Meeting date: Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 June 2021
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Child Poverty, Urgent Question, Committee of the Whole Parliament, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2, Meeting of the Parliament, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, National Gaelic Language Plan
- Portfolio Question Time
- Child Poverty
- Urgent Question
- Committee of the Whole Parliament
- Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2
- Meeting of the Parliament
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- National Gaelic Language Plan
Portfolio Question Time
Finance and Economy
Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business is portfolio question time.
First, I remind members not to move around the chamber in a non-safe way. Social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use only the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.
The first portfolio for questions is finance and the economy. Questions 3 and 7 are grouped together. I will take supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate in the chat function by entering R during the relevant question.
Again, I point out that we will get through more questions and answers if we have succinct questions and answers, please.
Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Revenue 2021-22)
To ask the Scottish Government what revenue it estimates it will receive from land and buildings transaction tax in 2021-22. (S6O-00049)
The Scottish Fiscal Commission is the independent body responsible for forecasting revenues for the fully devolved taxes. In “Scotland’s Economic and Fiscal Forecasts”, which was published on 28 January 2021, the SFC forecast that the Scottish Government will receive £586 million in revenue from land and buildings transaction tax in 2021-22.
I thank the minister for that response. Does he agree that, for many young first-time buyers, in areas where there are very high house prices with many properties over the £250,000 rate at which LBTT kicks in, that tax, on top of other taxes that people pay, is quite prohibitive? Does the Scottish Government have plans to introduce regional schemes in which there can be more targeted support for aspirational families, or does it have—at least—plans to provide tangible support through mortgage assistance?
The Scottish Government provides support through first-time buyer relief, which raises the nil band from £145,000 to £175,000 and means, in effect, that eight out of 10 first-time buyers do not pay any tax.
With regard to a regional scheme, I recognise that that is an area in which the Conservative Party has some interest. I am open to receiving more information on what Liz Smith’s proposals would be, but I caution that LBTT is a national tax and that we would have to be cautious about introducing unnecessary complexity into the system by using a localised methodology.
Economic Recovery Support (Fair Work Practices and Climate Obligations)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to ensure that money invested in economic recovery by way of grants, loans and other funding will support fair work practices and climate obligations for any companies that receive such support. (S6O-00050)
I welcome Lorna Slater to the Parliament.
Fair work is central to our economic recovery and renewal. Through fair work first, we are applying fair work criteria to public sector grants, contracts and other funding wherever it is possible and relevant to do so. We continue to consider how we can use all our levers to support a green recovery, and we expect those who access financial support to publicly align with Scottish Government values, particularly those relating to our climate and environmental ambitions.
Securing the full range of employment powers would enable the Scottish Government to fully implement policies that best meet Scotland’s distinct needs, and it would enable us to create more good green jobs with fair work at their heart, and a more prosperous Scotland.
In order to support a green recovery, will the minister commit to ensuring that investment money, whether as grants, loans or other funding, will come with conditions to ensure not only that the money goes to businesses that support fair work—I approve of the minister’s support of that—but that the support is sustainable for the economy? That could be done by, for example, ensuring that support will go only to companies that pay the living wage, do not use zero-hours contracts or tax havens, and have plans to achieve emissions that are in line with our national targets, as agreed by Parliament. How would the minister follow that up to ensure that applicable conditions were being met?
I generally agree with the principles that Lorna Slater has outlined. Much of what she says relates to the fair work agenda that the Scottish Government is implementing. As part of our first 100 days commitments, we are reviewing fair work first criteria in order to oppose, for instance, unfair fire-and-rehire tactics and to promote flexible and family-friendly working. We are working with the Poverty Alliance and building a living wage employer accreditation, which was referred to by Lorna Slater, so that we can also introduce a living hours scheme for Scotland in the first 100 days of this new Government.
I assure Lorna Slater that we are exploring every possibility to ensure that our grants and support for businesses and organisations across Scotland are aligned with the values of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament.
Will the Government commit to making trade union recognition a precondition, for large companies of more than 250 employees, of applying for further Government support?
On the fair work agenda, that issue is already reflected in the principles that we promote as part of our grants and so on. The fair work first criteria have already been applied to £619.8 million-worth of contracts that have been awarded by the Scottish Government.
Employers’ relationships with trade unions and workers voices are part of the fair work first and fair work agendas. We are exploring in what further ways we can promote those principles. As a new minister in the portfolio, I am very keen to make sure that I leave no stone unturned.
Thank you, minister. I think that I promoted you momentarily earlier.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Business Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what support it will make available to businesses in light of the continuation of the current Covid-19 restrictions. (S6O-00051)
I welcome Audrey Nicoll to her place and look forward to working with her.
We recognise the impact that deviating from the route map has had on businesses across Scotland—perhaps more so in some areas than others. That is why we have provided additional financial support to businesses in areas where it has been necessary, unfortunately, to retain restrictions for an additional period.
We will continue to prioritise business support as much as we can within our limited resources, and we will continue to press the United Kingdom Government for additional funding to be made available for businesses, because there have not been additional consequentials for business support since the election.
I know from speaking to many businesses in my constituency that the support that has already been made available by the Scottish Government has been a lifeline. While some restrictions remain in place, understandable concerns have been raised about the United Kingdom Treasury’s failure to announce an extension to the furlough scheme, which is due to be scaled back from 1 July. Can the cabinet secretary provide reassurance that she is doing everything that she can do to press the UK Government to extend the furlough scheme, in order to give businesses in Scotland the financial support that is needed until our economy can fully reopen?
I agree with Audrey Nicoll. We have consistently called for furlough funding to remain in place for as long as it is needed.
We have been here before. Last October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer reannounced support plans about five times before finally confirming that he would extend furlough. It is essential that the UK Government commits to the furlough scheme.
We have also called on the chancellor to change the rules that require contributions to the cost of the scheme from July, and which currently exclude people who started a new job since 2 March from being furloughed. People who have been required to stop working in order to protect others should be supported as much as possible.
Covid-19 Regulations (Engagement with Business Sector)
To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the business sector regarding the current Covid-19 regulations. (S6O-00055)
I welcome Pam Gosal to the Parliament—I think that this is the first time that we have had an exchange here.
We have engaged extensively with businesses and their representative organisations during the pandemic. I do not think that a single work day has gone by without some form of engagement. Officials have counted that, between March and December 2020, more than 820 engagements took place. There is a regular weekly programme of engagement with business leaders, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, Scottish Financial Enterprise, the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Scotland Food & Drink. Immediately after I was sworn in, the first thing that I did was meet that group to discuss a range of priority issues. I also discussed the latest restrictions with those organisations yesterday.
One sector that has been complaining bitterly about its current circumstances is that of businesses that provide contact services such as beauty therapy and spa treatments. They have lost out on business restart grants because they are classified as non-essential retail, which is an inaccuracy that needs to be addressed urgently. Will the cabinet secretary agree to ensure that those services are properly reclassified?
I think that there is some misunderstanding about the restart scheme. Separately from that, we are one of the only places in the UK that put in place a specific funding stream for mobile close-contact services, to try to reach those in what is a predominantly self-employed sector and provide them with additional support.
In line with the rest of the United Kingdom, we provided the smaller restart grant for businesses that were able to open before others and we reserved the larger restart grant for businesses that restarted later. That remains our position, and I have no intention of changing it.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that people are outside Parliament today lobbying for the travel industry. They cannot understand why, when they have in effect been shut down for months by the restrictions, they have received very little financial support in return. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the level of restrictions should match the level of financial support that the Government makes available?
Willie Rennie has been an advocate for the travel industry for a number of months. He will recall that we put in place a specific fund for travel agents as well as for the inbound tour sector and the wider tourism sector that relies on international travel. Again, we were one of the few places that did that. However, I absolutely understand that some sectors are being impacted for longer because of a lack of international travel. I know that, more than anything, the sector wants the restrictions to be lifted, and we intend to do that on a four-nations basis as far as possible.
In the meantime, providing additional support is challenging, because of a lack of additional consequential funding. However, Ivan McKee, the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, has written to the UK Government specifically on the travel industry’s need for additional business support and to ask the UK Government to consider whether additional consequentials could be made available to support the sector.
Today is a day of action at the airports. Sadly, the route from Aberdeen to Manchester is now to close. Is the Government prepared to meet the airports to discuss a plan so that jobs can be saved?
Since the pandemic first hit last March, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport has regularly met the airport sector and the wider aviation sector, and we remain in close contact with them. Again, we were one of the few parts—if not the only part—of the UK to extend non-domestic rates relief to the airport industry in light of the challenges that it faces. We will continue to keep in close contact with the airports. I know that, ultimately, they want the restrictions to be removed. We want to do that on a four-nations basis when it is safe to do so and when we see that the vaccination programme is making good progress across the world.
Town Centres (Economic Recovery)
To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the economic recovery of town centres. (S6O-00052)
I will shortly set out plans for a Scotland loves local loyalty card scheme and a £10 million Scotland loves local programme to help revitalise town centres that have been hit by the pandemic.
We are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and partners to respond to the ambitious vision for our town centres and the recommendations to deliver it, which were set out in the recent town centre review report, “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”. All that is underpinned by our £325 million place-based investment programme, which will accelerate our ambitions for place, 20-minute neighbourhoods and town centre revitalisation.
Although the pandemic has accelerated it, the collapse of many large retailers in our town centres, including in Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline, was already a feature of high streets across Scotland. They are owned by private companies and investors, but we need a public sector response to the challenge that we face.
The minister mentioned some projects, but what is there to incentivise the repurposing of large units and to support local authorities in their efforts to invest in changing town centres, which I think will need significant investment? Will the public have a stake in the decisions that impact on their high streets and environment?
Claire Baker raises a lot of important points. Those ideas are all live and relate to our response to the town centre review, which is due to be published later in the year. I draw her attention to our retail strategy, which is also due for publication later in the year. Finally, as planning minister, I will lay a draft of national planning framework 4 in Parliament in the autumn.
I am very keen to make sure that all those areas of the portfolio align. In particular, I recognise the point that is implicit in the comment that Claire Baker makes, which is that we need to ensure more community ownership in our town centres. As the minister responsible for social entrepreneurship and employee ownership, I am happy to engage further with Claire Baker and any other member on that area.
Empty town centre properties are being repurposed into spaces to house artists’ studios, venues and workshops, including Fire Station Creative in Dunfermline and Creative Stirling’s hub. How has the culture organisations and venues recovery fund directly supported those types of initiatives? What further support can be offered in order to provide a viable future for our town centres?
I do not have in front of me detail on the specific question that Mark Ruskell raises, but I am happy to write to him. He raises a very important point: it is absolutely correct that we recognise that we have a duty to support the cultural sector in recovery, but the cultural sector also has a massive role to play in supporting town centres to recover. I am very keen to take that forward with Mark Ruskell and any other interested member.
Does the minister agree that high street retailers operate at a severe disadvantage relative to online businesses, for example, with regard to paying rates? Given that taxing online retailers is a reserved matter, is the Scottish Government urging its United Kingdom counterpart to enact such a policy, actively pursuing any revenues that would accrue to Scotland and, ultimately, the devolution of such a power?
We recognise the concerns that have been raised regarding a level playing field for all, and the Government is committed to supporting all businesses, including those that deliver online services. For that reason, in our manifesto, we committed to exploring the introduction of a new national digital sales tax, and we will look into that complex area.
Hospitality Sector (Covid-19 Restrictions)
To ask the Scottish Government what additional support it will provide to the hospitality sector to mitigate against the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions. (S6O-00053)
On 2 June, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy announced the provision of up to £12 million of additional funding for the 14 local authorities that remain in level 2, should restrictions continue to the end of June, and payments will be processed on a weekly basis. That included £4.5 million for the events and wedding sectors, and up to £7.4 million to support hospitality businesses, with grants of between £350 and £525 per week for businesses in level 2 that are required to modify their operations.
The support in the short term to which the minister refers—as well as today’s announcement that hospitality premises that show Euros matches that go into extra time can open for a bit longer—will be welcomed by those businesses that receive the support, but it still excludes too many others. Even the lifting of restrictions on 9 August will not be enough for many small hospitality businesses. Does the minister accept that we need a proper recovery plan for small businesses—including hospitality businesses—that covers long-term support and reform of business rates, which penalise hospitality, to help to get those local firms back on their feet?
The member will be aware that we are keen to do all that we can to support the sector, and I have met various stakeholder groups in the sector over the past two or three weeks to discuss those very issues. As funds become available through consequentials from the United Kingdom Government, we will of course ensure that the sector is supported to the best of our ability.
As the member rightly identifies, recovery from the pandemic is hugely important. That is why we have a significant focus on our economic transformation strategy, the details of which we are working through at present. The strategy will address those very issues and consider how we build the hospitality sector and sectors across the economy in order not only to recover from the pandemic, but to transform the economy in Scotland into the economy that we want to see.
Although hospitality is now open, it is still facing many restrictions, lower customer footfall and significant barriers to trading. What analysis has the Scottish Government conducted of the levels of operating loss that businesses in the sector are facing? Can he advise me of any Scottish Government analysis of the proportion of that loss that is covered by support grants and loans that the Scottish Government has provided?
First, I make it clear that the support that we have provided cannot cover the losses for every business across the sector. As I indicated, we pass on the consequentials that come from the UK Government. A total of £3.6 billion has been used to support businesses during the course of the pandemic.
With regard to analysis of the impact on the sector and across the wider economy, I note that we are engaging in discussions with the national services sector, which is best placed to understand the levels of debt that businesses across the economy are suffering. As well as looking at the matter at a macro level across the economy, we are conducting sectoral analysis to understand the differential impacts on specific sectors.
I welcome the First Minister’s announcement yesterday regarding changes to the guidance on weddings, which are key to the hospitality sector. I have been contacted by wedding venues in the south of Scotland that have asked whether a specific route map out of Covid-19 can be created for the sector that takes account of the diverse nature of weddings and wedding venues. Will the minister consider that? If it is possible, will he outline a potential timeframe for its establishment?
A number of changes were announced yesterday that will benefit the wedding sector. From 28 June, wedding suppliers will no longer be included in the numerical cap, and focused entertainment will be allowed at receptions, provided that all guests are seated. Those have been key asks of the sector, as the member knows. The wedding reception guidance was updated on 22 June to set out clearly what the changes mean for weddings.
When we move beyond level 0, almost all Covid restrictions will be removed for businesses and individuals, which will mean that weddings can take place with dancing and singing, as happened before the pandemic. Some baseline measures will remain, including requirements for good hygiene, surface cleaning and continued compliance with the test and protect programme. More guidance on those baseline measures will be provided before we move beyond level 0.
To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the growth of jobs that will support a greener economy. (S6O-00054)
We are committed to ensuring that our transition to net zero creates new opportunities for people across the country. Our £100 million green jobs fund is supporting green employment and creating opportunities for individuals to retrain and upskill in new and high-growth areas. We are also investing £26 million to develop the energy transition zone in Aberdeen, which is expected to directly support 2,500 green jobs by 2030, alongside a further 10,000 transition-related jobs. We are continuing to deliver on that ambition, which will be key to achieving the changes that we need in order to meet our climate targets and deliver a just transition.
I thank the minister for that response. By 2030, at least 60 per cent of North Sea oil and gas platforms will be decommissioned and over 1,500 wind turbines will be at the end of their lives. The Scottish Government’s analysis shows that decommissioning could support over 18,000 green jobs. Can the minister confirm that all of that work will be carried out here in Scotland?
The reason why we are creating a £100 million green jobs fund, as well as the energy transition fund, which is already indicating that it will significantly benefit the north-east and Aberdeen, in particular, is that we want Scotland to gain the maximum economic benefit from a just transition between now and 2045 or, as Maurice Golden says, between now and 2030. I am confident that we will create a lot more green jobs for Scotland. It will require a Herculean effort but, for the sake of the planet, Scotland’s economy and our people, we will make substantial progress. We have to work collaboratively with the local agencies and all the academic and other institutions in Aberdeen, which I am sure that we will do.
Question 8 is from Jackson Carlaw.
I thought that you were going to say that time was up, Presiding Officer.
I have squeezed you in.
United Kingdom-Australia Free Trade Agreement (Whisky)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the announcement that the United Kingdom-Australia free trade agreement will remove tariffs of up to 5 per cent on Scotch whisky. (S6O-00056)
We are keen for all Scottish exports to increase, in line with our vision for trade. However, any potential gain for Scotch whisky is more than offset by the cost of the deal to our farming communities. That is why it is vital that the UK Government involves the Scottish Government—and other devolved Administrations—in trade discussions to ensure that trade agreements are in the best interests of everyone across Scotland. It is well known that the deal has been celebrated in Canberra but concealed in London and, as we heard last week from the Australian Deputy Prime Minister,
“The big winners are Australian producers”.
When Ivan McKee has time to get off his high horse, will he focus on the aspect that I asked about, which is the opportunity for Scotch whisky? Australia was our eighth-biggest market last year, worth £113 million to the Scotch whisky industry. Since the announcement of the agreement, what specific conversations has Ivan McKee had with the Scotch whisky industry about how the Scottish Government can work with it to ensure that we maximise the opportunity? Assuming that he has not bothered to do that, will he commit to doing so in the weeks ahead?
As Jackson Carlaw should know, I have on-going discussions with the Scotch Whisky Association about how we maximise the global opportunities for all Scotch products. I have engaged extensively with the SWA on the challenges that it has experienced with US tariffs, and the Scotch whisky industry has representatives on my trade board. He should not lecture me about engagement with the Scotch whisky industry, because we have that regularly.
The key point about the trade deal is that the UK Government has not published its impact assessment in full. The reason for that is the significant negative impact that the trade deal in its entirety will have on the Scottish economy through our farming communities. That is why it is important that the UK Government engages with the devolved Administrations to ensure that Scottish interests are taken into account in trade deals.
Does Ivan McKee agree that no free trade deal is ever completely free, and that the Australia deal comes at a particularly high cost for Scotland, including in terms of lowering standards for consumers?
I absolutely agree. We know that trade deals involve trade-offs, but the Scottish Government has had no involvement in the decisions. We have argued consistently that any trade agreement must protect our food, welfare and environmental standards, and that any imports must be produced to equivalent standards to those of Scottish producers. It would be unacceptable if our current high standards suffered as a result of the deal, and it is vital that the UK Government shares the full detail of what has been agreed with Australia.
Education and Skills
Post-Covid-19 Skills and Training
To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to provide secure, sustainable and long-term post-Covid-19 pandemic skills and training opportunities. (S6O-00057)
Skills are a key priority for the Government. Last week, we met one of our first 100 days commitments by announcing a further £20 million for upskilling and retraining through a national transition training fund. We are investing across the whole skills system, including our colleges and universities, to deliver learning opportunities to equip our workforce for the jobs of the future. In addition to the more than £2 billion that is allocated for post-school provision in 2021-22, we have committed £500 million in this parliamentary session to support skills and employment.
The minister will be aware of the latest numbers showing that the fair start Scotland scheme has resulted in only 9 per cent of participants remaining in employment after 26 weeks. That low level of employment under the scheme has been a feature of the scheme since it was introduced three years ago, before the pandemic. Does the minister acknowledge those disappointing results on employment from the fair start scheme, and what steps will he take to improve the performance of that scheme?
I am sure that Richard Lochhead, my ministerial colleague who has responsibility for that scheme, will be delighted to provide an update to Mr Lockhart. I am always struck by the Tories’ unwillingness to recognise the fundamentally different approach that we have taken to employability compared with the one that they have taken in government, whereby they coerce and compel some of the most vulnerable people in our society to take part in employability programmes under the threat of losing their benefit entitlement. That is not an approach that we will ever take, and ours is an approach that I am proud of.
I call Paul O’Kane.
When did the national qualifications group agree on the appeals process for the 2021 national qualifications, and was the decision unanimous?
I did not quite catch that question, Presiding Officer, because I thought that you had moved to question 2.
I am sorry—I thought that Paul O’Kane wanted to ask a supplementary to question 1. I invite Collette Stevenson to ask a supplementary question.
This is going well—I see that she has not pressed her request-to-speak button. We will now move to question 2.
National Qualifications 2021 (Grade Assessment)
To ask the Scottish Government whether demonstrated attainment from the 2020-21 school year will be used in determining learner grades. (S6O-00058)
This Government’s absolute priority has been and remains to ensure that our young people are kept safe and are able to achieve fair and credible grades despite the most challenging of school years. Professional judgments of teachers and lecturers based on what learners have demonstrated that they have attained is at the heart of this year’s approach. Learners’ grades this year will be judged by their teachers, based on evidence of their work. If the learner demonstrates that they deserve a certain grade, that is what they will receive.
Teachers and pupils have been contacting me in distress and under pressure due to what one teacher called “exams by stealth”. One pupil who contacted me likened the approach of the Scottish Qualifications Authority to gaslighting. Those concerns have been compounded by the elimination of last year’s results from the historical grade boundaries.
It feels to me that the Government is about to fail the most disadvantaged pupils again in an unforgivable dereliction of duty. Most shameful of all, the Government appears to be trying to shift the blame on to teachers. There is no room for teacher judgment; estimated grades must be evidence based. Will the cabinet secretary now do what must be done to avoid the mistakes of last year and agree that we need to scrap pre-moderation, allow teachers to professionally determine grades without constraints and introduce a no-detriment appeals process?
The alternative certification model was co-produced with the national qualifications 2021 group, on which there is teacher representation. They specifically asked, as part of the process, that the awarding of grades be based on demonstrated attainment, so Mr Sweeney’s suggestion goes directly against what teachers representatives asked for. We have worked carefully with stakeholders—including teachers, but also young people—as we have moved through the process.
I appreciate that there have been differences of opinion around part of the appeals process. There is a question on that later, and I will perhaps deal with the detail of the situation at that point. However, I certainly remain committed to ensuring that young people can have faith, as they absolutely should do, in a fair and credible process, which has been worked through with stakeholders and the SQA with the aim of delivering that for them.
When did the cabinet secretary become aware that local authorities were excluding 2020 exam results when using historical data to moderate grades this year? Is she aware that the SQA discussed the use of statistical analysis with local authority directors of education ahead of quality assurance models being designed and adopted?
I appreciate that there has been a great deal of speculation around whether historical data is being used. Once again, I say that what is being done is part of a quality assurance process that can be undertaken by local authorities and which helps identify patterns and trends that can be used for local quality assurance to prompt discussions around attainment and achievement.
That historical data is important, because it can support teachers and headteachers to be confident in their judgment as it will be based on a national standard. As always, the important aspect of this is to ensure that young people know that, if their demonstrated attainment has indicated a grade, that is the grade that they will get. Historical data is not being used as an algorithm to change their grades, either by the school or by the SQA.
Following the finding in the report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that Scotland’s assessment system needs to match its 21st century curriculum, what is the education secretary’s response to the call from Maureen McKenna—one of Scotland’s leading educationists and Glasgow City Council’s executive director of education services—for a big debate on whether teachers’ continuous assessments should play a greater role in pupils’ final grades and qualifications in future?
As I mentioned in my statement yesterday, no decisions have been taken on what reform of the qualifications or assessment approach would look like. That is because a second OECD report will be forthcoming, and a comparative analysis of assessment and qualifications approaches is due by the end of August. When they come through, I will absolutely commit to engaging with stakeholders—including Maureen McKenna, if she wishes—to discuss future plans for senior phase qualifications and awards.
Student Support (Covid-19)
To ask the Scottish Government what support is available for students impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00059)
I understand the significant impact that the pandemic has had on students. As a result of it, many students are facing financial difficulties with accommodation and its associated costs or challenges in getting jobs. In direct response to that, we have committed an additional £20 million to help alleviate the financial pressures that many students face over the summer. We have already provided substantial support to students over the course of the pandemic, including over £96 million in support via hardship funds, digital access, mental health support and support for student associations.
The Covid pandemic has severely impacted many students, and it has magnified the financial burdens that some students face during the summer. The Scottish National Party continues to prioritise improving the attainment gap in Scotland, and providing summer support to students is a very positive step towards achieving that. Many students find themselves in debt over the summer months, and not all have the capability to find work, sustain their accommodation or take up training or volunteering opportunities relevant to their degree, because they simply cannot afford it. That puts those students at a disadvantage relative to their peers who can do so, based on their financial situation rather than their learning ability.
Can the minister provide an update on the timescale for the review of future summer support for students, as outlined in the plan for the first 100 days of government?
As Ms Don has rightly laid out, we have made a commitment to commence the review of summer support within our first 100 days. We will engage with the relevant stakeholders across the sector to help inform the review and will consider all the relevant factors before making any decisions. I have already had dialogue with the National Union of Students that touched on a range of matters relating to that subject, and we will continue to engage with it.
We are committed to beginning that review in the first 100-day period. When the review is concluded, we will respond to it and provide updates to Parliament in due course.
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to an NASUWT Scotland survey, which suggests that 53 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession in the last year, feeling demoralised, unsupported and unrecognised. (S6O-00060)
We recognise the pressure on teachers and appreciate their extraordinary contribution in the most challenging of circumstances. We have already committed over £400 million to education recovery and have introduced a support package for schools and mental health support for staff. We are committed to supporting the employment of an additional 3,500 teachers and classroom assistants and to reducing teachers’ weekly class contact time by 1.5 hours, to reduce workload and enable more time for planning. We will continue to put the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff at the forefront of our recovery plans and to work constructively with all stakeholders, including the NASUWT.
I welcome that answer and wish the cabinet secretary well in addressing the crisis in education.
The Educational Institute of Scotland put forward a proposal at its conference in which it talked about, over nine years, reducing class sizes throughout Scotland at least down to 20. Does the cabinet secretary support that? Does she support the principle that we have to get more resources into the classroom? Will she put a time limit on when we will start to see new teachers come into the classroom, as well as a massive increase in the number of teacher assistants?
We are absolutely determined to move quickly on the number of teachers and classroom assistants. That is why we have already moved, as part of our Covid recovery work, to deliver additional teachers and classroom assistants. Once again, on top of that, another first 100 days commitment of this parliamentary session will be to fund councils to increase teacher numbers by 1,000 and classroom assistants by 500.
I appreciate the points that Alex Rowley made in his supplementary question and the need for the Scottish Government and our agencies to ensure that we are supporting teachers at that time. I hope that I can reassure Mr Rowley that I take that very seriously and we are moving quickly to do that.
I ask the Scottish Government for its views on the link between improving teacher morale and supporting recognition in relation to the comments in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s curriculum for excellence report, which says that there is a need to provide dedicated time to lead, plan and support curriculum for excellence at the school level. That supports what I am hearing locally from teachers in the Uddingston and Bellshill constituency, who tell me that increased planning time improves the quality of lessons that are delivered to our children.
Although the OECD team did not raise the issue of teacher workload, Scotland’s teachers have among the highest rates of class contact across OECD countries. The report actually stated that—
Could we get a question, please?
Yes, certainly. For all teachers, curriculum planning for monitoring student achievement in support of moderation—
Ms Callaghan, could we please have a question?
Yes. Will the Scottish Government commit today to prioritise a reasonable reduction in class contact time for Scotland’s teachers?
As I mentioned as part of my answer to Alex Rowley, we have committed to reducing teachers’ class contact time by one and a half hours a week. That was in the manifesto that we stood on and we are proud to deliver on that. We are investing in more teachers, which will ensure that we are supporting the OECD’s recommendation on dedicated time for school staff to lead, plan and support the curriculum. We have begun discussions, through the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers, on how that reduction in class contact time can be most effectively achieved. I hope that we can achieve that in the very near future.
School Sports Events
To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to schools to enable them to hold modified sports events that can be attended by parents and carers. (S6O-00061)
We know that end-of-year events such as sports days are important to children and young people, as well as to many parents and carers. In light of current clinical advice, it is also important that we keep schools as safe as possible until the end of term. As always, that involves balancing competing risks and priorities. Our guidance for schools continues to reflect public health expert advice to minimise the number of contacts that children and staff have. That means that class sports days are able to go ahead and be enjoyed but that spectator attendance must be via digital means such as schools’ secure online platforms.
As the cabinet secretary will be aware, Orkney has been at level 0 for some time, yet parents have been prevented from attending sports days at schools and nurseries across the county. At a time when fan zones were being given the go-ahead by ministers, the curb on attending sports days has caused understandable anger and confusion. Why was more not done to facilitate perhaps smaller school events that would allow parents to attend? Can it really be said that a risk-based approach is being taken when guidance is applied uniformly across the country?
I appreciate that the issue has concerned many members across the chamber. I absolutely recognise the importance of events to mark the end of a key stage in a child or young person’s life, and very careful consideration has been given to that. The current guidance was considered again very recently by the Covid education recovery group and by the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. We were not able to recommend changes to the position at that time, but I understand that many schools have made plans within the guidance.
One of the reasons why we have not been able to propose a change is that we know that, if cases are identified in an education setting, they can often disrupt the whole setting, with perhaps many children, young people and teachers having to self-isolate. Many early years establishments of course run right throughout the summer, which is the reason for the decision around educational establishments. Our absolute priority is keeping early years centres and schools open as much as possible and not requiring staff or students and pupils to self-isolate.
Last week, I raised concerns in relation to parents and guardians who are still unable to attend their child’s nursery or school graduations or sports days. Will the Scottish Government produce the evidence that states that it is not safe for parents to attend before parliamentary recess, given that the First Minister assured us that it would be made available?
I am certainly happy to ensure that the member is directed to the advice that we have, the guidance that has come out and the minutes of the education recovery group. I have stated the reasons for the decision of that group and of the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues not to recommend to ministers a change in that guidance, which I will not rehearse again. However, we will of course keep that under review to see whether changes can be made for the new academic year.
A key issue in holding school events is Covid testing levels. Does the Government believe that the low numbers of Covid tests taking place in schools have led to more disruption to young people’s education?
I thank Michael Marra for that question, because I have kept a very close eye on that. We believe that there is an underreporting of Covid testing levels in schools among both pupils and staff, because there is an underreporting of when a person has a negative test. We discussed that at great length at the education recovery group, and that is one of the reasons why the unions, Public Health Scotland and other members of the group think that we are seeing a level of results coming through that is perhaps lower than what is happening in the area. We have been very keen to press the issue. I thank the unions, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and others in local authorities for their work to encourage their staff to take that up, and to ensure that they do so right up until the summer holidays.
We are already looking at what needs to be done to ensure that testing is as high as we would like it to be as we move into the next academic year. I am keeping an exceptionally close eye on the issue, because I would also like to see higher figures.
I call Paul O’Kane—I apologise for the earlier confusion, Mr O’Kane.
National Qualifications 2021 (Appeals)
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I knew that there being two Pauls in the Labour group would get confusing at some point.
To ask the Scottish Government when the national qualifications group agreed on the appeals process for 2021 national qualifications, and whether the decision was unanimous. (S6O-00062)
The alternative certification model for this year has been co-produced by the national qualifications 2021 group to deliver the best possible approach under the circumstances, to ensure that learners’ hard work is recognised fairly.
On the approach to appeals, a range of views were expressed following an extensive consultation on draft proposals. As has been apparent, some group members do not support the approach that is being taken, whereas others do. Jim Thewliss, who is the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, for example, is clear that SLS is fully behind the model as the best approach possible, and fully behind the approach that is being taken on appeals.
I note what the cabinet secretary said about some members of the group, but the Government has said that a rights-respecting approach is at the heart of our recovery from the pandemic. It is therefore disappointing and frustrating that Cameron Garrett from the Scottish Youth Parliament, who was the only young person on the national qualifications 2021 group, has said that young people have been ignored in the formulation of the process.
Listening to the views of young people and upholding their rights should be among our top priorities in the Parliament. Were there any other dissenting views in the national qualifications 2021 group regarding appeals?
As I said in my original answer, there were a number of thoughts on the appeals process and its different parts. The issue did not involve a binary choice, because there were a great number of different thoughts on different aspects of the process.
When I was reassuring myself about what was happening, I considered whether the process is credible and fair. I appreciate that Cameron and others in the Scottish Youth Parliament wanted a no-detriment arrangement, whereby grades could not go down. However, that would not be fair and credible: it would not be fair on young people who do not put in an appeal, because anyone looking at an appeal would see only part of the evidence. That would not make the process fair for all learners.
I absolutely appreciate that, on this occasion, I took a different view from that of the young people who made representations on the matter. However, I reassure them that I listened carefully to their views, and that they were not ignored. There was a genuine difference of opinion.
I look forward to working with Cameron and others as we move forward with the policies on education. As I said yesterday, I am determined to put them at the heart of those policies. We might not necessarily agree on every occasion, but they will be at the heart of the Government’s education policy making.
I will take questions 7 and 8, provided that the questioners and the cabinet secretary approach the questions and the answers with some brevity.
School Estate (Investment)
To ask the Scottish Government what its plans are for future investment in the school estate. (S6O-00063)
Scottish Government officials are currently preparing for my consideration options regarding phase 3 of the £2 billion learning estate investment programme. Later this year, I expect to make an announcement on the timescales for phase 3.
All over Argyll and Bute, we have excellent schools—they are fantastic places to learn. However, on the islands of Islay, Mull and Tiree, our high school estate needs upgrading. Our teachers are the best, and our children’s school staff deserve a building that mirrors the excellent teaching that takes place inside it. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the quality of teaching must be mirrored by the quality of the buildings, and that funding should be forthcoming?
I am determined that Scotland’s pupils have access to high-quality, up-to-date facilities of which school communities can be proud. I reassure Jenni Minto that any bid for funding from Argyll and Bute Council through phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme will be given careful consideration.
Teaching Posts (Funding Allocations)
To ask the Scottish Government whether funding allocations earmarked for new and existing teaching posts will be made permanent, to enable local authorities to award a greater number of permanent contracts. (S6O-00064)
We are working closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarding the employment of teachers for the next academic year, and local authorities are currently undertaking an assessment of staff requirements to support education recovery. As employers, the recruitment and deployment of teachers and support staff in local authority schools is a matter for individual councils. Our education system relies on the hard work and dedication of our teachers, and I recognise the effort and resilience that they have shown to support learners during the pandemic.
I am firmly of the view that we will need all possible teaching resources at our disposal to support education recovery, and I would expect employment opportunities to be available.
The cabinet secretary completely dodged my question. I was asking whether she is prepared to make the funding permanent so that the teaching posts can be made permanent. If the funding is temporary, it is a no-brainer that we will get temporary posts. Will the cabinet secretary change the policy and allow local authorities to make the teaching posts permanent?
As we have already heard, the teaching profession is utterly depressed, and it has been treated poorly by this Government. Will the Government change its ways?
I say to Willie Rennie exactly what the First Minister said to him when he raised the issue a few weeks ago. She said, and I reiterate once again, that we will need all possible teaching resources at our disposal as we move to education recovery. As a Government, we are taking Covid education recovery exceptionally seriously, and that is why I would expect, as does the First Minister, permanent employment opportunities to be the priority of local authorities.
That concludes portfolio questions.