it in its subsequent discussions.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement today regarding testing if required or requested.
In the chamber, exactly seven weeks ago on 24 June, I asked the cabinet secretary to plan with councils to ensure that our kids and teachers are safe, in going back to school this week. Does he believe that everything has been done to minimise risk and ensure that it is safe to return to school, and does he agree that parents want their children back at school?
I think that parents in general want their children back at school, because they understand and can see the significant benefits to their children and young people of being at school. However, there will be parents who have anxieties and worries about the process. It is therefore critical that the measures that are included in the guidance are properly applied in all school settings, so that parents can be assured.
I know from the range of material that I have seen from around the education community in Scotland that there has been significant investment of time and energy in advising parents about the arrangements that will be put in place, and that must be maintained by schools for a sustained period.
Last night, I hosted a Zoom call with local parent councils. Although they welcome the reopening of schools, their question is this: if circumstances arise in which schools have to close again, on what basis will such a decision be made? In particular, who will make that decision, what will the criteria be, and will there be a difference between school outbreaks and community outbreaks?
I thought that we were getting single questions, but there we go.
If a school has two positive cases in a 14-day period, that will be defined as an outbreak. In the event of there being any positive cases in a school, the school should contact the local health protection team. There will then be a discussion, and the action that is taken might vary depending on the circumstances and composition of the outbreak.
I assure Daniel Johnson—I would welcome his passing this on to the parent councils with which he had the discussion—that very focused attention will be paid to any outbreaks that occur in proximity to a school.
As I said in my statement, the most effective way that we can protect schools is to minimise community transmission, which is at the heart of the test-and-protect arrangements that we have put in place. There will be a very focused discussion about that. Schools will take advice from local health protection teams on what appropriate action should be taken. That action must be taken in a timeous fashion in order to protect access to education for children and young people.
I ask this question as a father of a kid who went into primary 2 today. I thank his school and North Lanarkshire Council for all that they have done to make him and us feel safe, which was very evident at the gates.
Before I ask my question, I would like to take this opportunity, as a parent and not as an MSP, to thank the cabinet secretary. Both he and the First Minister have given everything in putting our young people first and working tirelessly over the summer, in the midst of a global pandemic, so that we could see the scenes such as I saw today at my son’s school, for example—
Mr MacGregor, I understand, but please ask a question.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I wanted to put my thanks on the record, given the week that this has been.
My question is about face coverings and school transport, and is similar to where Jackie Baillie was going with her question. I have had a number of queries from parents who are concerned that face coverings are not needed on school transport, in particular. Will the cabinet secretary talk a wee bit about the thinking behind that, and provide reassurance to my constituents who are wanting to—
Thank you. There was, sort of, a question about school transport in there, somewhere.
The clinical advisory group’s advice to us was, in essence, to extend the definition of the school estate beyond the physical buildings of a school to include dedicated school transport—I make that distinction on “dedicated” school transport. On face coverings, the balance of the evidence that the clinical advisory group looked at indicated that it is inadvisable to apply mandatory wearing of face coverings in schools, which would then extend to dedicated school transport.
Of course, Mr MacGregor’s question highlighted some of the debate around that, in respect of school pupils who are travelling on general public transport being required to wear face coverings, in accordance with the regulations that are applied in society more generally. That is in order to acknowledge that general public transport is not part of the school estate.
However, I reiterate to Mr MacGregor what I said to Jackie Baillie, which is that the Government will continue to listen carefully to representations that are made on the issue, and to take more scientific and clinical advice.
I do not think that we will get everybody in, at this rate. I will be very disappointed if that happens.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that increased concerns have emerged in recent weeks about older secondary pupils. Existing guidance recognises some differences by age cohort, but will the cabinet secretary say whether monitoring will extend to that issue and whether any further guidance has been given?
The monitoring will most definitely extend to that issue. I hope that what I said in my statement gave members of Parliament reassurance that data that addresses exactly that question will be gathered and reviewed regularly by the education recovery group. If, out of the analysis of that data, there is a requirement to review any of the guidance, I give Parliament the assurance that that will be undertaken.
Parents of the P1 intake in Edinburgh were written to on Wednesday by the city council, which advised them that the traditional soft start for P1s would be abandoned, that children would have to attend for a full day on their first day and that, in relation to parents dropping them off, there would be a limit of one adult per child in the playground. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that those children have suffered a great deal under lockdown, that they have not been in their formal peer-group setting for five months and that a soft-start transition is more important now than it has ever been?
I acknowledge that, but it is important to note that, although we have put in place a framework of regulations for the return of formal schooling, it is up to individual local authorities to determine their own positions in their local environments. The issue is clearly one for the City of Edinburgh Council, and I am sure that it can explain to Mr Cole-Hamilton why it arrived at that decision.
For schools to open successfully, it is crucial to have the confidence of pupils, parents and staff that it is safe for them to do so. Does the cabinet secretary agree with Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who stated that
“there is very little evidence that Covid-19 is transmitted in schools”
following a study of 20,000 pupils and teachers in 100 schools by Public Health England? Does he agree that that evidence should help to reassure all concerned?
Mr Gibson highlights one particular piece of evidence. A lot of evidence is beginning to emerge about that question. We have looked at a range of international examples to guide the thinking that has gone into determining how we can reopen schools safely. We have undertaken that task and we will continue to monitor the emerging international evidence. I think that the study that Mr Gibson cites helps in creating that reassurance.
I also advise Parliament that those studies are reflected on by the chief medical officer and by the advisory group, and they form the continuing flow of advice that comes to the education recovery group, which takes the decisions about guidance.
I declare an interest in that my eldest starts her job as head of department at a secondary school today and I had the pleasure this morning of walking my youngest in to start secondary 1—how on earth did that happen?
In his statement, the cabinet secretary mentioned the other harms that the imposing of lockdown has had on pupils. We recognise that there is a balancing act to be done here. However, we also know about the impact of other medical conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, on the response to Covid. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is imperative to reintroduce physical education into the curriculum, however we might need to adapt those classes, for the benefit of pupils’ physical and mental health? How is the Scottish Government assessing that issue?
I agree with the point that Mr Whittle makes and with his understanding of the balance of harms with which we are wrestling. The key point in his question is his understanding that there may need to be an adaptation in how physical education is delivered, rather than our just taking the view that what was done before must be reapplied. There will be a need to undertake some redesign and redeployment, and I am certain that physical education staff will be committed to doing exactly that, because they will want to make sure that young people have that experience in schools.
On that basis, I am sure that we can make progress, which I know will reflect Mr Whittle’s policy interests, in making sure that young people have an experience of physical education to support their mental and physical wellbeing.
According to the EIS, 40 per cent of teachers still feel unsafe in attending work this week. What specific support can the cabinet secretary offer to teachers, who may just need some general mental health support for the day-to-day worries that he has talked about? Has he thought about how every school, or a cluster of schools, could be offered that type of mental health support?
That is a very important point. In the approaches that individual schools are taking, and certainly in the discussions that I have had with a number of schools about the preparations that they are making, the reassurance and wellbeing of staff have been absolutely critical to what they are trying to do. The best reassurance that I can give Pauline McNeill at this stage is probably that that is recognised fundamentally in the education system. It has to be addressed through reassurance and support, and that may become more intense for particular members of staff.
One piece of encouragement that I would give in this respect is that, as I said, we have looked closely at the international evidence, and international experience tends to suggest that, as the weeks go by, confidence grows in the way in which schools are taken forward. However, it is critical—and is contained in the foundations of that—that mitigation measures are followed at all times. That builds confidence among members of staff. The suggestion about a clustering arrangement is a valuable one.
In common with other members’ children, my son started S1 today and my daughter will start P6 later this week. I thank the cabinet secretary for helping me to rule out teaching as a future career option over recent months.
Parents in Aberdeen are obviously concerned about their children going back to school while local restrictions remain in place. I have heard the general reassurances that have been provided, but what specific reassurances can the cabinet secretary provide today that I can relay to my constituents, some of whom are concerned about their children returning to school while Aberdeen remains under local measures?
I recognise the acute significance of the point that Mr McDonald makes about schools in the city of Aberdeen. My officials are in very active discussion with Aberdeen City Council in relation to all those questions, and I know that it is focused on ensuring that all necessary measures are being taken in all schools so that we can be confident about the arrangements.
What I have set out today regarding surveillance measures will be available in the city of Aberdeen, and there is clear leadership in the city just now from the incident management team regarding the current outbreak. It is looking in ever more forensic detail at all the cases and the contacts that are being pursued. The test-and-protect arrangements that are in place in Aberdeen today are closely focused on the possibility of transmission. The team is doing everything in its power to stop that, and that will extend into schools.
Given the importance of putting both children’s safety and their ability to learn at the heart of the return to schools, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the work that has been done to provide for the reopening of schools has been undertaken with the principle of getting it right for every child at the forefront?
Yes, that is the case. One of the key elements of the guidance is to acknowledge that, for some young people, access to education will have to be provided in a different fashion to meet the needs of the individual child. That point is accepted at the heart of the guidance.
I know that individual schools have carefully considered how—particularly after the prolonged lockdown—they can ensure that young people are supported so that schools can make their return to education as appropriate for those individuals as it possibly can be.
We have already heard the Deputy First Minister discussing the wearing of face masks. I have been contacted by a number of parents here in Edinburgh whose children are in mainstream schools with additional support. They have been told that the additional support teachers must wear a face mask if they are in contact with the child for more than 15 minutes. That is causing a lot of distress, and children may be refusing to go to school because of that fear. If face masks do not normally have to be worn by pupils, why should they be worn when dealing with children with additional needs?
The key point, in answering Mr Balfour’s question, is the issue of physical distancing. The guidance says that, in a classroom setting where physical distancing can be delivered, there is no requirement for face coverings. That is where 2m physical distancing can be supported. In the circumstances that Mr Balfour raises, closer proximity may be required in order to support the young person, and that is where the guidance essentially reflects the requirement to wear face coverings. It is an acknowledgement of the ability to protect members of staff.
I appreciate—and Mr Balfour’s question highlights—that that may be off-putting to a child or young person. That is one of the reasons why our guidance and advice indicate that it would not be advisable in all circumstances to have mandatory face coverings in schools. Mr Balfour’s question highlights the dilemma, and it provides an explanation as to why that requirement is put in place for children with additional support needs in certain circumstances.
What reassurance can the cabinet secretary provide for teachers and school staff who are anxious about socialising with family and friends who fall into the vulnerable categories after they have interacted not only with hundreds of young people in their school but with their teaching colleagues?
First, on interaction with teaching colleagues, members of staff should be observing physical distancing at all times. That is one of the implicit parts of the guidance.
Secondly, the general guidance that the Government has issued to those who have been shielding is that, although shielding has been paused, people in that category need to take additional care about their interactions and contacts. I encourage Mr MacDonald to advise his constituents about the need to follow that general guidance, in order to address the concerns that he has raised with me.
The Deputy First Minister referred to the nervousness that has been expressed by many teachers. Are there up-to-date statistics on the number of teachers who have decided to retire early this year? Several teachers have told me that that is what they are doing, because they are worried about safety requirements and are concerned about the vagueness of the guidance on issues such as social distancing. Is he concerned about that?
I do not have data on that point, although the position will become clear as we go through the school year; obviously, the survey of teaching staff will be undertaken in September and we will see the results in December. Local authorities and the General Teaching Council for Scotland will be able to give us further data on retirement decisions.
I have accepted that there is a level of anxiety, but I reassure Sarah Boyack that the Government, our partners in the education recovery group, our local authority partners and other stakeholders are focused on trying to build confidence over time and on ensuring that teachers feel safe and confident to practise in our schools.
That concludes questions on the statement. We managed to fit everybody in.
There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business. The next debate follows straight on, so all members who are participating should be in the chamber or just outside it.