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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 20 November 2019

Agenda: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Portfolio Question Time, Universal Credit, Health and Social Care (Investment), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, International Year of the Periodic Table


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Culture, Tourism and External Affairs


Pakistan Development Programme

1. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how minority groups within Pakistan are being helped as part of Scotland’s Pakistan development programme. (S5O-03773)

The Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development (Ben Macpherson)

Since 2013, through the British Council, the Scottish Government’s international development programme has provided scholarships in Pakistan to more than 500 women from disadvantaged backgrounds to study in higher education and to more than 4,000 children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Of those scholarships, 1,200 were provided to children from minority backgrounds and 35 to women from minority backgrounds.

John Mason

I seek assurance from the minister that, as he and other members of the Government have contact with the authorities in Pakistan, they will continue to argue for the case of minorities there. We hear about Christians being accused of blasphemy and Ahmadis not being able to get identity cards.

Ben Macpherson

The Scottish Government strongly condemns the persecution of all minorities—including the targeting of innocent people based on their beliefs—and the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The Scottish Government has repeatedly raised directly with the United Kingdom Government and officials from the Government of Pakistan concerns about the issues that John Mason mentioned, and we will continue to do so. We have been in contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which assured us that the British high commission in Islamabad will continue to support civil society and non-governmental organisations in lobbying the Government of Pakistan to honour, in practice, its international commitments, including those relating to freedom of belief.


Immigration Policy (Independent Scotland)

2. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether an independent Scotland could allow people whose immigration status is being challenged through a tribunal or court to continue to work, study or volunteer. (S5O-03774)

The Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development (Ben Macpherson)

Individuals and families who come from all over the world to work, study and settle in Scotland make vital contributions to Scotland’s economy and the delivery of public services. Inward migration enriches our society and communities.

The Scottish Government is sympathetic to all those who have difficulties navigating the complex and increasingly restrictive UK immigration rules. The immigration system should treat all individuals with dignity, fairness and respect; where appropriate, they should be allowed to work and support themselves during the immigration process.

In the event of independence, decisions relating to the shaping of migration policy would be for the Government of the day to make. However, this Scottish Government has long argued that, in the case of asylum seekers, the right to work should be granted to help support their integration and enable them to contribute to their new communities where they can do so.

Emma Harper

The Home Office currently prevents people from working, studying or claiming welfare support while their immigration status is being challenged. I have supported constituents who have been left with no choice other than to rely on charities for food, clothing and housing. Will the minister join me in condemning that inhumane approach from the United Kingdom Home Office, and will he give assurances we will do things differently in an independent Scotland, with a person-centred and fair approach to immigration policy?

Ben Macpherson

The Scottish Government has long expressed concern about the current UK Government’s immigration policies, including those on asylum seekers, and about the UK Government position that asylum seekers can have no recourse to public funds. That is an area in which we could, of course, have different policies as an independent country.

Outwith the constitutional question of independence, if this Parliament had powers to set the rules and criteria for a Scottish visa, we could think about how to make immigration policy differently here in Scotland, but within a UK framework.


Tourism (Orkney)

3. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Destination Orkney and Orkney Islands Council about the future needs of the tourism sector. (S5O-03775)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

I discussed tourism with the leader of Orkney Islands Council on my recent visit to Orkney to launch the Scottish Government’s Arctic policy framework, which contains proposals for greater knowledge and policy exchange between Scotland and Arctic countries in relation to sustainable tourism in rural and island areas.

The Scottish Government’s engagement with Destination Orkney and Orkney Islands Council takes place regularly, through our agencies. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, VisitScotland, Historic Environment Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage are all principal partners in the new tourism partnership group with Destination Orkney and Orkney Islands Council. I offer Destination Orkney my congratulations on winning the working together for tourism award at the Highlands and Islands tourism awards earlier this month.

Liam McArthur

I very much welcome both the Arctic initiative to which the cabinet secretary referred and the support that the Scottish Government is giving it.

Although the tourism sector in Orkney has enjoyed strong growth in recent years, Destination Orkney, which will hold its annual summit in Kirkwall tomorrow, has highlighted the challenge that local tourism businesses face as a result of the Orkney Islands’ continued lack of access to the cheaper ferry fares that are available to communities on the west coast. Will the cabinet secretary reinforce with her Cabinet colleagues the need for road equivalent tariff to be introduced on Orkney’s ferry routes as soon as possible?

Fiona Hyslop

The principle that tourism is everyone’s business also applies to my Cabinet colleagues who cover other areas of the economy. On access, I regularly and consistently make the case for improved ferry operations for not just Orkney but the rest of Scotland.

Liam McArthur is correct to say that it is important for Destination Orkney to face up to the challenge. The matter will be addressed this week through the five-year strategy that is in the vision for tourism that Destination Orkney will launch.

I regularly raise with my Cabinet colleagues all aspects of such matters, including ferry operations. Only this week, I had the opportunity of discussing with the cabinet secretaries who cover other aspects of the economy the importance of tourism to all their portfolios, and I will reiterate that when I discuss the matter with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Question 4 has been withdrawn.


Tourism (Cowdenbeath)

5. Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes tourism in the Cowdenbeath constituency. (S5O-03777)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

Through Historic Environment Scotland, we are developing a new augmented reality app, which is entitled “In the Footsteps of Kings”. The first phase of that work was launched this summer. The app will feature Aberdour castle and nearby Ravenscraig castle, and will provide an enjoyable and informative experience for visitors to those sites, especially families.

VisitScotland continues to promote Cowdenbeath’s rapidly growing collection of public art through its consumer social media channels. Further, our agencies continue to work with local sectoral organisations, including the Fife Tourism Partnership and the Heartlands of Fife local tourist association, and provide advice on projects such as the Fife pilgrim way.

Annabelle Ewing

I welcome the excellent initiatives that the cabinet secretary has mentioned in her answer. From questions that I have raised previously, she will be aware of the save the cage campaign, the aim of which is to bring mining artefacts to Lochore Meadows country park, which is in my constituency. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to engage with the National Mining Museum of Scotland on that campaign?

Fiona Hyslop

I am fully aware of the save the cage campaign, not least because the constituency MSP has raised it a number of times. I understand that discussions have already taken place between the Scottish Mining Museum Collection Trust and the Fife Coast & Countryside Trust to look at the feasibility project to which Annabelle Ewing refers.


Heritage Sites (Highlands and Islands)

6. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to protect heritage sites in the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-03778)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

Protecting heritage sites across Scotland is a core purpose of Historic Environment Scotland, the Scottish Government’s lead public body for the historic environment. It is responsible for the direct care of more than 300 heritage sites of national importance, of which 122 are in the Highlands and Islands. It further protects heritage sites through designation and consent processes and provides millions of pounds of grant funding each year to sites across Scotland. Last year, it provided more than £2.9 million to organisations and projects in the Highlands and Islands.

Rhoda Grant

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Western Isles are home to fantastic archaeology, much of which has not been excavated or protected in any way. However, many of those sites and structures are currently suffering badly from coastal erosion. Does the Government plan to produce a strategy to protect vitally important sites from climate change?

Fiona Hyslop

I have a number of points to make. A number of projects are looking at the archaeology of coastal sites and mapping it. I will make sure that additional information is sent to the member. Yesterday, I was in Paris at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s first meeting of culture ministers for 20 years. At that meeting, I raised the issue of climate change in relation to heritage. Rhoda Grant may not be aware of this but, only two weeks ago, a new global organisation called Climate Heritage Network was established, led by Historic Environment Scotland and our partners in California, precisely to make sure that the issues of archaeological sites, particularly those that are in danger from coastal erosion, are addressed. The climate threat index that has been produced by Historic Environment Scotland was adopted by UNESCO at its meeting in Baku earlier this year.

Scotland is well aware of the challenges and we also have the expertise that is demanded and needed, not just here in Scotland but around the world. We have to be realistic about the long-term implications of climate change for our sites, in particular our historic sites in coastal areas. One of the messages from the Climate Heritage Network is that heritage and culture should not just be seen as the victims of climate change; they can be part of the solution. That is a message that we can get behind. I hope that everybody will support Historic Environment Scotland in leading the world in looking at some of these issues.


International Engagement (Human Rights)

7. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it uses international engagement to help increase understanding of human rights worldwide. (S5O-03779)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

As a good global citizen, the Scottish Government is committed to protecting democracy, the rule of law and human rights around the world. Indeed, Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to endorse the United Nations sustainable development goals, which are fully embedded in our national performance framework. International engagement allows us to share our experiences across a wide range of policy areas and to demonstrate the link between social and economic inequalities and human rights.

For example, our climate justice fund recognises that the adverse impacts of climate change often fall most severely on people whose rights are already under threat from existing inequalities; our contribution to the women in conflict 1325 fellowship enables training for women from countries of conflict, so that they can play an integral role in the peace process; since 2017, we have provided scholarships to more than 4,000 children in Pakistan to enable them to exercise their right to education; and applicants for our international development funding in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda are required to show how their project is taking a human rights-based approach to development.

Ruth Maguire

Spain’s conviction of the Catalan leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart for sedition has been labelled by Amnesty International as being in violation of human rights. Amnesty argues that an overly broad interpretation by Spain of the crime of sedition has resulted in the criminalisation of legitimate acts of protest and the violation of rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. I agree. In the current climate, in which people’s rights are under threat around the globe, does the cabinet secretary agree that it is more important than ever that Scotland uses its influence wherever possible and acts as an example of best practice when it comes to protecting and enhancing human rights, here and globally?

Fiona Hyslop

Yes, I do. The Scottish Government will always seek to raise human rights with foreign Governments, including the Spanish Government, when opportunities arise. We advocate the benefits of a rights-based approach, and have placed respect for human rights at the heart of our national performance framework. We can of course learn from others; we regularly seek to engage with human rights defenders overseas and to share our knowledge and learn from their experience. In a turbulent world in which many people’s rights in many countries are under threat, we in Scotland must stand in solidarity with those who seek freedom and justice through dialogue and democracy.


National Galleries of Scotland (BP Sponsorship)

8. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to National Galleries Scotland’s decision to end sponsorship from BP. (S5O-03780)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

The decision by the National Galleries of Scotland relates to one annual exhibition, the BP portrait award, which it hosts in Edinburgh but which is organised by the National Portrait Gallery in London. The BP sponsorship relationship is primarily with the National Portrait Gallery. The decision that this will be the last time the exhibition will be held in its present form in Edinburgh rightly lies with the National Galleries of Scotland’s board of trustees, which has given the question of sponsorship careful consideration.

Rachael Hamilton

Corporate sponsorship and donors play a huge role financially in supporting the arts and cultural sector. Fundraising is likely to be difficult for arts institutions, because the unintended consequences of this decision will disproportionately hurt the young, poor and disadvantaged by leaving them with fewer cultural and educational opportunities available. Moreover, the negativity that surrounds arts funding could deter companies from entering the arts arena. Will the Scottish Government come good and increase financial support to arts institutions to prevent a cultural deficit in Scotland as a result?

Fiona Hyslop

I think that Rachael Hamilton’s contribution contained a number of broad-brush and sweeping generalisations and statements and reflects a very negative approach by the Conservatives; they are not supporting our institutions and their work by assuming that the state will always step in. That is counter to what we understand is the general approach of the Conservatives to funding, which that the state should not necessarily always step in as the final resort.

Our galleries and other institutions have a healthy relationship with corporate decision making about donorship, and our job is to get behind them and support them in that. Individual decisions about the organisations from which they accept donations are for them to make. There will be a transition—that is the right word to use with regard to climate change—in which people, organisations and institutions make individual decisions as we go along. The world is shifting and, as it does so, how we fund arts or any other areas may shift with it. There are great opportunities for people to get behind our cultural institutions, including the National Galleries of Scotland, and I would like to see all of us, in our constituency capacities as well as our portfolio responsibilities, encouraging business to help to support our arts and cultural institutions, rather than take the very negative and narrow-minded approach of the Conservatives.


Education and Skills


Open University (Scottish Public Services Ombudsman)

1. Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason complaints regarding the Open University, which is registered as both a charity and a university, cannot be referred to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. (S5O-03781)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

The Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 includes provisions to extend the remit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to include further and higher educational establishments. The Open University is not included, however, because, as a United Kingdom institution with its main base in England, it falls under UK-wide procedures. Complaints regarding the Open University can be referred to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.

Angus MacDonald

It seems to be an unfortunate anomaly that students who are based in Scotland and studying with the OU, which is a university that is registered in Scotland, do not have the same route for complaints as students at other Scottish universities. Will the minister undertake to explore bringing the OU into line with all the other universities that are registered in Scotland?

Richard Lochhead

Anyone who has a complaint against the Open University, or any other institution for that matter, should exhaust the internal procedures for that institution. I note my colleague’s concern about the Open University’s position and I understand where he is coming from. However, the Open University is unique and its membership of the scheme that is run by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education provides students with a consistent experience and helps to avoid a situation in which students could be treated differently simply due to where they live. We have to take that issue into account, but I note the member’s concerns.


Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Courses (Consultation with Employers)

2. Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consultation it undertakes with major employers to ensure that science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses are relevant and appropriate to the needs of commerce and industry. (S5O-03782)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

Employers can engage with and input into the curriculum in schools through the school-employer partnerships that are supported by the developing the young workforce regional groups. As part of our STEM education and training strategy, materials on STEM skills needs and careers are being developed for use by teachers.

Employers are actively engaged in consultation on and the development of Scottish Qualifications Authority qualifications and awards through their representation on qualifications development teams. For example, practising data scientists were involved in the new national progression awards in data science.

Stewart Stevenson

Particular concerns have been expressed to me about shortcomings in numeracy. Are those concerns also being heard by the Government? In any event, what plans does the Government have to improve school leavers’ skills in that particular area?

Richard Lochhead

Numeracy is at the heart of the curriculum in Scotland, and 95.8 per cent of school leavers attained numeracy at SCQF level 3 or better under the Scottish credit and qualifications framework in 2017-18. Through our STEM education and training strategy, we are equipping young people with STEM skills that they will need in life. The £1.3 million STEM grants programme is increasing STEM support for practitioners, including for mathematics.

With regard to Stewart Stevenson’s local area, under the northern alliance regional improvement collaborative, local lead officers have met employers to hear their concerns and are working collaboratively with Education Scotland and numeracy experts to support practitioners and improve pupil attainment.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The Scottish Government had an opportunity to take a new approach with foundation apprenticeships by introducing a new generation to the sort of practical, accessible STEM learning that will be vital for the future. However, since their introduction, STEM foundation apprenticeships have fallen into the trap of huge gender divides. In the third cohort, 86.9 per cent of those taking engineering are male; for software development, the rate is 86.7 per cent, and for civil engineering it is 84 per cent.

Why has that happened with an entirely new qualification that is aimed at young people? What action is being taken to address the gender divide in STEM?

Richard Lochhead

I welcome the member’s positive words about foundation apprenticeships, which are playing an increasingly important role. The gender balance, in that particular STEM route or in other STEM routes, is a significant issue and we are taking a number of steps to tackle the gender divide. The recently published report on the first year of the five-year STEM strategy—we have debated some of the issues in the chamber—contains a number of measures to tackle the gender divide and attract more females into STEM qualifications, career paths and, hopefully, careers thereafter.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

Relevant and appropriate courses are no good if we do not have teachers to teach them. We know that we have a particular problem in recruiting computer science teachers. What is the Scottish Government doing, in working with the information technology industry, to address that problem?

Richard Lochhead

The member highlights an important point. As he is aware, STEM bursaries are available for career changers, and they have so far been very successful in attracting teachers who were previously in careers elsewhere into the STEM subjects. I have met a number of teachers who have successfully applied for those bursaries, which have made a big difference to their decision to follow a STEM career in teaching.

We will continue to reflect on what other measures can be taken. Those measures that we are taking are making a difference, but we accept that there is still some way to go.


University (Widening Access)

3. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government to what extent its attempts to widen access to university have been effective. (S5O-03783)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

Scotland is widening access to university, with data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on acceptances showing record high numbers from the most deprived areas of Scotland year after year.

We have a record number of entrants to university with a declared disability, we have improved retention rates for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with care experience, and we have improved outcomes, with more students from deprived backgrounds going on to qualify from university. As the commissioner for fair access, Sir Peter Scott, said in his annual report in June,

“significant and welcome progress has been made”

with that agenda.

Jackie Baillie

The minister will of course be aware that senior academics from the University of Edinburgh have cautioned that the policy of widening access to university for those from Scotland’s most deprived communities based on the Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas is seriously flawed and disproportionately benefits the better-off. Will he review the implementation of the policy? It may currently be too blunt an instrument to effectively target the most disadvantaged.

Richard Lochhead

As I indicated in my previous answer, the commissioner for fair access, Sir Peter Scott, has said that we are making good progress on this agenda. Indeed, he said that Scotland is setting the pace in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding his comments, the member raises a genuine point: the recent report highlights some issues that the Scottish Government is very keen to take on board.

I take issue, of course, with the comment that our current strategy is seriously flawed—it certainly is not. However, we know that there is a clear relationship between SIMD areas and school attainment and access to university, and we think that it is right to focus on learners from those disadvantaged areas. We appreciate that not everyone who faces multiple social and economic disadvantage lives in those 20 per cent of areas in Scotland; that is why we have established a data working group to examine how we can support learners who do not live in those areas but who face similar social and economic barriers to accessing university.

We recognise that although the system is not absolutely perfect, it is making fantastic progress and people from disadvantaged backgrounds are getting into university in greater numbers than ever before. We are already very close to achieving our 2021 target, and we are being hailed for that by external observers, but there is more to do.


Young People (Preparation for Work)

4. Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is preparing young people for entering the workforce. (S5O-03784)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

We ensure that young people are prepared for the world of work through the implementation of our youth employment strategy, developing the young workforce. Through that strategy, we are creating an enhanced curriculum offer to equip young people in schools and colleges with the skills to succeed in current and future labour markets. That has included the creation of new work-based learning options; enabling young people to learn in a range of settings in their senior phase of school; building employer engagement in education; providing careers advice at an earlier point in school; and introducing new standards for career education and work placements.

Stuart McMillan

The minister will be aware of the inver racers project in my constituency, which the cabinet secretary visited earlier this year. In the project, a team of students from Inverclyde Academy learned engineering skills and built a racing car as part of the green power initiative between West College Scotland and developing the young workforce. Does the minister agree that such initiatives are part of an innovative approach to education and an opportunity to offer educational engagement to some pupils for whom daily teaching might not be working? Will he recommend that that approach be expanded and considered as a route to some STEM modern apprenticeships?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes; I am aware of the inver racers initiative and I agree that it is a very appropriate example of the type of initiative that we want to see in our schools. I am aware of such projects happening in other parts of the country, too. It is incumbent on all educational environments to learn from good practice. That applies to other schools in the Inverclyde area and more widely in Scotland.

We want to see an increased passion for STEM in young people, which we hope will inspire them to want to study either academically or through an increased uptake of STEM apprenticeships. Of course, we are increasing the number of apprenticeship opportunities across the country and I encourage young people in the Inverclyde area and elsewhere to take advantage of them.


Early Years Learning and Childcare (Jobs in North Ayrshire)

5. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many jobs will be created in North Ayrshire through the expansion of early years learning and childcare. (S5O-03785)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

Our ambitious programme to expand early learning and childcare will bring a wide range of benefits for Scotland. As well as playing a vital role in helping to improve children’s outcomes and closing the poverty-related attainment gap, it will provide greater opportunities for parents to enter work or training. It will also create around 8,500 additional full-time equivalent jobs across Scotland, including in North Ayrshire.

North Ayrshire Council will receive £14.5 million of additional annual revenue funding to deliver 1,140 hours entitlement, which will support the expansion of the workforce. We are also providing the council with more than £11 million in capital funding, which will support jobs in extending, refurbishing and building nurseries in the area.

Kenneth Gibson

I thank the minister for that answer, but there was no mention of the number of jobs specifically in North Ayrshire, which I understand could be between 70 and 100. Can the minister further advise how many children in North Ayrshire are expected to benefit, and how much each family will save per child in childcare costs through the implementation of the policy?

Maree Todd

From August 2020, all three and four-year-olds, and around a quarter of two-year-olds, will be entitled to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare. That is nearly double the figure that applies in the current environment. The most recent Improvement Service data shows that, nationally, more than 46,000 children already benefit from more than 600 hours, ahead of full roll-out from August 2020. In addition, North Ayrshire Council is phasing in early the extra hours: as of June 2019, nine settings were involved in piloting, ahead of full roll-out from August 2020 onwards.

The 2018 early learning and childcare census data showed 2,323 registrations for funded early learning and childcare for two, three and four-year-olds in North Ayrshire. The council is working extremely hard with its partners to ensure that places will be available for all children who wish to take up the expanded offer from August 2020.


School and School-related Activities (Cost to Families)

6. Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has undertaken of the cost to families of children attending school and participating in school-related activities. (S5O-03786)

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

As I said in my response to the Education and Skills Committee in February, policies that govern charges for in-school activities are delegated to school level; therefore, analysis of charges would necessitate inclusion of all schools in Scotland. An analysis on such a scale would be bureaucratic and the likelihood of it producing robust, operational data is questionable, due to the variation in approach between and within schools.

In June this year, along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Government published revised guidelines for devolved school management, including advice on the matter that Claire Baker raised. The advice makes clear that headteachers are expected to ensure that any costs on families are minimised to ensure equality of access. Where charges are deemed unavoidable, schools should publish details of anticipated pupil charges for curricular or extra-curricular activities that require funding contributions from families at the start of the academic session, alongside information about the potential availability to pupils of financial assistance, discounts and exemptions.

Claire Baker

The guidance is welcome, but the response to a recent freedom of information request shows huge variations in the amounts that schools charge for home economics, art and technology subjects and in the provision of exemptions for families. A school in my region is charging more than £100 a year for a national 5 qualification in hospitality.

The Scottish Government will say that that is not its responsibility. However, given that local authority budgets are under so much pressure, how can the Scottish Government be confident that funding constraints are not the driver for such increases? Will the Government continue to work with local authorities to end charges for school subjects?

John Swinney

I am happy to commit to work with local authorities on such questions. However, local government has statutory responsibility for the delivery of education at local level and it is entirely appropriate for individual schools to establish their policy positions on the matter, in line with the Government’s clear guidance—which is supported by COSLA—that charges should be minimised and that if charges are necessary, they should be set out alongside a variety of exemptions and other provisions to maximise equality of access.

That is the responsibility of individual schools and local authorities to take forward. The Government sets the framework and local decisions must be applied, but I look to them to be applied on a basis that minimises charges for pupils.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

What steps is the cabinet secretary taking to ensure that high school students of home economics and art do not face a postcode lottery in relation to charges for materials?

John Swinney

I think that I answered that question in my response to Claire Baker.

I point out to Mr Stewart that he and the Conservatives regularly press me to ensure that schools have more discretion over the delivery of education. His question is an example of the contradiction that is at the heart of what the Conservatives say in the Parliament. They argue for us to deliver more autonomy to individual schools and then they come here and demand that I lay down the law from Edinburgh. That is a total contradiction in policy. I invite the Conservatives to sort it all out so that they do not come here with incoherent questions.


Secondary Schools (Multilevel Teaching)

7. Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis has been carried out regarding the impact of multilevel teaching in secondary schools. (S5O-03787)

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

Running bi-level or multilevel course classes is an approach that many schools have used for many years to increase the amount of choice available to their pupils.

There will be varying levels of prior attainment in any class, and Education Scotland has yet to see any firm evidence from inspections of educational disadvantage due to multilevel teaching.

In line with the unanimous decision of the Parliament on 1 May, we will be conducting an independent review of the senior phase of curriculum for excellence. The review will provide an opportunity to look at the impact of different approaches to learning and teaching, including bi-level and multilevel teaching.

Jenny Marra

On the cabinet secretary’s watch, multilevel teaching has increased exponentially, and there is no guarantee that it is not having a detrimental impact on attainment.

Recently released figures show that in Dundee nearly 60 per cent of teaching is done in multilevel classes. One hundred of those classes are teaching three levels of qualifications and two are teaching four. That touches every part of the curriculum—English, science, history, geography and modern languages. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that his announced review will include a study of the extent of multilevel teaching, a review of the pupil and teacher experience in such classes and an attempt to understand what is driving his increase—is it a lack of money or a shortage of staff?

John Swinney

There is a lot of material that I have to respond to in that question. The first point is that the remit of the review of the senior phase of curriculum for excellence is currently being developed. I have invited contributions from the Education and Skills Committee. I will look in the Official Report at the issues that Jenny Marra has raised, in order to consider the appropriateness of reflecting on them.

The second point is on the motivation for multilevel teaching. As I said in my original answer, many schools adopt that approach to maximise the choice available to pupils, which is a crucial part of ensuring that young people have broad subject choice in schools. I believe that they do.

The third point is that there is an increased number of teachers in our schools, which is really welcome. That has come about because of the investment that the Government has made in initial teacher education.

Jenny Marra

Rubbish!

John Swinney

The fourth point is that the vacancy rate in secondary education has reduced again, as Ms Marra might have noted if she had read the statistics from last week.

Ms Marra is raising those issues and muttering at me from the sidelines; she might want to look at the analysis by Professor Mark Priestly and others at the University of Stirling, which indicated that, while all that is going on, attainment levels in Scottish education have risen under curriculum for excellence.


Investment in School Estate (Highlands and Islands)

8. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how many schools in the Highlands and Islands are being considered as part of the next phase of its learning estate investment programme. (S5O-03788)

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

I am pleased that a new Tain three-to-18 campus and a new Castlebay campus in the Highlands and Islands were two of the projects to benefit from the first phase of the learning estate investment programme.

The Scottish Government looks forward to continuing discussions with all local authorities in the coming months regarding which of their projects may be suitable for support through the second phase of the programme, which will be announced in September 2020.

Edward Mountain

I, too, welcome the funding for the Tain campus. I know that the pupils do, too.

I recently visited Culloden academy, Charleston academy and Nairn academy—all secondary schools that I go to are not fit for purpose. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that he will seriously consider those schools for investment, because some of them are close to falling down?

John Swinney

On my visit to Tain academy, the pupils made a very compelling argument for the refurbishment of their school, including by handing me an umbrella as we moved into the school library, in case it was raining inside it. I thought that that was a very suitable prop—I am delighted that we have taken that decision on Tain academy.

As Mr Mountain knows, I am sympathetic to this, because I want to see the school estate strengthened. I take issue with him on his point that—I think he used these words—

“all secondary schools that I go to are not fit for purpose”.

I encourage him to get out a bit more, because he will find some fantastic buildings in the school estate around the Highlands and Islands. I have visited Nairn academy and I appreciate the issues and challenges in the estate there.

As I said in my first answer, I will consider representations from local authorities in the run-up to September 2020. I point out to the chamber that we have seen a magnificent increase in the quality of the school estate. The proportion of schools that are in a good or satisfactory condition has increased from 61 per cent, when this Government came to office, to 88 per cent in 2019. That is remarkable progress and we look forward to doing more in the years to come.