Election 2021

The Scottish Parliament is in recess ahead of the election on 6 May.

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 June 2020 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Point of Order, Education Recovery, Local Government Finance (Coronavirus) (Scotland) Amendment Order 2020 [Draft], Economic Recovery, Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill, Committee Announcement, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Education Recovery

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, on education recovery.

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

When I addressed the Parliament on 19 March, I said that the decision to close schools was one of the very toughest that we had needed to take during this crisis. My engagement with teachers, children and parents since then has only served to reinforce that view. For that reason, while it has been critical to suppress the virus, we have been clear that the closures cannot go on for a minute longer than necessary.

We want Scotland’s children to be back in school full time as soon as possible and as soon as it is safe. That ambition is shared in the education recovery group, which is our partnership with local government, unions that represent teachers and other school staff, and parent representatives. I want to set out the Government’s ambitions for when that full-time return to school might be.

When I published the report on the strategic framework from the education recovery group on 21 May, we had a clear expectation that the outlook on coronavirus was bleak. At that point, there were around 20,000 people in Scotland who could transmit the infection. On 21 May, 1,318 people were in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, including 51 in intensive care. Tragically, over the course of that week, 230 people passed away from the virus.

Not only was that position bleak, at that time the majority view of our scientific advisers was that physical distancing would be necessary if schools were to reopen. Blended learning was developed, therefore, to restore some form of face-to-face education against that outlook.

Working through the education recovery group, we built a plan, which was based on making the best of the very difficult circumstances that we expected to face. It was a contingency plan, which was—and is—necessary, and, for the past month, councils and teachers have been working hard to enact that contingency. Even while we took that work forward, we continued to make the point that we did not want to see blended learning implemented for a moment longer than necessary.

Now, thankfully, the picture looks more positive. Since May, because of the efforts of our fellow citizens to stay at home, we have seen Scotland make significant progress. There are now only 2,000 infectious people in Scotland—a reduction of around 90 per cent since May. There has been a sustained downward trend in Covid-19 deaths. Intensive care cases now stand at a fraction of what they were.

If we stay on that trajectory, which cannot be taken for granted, the position will be even better by August. That is good news. It means that we are able to update our planning assumptions. If we stay on track, if we all continue to do what is right and if we can further suppress this terrible virus, the Government believes that we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full time in August.

I must stress that the Government is working towards that aim. However, because it has to be achieved safely, it inevitably remains conditional and dependent on on-going scientific and health advice. It will be part of a wider approach. If we continue to make progress at the rate that we envisage, it is possible—though, of course, by no means certain—that, by August, we may have successfully achieved, or be well on the way to, phase 4 of the Scottish Government route map.

I have to be honest with Parliament and admit frankly that, when we prepared our plans back in May, I could not have imagined that we would have made as much progress in virus suppression as we have. It is that more positive outlook that allows the Scottish Government to make this change of planning assumption for schools, but it is a change that is born out of the hard work and sacrifice of people in every part of the country in sticking to the guidance, staying at home and suppressing the virus. In particular, we should highlight the many parents who have supported their children while continuing to hold down jobs and caring commitments.

It is a change that is born of the actions of our citizens; they delivered it. Now it falls to the Scottish Government, our local government colleagues, teachers and school staff to build on it. I commend local authorities, school and early learning and childcare staff and, in particular, headteachers across Scotland for the way in which they have responded to this emergency. They have worked tirelessly to protect the interests of our children and young people, through our childcare hubs and by ensuring on-going provision of free school meals, delivering remote learning and planning for the next term. I know that they will continue to rise to the challenge as we get ready for the next school year.

That is the good news, but I must emphasise the importance of Scotland staying on track if we are to make this a reality. We must be clear that blended learning is a contingency that we might still need to enact. Although the outlook is more positive now, there are no certainties with this virus. If there is an increase in infection rates and if there are outbreaks that require to be controlled through action, the contingency plan could still be required.

Equally, we still need to protect those in our society who might not be able to attend school for health reasons. All the work that has gone into preparing blended learning models for every locality across the country has been essential preparation. It is vital that we have those models ready, because we might need to turn to them.

We must continue to ensure the safety of pupils, teachers and staff by engaging in such contingency planning. That is why Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education will continue with its scrutiny of the plans when local authorities submit the latest versions on Wednesday.

Similarly, we can move away from blended learning only if we stay on track and can command the confidence of parents, teachers and children on safety.

There are important benefits of such a move. A return to full-time schooling would enhance the life chances of our children and young people and start to reverse any damaging impacts of recent months. We know from the lockdown lowdown survey, for example, that young people are concerned about school closures and about their mental wellbeing.

If we are in a position to ease public health measures in early learning and childcare, particularly for small-group working, more children and families will be able to benefit from an expanded offer in the year ahead. In parallel, we continue to work in partnership with local authorities to agree a new timetable for delivery of the 1,140 hours entitlement to all eligible children.

We are seeing some countries begin to relax their physical distancing restrictions in schools for younger children in particular; others are starting to plan for a more normal return after the summer break.

The First Minister confirmed on 15 June that we will now review the scientific assumptions that underpin education recovery as part of our statutory three-weekly review process. That will include, for example, reviewing our approach to physical distancing in schools and equivalent measures in early learning and childcare. As part of the review process, I have established a new sub-group of the Scottish Government Covid-19 advisory group to specialise on education and children’s issues. We will get the first review of that material later this week.

I would not want to pre-empt that advice, but I expect that, for us to realise our aim to resume full-time schooling, various conditions will need to be in place. First, infection rates must be at a level that is sufficiently low to provide assurance that we can continue to control the virus. Secondly, we must ensure that we make use of our full public health infrastructure, locally and nationally, to get early warning of issues and rapid local action, including test and protect. Thirdly, the right protective measures and risk assessments must be in place in schools to keep everyone with higher risk factors, including teachers and staff, safe at all times.

In addition to those measures, the Covid-19 advisory group and the new sub-group have been asked for further advice on tests or indicators that would show whether we are on track.

In all that, I will work closely with the education recovery group. Given the change in our central planning assumption to work towards a full-time return to schools in August, we will continue to work together over the summer. In due course, local authorities will communicate arrangements for the return to school with families.

Over the next year, we will need all possible education resources at our disposal, in order to compensate for the loss of learning that pupils have faced, as well as to help us, should we need to switch to a blended model at any stage. Even with a return to full-time education, it is imperative that we increase levels of digital inclusion, which is why we have already committed to a huge digital boost through the investment of £30 million to provide laptops for disadvantaged children and young people. That will include £25 million of funding for a roll-out of digital devices to school pupils to enable them to study online. Although the figures are the subject of on-going work, initial estimates from local authorities are that that funding will be required to provide digital devices to around 70,000 pupils, with up to 40,000 connectivity solutions also needed. We will also provide a further £100 million over the next two years to support the return to school and help children recover any lost ground. With that new funding, we will invest to tackle the impact of coronavirus in our schools and ensure that children get the support that they need.

We will start with teacher recruitment. Many of this year’s probationer teachers have already secured teaching posts with local authorities. We will now work with local authorities with the objective of ensuring that every probationer teacher who has reached the standard for full registration is able to secure a teaching post for the next school year. Of course, we will still look to encourage retired teachers and those who are not currently teaching back into the profession wherever that proves necessary.

I have asked Education Scotland to expand its partnership offer with the e-Sgoil digital learning platform to develop a strong national e-learning provision. That represents an opportunity to enable all pupils to access high-quality lessons—by qualified teachers who are trained in offering online learning—across as broad a range of subjects and qualification levels as possible.

Finally, although we want to support the wellbeing of all our children and young people, lockdown has been particularly difficult for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Reducing the poverty-related attainment gap is a defining mission for this Government. Therefore, we will work alongside partners to increase support to those families and communities who need it most. We will also seek the involvement of the youth work sector to assist us in that challenge.

Coronavirus has had a massive impact on our education system. It will take a collective endeavour to overcome that, but we have a duty to our children and young people to come together to do just that. They have played their part in protecting this country from the worst of the pandemic, and we must repay them that faith by serving their needs at this critical time.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his comments. First, I agree that none of this has been easy. Parents and teachers have been trying their best to deliver education throughout a difficult few months; we thank them and we thank young people. The cabinet secretary has finally heard those many thousands of voices—even those from his own back benches. Parents have been scunnered by all this. Why, up until today, were councils still working on plans to deliver just one or two days of schooling a week? Why did it take such an outburst of anger from parents and demands for statements from the Conservative benches and others to get clarity from this Government? The sad truth is that, until now, recent events have exposed nothing but a vacuum of leadership in the handling of this issue. The reality is that today’s U-turn has been forced on the Government after relentless campaigning from all quarters—political, academic, charitable and, most important, from parents themselves, to whom we owe the most credit in all of this.

This is our chance to be clear to the parents watching about what we are saying to them and to the councils who will have to deliver. Is the cabinet secretary confirming now that all pupils will return to school full time on 11 August, in all classrooms, in all schools? What are the specific health and scientific triggers that will enable the cabinet secretary to give the green light for that to happen? Can the cabinet secretary confirm that, to achieve 100 per cent capacity—[Interruption.]

When members have stopped heckling me, maybe I can ask the cabinet secretary some questions that parents want to know the answers to.

The Presiding Officer

Let us have some order. Please listen to the question.

Jamie Greene

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that to achieve 100 per cent capacity in schools there will be no physical social distancing? [Interruption.]

Presiding officer, how can I ask questions when SNP members are shouting at me? Parents out there are listening, they need clarity and that is exactly what—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Order. We heard Mr Swinney deliver his statement. Let us hear Mr Greene deliver his questions.

Jamie Greene

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that to achieve the 100 per cent capacity that he wants, there will be no physical, social distancing in schools? Under what circumstances will we revert to the blended model as the plan A, rather than the contingency plan? Words are one thing and actions are another. Most important, will the cabinet secretary ensure that councils across Scotland will now be given whatever they need and whatever it takes to get all our children back into school full time—no ifs, no buts?

John Swinney

I frequently appear in front of Parliament, either physically or remotely—given my domestic circumstances—to answer members’ questions. The idea that this is somehow a surprise appearance in Parliament by me is a fallacy. I was here in person on 18 June to answer portfolio questions. I answered topical questions from my son’s bedroom on 16 June. I appeared in committee, again from my son’s bedroom, on 12 June. I answered portfolio questions on 28 May, and on 26 May—again from my son’s bedroom—I made a statement to Parliament. I have appeared before Parliament on all those occasions since the publication of the education recovery group report. Do not dare suggest that I do not appear before the Scottish Parliament to fulfil my duties. That suggestion by the Conservatives is a disgraceful slur.

Mr Greene’s comments included several questions that I dealt with in my statement. I said that our planning assumption is to get all pupils back to school in August. I said that scientific advice will have to be taken to enable that to be the case. I said that we will revert to blended learning should the circumstances of a proliferation of the virus require us to do so, because not to do so would endanger the health and wellbeing of children and staff and I will not do that under any circumstances whatsoever.

I announced in my statement that the Government is going to make available £100 million of new money to support the delivery of our ambitions on education, and to support children and young people, because they have supported us. That is what the Scottish Government does, while the Conservatives complain all they want from the sidelines.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank Mr Swinney for early sight of his statement. I once accused him of making the mother of ministerial climbdowns—well, he has outdone himself today, because this is the mother and father of ministerial climbdowns. On all those occasions that he has just described when he spoke to Parliament about the plan, it was clear that blended learning was the only possibility for August. Ten days ago, Mr Swinney thought that blended learning might last a year. On Friday, his co-chair of the education recovery group confirmed that blended learning was the only plan. Now, at the last possible moment, we have a completely new plan. We asked for a route map back to schools and it turns out that we have been on a mystery tour.

If we can deliver the plan safely, that is very welcome news, but what a fine mess this is. There are still more questions than answers. What, if any, social distancing will be required in the classroom and on school transport? That question was not answered. What protective measures on personal protective equipment, deep cleaning and testing will be required to keep teachers and staff safe? Finally, will the education secretary publish, today, the new evidence on which he has based his new plan?

John Swinney

Let me address the points that Iain Gray has made. A resumption of full-time education for young people assumes that there is no physical distancing among young people. We believe that that is possible, having looked at the models that are being delivered in other countries that have successfully restored education. The Netherlands provides an example of exactly that. Stringent measures will require to be taken to ensure that we have in place the appropriate arrangements for safety, protection and testing, all of which I covered in my statement. Those are fundamental arrangements that have to be put in place.

We have been able to come to the decisions that we have come to today, and to commence the work on the assumption of full-time learning in August, because of the significant change in the progress that has been made. I covered that in my statement. We did not believe that it would be possible to get the levels of coronavirus infection in our society as low as they are today. That has been possible because the public have more than done their bit to comply with the approaches.

It is not all over yet, so we have to sustain that commitment. If the public sustain that commitment and compliance, we can be in a position to go ahead with our plan. It is conditional on having the correct regime in place and on the compliance measures being followed by members of the public. Given their past performance, I am confident that members of the public will support us in that endeavour and will work collaboratively and collectively to enable the return of pupils to full-time education in schools in August.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Like colleagues, I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

A great number of people will be breathing a sigh of relief today, but for others—school staff and their families—their anxiety has now increased significantly. Will the Scottish Government immediately publish the evidence and expert advice that it has received that has led it to the conclusion that its plan is a safe option to pursue? Will school staff be offered regular testing, which Professor Devi Sridhar advised would be necessary in order to achieve the safe return of full-time education?

John Swinney

As Mr Greer knows, we have published the scientific advice on which our plans have been based, and I give him a commitment that we will continue to do so. As I said in my answer to Mr Gray, the Government has arrived at its conclusions because of the significant reduction in the prevalence of coronavirus and the level of infectiousness within our society. However, I must be explicit with Parliament that the commitment is conditional. It is conditional on our being able to sustain that position and on the further scientific assessments, tests and challenges that will be put in front of us by the advisory group. All that information will continue to be published. Mr Greer has my commitment that we will remain open in that respect.

Mr Greer asked about the regular testing of teachers, of which I am very supportive. I recognise the importance of building confidence in the teaching profession in relation to teachers’ safety and circumstances, because I accept that they are in a different position, with a different degree of exposure, from that of most young people in a school setting. It is important that the issue that Mr Greer has raised is addressed. That will, of course, be part of the detailed work that the education recovery group will undertake.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I welcome the decision, as will thousands of concerned parents across the country. However, the Deputy First Minister cannot seriously claim that there was a sudden change in the control of the virus. The trend has been clear for some time, and he should just admit that.

I want the Deputy First Minister to address another problem, which I have raised repeatedly but which has not been addressed adequately: the issue of childcare right now and over the summer. Normal childcare arrangements for parents have disappeared, and they do not have childminders or their normal family arrangements available, but they are expected to go back to work. What is the Deputy First Minister going to do for them today?

John Swinney

On Mr Rennie’s first point, he is correct to say that there has been a declining trend, but I encourage him to look at the sharpness of the decline that has taken place. As I admitted in my statement, it has—to be frank—surprised us by moving at such a pace. That is a product of the compliance of and co-operation by members of the public, and I am profoundly grateful to them—as are all ministers—for their contribution. That point relates to the comments that the First Minister will make tomorrow in Parliament, when she will give further information on the implementation of the route map. The map itself, and the pace at which we can be confident of taking steps through it, will reflect exactly the same point that I have made to Mr Rennie.

On Mr Rennie’s questions about childcare, there is of course childcare provision available over the summer. The hubs will be maintained, and childminders are able to operate. It is also important that we look at the possibilities that will be opened up by the statement that the First Minister makes tomorrow. As Mr Rennie will understand, I am not in a position to discuss those details today, but he will have an opportunity tomorrow to question the First Minister on those issues.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The safety and wellbeing of our staff, our pupils and the wider community remains the absolute priority. I thank all the councils, parent groups, professional associations and trade unions that have worked with the Government in the education recovery group. What access will the recovery group have to scientific advisers to ensure that its deliberations over the summer are informed by timely evidence that is the best available?

John Swinney

The education recovery group will have all the access that it wishes to enable it to interact with scientific advisers. The group heard from, and had access to, both Professor Andrew Morris, who chairs the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 advisory group, and Professor Sheila Rowan, who is the Government’s chief scientific adviser.

I will be happy to facilitate access for the education recovery group to any of the scientific experts who provide us with advice during the summer. It is vital that teachers and their professional associations and representatives, and the representatives of school support staff—we have a representative from Unison on the recovery group—are confident in the arrangements that we put in place, because everyone’s interests have to be respected.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Many parents are currently forced to juggle home working with supporting home learning, often while having to provide childcare for younger children as well. Many of them are exhausted, and for some it is causing real mental health issues. Does the education secretary recognise that parents need to know as soon as possible when nurseries will be able to reopen fully?

Many nurseries are facing financial issues, and some are at real risk of having to close. Does the education secretary recognise that they do not have time to wait for the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to agree a new timetable? Will he ensure that councils recommit to delivering 1,140 hours of childcare, and that the funding is put in place to enable them to do so?

John Swinney

I acknowledge the significance of the issues that Mr Halcro Johnston raises, and I entirely accept his comments on the burden that parents are carrying. This has been a tough time all round, in particular for parents who have been juggling work with childcare and providing support for learning, and I pay tribute to them. Many people will also have financial worries, not to mention the specific circumstances of their own family life. I totally accept that it has been a tough time.

We want to move to open up all those services as early as possible. We must work our way through that. The First Minister will say more about that in her comments to Parliament tomorrow. The Minister for Children and Young People and I have tried, in our work with COSLA, to provide as much financial stability as we can for private providers in the early learning and childcare sector, because we will need them to contribute to our wider efforts.

We will pursue those issues urgently. It is essential to the infrastructure of our society that early leaning and childcare providers should be able to function in a way that is acceptable to families around the country.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Breakfast and after-school provision is vital for many working parents. The lack of consideration of those elements within the so-called blended learning contingency plan was forcing many parents to contemplate choosing between work and their children’s education. Will before and after-school provision form a key assumption for the return to 100 per cent schooling, and what resources will be made available to ensure the return of that provision?

John Swinney

I acknowledge the importance of those issues. We will certainly consider those points as we look to the resumption of full-time schooling.

The blended learning model was designed to improve on our current situation and to make some formal schooling available for children and young people. At no stage would I have called it a panacea. The model was there—it remains there, because we may have to rely on it in due course—to enable the resumption of formal schooling. The issues that Mr Johnson raises about some of the critical support that enables families to operate effectively will be part of our planning for the resumption of full-time schooling.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Have any local authorities, such as Dumfries and Galloway council, held conversations with the Scottish Government regarding the process for utilising additional council or third sector buildings for educational purposes, in order to allow an increased number of young people to receive face-to-face learning where appropriate?

John Swinney

The education recovery group report included a requirement on local authorities to maximise the amount of face-to-face learning available for children and young people. Local authorities were encouraged to be innovative and creative about the use of buildings either within their own estate but not currently being used for educational purposes or other buildings that might be available in their localities, such as town and village halls and other ancillary facilities.

That work will all be contained in the plans that are brought forward by individual local authorities. I have asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to consider and assess that in order to give me assurance that all possible options have been explored and examined in order to ensure that the educational opportunities for children and young people are maximised as a consequence of that work.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

At the start of the pandemic, every member received many emails imploring us to close schools. Now we are receiving emails asking us to fully reopen schools. As a grandfather of four, with two young grandchildren at school, I want to ensure that they, and others, are safe.

I am happy with the cabinet secretary’s proposals. There are seven weeks before schools have to reopen and seven weeks for us to review any proposals. The cabinet secretary has needed to plan. Will he constantly review the science to ensure that we fully reopen schools on 11 August and make sure that our kids and the staff are safe?

John Swinney

My Lyle’s point about the safety of children and staff is uppermost in my mind. I hope that I have demonstrated that to Parliament in the answers that I have given. If the Government is to be criticised for anything, it is for erring on the side of caution in the protection of individuals’ health.

My Lyle also makes the important point that the arrangements that we are talking about do not have to come into effect tomorrow; they have to come into effect in seven weeks’ time. We have an opportunity as a country. I appeal to the country, because the country has done this before. If we observe the guidance, the regulations and the rules that we have put in place, with seven more weeks under our belt we will make even more progress. I encourage the public to do that, because, if we all do it, we will be able to have a safe return to schooling in August.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Let us assume that there is no further Covid-19 outbreak and that schools return full time in August as the cabinet secretary has announced. Will he confirm whether it is his intention that the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s 2021 exam diet will happen on schedule in April? If he cannot confirm that today, will he confirm to schools what the intention will be as soon as possible?

John Swinney

Today, the best that I can say to Liz Smith is that the planning intention is that the 2021 exam diet will take place. The planning is being put in place for that, and my expectation is that it will take place.

Liz Smith asked me whether I can confirm that the exam diet will take place next April. I am not sure that I can go quite that far, because there will be an argument for slightly delaying the exam diet to provide more learning and teaching opportunities for senior phase candidates. That would not prejudice the ability to declare the results in August 2021 and then enabling access to higher and further education.

I am talking about a delay of perhaps a matter of weeks. The exam diet is scheduled to start somewhere around the third week of April 2021. There may be a slight delay to the timetable, if there is an opportunity for that, because young people have lost a period of learning. They would normally have started classes in early June at the latest; national 5 candidates would have started in May. However, the planning assumption is that the 2021 exam diet will go ahead.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

The Deputy First Minister will be aware that children and young people with additional support needs will be facing particular challenges at this time. Can he provide reassurance that local authorities, including Fife Council, will be putting in place sufficient support to ensure that the transition back to school of those children and young people will be effected with minimal disruption to their learning?

John Swinney

Annabelle Ewing raises an important issue that must be handled sensitively and on a case-by-case basis. The circumstances for young people with additional support needs must be assessed individually to determine the most suitable transition mechanisms to enable their return to full-time learning. For some, that might a swift return; for others, it might be a slower return. Crucially, the assessment must be made child by child.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

What costings has the Scottish Government done on the additional investment that the cabinet secretary has announced, given the additional protective measures—such as cleaning—and the additional capacity that will be needed to ensure safe measures for teachers, young people and support staff? Will school buses be subject to the requirements on social distancing?

John Swinney

On Sarah Boyack’s first question, we have dialogue with our local authority partners about costs, and that is something to which we committed in the education recovery group.

If Sarah Boyack will forgive me, her question about school transport would be best answered once we receive more detail on the scientific requirements. As I mentioned in my answer to Iain Gray, there are a number of approaches internationally where schools have resumed without physical distancing that are of relevance to the approach taken in classrooms and buses. We need to reflect on the advice and determine whether that is appropriate.

I give Sarah Boyack the assurances that I gave to Ross Greer earlier: all that information will be shared openly to enable scrutiny by members of the Scottish Parliament and the public.

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. Will he make sure that all newly qualified teachers are timeously offered contracts of employment to ensure that there will be no staff shortages to hinder in any way the plans to try to get back to full-time education by 11 August? Will he—virtually, if necessary—update the Parliament on progress during the summer recess?

John Swinney

I will be happy to update the Parliament on all aspects of this topic on any occasion requested by the Parliament, and I will come forward with updates in due course.

The First Minister provides updates every three weeks on the scientific advice. On those occasions, we will be able to provide general updates on the phasing approach and look specifically at the scientific advice.

On Monday I had a helpful conversation with a group of newly qualified teachers who shared with me the challenges that they currently face in securing employment. I hope that what I have set out today will give local authorities confidence about the support that is available to enhance their recruitment of such teachers. At a time when we will really benefit from doing so, we now have an opportunity to supplement our teaching workforce and to support catch-up learning. I look forward to our having the appropriate dialogue with local authorities to enable that to happen.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

My question follows on from Alex Neil’s earlier point. Scottish Conservatives have heard from newly qualified teachers who, 14 weeks into the crisis, have not yet been contacted. We have also heard from retired teachers who are willing to return to help but who have not yet had a response from the Scottish Government. In my area there are also teachers who have been asked to go back to work and who have young children of their own who will have to go to school or nursery. However, teachers who are also parents have yet to find out how those arrangements will work. In addition, some teachers will have to continue to shield.

If the blended learning model is still required, can the cabinet secretary give parents a guarantee that enough teachers will be in place to allow delivery of the education to which their children are entitled?

John Swinney

I want to give parents such a guarantee—that is at the heart of everything that I do as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

I remind Mr Whittle that local authorities are still working through the recruitment of newly qualified teachers. I suspect that that process will not be complete until slightly later in the year, for the understandable reason that authorities have a lot on their plates just now while they are having to deal with multiple issues. I will give the example of North Lanarkshire Council. On Thursday, a lot of NQTs there did not know what their future might be; on Friday, they did, when the council confirmed that it planned to retain all 195 such teachers, which was very welcome. We want to ensure that other local authorities make similar commitments. What I am putting on the table are additional resources to ensure that more newly qualified teachers can be recruited.

If Mr Whittle has particular examples of retired teachers who have volunteered through the General Teaching Council, I ask him to advise me of those and I will ensure that they are contacted. In the forthcoming year, there will be a need to supplement the available teaching staff, because some teachers will not be able to come to work because of Covid-related health issues. It will be important for us to have the maximum available teaching workforce in place to address that situation. If Mr Whittle could furnish me with those details, I will happily pursue that point.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement. He made it clear that individual local authorities will be preparing their own models for reopening schools in August, depending on their local needs. Will the education recovery group be exploring best practice across all local authorities, and will it share such information to ensure a level of consistency of approach to the delivery of education for all children and young people?

John Swinney

I will happily give Sandra White assurance on that point. The education recovery group includes representatives of Education Scotland, which has been hosting discussions among local authorities to enable the sharing of practice and to support the work that is under way through the regional improvement collaboratives that I established. Therefore, the answer to Ms White’s question is yes. It is important that good practice is shared across the education system.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

There is evidence that there are significant differences in children and young people’s levels of engagement with virtual approaches to learning. Will the cabinet secretary support the carrying out of an equalities audit when children return to school, to ensure that their learning is then at the appropriate level?

John Swinney

I am very happy to commit to that.

The Presiding Officer

I am conscious that a further 10 members wish to ask questions in light of the cabinet secretary’s statement, but I am afraid that too much business remains for me to allow extra time for those this afternoon. There will be opportunities to ask such questions tomorrow, at First Minister’s question time.