Meeting date: Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 14 June 2017
Agenda: National Clean Air Day 2017, Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Economy (Opportunities for Growth), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Motions, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Lyme Disease
- National Clean Air Day 2017
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scotland’s Economy (Opportunities for Growth)
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Motions
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Lyme Disease
Portfolio Question Time
Education and Skills
Science (Teaching and Studying in Schools)
To ask the Scottish Government how it supports the teaching and studying of science in schools. (S5O-01099)
The Government is continuing to invest in science teaching and learning in line with the broader series of ambitions and aspirations set out in our draft science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM—strategy. Specific actions supporting science education include funding the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre’s work on delivering professional learning programmes for secondary and primary school teachers, which look in particular to develop the confidence of primary teachers to teach science topics. We are also supporting the raising aspirations in science education programme, which places leaders of primary science in 10 local authorities to further boost the teaching of science in schools.
Next week, I will attend a girls with grit event at Ayrshire College. The initiative supports women and girls who are studying STEM subjects or working in the STEM sector. Can the minister elaborate on what the Scottish Government is doing to address the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM subjects and careers?
I, too, support the event that the member is going to. It is fantastic that such events, which inspire women and girls to go into STEM careers through the use of positive role models and the provision of information about the jobs and careers that are out there, are happening across the country. The Scottish Government will continue to encourage that work through the developing the young workforce programme and our work in the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland. We are also tackling gender stereotyping in STEM subjects in schools through our improving the gender balance project, which looks at innovative ways of raising the issue of gender bias with parents, families and teachers.
What steps is the Scottish Government taking to encourage people into STEM teaching, given that more than one in four maths teacher training places are unfilled?
As the member will no doubt be aware, the cabinet secretary has launched a series of initiatives for new routes into teaching. The inspiring teachers marketing project, for example, was specifically built around STEM subjects. The Government is very aware of the challenge of recruiting teachers into STEM subjects; it is taking action in that respect, and it will continue to look at new initiatives to take that forward.
It was revealed in figures released towards the end of last year that, since 2007, laboratory technicians have been cut by a quarter and lab assistants by almost half. That has led some to say that it is no longer feasible to teach practical science safely. What is the minister’s reaction to that? How does that approach support the teaching of science?
Obviously, those decisions are taken by local authorities, and it is for local authorities to answer for the decisions that they take at the local level. However, I recognise the importance of lab technicians and the support that is provided in schools; indeed, that is why the funding around SSERC covers lab technicians and support staff in that respect.
Principal Teachers and Faculty Heads (Secondary Schools)
I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.
To ask the Scottish Government how many secondary school principal teachers and faculty heads there are. (S5O-01100)
In September 2016, there were 5,328 principal teachers in publicly funded secondary schools in Scotland. That information is contained in the teacher census publication, which is available online. Data on faculty heads is not collected by the Scottish Government.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that certain local authorities have used curriculum for excellence as a rationale for justifying a reduction in middle-management teacher numbers through, for example, the creation of faculty heads rather than principal teachers? As the Scottish Government will be publishing its next steps document on the governance of schools tomorrow, will he give serious consideration to headteachers in schools being free to decide their own management structures, including how many principal teachers they have and whether they wish to continue with the drift towards faculty heads?
It is important that there are very clear and attractive routes for progression in the teaching profession. The number of principal teachers and the opportunities for progression were discussed at a recent Education and Skills Committee meeting in which I expressed my view that it is important that those attractive routes are in place.
I will, of course, reflect on the points that have been raised today as we consider the conclusions of the governance review. I will make a statement on that review to Parliament tomorrow and set out the proposals that the Government will bring forward.
In light of the cabinet secretary’s answer to Jenny Gilruth’s question and the evidence that the Education and Skills Committee has taken, would it be appropriate for a decision to be made about whose prime responsibility it is—whether it is that of principal teachers in departments or faculties, or of the principal teacher of the school—to decide on teacher training placements, as that is a very big issue for schools?
I am not sure what particular distinction Liz Smith is inviting me to make. If she wishes to give me specific further information on that point, I will, of course, reflect on it.
Just this morning, I had a discussion with the teachers panel that I recruited to consider initial teacher education issues. The importance of colleges of education and schools jointly participating in the delivery of effective initial teacher education and of opportunities for aspiring teachers to enhance their teaching capability is at the heart of the arrangements that we have to put in place. I see that as a joint responsibility of schools and colleges of education, and we must ensure that the approach operates effectively to deliver a strong learning experience for the development of new teachers in Scotland.
To ask the Scottish Government what role it considers the arms industry should have in education. (S5O-01101)
Schools are encouraged to develop external partnerships with a range of employers to help them develop young people’s skills for the workplace and make learning stimulating and relevant. It is for teachers and local authorities to determine which relevant and appropriate external partnerships to build. It is also for them to determine how to involve those partnerships in learning and teaching, and how to use them to support young people to gain work and life skills, capability and confidence.
The cabinet secretary will be aware, as I have already written to him about this, of a teaching resource that is available to teachers in Scotland that encourages pupils to role-play as arms dealers in a “Dragons’ Den”-style scenario. It encourages children to develop their numeracy skills by calculating the rounds per minute of a machine gun, and they can improve their literacy skills by learning words such as “flame-thrower” and “bayonet”. An advantage is recalling the “benefit of each weapon”. Children are asked to come up with a battle plan and to talk about what problem their weapon solves, and they are to
“create a judgement on which weapon would have been the most effective”.
Given that weapons are used to end human life, does the cabinet secretary believe that it is appropriate to ask 12-year-olds to role-play as arms dealers?
It is important that teachers exercise professional judgment on the appropriateness of materials that are used in the classroom—we rely on teachers to consider that. Obviously, strong judgments have to be made on the issues that Mr Greer raises, but it is fundamentally for individual teachers to determine whether the material that is being considered and used in the curriculum is appropriate in every respect.
National 5 Qualifications
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that pupils from deprived backgrounds gain more national 5 qualifications. (S5O-01102)
We are undertaking a range of activities to raise standards for all and to close the attainment gap. One measure of success of that will be young people from deprived communities gaining more national qualifications.
Our investment of £750 million during this session through the attainment Scotland fund will provide targeted support for children and young people in primary and secondary schools in the most deprived areas in a range of local authorities. That includes £120 million of pupil equity funding in 2017-18, allocated directly to schools.
Through the developing the young workforce programme, more young people are able to access a wider range of qualifications that better reflect their different needs and career aspirations. That has resulted in an increase in the number of school leavers attaining vocational qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 or above.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that the average percentage of secondary school pupils from deprived backgrounds who achieve five or more awards at level 5 or higher is 39 per cent. In Fife and Clackmannanshire, the average percentage has consistently been below the Scottish average for five years. The data show that, in Fife, the figure is just 37 per cent. In Clackmannanshire, it is further down, at 34 per cent. Can the cabinet secretary explain why the attainment gap in Scotland is now based not only on deprivation but on postcode?
I imagine that, if Mr Lockhart looked at the detail, he would find that there is a relationship between postcode and the existence of deprivation—unless I am missing something in his question.
At SCQF level 5 or better, 53.3 per cent of young people achieved one or more awards in 2007-08, when the present Government came into office. In 2014-15, the figure was not 53.3 per cent; it was 74 per cent, which represents a significant increase in the level of qualifications that young people from the most deprived backgrounds are able to achieve. That figure relates to young people from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland and is evidence of rising attainment among young people from deprived backgrounds. The interventions that the Government is making are designed to improve that performance further and ensure that young people, regardless of their background, can fulfil their potential.
What reassurances can the cabinet secretary give to parents who cannot afford private tuition for their children outwith the school day that those children will not be unfairly disadvantaged by the changes that he has made to national 5 qualifications, and that those changes will not exacerbate the attainment gap?
I give a reassurance that the course content for national 5 has not changed as a consequence of any changes that I have made. The assessment arrangements have indeed changed, but not the course content. I do not think that the circumstances that Monica Lennon suggests might prevail will prevail.
I return to the point that I made in my answer to Dean Lockhart: the increase in the number of young people achieving one or more awards at SCQF level 5 or better has increased significantly under this Government’s term in office, and I am determined to increase it further.
Childcare (Local Authority Funding)
To ask the Scottish Government what funding will be made available to local authorities to increase the availability of childcare. (S5O-01103)
The Scottish Government has provided local authorities with £650 million since 2014 to fund the expansion to 600 hours. We are committed to funding fully the almost doubling of that entitlement to 1,140 hours per year by 2020.
We have provided additional funding to local authorities in 2017-18 to support the first phase of capacity building that is required for the expansion to 1,140 hours. That includes £21 million of additional revenue to invest in the first phase of workforce expansion—for increasing the size of the workforce and for equipping existing staff with new skills—and £30 million of additional capital funding to allow local authorities to invest in infrastructure developments, which will expand capacity.
Can the minister clearly set out the role of registered childminders in the Government’s plan to expand childcare? What percentage of the budget is expected to be spent on childcare with registered childminders?
I have been keen throughout the process to ensure that registered childminders have a role to play in the expansion. We are currently in discussion with local authorities regarding what their plans will be for the expansion, and we expect them to report back to us in September on those plans.
I have made it very clear, both in the statement that I gave to Parliament and in the direction that we are taking by using the model of the funding following the child, that registered childminders should be viewed as an integral part of the process.
I cannot give Neil Findlay specific percentages at this stage, because that will depend on local capacity and on the plans that local authorities come back to us with, but I am in regular discussion with the Scottish Childminding Association and with local authorities on the work.
Will the minister outline how much funding the Scottish Government provided to local authorities for the increase to 600 hours, how much of it was spent on the expansion and what discussions to address any issues have taken place with councils since the publication of the financial review?
As I have said in the chamber previously, the Scottish Government recognises that we have fully funded the expansion. That was evidenced by the financial return, which showed the £650 million of investment since 2014 and demonstrated that not all that money had made it to being spent on early learning and childcare.
Our focus now is to ensure that we continue discussion and dialogue with local authorities. The leaders forum met for the first time in November 2016. I have been in regular dialogue with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and I look forward to striking up a relationship with its new education spokesperson when that person is appointed, which I hope will be later this month.
Does the minister acknowledge that many parents no longer work the standard Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 pattern and that often nurseries close too early and are not open at weekends? Will he have a dialogue with COSLA and local authorities to see whether nurseries could be expanded to meet parents’ needs by not being closed at weekends and by opening later in the evening?
It is important that we ensure that flexibility is an integral part of the offering. I made that clear in my statement and in my discussions with local authorities. However, I believe that there has to be flexibility in both directions. I recently addressed a conference on family-friendly working in Victoria Quay, at which I said that as well as flexibility from early learning and childcare providers we need employers to provide flexibility and to understand the needs of employees who have family commitments. We need to see how that can be worked in on the employers’ side of things. Flexibility is key, but it has to work in both directions.
Given the increase in funding to local authorities for early years provision, what is the minister’s view on Labour-Tory run North Lanarkshire Council closing all its baby rooms? What impact does he believe that will have on the most vulnerable babies in North Lanarkshire?
When local authorities take the decisions that they must take in terms of their priorities, it is important that they think very carefully about the impact of those decisions. I recognise the concerns that Fulton MacGregor is raising—he has raised them with me previously, outside the chamber. Local authorities need to think carefully about the importance of early intervention and funding to support early years provision and families, and they must take decisions based on those priorities.
Educational Institute of Scotland (Meetings)
To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills last met the Educational Institute of Scotland. (S5O-01104)
I last met members of the EIS executive on 13 December 2016 and I will have my next six-monthly meeting with them on 21 June 2017. I also met representatives of the EIS alongside other teacher organisations at the assessment and national qualifications group on 27 April, and I met EIS Further Education Lecturers Association representatives on 14 May. I participated with EIS representatives in the international summit on the teaching profession in late March.
The regular meeting that will be held in June is timeous, because at its annual general meeting last week the EIS rejected the Government’s Teach First proposal, threatened to withdraw co-operation with the Government’s new tests and school league tables, and sanctioned a ballot on industrial action over pay and workload. This week, in the EIS survey, 86 per cent of teachers told us that their workload has increased in the past year—it has not decreased, as the cabinet secretary has claimed. Does the cabinet secretary understand that he has completely lost the confidence of the teaching profession?
Well—it is another cheerful Iain Gray afternoon, once again.
That is from teachers—from the EIS.
I am talking about Iain Gray’s characterisation of the matter. Let me go through the litany of misery that Mr Gray has brought to the chamber. The first point was about Teach First. The Government is introducing new routes into teaching that must be certificated by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and must have an academic partner involved. There is no commitment from the Government to any proposal involving Teach First; Teach First must be free to bid for any projects, but it must have an academic partner.
The second point was about school league tables. This Government is not producing school league tables.
Thirdly, I answered questions on pay yesterday, one of which was from Mr Gray, when I acknowledged the strain that public sector workers have experienced from pay constraint. The Government acknowledges that, and we have set out that we intend to address those issues as we continue our negotiations.
Finally, on workload, the Government has put in place measures to tackle the bureaucracy that is imposed on schools by local authorities, by simplifying the guidance that is available to teachers, by putting in place benchmarks, which have simplified the curriculum, and by giving clear curricular advice to members of the teaching profession.
The evidence—[Interruption.] The evidence that is coming to the Government from the teaching profession through the inspection arrangements that are in place indicates that workload is reducing as a consequence of the reforms that the Government is putting in place. The EIS is, of course, free to publish the survey evidence that it wants to publish; I am also free to put to Parliament evidence that members should take seriously.
The cabinet secretary does not like our tone when we discuss education. Perhaps that is because he does not like what he is hearing from the EIS and teachers, themselves. I remind him that his Government has had 10 years to address teacher workload. Does he agree that poor delivery of curriculum for excellence has increased teacher workload?
If Mr Greene had been following the reforms that I have put in place, he would know that we have set out guidance that gives the teaching profession clarity on delivery of curriculum for excellence, and draws together all the various other bits of guidance that the teaching profession requested, to which the Government, its local authority partners and the professional associations all signed up over the years. The measures that we have put in place over the past 12 months are designed to simplify delivery of curriculum for excellence and ensure that the appropriate guidance and resources are available to teachers, to enable them in their task.
Teachers’ Representatives (Meetings)
To ask the Scottish Government when a minister last met representatives of teachers and what issues were discussed. (S5O-01105)
Ministers regularly meet representatives from the teacher organisations to discuss matters that relate to education in Scotland. This morning, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years met representatives from the union Voice.
The cabinet secretary is evidently aware of the surveys that have been conducted by the Educational Institute of Scotland, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and others. They confirm the evidence that has been presented to the Education and Skills Committee, which is that there are significant systemic problems in education that are having a massive impact on teachers and young people, alike. Let me say to the cabinet secretary that it is no good shooting the messenger; he needs to listen to the message.
In particular, the cabinet secretary is aware of the recent EIS survey that highlights the alarming and deteriorating situation for teachers, which is having a massive impact on the ability to recruit and retain teachers. Will the cabinet secretary be serious, in his response, in looking at what the survey says, or will he criticise the EIS for generating negative media coverage and, like the rest of us, talking down teachers and Scottish education?
Johann Lamont makes a super job of summing up my opinion of her contribution to the debate.
The Government has taken a number of steps, at the request of the professional associations, to reduce teacher workload—
They are not working.
Let me just go through the steps, for the benefit of Parliament. We have put in place the clarity around delivery of curriculum for excellence that the professional associations requested. We have removed, at the request of the professional associations, the unit assessments for national 5, and will do so for highers. We have put in place the clarity that is required around the achievement of levels and benchmarks at every stage, which teachers requested of me when I met them in the country’s staff rooms. We have also gone back to local authorities to reinforce work that the authorities committed to do to reduce teachers’ administrative workload; we went back to local authorities on that and we intend to follow it up.
Of course, I am regularly involved in dialogue about all those issues. I think that it is also important that the Parliament recognises the steps that the Government has taken to address teacher workload. We will continue to take such steps.
Will the cabinet secretary clarify the evidence that workload is reducing as a consequence of the measures that he is taking? How is he ascertaining that they are having a positive and practical effect?
I set out in my response to Johann Lamont a number of steps that have been taken by the Government to reduce workload, at the request of the professional associations. I will, of course, continue my dialogue with the professional associations to tackle teacher workload, because I want to ensure that the profession has the opportunity to focus on enhancing learning and teaching that will close the attainment gap and deliver excellence and equity for all in Scottish education. I will continue to engage in that dialogue to ensure that that is the case in the period ahead.
To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle Islamophobia in schools. (S5O-01106)
There is no place in Scotland for any sort of discrimination, prejudice or bullying in schools or elsewhere, and that includes Islamophobia.
The Government is clear that schools should be peaceful and safe environments that have a positive influence on children and young people by promoting inclusion and equality and challenging discrimination. That is why all young people in Scotland experience religious and moral education as part of curriculum for excellence, helping them to understand the world’s major religions and allowing them to be challenged by different beliefs and values, as well as developing their own capacity for moral judgment.
We have established and funded respectme, our national anti-bullying service, and are working with a range of stakeholders, including the Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, to refresh our national approach to anti-bullying for Scotland’s children and young people.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that comprehensive and reassuring answer. Has he seen the recent report “Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools” by Samena Dean, which was released on 2 June at Annandale Street mosque? Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns about its content, and will he agree to meet me, Samena Dean, the imam of Annandale Street mosque and, potentially, other stakeholders to discuss the report’s findings and how to tackle Islamophobia in our schools?
I welcome the material that Ben Macpherson has drawn to my attention, and I will certainly look at it. The Government finds it completely unacceptable that any individuals experience Islamophobia and we have to ensure that we take the steps within our education system to ensure that our approach to the tackling of bullying in that respect is comprehensive and effective. I will be very happy to hear further from Mr Macpherson on the material and those questions, and look forward to exploring in detail the material that he has drawn to my attention.
Statistics released last week showed that cases of religiously aggravated crimes have increased by 14 per cent over the past year. In Edinburgh, funding has been made available by the Scottish Government, in collaboration with the council and police, to eradicate Islamophobia at a local level through the shared vision project. Are there plans to extend such projects beyond Edinburgh to cities such as Glasgow?
The Government will look with great care at the steps that are taken across my portfolio and across those of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities to ensure that we have in place all the necessary interventions and programmes to tackle issues of discrimination. The Government has on-going reviews of the projects and proposals that it funds to ensure that it can deliver on its ambitions.
Education System (Media Coverage)
To ask the Scottish Government what impact it considers negative media coverage of the education system could have on pupils and teachers. (S5O-01107)
The Government does not control media coverage. I strive to present a balanced assessment of our education system, and I encourage others to do likewise. The number of our young people leaving school for a positive destination is at a record high of 93.3 per cent. Success in national qualifications is well documented. In every school that I visit, I meet confident, engaged young people who have a huge contribution to make to society. It stands to reason that if those messages do not get across, the perception of Scottish education will be undermined.
In my Strathkelvin and Bearsden constituency, we are fortunate to have excellent schools that produce record-breaking exam results. St Ninian’s high school in Kirkintilloch has just won the raising attainment in numeracy award. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that the opposition parties in this chamber talk down and misrepresent Scotland’s education system and its hard-working pupils and teachers far too much, and that the extra money being given directly to headteachers will allow all pupils to reach their potential?
Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending the Scottish education awards, where a whole range of tremendous achievements in our education service was on display. [Interruption.] I should also point out, if I can get a word in edgeways over the muttering on the Labour benches, that the awards ceremony was a joint venture between Education Scotland and the Daily Record. It was a celebration of the achievements in Scottish education. It was my pleasure to present to St Ninian’s high school, which is in Rona Mackay’s constituency, the raising attainment award as an illustration of the achievements that are being made in our schools, day and daily.
I encourage members of Parliament to reflect in Parliament the strengths and achievements that they see in the schools in their constituencies, because wherever I go in Scottish education, I see plenty of achievement that is worth celebrating, and it would be nice if some opposition members could come to the chamber and celebrate that just the once and interrupt their miserable routine in Parliament.
Rona Mackay’s question rather reflects the cabinet secretary’s clear belief that he should be immune from criticism. Did the cabinet secretary or his ministers, advisers, officials or parliamentary liaison officer have any role whatsoever in inspiring, suggesting, encouraging or drafting that ridiculous question? If so, he should be embarrassed.
Question 10 has been withdrawn.
Learning Equipment (Local Authority Funding)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that there is adequate funding for local authorities to ensure that all pupils have access to necessary learning equipment. (S5O-01109)
Local authorities spent £4.9 billion on education in 2015-16, a real-terms increase of 2 per cent on the previous year.
It is each local authority’s responsibility to allocate the total financial resources available to it on the basis of local needs and priorities. All education authorities have a duty under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to provide learning materials to enable children and young people to learn and to succeed at school.
An investigation by The Times Educational Supplement Scotland recently revealed that the charges at private finance initiative and public-private partnership scheme schools for repairing school infrastructure are diverting money away from basic classroom resources, such as jotters, pens and pencils. There are even examples of teachers being forced to delve into their own pockets to cover the shortfall—up to the sum of £300 in some cases in my West Scotland region. What action will the cabinet secretary take to ensure that schools are not being short-changed and forced to resort to those desperate measures?
Before the cabinet secretary responds, I ask other members to refrain from having conversations.
That was an extraordinary question from Mr Corry. He is a representative and supporter of a Government that has, since 2010, championed austerity and reduced public expenditure. He has the nerve to come to this chamber and to complain to me about costs in schools when the party that he supports has savaged public expenditure. It is an absurd question for Mr Corry to have the nerve to ask me in Parliament.
As for PFI/PPP, although the Labour Party put lots of schemes in place, the Conservative Party was the originator of PFI. Years later, we are wrestling with the consequences of the mistakes of the Conservative and Labour Parties.
Heavy Goods Vehicles (Drivers)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking with Skills Development Scotland to address the reported shortage of HGV drivers. (S5O-01110)
Skills Development Scotland, working with key partners including the Road Haulage Association, commissioned a review of the labour market issues that relate to the shortage of drivers in the Scottish transport network. The review made a number of recommendations that are aimed at tackling the skills supply-and-demand issues that relate to HGV drivers. In response to those recommendations, a stakeholder group has been established to address skills shortages in the area, and the group will meet for the first time this month. In addition, through the transition training fund, the Road Haulage Association will deliver 250 new HGV job starts to tackle the driver skills shortage.
The minister will be aware that haulage contractors in my constituency and throughout Scotland are now paying the apprenticeship levy, which they are—legitimately—calling for value for money from. Will he ensure that a fair share of funding from the apprenticeship levy is allocated to addressing the serious driver shortage in the haulage industry?
I remind all members that the apprenticeship levy was the creation of and inspired by the United Kingdom Government; it was not introduced by this Administration. Unlike the UK Government, we consulted widely on how we should respond. We have committed to skills and employability training the entire hypothecated allocation of the levy that comes through the Scottish block grant.
There is the possibility for those who are involved in the heavy goods industry to benefit now from certain frameworks that are offered through Skills Development Scotland for modern apprenticeships. If firms want to meet me to discuss what more we can do, I am willing to do that, but I make the point that through the transition training fund we have demonstrated our willingness to do what we can to support the industry.
Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce (Recommendations)
To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made towards implementing the recommendations of the commission for developing Scotland’s young workforce. (S5O-01111)
We are making excellent progress with the developing the young workforce agenda. That includes creating new vocational learning options; enabling young people to learn in a range of settings, such as college, in their senior phase of school; embedding employer engagement in education; offering careers advice at an earlier point in school; and introducing new standards for careers guidance and work experience.
We have established 18 regional developing the young workforce employer groups across the country to focus on school and industry partnerships, work inspiration, work placements, recruitment and equalities, and we are opening up new apprenticeship opportunities for young people through an increase in modern apprenticeships and foundation and graduate-level apprenticeships.
Does the minster agree that really great work is going on in the Highlands and Islands to get our young people into employment, such as the science skills academy, which is part of the Inverness and Highland city region deal? Will he outline what support the Government is providing to develop young people’s skills in rural areas?
I agree that great work is taking place in the Highlands area. In Fort William earlier this week, it was my pleasure to address the developing the young workforce regional group for west Highland, along with Lochaber Chamber of Commerce. It was clear to me that a great range of work is happening there in conjunction with the local college and that a lot of remote learning takes place, which is always helpful in rural settings. From this year forward, we will also provide a rural supplement for training providers that are based in rural communities as part of our modern apprenticeship support.
I welcome the developing the young workforce strategy and I particularly welcome the fact that it has clear milestones for every year. That really helps in looking at where we are going and where we are getting to.
I noticed that this year the Government is looking at gender imbalance and implementing the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council plan. At the moment, only one in 10 of the people who are on construction and engineering courses are young women. If the Government succeeds in tackling the gender imbalance, what will happen to courses, such as those in mechanics, that are oversubscribed in some areas and are filled by young men? Will there be more money to improve the gender balance, or will young men find that the number of available places is reduced?
That question allows me to welcome Michelle Ballantyne to the chamber. It is the first time that I have had the opportunity to interact with her in this forum. She can rest assured that the Government has a great commitment to all young people who want to take part in modern apprenticeships. That is why we are expanding the number of modern apprenticeship starts. We had a target of 26,000 such starts last year and, as we have done every year, we exceeded the target—there were 26,262 starts. This year we have set a target of 27,000, and there will be 30,000 such opportunities by the end of the parliamentary session. Michelle Ballantyne can rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities for Scotland’s young people, regardless of the agenda.
Just today, I have had information that the Blackburn local employment scheme in West Lothian, which has operated for 30 years to get young people into work, training and self-employment, is being mothballed because the Government did not lift a finger to help the project. Is that the commitment that the Government gives to the young workforce?
We have a serious and strong commitment to Scotland’s young workforce. That is demonstrated by today’s labour market statistics, which show that the youth unemployment rate is at 8.8 per cent, which is among the lowest figures in the European Union and is down from the previous quarter.
I am aware of the local situation that Mr Findlay refers to. I reiterate the point that has been made to him that any contract with a training provider is given on the basis of specific delivery through a contractual arrangement with Skills Development Scotland—it is not core funding. He should understand that by now but, if he has continuing concerns, he can raise them with the Government. I utterly reject the characterisation that we have not responded to his concerns.