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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 February 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Education, Mental Health, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Education

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe the measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber, and when accessing or leaving their seats.

The next item of business is a Scottish Liberal Democrat Party debate on motion S5M-24137, in the name of Willie Rennie, on education.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Education must be at the heart of the recovery. It is a great liberal cause. School closures and remote learning were never going to be easy, but teachers, pupils and parents have worked flat out to make it work, as best they can. It has been a time of great disruption and worry, and it will take time for education to bounce back.

I want to focus on what children and young people really need. We should be making every hour that is spent in school count for more. More resources are needed in every classroom, cuts to additional support must be reversed and more supported study is needed to help children to work through problems and to consolidate understanding.

If primary 1 children are not ready to start school in August, they should be guaranteed nursery funding, not a £4,500 bill that forces parents to make a decision that is not in the best interests of the child.

This is not about making children sit at desks for longer—it is about the quality of the experience. However, it is clear that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority cannot be trusted with the critical job of helping the education system to bounce back. Those Scottish Government agencies have let down hard-working teachers, pupils and parents. Members would be hard pressed to find many of them thanking their lucky stars for the help of Education Scotland and the SQA over the past year.

We should remember that, despite months of warnings, the SQA and John Swinney teamed up to create an exam system that crushed ambitions. They concocted an algorithm that penalised pupils from the poorest backgrounds. Teachers were cut out of that process by the SQA and told that their pupil assessments could not be trusted.

We all remember Education Scotland before the pandemic generating 20,000 pages of guidance on curriculum for excellence. It was impossible to navigate. However, during the pandemic, it has gone to the other end of the scale. For long periods, it was totally absent when people needed it most. The Government will say that remote learning was unprecedented—it was. That is when Education Scotland should have been leading with the support that schools required, but it let people down in the first lockdown and has not been much better in the second lockdown.

The job of education recovery is too important to entrust to organisations that were on borrowed time before the pandemic struck. As my motion recalls, both organisations narrowly escaped reform back in 2017.

As members examined forensically in the debate on 29 March 2017, Education Scotland is responsible for what happens in the classroom and for inspecting its implementation. That is a fundamental conflict of interests that did not work then, and certainly does not work now. I want to re-establish the independence of the inspectorate. On the SQA, most importantly we highlighted the total breakdown in trust between it and teachers. That has only become worse.

On that day in 2017, Scottish National Party and Green votes allowed the organisations to drift towards the pandemic without reform. Our definitive call for their overhaul was watered down, then sunk without trace by John Swinney. His amendment today tries to do exactly the same again. Therefore, I am pleased that the Greens are on board, so we can make progress. I thank the Greens for their support today.

The balance in education must change. Out should go centralised bureaucracies, with their token teachers on committees. In must come an education system that is overseen by people with current and direct teaching experience—the teachers who have been bursting with good ideas throughout the pandemic, and who have worked incredibly hard for their pupils. Let us get those experts back in charge.

Last spring, Parliament unanimously backed an independent review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to get to the bottom of diminishing subject choice and why the education performances of other countries are overtaking ours. I suspect that other members will agree that we probably would not have voted for the review, had the Scottish Government laid bare its true plans. It has the first draft and has timetabled in months in which to “provide comments”. As Keir Bloomer, the architect of curriculum for excellence, told the Sunday Post:

“That is less than objective.”

The OECD review is being advised and shaped by a Scottish practitioners forum. That sounds sensible until we discover that Education Scotland and the SQA dominate that small group—the very bodies whose performance and policies are under the microscope. They are not independent and they are not practitioners, so what on earth are they doing on an advisory practitioners forum? Scottish Liberal Democrats’ freedom of information request found documents stating that the group would be

“considering preliminary findings and supporting development of the report.”

The Government should end the meddling and publish the report now, so that people can judge the First Minister on her stated number 1 priority of education, and we can finally get on with helping Scottish education to bounce back.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that the support, services and decision-making provided by Education Scotland and the SQA have not met the expectations or requirements of hardworking teachers, pupils or parents throughout the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; recalls that serious concerns existed about the performance and structure of these organisations for years before the pandemic struck, including those expressed by Parliament in its resolution on the debate on motion S5M-04920 on 29 March 2017; considers that there is compelling evidence that neither body is fit for purpose and that they have lost the confidence of teachers, pupils and parents, and therefore calls for substantial reform as part of the recovery of education, with Education Scotland separated into independent inspection and policy functions and the SQA to be grounded in the teaching profession and made more accountable, and expresses concern about the reported involvement of both organisations and the Scottish Government in the ongoing OECD review.

14:36  

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

The pandemic has presented enormous challenges for our education system and our young people. The cancellation of the examination diets and the move to remote learning have been unprecedented but were, sadly, required.

The health, wellbeing and learning of our young people and education staff have been priorities throughout, and although I do not claim that we have got everything right, we have made judgments in the most testing of circumstances. Such judgments are about keeping our young people and staff safe, maintaining learning and the benefits that come from teaching, and ensuring that young people’s life chances are not negatively impacted.

As we have charted our way through the pandemic, teachers, support staff and other professionals in our schools, local authorities, national agencies, regional collaboratives and other bodies have been working day in and day out with dedication, commitment and professionalism to support our young people. Their efforts are a credit to our education system and our country.

It serves neither the country nor our children and young people to attack the contributions of some of those staff—in Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority—in return for their efforts. My amendment would therefore remove from the motion the gratuitous and unfounded criticism of the public servants in Education Scotland and the SQA who have worked hard, alongside local authority and school staff and many others, to ensure continuity of education for children and young people. I thank them for their efforts.

Very strong support has been provided across the system, which has been working in collaboration in the face of the threats to education that Covid presents. Education Scotland and SQA have been central to those efforts. Throughout the pandemic, Education Scotland has provided substantial support to learners, teachers and parents. The national e-learning offer provides live and recorded supported learning resources. Professional learning and support for teaching remotely are available, including for wellbeing and wider professional learning. Targeted work takes place with local authorities and schools to support the system on the ground.

For more than a decade before the pandemic, Education Scotland had been delivering the Glow Connect national online learning platform. That foresight meant that we had the tools in place to move to remote learning, and allowed the development of online content offers, including e-Sgoil and the West Partnership’s online school. Last week, Glow had more than 366,000 users logging in a total of more than 2.4 million times.

To support the quality of remote learning delivery, Education Scotland has undertaken five national overview reports since schools returned in January. Those show

“clear evidence that schools have learned from the previous lockdown and are continuing to improve their remote learning offer”.

Mr Rennie mentioned not a single one of the contributions to our education system that have been made by Education Scotland.

As Education Scotland does, the SQA remains absolutely committed to delivering for learners in Scotland. The SQA has worked with the rest of the education system to ensure that learners get the results that they have worked hard for, while maintaining the credibility and standards of qualifications, which members of Parliament have, over the years, generally agreed are important.

Certification has been a very difficult task for all the nations of the United Kingdom—a task that we did not get right for all, at the first attempt last year. That is why I apologised to learners and it is why I commissioned Professor Priestley to review events to ensure that we learn from them and make improvements.

The SQA has engaged widely with stakeholders, particularly in leading partners in co-design of the alternative certification model for this year, and in establishing a learner panel to inform its decisions. The SQA consulted widely on modifications to courses, and has published 116 subject-specific guidance documents on reducing evidence requirements while preserving the validity of, and public confidence in, qualifications. It has also published 134 individual assessment resources to support teachers and lecturers in their assessment activity. Those steps have been significant in making good progress in development of the certification model for 2020-21, with further details that were announced yesterday by the national qualifications 2021 group providing greater certainty to the system.

The support that has been provided to our children and young people to ensure that they can continue to learn and develop is down to the hard work and commitment of the professionals in our schools and elsewhere in the system, including in our national agencies. All of them deserve thanks and recognition from Parliament for their resilience and flexibility, and for the contribution that they continue to make. They do not deserve the gratuitous terminology in the Liberal Democrat motion.

A contribution that extends well beyond the response to the pandemic has been made by all the different players, and includes important work on the future of Scottish education, such as the independent review of Scotland’s curriculum.

The OECD review is looking at many aspects of implementation of Scotland’s curriculum, including the roles and responsibilities of national agencies in providing support and guidance for the curriculum. The Government is always open to considering how best those arrangements should be designed.

The review has been taken forward following OECD methodology and clear guidelines. It will share draft findings from that work in March, with a final report to be published in June, as I outlined to Parliament last April. The OECD is clear that

“Taking into account the current stage of the process and past experience conducting such reviews, the report will be finalised and is expected to be ready for publication in June 2021”.

I look forward to considering the recommendations from the review— [Interruption.] I am afraid that I cannot take an intervention because I have to draw my remarks to a close.

I look forward to considering the recommendations of the review when it is fully concluded. That will be important as we emerge from the pandemic and maintain our relentless pursuit of excellence and equity in education in Scotland. That is the key priority of the Scottish Government pre-Covid and post-Covid, and is what we will devote our efforts to, to ensure that it is the case, in order to provide the best future and the best opportunities to the learners of Scotland.

I move amendment S5M-24137.3, to leave out from “the support” to end and insert:

“teachers, support staff and other professionals working in the education system, whether in schools, local authorities, national agencies, regional collaboratives or other bodies, have provided very strong support to Scotland’s children and young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help them to continue to learn and develop, and have shown resilience, commitment and flexibility in responding to the impact of the pandemic, including during periods of remote learning or when alternative approaches to certification have been developed in partnership, and considers that teachers and others working in the education system deserve thanks and recognition from the Parliament in light of their work during the pandemic, including their role in continuing to contribute to important work on the future of Scottish education, such as the independent review of Curriculum for Excellence led by the OECD.”

14:43  

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Punxsutawney Phil is paraded every February to curious spectators. If he sees his own shadow, he retreats, and they are destined to more wintry gloom; if he does not, spring arrives and brings about a change in the air—and would that not be nice?

Groundhog day, however, is where it all goes very wrong: history repeats itself and there is nothing that anyone can do about it—it sounds like the plot of a movie. Mr Swinney is our very own Phil Connors, trapped in the endless gloom of this endless loop, and that sums up today’s debate.

I might be new to the education brief, but my goodness, have we not been talking about curriculum reform and systemic problems in education for quite some time in this Parliament? Iain Gray, Tavish Scott and Liz Smith, in debate after debate after debate, have been warning for years of concerns from the teaching profession—chiefly, that Education Scotland and the SQA are not just the by-product of politically misguided judgments but, on occasion, the cause of them. If people do not believe me, they should ask the hundreds of people who protested outside this very Parliament last summer when the exams fiasco saw their grades marked down and a system that was designed to do right by them did anything but that.

The OECD’s most recent review of the curriculum for excellence, which was in 2015, raised serious concerns about the complexity of the system’s layers and dimensions and asked existential questions about the CFE’s comprehensibility.

In 2017, the Parliament called for Education Scotland’s inspection and policy functions to be separated. What came of that? Nothing. In 2019, the Education and Skills Committee raised more serious concerns about Education Scotland’s role and highlighted gaps in its knowledge about the challenges that our schools face and about the curriculum’s implementation. The system was designed to offer schools choice, flexibility and freedom, but it was often misunderstood and resulted in delivery that was so variable that equity and fairness were far from being its defining principles.

As for last year, where do we start? We cannot hide the shared frustration of MSPs across the spectrum at the SQA’s sheer arrogance and its approach to last year’s exams fiasco. The SQA said, “We did only what we were asked to do.” I asked the SQA for an outright apology to Scotland’s young people, but no such apology was offered.

It takes guts to admit that the system might have faults, and I give Mr Swinney credit for commissioning a second review in 2019. Its remit was expanded to cover a full review of the broad general education. What happened when the issue was voted on in Parliament? The Government resisted—of course it did—but it was defeated, thankfully, as has been the case on many education issues in this parliamentary session. That is because education is one of the unusual things that unite Opposition parties, especially when there is a minority Government.

The current OECD report is vital because it will do two things. First, it will shine a light on faultlines in our education system. We all know that reform is not possible if we do not know what we are reforming or why. Secondly, it should allow the public to decide for themselves whether the Government’s track record in education means that the Government is worthy of another five years.

Here is the problem, folks. The first of those objectives must scare the daylights out of the Government. As for the second issue, we will not know about the report until days after the public have cast their ballots. The cabinet secretary can call me a cynic, but I think that that reeks. That is why my amendment is crucial. I ask colleagues again to send the strong message to the Government that we will not be having it.

If the cabinet secretary wants to be judged on his record, he is being handed on a big silver platter a report that I have no doubt will extol the virtues of his track record. However, given the First Minister’s woeful response at First Minister’s question time today that fudged the reasons why she wants to bury the report until after the election, how can the Parliament have confidence in her sincerity?

Was Keir Bloomer wrong to assert that the Government has stage managed the situation to prevent the OECD from finding out the education community’s opinion? Why would he make that stuff up? The cabinet secretary referred to that on the radio this morning. What would Keir Bloomer gain from doing that? [Interruption.] I am happy to give way if I can get another minute for my speech—but I see that I cannot.

Let us not beat about the bush. Parents, teachers and pupils will see right through the Government’s lamentable attempts to cover up its scorecard. The Government is doing that because it knows one thing only—that the report will shine a light on 14 years of failure to listen and to act.

I move amendment S5M-24137.1, to insert at end:

“, and, given the urgency of the matter and limited opportunity for scrutiny, and in the spirit of full transparency, calls on the Scottish Government to immediately release any findings already reportedly delivered to the Scottish Ministers by the OECD.”

14:47  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

As we come to the end of the parliamentary session, it is worth reflecting—as Willie Rennie did—on what the Parliament said about such issues at the start of the session. Then, the Government was going to reorganise the governance of school education in its flagship education bill. That bill sank without trace and took the governance review with it, except for the creation of regional improvement collaboratives, which seem to have little troubled the lives of teachers, pupils and parents and education policy, to be honest.

John Swinney

Will Mr Gray give way?

Iain Gray

Certainly—for a quick intervention.

John Swinney

Mr Gray mentioned regional improvement collaboratives. Does he recognise that a great amount of the learning that is now available has been put together through them? Is he comfortable associating himself with the Liberal Democrat motion’s criticism of hard-working public servants?

Iain Gray

Mr Swinney refers to the criticism of the national bodies. The review four years ago glided by Education Scotland and the SQA, which sailed on serenely and were untouched. In the meantime in our schools, the curriculum narrowed and pupils took exams in fewer subjects—especially in schools that serve our more deprived communities. Some subjects, such as some modern languages, almost disappeared from the curriculum. The practice of teaching two, three or even sometimes four course levels in a single class became systemic, which was not for a good educational reason but as a way of managing limited resources—particularly because of not having enough teachers. The number of pupils who were identified as requiring additional support soared, while the actual additional support plummeted.

Where were those key educational bodies Education Scotland and the SQA when that was going on? Frankly, they were missing in action. In repeated appearances before the Education and Skills Committee, they first denied that the problems existed at all and then told us that they did not know how widespread multilevel teaching was or whether subjects were being squeezed out of the curriculum. They told us that they were not really sure whether our children were being taught in a three-year-plus-three-year curricular model or a two-plus-two-plus-two model, and they could not tell us whether that mattered. Meanwhile, the SQA continues to assess courses with designated teaching hours that cannot be fitted into the curriculum for excellence timetable.

When the pandemic hit, teachers—who did a heroic job in moving to remote learning virtually overnight—were left for months without leadership from Education Scotland to support those efforts. The cabinet secretary talked about the Education Scotland reviews of remote learning in the second lockdown. He is right that such reviews are taking place, but those are mostly reviews of what everyone else is doing to make remote learning work; they are not about what Education Scotland is doing.

Meanwhile, as Jamie Greene said, the SQA ignored months of advice that it was designing a certification model that was an accident waiting to happen—and, indeed, it happened. We seem to have learned so little. Only this morning, we had yet another iteration of SQA advice, months after exams were cancelled for the second time, when time is again running out and teachers have been saying for many weeks that they needed that information earlier.

Prior to the pandemic, the Parliament, seized of the seriousness of the problems, and without confidence in Education Scotland or the SQA to even recognise, never mind fix, those problems, forced the cabinet secretary to the review. Now we discover that, although that work is in his hands, he intends to use to use the pandemic as an excuse to deny the Parliament sight of the findings. That is not good enough, and the performance of Education Scotland and the SQA has not been good enough, either. It is not gratuitous to say that clearly this afternoon; it is absolutely necessary.

14:53  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I thank the Liberal Democrats for bringing the issue to the chamber for debate. I am glad, in particular, to have the opportunity to expand on the calls that I made last week for the SQA management board to be replaced.

Nothing that we are raising this afternoon is new to the Government or to Education Scotland or the SQA. We need only look back at the Education and Skills Committee’s damning 2017 reports to see how extensively the problems that we are debating have been detailed before. In the course of its 2017 inquiries, the committee found unclear guidance, poor-quality exam papers, the imposition of onerous workloads on teachers and an ivory tower culture at both agencies.

Trust between the teaching profession and the SQA had broken down long before last year’s grading debacle. The exams authority is not seen as a partner or a support; it is seen by teachers as an antagonist. There is a problem with the management culture at the SQA. We are talking about a management that, pre-pandemic, appeared far too often to be preoccupied by its international business work, rather than focusing on addressing the serious concerns that had been raised by Parliament and by the teaching profession. Although some progress was made in reining in the deeply questionable regular business class travel and luxury hotel stays of senior staff, I do not consider the issues that were revealed by whistleblowers to be fully resolved, and I expect the authority to detail a new approach long before such international travel once again becomes a possibility.

Back at home, the SQA’s failures have been laid bare by the pandemic. Last year’s grading system was a scandal. Over 75,000 pupils saw their grades downgraded for no other reason than their postcode. I am proud of the role that the Scottish Greens played in having those grades restored to the levels that pupils actually deserved. The scandal of the grading shambles was not just the results, though; it was also the utter unwillingness of the SQA and the Scottish Government to listen to concerns or demonstrate even the most basic standards of transparency. Many of us warned for months of exactly what was to transpire. This Parliament twice demanded to see the algorithm, but we were rebuffed. The disaster was completely avoidable.

However, it was not just last year that there were problems. Despite a period of school closures being one of the most predictable outcomes for this year, I found in January that the SQA had not scenario planned for it. That lack of preparation nearly a year into the pandemic is scandalous.

Public confidence in the SQA is all but non-existent, and that is why I have asked for the resignations of the current board of management. In their place, I have proposed a board structure that would see the SQA overseen by those who are qualified in education and those who are directly impacted by its delivery. That means that the majority of members should be teachers or lecturers who are registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Seats should be reserved for teaching unions, a headteacher, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament and a parent or carer.

I say this without any personal animosity towards current SQA board members, one of whom I would call a friend, but it is a damning indictment of education governance in Scotland that there are more management consultants than GTCS-registered educators on the board of our national qualifications agency. By reforming the board into one that properly represents Scottish education, we can start to rebuild trust between the SQA and those whom it is meant to serve. That can only be the start of the process, though.

Willie Rennie mentioned—fairly—how the Greens voted following a Liberal Democrat debate in 2017. I am prepared to hold my hands up and say that I called that one wrongly. Given that it came so soon after the Education and Skills Committee’s damning reports, I wanted to give both agencies and the Scottish Government an opportunity to respond and to demonstrate their willingness to change. However, my trust was misplaced and they have not done so.

Having spent the four years since then relentlessly investigating, questioning and debating the performance of both agencies, I am content in the closing weeks of this session of Parliament with the role that I and my party have played in pushing for change. Today, however, the Greens will support the motion and both Opposition amendments. For Education Scotland and the SQA, time is up. Scotland’s pupils and teachers and the public at large deserve so much better than what those agencies have delivered. This afternoon, Parliament will deliver our verdict, and it is incumbent on the Government to respect that and to act.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We are tight for time. I ask all members henceforth to stick to their allotted time.

14:57  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

There is no doubt that teachers, pupils and parents have had the most difficult year due to the Covid-19 pandemic—a year like no other, and one that I hope we are gradually moving out of.

The Liberal Democrats’ motion makes very serious criticism of the action—or inaction, as they see it—of two education bodies: the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland. As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, I am aware of the dissatisfaction with those bodies. They are far from perfect, and it would be hypocritical of me to defend them at every level. The committee has heard empirical evidence that communication by both organisations with teaching staff and, by extension, parents and pupils has been poor, both during the pandemic and pre-pandemic.

However, the Liberal Democrats’ motion and the Opposition amendments are extreme, and extremely unhelpful. They completely ignore the unprecedented challenge that the organisations have been up against for almost a year now, during Covid-19. The Deputy First Minister made it clear that lessons needed to be learned from the initial awards that were given in 2020, which was, as we know, unsuccessful to say the least. That is why swift action was taken to commission the rapid review of the awarding of grades.

The distress that was caused to many pupils throughout Scotland through the use of an algorithm for the awarding of grades was unacceptable, and that was quickly acknowledged by the Government and the education bodies. We have moved on, and hopefully lessons have been learned.

The provision of online and remote learning continues to improve during the second lockdown. I am aware of that from feedback from constituents, as I am sure other members are. In a survey of more than 12,000 parents by Education Scotland, most said that they had had helpful communication about arrangements for remote learning, which is encouraging to hear.

Considerable work has been going on throughout the pandemic. Education Scotland digital officers have delivered 134 webinars for more than 7,500 practitioners. In addition, Education Scotland has provided a named contact for every headteacher in Scotland, allowing headteachers a single point of contact.

The SQA is mindful of last year’s experience and I am optimistic that communication with teachers will be quicker and more transparent. The cabinet secretary has outlined the many areas in which proactive support is being offered to teaching staff this year.

There is no doubt about the additional burden that home learning is placing on many children and their families, and, of course, on teachers, many of whom are struggling to home school their own children while teaching online.

It is important to stress that the operational responsibility for schools lies with local authorities, and they have received considerable additional funding from the Scottish Government. A further £40 million has been awarded to help councils implement safety mitigations for the return to school, aligned with clinical advice and £60 million of additional investment in education recovery, which includes money for employing more teachers and classroom support staff and for facilities management.

The OECD review was undertaken to help us better understand how curriculum for excellence has been implemented across the country, after a committee inquiry recommendation. Following the 2020 SQA exam results, the Scottish Government asked the OECD to expand that work and to have a deeper focus on the assessment and qualifications approach in the senior phase. Ministers have been working with the OECD to scope the additional work on assessment and qualifications, which will be aligned with the current OECD review, and a comparative paper will be published later in the summer, following the publication of the CFE review report in June 2021.

The Scottish Government had to extend the timetable that is available to carry out the review because of the extra work that the OECD has been asked to undertake. It has also had to acknowledge the constraints under which the OECD is operating due to the effects of the pandemic. Whether that enables the OECD to formulate interim thoughts in advance of the 2021 election is for the OECD to determine.

Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government has made education a priority, particularly as we plan the route map out of lockdown. We are grateful to our hard-working, dedicated teaching professionals for their intense work in planning, organising and delivering learning. As parents grapple with teaching their children at home, many of them now appreciate the skills needed to do the job.

The virus will be beaten and schools will return fully to intensify our efforts to achieve excellence and equity for all Scotland’s children.

15:01  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

It is very telling that, minus the reference to the pandemic, this debate is one that Opposition parties have had several times in recent years. With that in mind, I remind members of the considerable volume of evidence that the Education and Skills Committee took between 2016 and 2017, through which it became very clear that many teachers had serious issues with the education agencies—principally Education Scotland and the SQA.

That evidence was presented at the same time as John Swinney made it abundantly clear, when responding to a poor inspection report about the education being delivered in one local authority, that when it came to improving standards in Scottish schools,

“the status quo is not an option”.

I whole-heartedly agreed with him then, and if he repeated that now, I would agree with him again.

I agreed with John Swinney then for two reasons. First, standards in our schools were not as good as they should be, which was clearly shown by several of the indices for basic literacy and numeracy. Secondly, too many teachers were telling us that their trust in Education Scotland and the SQA had diminished. That is not a helpful situation at any time, but it was especially unhelpful during the major curriculum reform of CFE, which, incidentally, John Swinney acknowledged was a bit of a “mystery tour”, and it is certainly unhelpful during a pandemic, when the pressures are even greater.

I do not think that, at the time, John Swinney felt that the committee evidence was as balanced as he would have liked it to be. Nonetheless, he promised an education bill, which, at the time, Nicola Sturgeon said would be the

“most radical change to how schools are run”—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; c 13.]

since devolution. It was lauded not only as a flagship bill, but as a promise to change the status quo.

I can recall conversations with the cabinet secretary in which he seemed utterly determined to improve standards—I believed him on that—and during which he offered to engage with the education spokesmen in each party about what we would like to see. I have here the submission that I made to him at the time, and it is abundantly clear that one of the recommendations to the Scottish Government was that it should reform the education agencies, starting with the decoupling of the policy and inspectorate roles of Education Scotland, on the basis that it should not be judge and jury.

As we know, the education bill was shelved in June 2018, for the reason that the necessary changes could be made without legislative reform—despite the fact that very little data was available to make that judgment. How Mr Swinney must now rue the ditching of that bill, because it seems highly likely that the current OECD report will reveal some things that the Scottish Government does not like—otherwise, why would the Government hold it back?

The Opposition parties are quite right to challenge the Scottish Government about the delay, given how thorough and helpful the previous OECD report was in highlighting the problems that have to be addressed. This time, it is absolutely essential that there is some meaningful action.

The confusion over the lines of accountability is, of course, at the centre of the whole issue. The Education and Skills Committee highlighted that very strongly in its report in 2017 and recommended that it be addressed without delay. To be fair to the cabinet secretary, he was quick to say at the time that the buck stops with him on education policy. However, the trouble is that teachers on the ground do not see it that way just now. They see continued confusion, obfuscation and a lack of transparency at the heart of Government and education agencies, resulting in on-going mistrust.

I distinctly remember telling John Swinney in 2016 that the problems that schools had encountered were caused not by teachers or by pupils but by civil servants and education agencies, with the result that education had become too much of a political football. No one would like to have been in John Swinney’s shoes during the pandemic—he has had an incredibly difficult job—but the pandemic must not be used as an excuse for what is wrong with the governance of Scottish education. There were clear signs of problems many years ago, and nothing has been done to counter them.

15:05  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I ask the cabinet secretary to touch on the point about the OECD report in his concluding remarks and to say why, if he has it, it has not been published.

I think that all members would sign up to the belief that education is the greatest gift that any child could be given in a modern society, and I hope that there is unity in wanting to drive forward and ensure that all children get the best education that they possibly can.

I take on board Mr Swinney’s point that he is concerned about the criticism of civil servants and the national bodies, but the truth is that there have been major question marks about those national bodies and their ability to deliver the education that we want to see in Scotland. For many years, there have been doubts over the curriculum for excellence, the way that it was introduced and the major failings of the national bodies, which have been there for everyone to see. There have also been concerns that, as school budgets have been cut, those national bodies have grown in respect of the numbers of people working in them and their budgets, and that that has not been reflected in the levels of support to teachers and schools. I hope that Mr Swinney will pick up those points. They are genuine concerns.

When schools begin to open up more fully, I ask the Deputy First Minister to listen to teachers, staff in schools and the trade unions. P1 to P3 pupils will start on Monday. I have family members who are teachers, and I know from talking to many teachers that the pressure that teachers have worked under throughout the period of the virus has been immense. I have been told that, when kids went back to school after the first lockdown, there was a marked difference in their behaviour as they coped with new rules on wearing face coverings and so on. The pressures have been massive. As we went back into lockdown, there were pressures on teachers in particular. Many teachers have their own families at home and are therefore trying to support them and other children in the middle of lockdown. If nothing else, those teachers have come through a very difficult period, and they have earned the right to be listened to. They and the teaching unions should be listened to.

Where there are genuine concerns about safety and virus transmission, all efforts must be made to put proper alternatives in place to avoid further interruptions to education and ensure that everyone who works in our schools does so in a safe way.

I appreciate that this is a short debate and I am running out of time. I genuinely believe that everyone in Parliament wants every child to get the best opportunities for a good education. To make that make happen, we need to pull together.

Finally, regardless of what is decided today, I believe that, after the election, there will have to be a review of the national bodies and of how we deliver education.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Clare Adamson will be the last speaker in the open debate.

15:10  

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I think that it was Mr Greene who said that he felt that these debates have been a bit like groundhog day during his time in the Parliament and with the education portfolio. As someone who is married to a retired teacher, I have lived through the introduction of 5 to 14, higher still, and curriculum for excellence, each of which was not without controversy, was put under intense scrutiny and grabbed the headlines throughout their time and throughout my time as a councillor and an MSP.

That said, we must remember that, despite the talk of complete failure, we still have a well-performing education system. We have more pupils achieving five or more highers at secondary 5 than ever before, and we have more positive destinations for our young people. Just before Covid hit, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland highlighted the fact that we have had a huge fall in the number of exclusions in schools. All of that is to be welcomed, and all of it is good.

Covid-19 has had a massive impact on our society, our learning and our teaching, and our school communities are no exception to that. Even a year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that our schools would have to move to home learning, that the exam diet would be cancelled for two consecutive years or that we would be in a second lockdown. We are only just beginning to understand the extent of the impact on our young people and our school communities.

In all of that, we are all striving. Everyone in this chamber wants excellence and equity for our children and young people. In striving for those things, we know that societal inequalities and individual personal challenges have only been exacerbated by Covid, which has put immense pressure on children, young people and their families and carers.

I am pleased that, after the most recent period of school building closures, the Scottish Government commissioned an equity audit, which was published in January, so that it could better understand the impact on children’s learning, health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on disadvantaged students. Since the start of the pandemic, Scottish Government funding has led to an additional 1,400 teachers and over 200 support staff being appointed. New funding can be used to recruit further staff, which might include teachers, classroom assistants, home-school link workers and other support workers, as well as provide resources that families and schools need to support home learning, including additional digital devices where there are any remaining unmet needs for home learning resources. I am incredibly grateful to our hard-working, dedicated teaching professionals for their intense work in planning, organising and delivering learning.

Before Covid, the Scottish Government commissioned the internationally renowned OECD to undertake an independent review of curriculum for excellence, to help us better understand how the curriculum was being implemented across the country. We should not forget that it is still a relatively new curriculum. Only in the past few years have pupils who are finishing in senior phase been pupils who started primary school under curriculum for excellence. We could not have envisaged the impact that Covid would have not only on all our teaching and learning, but on that commissioned work. Nor could we have predicted the impact of the awarding of the 2020 exam diet, to the extent that it did happen. The Deputy First Minister made it clear that lessons needed to be learned from the awarding in 2020, and swift action was taken.

The Scottish Government also expanded the OECD’s remit to include wider issues to do with the broad general education, the senior phase and articulation between the two. However, I remain unconvinced by its observations about disadvantage in subject choice, because, at the end of the day, it is pupils’ outcomes that matter. We are seeing more and more pupils going on to modern apprenticeships and to further and higher education.

The Scottish Government has also had to acknowledge the constraints under which the OECD is operating due to the effects of the pandemic. In September—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Ms Adamson, you are over your time. I have to ask you to draw your remarks to a close.

Clare Adamson

I am sorry, Presiding Officer. It is hard to monitor the time when I am at home.

The motion puts the cart before the horse.

15:15  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I agree with the Deputy First Minister that a huge amount of hard work is being done by a great number of people in the SQA and in Education Scotland, and I have no doubt that much of that work has been useful. However, the two key, central points that are entirely inescapable in the debate have been set out by Ross Greer and Liz Smith. The issues with those institutions are not new and they are not confined to the pandemic; they are long-standing issues that have been revisited by the Parliament on a number of occasions. Frankly, we are reaching the limit of having these debates and no action being taken.

The second key issue is the pattern of outcomes and results that are directly caused by those institutions, which cannot be supported. That issue was well set out by Jamie Greene and Willie Rennie. We cannot ignore the pattern of what has happened with the implementation of curriculum for excellence over the past 10 years, starting with the 20,000 pages of guidance that Willie Rennie pointed to, which led to huge confusion among the teaching profession and undoubtedly hampered its roll-out.

We need to talk plainly, because curriculum for excellence has been bedevilled by those on-going issues, and, although many of them have been resolved, there are still lingering issues. Curriculum for excellence was meant to be a broad change in approach, linking across disciplines, but we have seen a fudging of disciplines and boundaries and a lack of clarity. Too much emphasis has been placed on the requirement for teachers to construct a curriculum for themselves, and there is an overarching tick-box approach rather than the broader change in doctrine that was supposed to be ushered in by curriculum for excellence.

Nor can we ignore the issues that have come up with examinations. We know about the problems with multilevel teaching. We also know about the issues that are associated with the introduction of national 5s and the significant changes that had to be made as a result of them.

The truth is that, when we dig into those issues, the problems with the institutions become very clear indeed. At the beginning of the current parliamentary session, when the Education and Skills Committee looked at many of the issues, neither Education Scotland nor the SQA could point to who had made the decisions about the deliverability of those examinations. That lack of transparency and clarity about who is responsible is a theme that we have seen throughout our examination of the issues.

If we look at the more recent problems with the algorithm, we continue to see a lack of transparency from the SQA. It fundamentally changed the methodology, removing the final link of going back to schools to check results, and it never published the algorithm. That is not an approach that we can tolerate in our education system; we need transparency. We need institutions that have the trust of the education system, of teachers and of parents. Quite simply, those institutions have lost that trust, and we cannot allow that state of affairs to carry on any longer.

We hoped that the OECD report would provide answers, but we will not know what those answers are before the election. The election is supposed to be an opportunity for the electorate to make informed decisions, yet in education—the most important subject area that the Parliament will look at, according to the First Minister—the electorate will not be able to make an informed decision, because the OECD report will not be published despite the fact that it will be sitting on ministers’ desks.

For those reasons, we cannot support the Government’s amendment and we must support the Liberal Democrat motion. We need to reform the education system, the SQA and Education Scotland.

15:19  

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Today’s debate has pretty much summed up 14 years of SNP education policy failure. Not only is the Government wasting time and energy on plotting to hold an illegal referendum before Christmas this year, but any spare energy that it has left is being expended on hiding the truth at all costs. Let us make no mistake: if the Government had got a glowing report from the OECD, we would be having a debate on it in the chamber and, at the very least, it would have been leaked to the press. Instead, the report sits on the cabinet secretary’s desk, buried under all the other damning documents that the Parliament has demanded be published.

The claim that education is the Government’s number 1 priority is laughable and no longer holds any credibility. At the heart of the problem is the cabinet secretary, who has failed to get a grip of any of the key issues and has, at every turn, simply opted for the path of least resistance instead of demanding the change that is badly needed to restore our once world-leading education system.

It has not escaped my attention that many members who have served in Parliament for a long time recognise the repeated failures and a continued choice on the part of the cabinet secretary to push the issues further and further down the road. All the while, our young people are being let down.

We have all the essential ingredients of a world-leading system: a dedicated workforce, committed young people, parents and carers, and a will in the Parliament to work together. We have seen that once again during the pandemic, when many schools and individual teachers have gone above and beyond in exceptionally difficult circumstances. The only thing missing in all of that is the SNP. I have lost count of how many times the Government has lost votes on education, with the rest of the Parliament, despite our political differences, uniting to call for action.

No one who has sat on the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee or followed its proceedings can have any confidence in Education Scotland or the SQA. There seems to be a kind of pact in place whereby they will let the Scottish Government off the hook when it comes to substandard outcomes in return for a free pass to mark their own homework and excuse away their role in events.

Over the past five years, I have visited almost every school in my constituency, with only the pandemic preventing me from completing the list. In every school, I have seen the problem of teachers and young people coming up against a system that speaks in soundbites and buzzwords, that thinks that it knows better and that, ultimately, does not seem to grasp the challenges on the ground.

As many members have pointed out, there is confusion about the lines of accountability and about who is making some of the key decisions and judgment calls. I am personally alarmed at the continued failings when it comes to ASN provision. It is progress that the cabinet secretary now seems to recognise that there is a gap between the rhetoric and reality, but, as every person at the coalface knows, that has been the case for years and nothing has been done.

Right across the education system, the very organisations that exist to raise standards and ensure equity and excellence are so detached from reality that it is hard to see how they can ever do their job effectively. I believe that that is why teachers have lost faith in those key organisations, as my colleague Liz Smith and others have pointed out. We just cannot accept that.

That is why, if we are serious about getting things right for our young people, we cannot let the matter slip into the next session of Parliament. We must own the issues and face them head on. Rather than being a convenient excuse to hit the pause button, the pandemic is a call to action that has highlighted the weakness at the centre of the system, and we need to do something about it. The cabinet secretary needs to do something about it. It is not enough just to wish the problems away.

15:23  

John Swinney

One of the points that Daniel Johnson made does not stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever. Mr Johnson acknowledged that public servants had done a great deal of work in supporting the delivery of education during remote learning in the agencies—Education Scotland and the SQA—that are the subject of criticism in Willie Rennie’s motion. However, Mr Johnson has indicated that he intends to vote for the motion. It leaves a bad taste for people who have worked hard to support the education system, as teachers and local authority officials have done around the country, to be given a kick in the teeth by Parliament this afternoon.

Willie Rennie

It is a characteristic of the Government that, whenever ministers are under attack, they always use public servants to defend their policy failures. This is another example of that. We in no way criticise individuals; we criticise the organisation, and the minister should accept that.

John Swinney

That is the pathetic kind of behaviour that we get from Mr Rennie and his colleague Mr Cole-Hamilton on a regular basis. We have public servants in those organisations who have worked very hard during the pandemic, and the first part of Mr Rennie’s motion sticks the boot into those public servants. I will not associate the Government with that type of shabby behaviour—and the Liberal Democrats know all about shabby behaviour this week, if I may say so. [Interruption.] I will not take another intervention—I have to close the debate.

On some of the substantive choices, Mr Rowley put some fair points to me about the funding for school education. I have boosted school education funding by sending money directly to schools for five years in pupil equity funding, giving headteachers control over the budgets at their disposal. Mr Rowley then attacks me for funding the national agencies. If I had not funded the national agencies, there would not be a digital network in place that allows every single school pupil in Scotland to have a digital account that enables them to access remote learning. That is what investment in the national agencies has brought.

Mr Gray laid into the SQA for all the preparations for the assessment in 2021. One of the recommendations of the Priestley review was that the SQA should bring together a stakeholder group in the education system involving professional associations, Colleges Scotland and directors of education, working with the SQA. It is called the national qualifications 2021 group, and the members of that group are the authors of the guidance that is available to the education system. The SQA has not gone off into some ivory tower to make up that guidance itself; it has been working, as the Priestley recommendations said that it should, with the wider education system.

I put those two points on the record to indicate that some of this debate has been, frankly, gratuitous.

Clare Adamson hit the nail on the head. So did Oliver Mundell, if I may say so, if I can get through the persistent personal attacks that Mr Mundell makes on me in parliamentary debates—that is part of his character in Parliament now. As I worked my way through all that, Clare Adamson and Mr Mundell made exactly the right points, asking what effect on outcomes there has been as a consequence of the SNP Government. The effect has been that more young people have been getting better qualifications over the 14 years of this Government. Mr Mundell shakes his head, but I suggest that he goes away and—

Oliver Mundell

Will Mr Swinney give way?

John Swinney

I certainly will.

Oliver Mundell

I cannot believe that Mr Swinney can look young people from deprived communities in the eye and tell them that, under his Government, they have had a fair crack of the whip. I do not believe that. Hiding behind selectively quoted statistics just does not cut it.

John Swinney

I suggest that Mr Mundell acquaints himself with some of the statistics. On attainment of five highers, attainment of one higher from areas of deprivation and positive destinations achieved, young people are doing better today than they did when this Government came to office. That is the record that I will take to the streets of this country on 6 May, and I look forward to Mr Mundell and his colleagues getting the hammering that they deserve on that occasion.

15:28  

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

There is a lot to be proud of in Scottish education. It has been alarming to see what teachers and learners have had to endure during the pandemic, and let us not forget the challenges for parents and family life. It has also been inspiring to see what teachers and learners have achieved. Iain Gray rightly referred to their “heroic” efforts. To say that teachers have stepped up does not do it justice. For many of them, going “above and beyond”, as Oliver Mundell put it, was a habit that they were already accustomed to. Whatever the ask and whatever the call, teachers have worked flat out to give pupils the best education possible.

In that light, the failing national educational infrastructure has become all the more clear. When they were needed most, both of the education secretary’s quangos left teachers, pupils and parents in the lurch.

Without question, children and young people should be at the top of the priority list, yet, minutes after the publication of last year’s exam results, the Scottish Government’s own documents established that pupils from poorer areas were penalised the most. The week before, the SQA told the education secretary about those outcomes. No minutes were taken at the meeting, but we know how it ended. There was no counterbalance or challenge. Somehow, results that actively and unfairly downgraded pupils based simply on the school that they went to were agreed to as acceptable. That was a critical meeting—a chance to pull the plug—but the SQA pressed publish. It is hard to think about the distress that pupils, parents and teachers experienced as a result. Incredibly, on reflection, the SQA seemed to think that, in fact, its was a job well done, because it had completed the ministerial brief and delivered what the education secretary asked for.

In the short review that followed, Professor Mark Priestley found a perception that the organisation was

“remote”

and

“resistant to working with stakeholders.”

He also found that

“There has been an erosion of trust/confidence in SQA amongst teachers and young people”.

I asked Professor Priestley whether he thought that fulfilling the ministerial brief was the SQA’s primary aim, and he answered yes. There is no doubt that the SQA would prefer to appease ministers and keep the cosy arrangement going than serve the interests of Scotland’s learners.

Ross Greer and Liz Smith referred to previous parliamentary debates, evidence that was taken by the Education and Skills Committee in 2016-17 and the concerns at that time about agency accountability. Education Scotland has been missing throughout, and Scottish Liberal Democrats have long been concerned about its ability to do the job that it has been set. There is a fundamental conflict of interest at its heart. Education Scotland sets the Scottish Government’s education policy at the same time as holding it accountable. We are not the only ones who do not trust what is going on. Only 28 per cent of Education Scotland’s employees said that they have confidence in its leadership. Scottish Liberal Democrat research has revealed that Education Scotland has ministerial approval to meddle with the report that is supposed to guide improvement and change.

These agencies have been remote and unaccountable for too long. That must change. As Daniel Johnson said, there must be transparency in the system. Scotland’s children and young people deserve better. They deserve the highest possible standard of education so that they can all reach their full potential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the debate on education.