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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 22 September 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Minority Ethnic People and Communities, Decision Time, Residential Outdoor Centres


Topical Question Time

Exam Diet 2021

1. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans for the 2021 exam diet. (S5T-02399)

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

Our ambition remains to run a 2020-21 examination diet. However, Covid continues to present real risks of further disruption for individual learners, schools and colleges, and more widely across the country during the course of the year. Also, we do not know what situation we will face in spring next year, when the exam diet would normally take place.

Our approach to exams must remain appropriate to the circumstances that we face. It is critical that we take account of the lessons from the 2020 national qualifications. Professor Mark Priestley will report the findings of his independent review at the end of this month, and I will consider fully his recommendations for assessment this year. The Scottish Qualifications Authority and the education recovery group are looking at contingencies in relation to exams.

I have committed to providing as much clarity and certainty as possible on the matter at the start of next month, before the October recess.

Jamie Greene

The reality is that many parents, teachers and pupils are watching and listening with apprehension. Hundreds have already written to us this week with concerns that the Government might already be planning to cancel either some or all of next year’s exams. Their plea to us is simple: please do not throw in the towel on the 2021 exam diet just yet. Does the cabinet secretary agree with them?

John Swinney

Parents, pupils and teachers understand that I have to look at all contingencies. We are about to hear a statement from the First Minister about the deteriorating situation in relation to Covid. I cannot ignore that reality; I would be foolhardy to do so.

The education recovery group and the SQA are looking closely at contingency options for the exam diet. As I have maintained throughout, our ambition remains to run a 2021 exam diet. However, I have to take a prudent course of action to ensure that we explore all possible contingencies, so that we have a means of effectively certificating in 2021.

Jamie Greene

No one denies that the virus situation is unpredictable. Such decisions are unenviable, but Scotland’s young people have already suffered too much disruption to their education this year. I argue that there is time—time to plan, time to resource and time to offer certainty that, no matter what happens, the Government will pull out all the stops to create a credible awards system for all pupils in 2021.

Given that teachers are already teaching, and students are already learning, time is of the essence. By what date will we see robust plans, including contingency plans? When will a final decision be made on the full 2021 exam diet? More important, who is being consulted in the making of those plans?

John Swinney

I assure Mr Greene that the Government is pulling out all the stops to explore all the options. As he knows, the education recovery group is being consulted on the question, as are teachers. The SQA has carried out an extensive consultation exercise, to which many thousands of individuals and organisations have responded. We are, of course, awaiting Professor Priestley’s review, which will contain important updated information for us all.

As I have indicated, I will provide as much clarity and certainty as possible at the start of next month, before the October recess. I intend, subject to the agreement of the Parliamentary Bureau, to update Parliament at that stage.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I know that the situation is difficult, but teachers and pupils are now six weeks into courses—longer, if we consider the time that was lost in June, before the summer holidays. Continuous assessment and the evidence that is required for it will, at the very least, be needed as a contingency. According to evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, the Priestley report should be with the cabinet secretary already. Could schools be given more guidance sooner than mid-October?

John Swinney

The Priestley report should not be with me by now. It is to be with me by the end of September, as the Education and Skills Committee was told.

One of the options that we are considering is the timing of the exam diet. If we have the exam diet slightly later, that will create more opportunity for learning and teaching to be undertaken, to ensure that there is adequate opportunity for courses to be covered properly. We are looking at all the options in coming to what is an incredibly difficult judgment in order to ensure that young people are able to undertake all the necessary learning and teaching, and have the opportunity for fair certification nationwide.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

During this period of uncertainty, as we see a worrying rise in the number of cases of coronavirus in Scotland, does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is more important than ever that parties across the chamber work together to ensure that pupils’ hard work will be recognised fairly, and that the matter should not be used as a political football, as the Tories continue their attack on Scottish education?

John Swinney

A lot of detailed and challenging issues have to be addressed. The Government is doing that with our partners, so that we develop an approach that ensures fairness for all learners around the country. Ensuring that all learners have fairness in their experience is an important commitment. The impact of Covid, which Mr Adam has correctly highlighted, means that some learners might experience more disruption to their learning than others do. We have to find a way of ensuring that there is fairness for all learners throughout the process.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I note how convenient it is that Jamie Greene has parents, pupils and teachers getting in touch with him who want to keep next year’s exams in place, whereas I have parents, pupils and teachers getting in touch with me who want them to be cancelled for the sake of certainty.

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it would be unacceptable for some schools to be able to have exams go ahead and others not, in the event of localised lockdowns? That would result in young people receiving qualifications in the same course on the basis of entirely different assessment models in the same year. Also, does he believe that young people and teachers deserve a level of certainty now that simply cannot be provided by running the risk of exams that might be cancelled by events that are outwith our control?

John Swinney

At the heart of the first part of Mr Greer’s question is the issue of fairness, which I have rehearsed in a number of my answers. I have to be mindful of the importance of ensuring that there is fairness in all the decision making that we undertake, for the benefit of all learners.

There are, of course, significant logistical challenges in guaranteeing that we can assemble all the necessary pupils on the necessary day to undertake particular examinations, which is why we have to explore contingencies. I acknowledge that it is important to give as much clarity as possible, as early in the school year as possible. However, I am sure that Parliament will understand that we can do that only when we have sufficiently strong foundations upon which to base those contingencies. I will do that at the earliest possible opportunity.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

We are well over a month into the new term and we are fast approaching preliminary exams. Teachers are being asked to plan lessons without knowing what pupils will be assessed on or how those assessments will be made, and they seek clarity.

I acknowledge the very difficult circumstances that we all face, but I asked the cabinet secretary two weeks ago whether he has any idea of the scale of the extra hours that teachers work and I did not receive an answer. Can the cabinet secretary give Parliament the answer to that now, and can he say how any changes to the exams will avoid adding to teachers’ workloads?

John Swinney

I made it clear to the Education and Skills Committee last week—in response to a question from Ross Greer—that, in carrying out the work on which I have reported to Parliament and on which I reported to the committee last week, my objective was that I wanted to do nothing that would add to teachers’ workloads.

Therefore, we have to take a very detailed approach to ensure that the material that we ask teachers to gather—which we have already asked them to gather, through the guidance from the Scottish Qualifications Authority to enable and support continuous assessment—is the routine and rudimentary assessment work that teachers do in the course of the delivery of learning and teaching. We will ask them to do that and we will look very carefully at the impact on teacher workload of whatever changes we make, to ensure that workload is not enhanced in any way as a consequence of decisions that we arrive at.

Emergency Measures Agreement (Rail Services)

2. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the plan to extend the emergency measures agreement to help rail services deal with the impact of Covid-19. (S5T-02403)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Members will be aware that, on Friday, I announced that further emergency measures agreements have been agreed for the ScotRail and Caledonian sleeper franchises. That allowed staff to be assured about the stability of the future of their company prior to EMAs expiring during the course of the weekend. That was not the case elsewhere; the Department for Transport issued its update yesterday. The agreements will ensure that rail services continue to provide stability for passengers, employees and suppliers at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

Given the extremely challenging budget position and the current uncertainty as to the consequentials that will flow from the United Kingdom Government, the new agreements will cover the period between 20 September 2020 and 10 January 2021, with estimated additional resource expenditure of £103.5 million.

I have instructed my officials to commence discussions immediately with both operators, to seek agreement on a long-term plan for the period beyond January 2021.

Colin Smyth

The Government has made more than 40 announcements on transport, worth almost £650 million, since the beginning of March. Only three of those were made in Parliament; the rest were made on Twitter and in press releases, including the announcement that we are talking about, which was sneaked out on Friday.

In the interests of transparency, will the cabinet secretary publish the full emergency measures agreement that he has now agreed with the franchise companies rather than wait until the end, as he did with the previous agreement?

From what the cabinet secretary said in his announcement on Friday, it seems that one change will be that, under the new EMA, any payment of management fees to Abellio or Serco will depend entirely on their achieving satisfactory performance levels. Will the cabinet secretary tell us how much has been paid in fees to those companies under the first management agreement and what his estimate is of the fees for the new agreement?

Michael Matheson

I am surprised that the member suggests that the announcement was “sneaked out”. The member might not be aware that such agreements must be notified to the European Commission. That happened late on Thursday. We received the finalised, signed copy of the agreement at 12.30 on Friday afternoon. I wrote to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee at 3 minutes past 1—33 minutes later—to inform the committee that the agreement had been put in place. ScotRail and Serco Caledonian Sleepers then made arrangements to notify the trade unions.

I could have taken the approach that the Department for Transport took, which was to ignore the concerns of staff and not to inform them that the agreement was due to expire over the weekend; I could have waited until Monday. Instead, we chose to move at pace to ensure that staff had certainty about their jobs, given that more than 5,000 jobs depend upon that EMA being put in place.

On the other points that the member highlighted, there is a copy of the EMA on the Transport Scotland website. The member is correct about the performance payment, in that we have taken an approach that is different to that taken by the DFT. No automatic management fee is paid to Abellio ScotRail or to Serco. Any management fee must be achieved through performance and is capped at 1.5 per cent. As I also highlighted, the figure that will actually be paid is dependent on performance and will be reconciled only at the end of the EMA.

Colin Smyth

The cabinet secretary has had six months in which to make this announcement and is responding today only because of my topical question. He has previously used the excuse that he will not end the ScotRail and Serco franchises and run the services via an operator of last resort because he would eventually be forced down the route of another franchise.

It is clear, after the weekend’s announcements, that franchising is dead. Will the cabinet secretary commit to end those franchises when the deal ends in January and to bring the services under public control so that every penny spent is focused on better services and on keeping fares down, instead of more agreements, more management fees and more shareholder dividends?

Michael Matheson

I am again surprised by the member’s question, given that he is well aware that, under existing legislation, we in Scotland do not have the power to do anything other than to franchise our rail services. The power to take any other option is reserved to the UK Government.

I hope that the Labour Party is at last arriving at the position that all powers relating to rail should be devolved to this Parliament. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—ASLEF—has now called for all powers, including those of Network Rail, to be devolved to this Parliament. I hope that the Labour Party in Scotland will finally find the courage to stand up and demand that those powers be placed here in this Parliament.

Seagreen Offshore Wind Farm

3. David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that no fabrication work for the Seagreen offshore wind farm project has been awarded to BiFab. (S5T-02400)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (Fiona Hyslop)

I am extremely disappointed that SSE decided not to award Burntisland Fabrications a contract for four jackets for its Seagreen project, particularly as BiFab’s bid for the contract was competitive with all other United Kingdom and European bids. This would have been a good opportunity for SSE to demonstrate its support for the Scottish supply chain during these challenging times.

David Torrance

The BiFab yards in Burntisland and Methil are both situated in my constituency and have a huge impact on the local economy. Will the cabinet secretary outline what support the Scottish Government can give to BiFab to aid the modernisation of the yards and to make it more competitive, allowing it to diversify into different sectors?

Fiona Hyslop

The Scottish Government, along with Fife Council, Scottish Enterprise and BiFab, sits on the Energy Park Fife investment group. We continue to support plans to modernise and standardise the yard in Methil; for example, we have recently paid for areas of the yard to be concreted, which is vital for its ability to attract other opportunities.

David Torrance

The highly skilled and experienced workforce at BiFab have been dealt a massive blow and are understandably devastated by the announcement. Scotland has huge potential for renewable energy production. What role can the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government play in the procurement process to assist companies such as BiFab to secure contracts and create jobs in the sector?

Fiona Hyslop

The key financial support mechanisms, such as the contract for difference auction process, are controlled by UK ministers and it is those mechanisms that are driving costs down, pushing risks down the supply chain, making it more difficult for the domestic renewables supply chain and enabling cut-price, low-labour-cost yards in the far east and middle east to win out. We continue to call on the UK Government to amend the contract for difference auction process, under which contracts are currently awarded solely on price, to better reflect value added to the economy and the importance of supply chain sustainability. With our limited devolved powers, we have supported the introduction of a supply chain development statement by Crown Estate Scotland as part of the Scotwind leasing round, which will help to release economic benefits for the Scottish economy.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Under Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party promised 28,000 green jobs, but we have seen only a fraction of those. When will they be delivered?

Fiona Hyslop

When we have the powers of independence, we will be able to deliver that green revolution. Under devolution, we have a green investment plan, with a green investment package of priorities for investment. We will use every power that we have just now to make sure that we can deliver. However, until Maurice Golden’s party in the UK Government changes contract for difference, we will not see the jobs that we vitally need in Fife and elsewhere. Responsibility will lie where the powers lie, and we want the powers and the responsibility.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The Crown Estate is about to embark on the first leasing round of Scotwind. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that local content and fair work practices form part of the leases? Will she also ensure that companies’ historical commitment to fair work practices and local content will be taken into account when making agreements with them?

Fiona Hyslop

Clearly, the Crown Estate has its responsibilities in that, but, as I said in my earlier answer, the supply chain development statement that it has produced is part of that drive to make sure that the benefits of the procurement can lie with the Scottish supply chain. I take on board Rhoda Grant’s point about the fair work agenda being part of that and I will look into her point about retrospective issues.

The Presiding Officer

I am afraid that we have to move on. There is a lot of interest in this question, particularly from local or constituency MSPs, but we do not have enough time to accommodate them all.