Meeting date: Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 September 2020
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, Prioritising Education, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week
- Portfolio Question Time
- Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill
- Prioritising Education
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22780, in the name of Jamie Greene, on prioritising education over independence.15:23
This is arguably one of the most important motions that I have lodged in my time in the Parliament. It is on education. In the middle of a global pandemic, which is fresh in all our minds this week, the Parliament and the Government have much on our plates, but we should focus what time and attention we can give on education and not on passing bills on referendums. [Interruption.]
Let me start by offering well-deserved thanks to our beleaguered teachers and school staff—if the hecklers on the Government benches will let me continue—for the many shifts that they have had to make, from providing blended learning, making our schools safe to attend full time and dealing with the exam grades fiasco to working from home during lockdown and reaching out to pupils in every way they could.
We should also thank Scotland’s young people who, through no fault of their own, have had their educational normality denied this year and are being asked to limit social interactions at an age when social interaction creates friendships that last a lifetime.
The motion for debate today is intentionally binary, because it speaks for itself. We contest that education should be the Scottish Government’s priority and that closing the attainment gap in our schools is more important than independence. I cannot understand why Mr Swinney, who I respect has long-standing views on the constitution, as others do, does not agree with that sentiment. If Mr Swinney disagrees, he has to explain why and say which of those is more important to him.
The Government’s proposed amendment to the motion speaks for itself too. When the Scottish National Party shoves “Brexit”, “power grab” and “Boris” into an amendment to a motion for a debate on something over which it has presided for over a decade, we know that it has truly run out of arguments. We face a simple choice because, in the middle of a pandemic, an economic crisis and an ever-changing legislative landscape, it is being made ever more difficult for the Scottish Parliament to close the attainment gap.
Surely that would be a legacy that the Parliament could be proud of. Why would we make that task any more difficult for ourselves? Why would the SNP Government think it reasonable even to contemplate introducing legislation in this session of Parliament on constitutional matters such as referendums? Why would we, as a Parliament with less than six full sitting months left, think it wise to spend our committee, civil service, legislative and chamber time on a referendum bill? I thought that education was the Government’s number 1 priority—the First Minister said that it was hers—but, sadly, as is often the case with the First Minister and her Government, the rhetoric and the reality are two different things.
If the Parliament is serious about truly getting it right for every child in Scotland, it must do the right thing and put education at the heart of its deliberations. Last week, the Scottish Conservatives launched a paper that sought to add to that debate. I appreciate that those on the Government side of the chamber will go out of their way today to pick as many holes as they can in the paper, which is fine and is normal political discourse. They can pick as many holes in our ideas as they like, but at least we have some. Restoring every school to the best that it can be will require every one of us to get our heads out of the sand and admit where we can do better—that is especially true of the Government.
Last week, we heard from Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, who warned that Scotland’s schools are at risk from a system that is
“incoherent, under-supported and poorly funded”.
That is a stark warning.
If things were well, the Government would not have accepted the need for a full-scale Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review into curriculum for excellence five years after its previous full-scale review—all 175 pages of it—nor would the latest review have had its remit expanded. If things were well, the Government would not have been repeatedly defeated in parliamentary votes on expanding that review, on missed childcare targets and on primary 1 testing.
During this debate my colleagues will talk in detail about some of our ideas and why we see value in them. They will talk about increasing teaching numbers in our schools and why that is important; increasing the choice and breadth of subjects on offer to young people; how we support, mentor and tutor those who need it most; why school inspections cannot be shelved and why they must be independent of the body that is also tasked with delivering education; why we think that no child should attend a school that is graded as being in poor or bad condition in terms of suitability for learning; and commitments to free school meals.
We have debated education in the chamber many times, and I accept that there is no simple panacea for tackling long-term issues in education. However, as we have seen time after time in the chamber, Government ministers refuse to acknowledge disagreement and to accept any failings. No amount of constitutional wrangling is going to overcome the basic arithmetic on teacher numbers, which are at lower levels than when the SNP came to power in 2007. The warning on that has come from many quarters for many years. If we increased teacher numbers, many other issues would be addressed too.
However, it is not just a case of hiring teachers; it is a case of supporting them. It should be a huge concern to the Parliament that more than 4,000 newly qualified teachers have quit the profession since 2012. The teaching unions and focus groups of teachers have warned us repeatedly of the stress and workload that they are under, not least the effect that that is having on their physical and mental health. Additional resource in schools would clearly alleviate workload and offer that much-needed resilience, which is something that we need right now.
The policy of increasing teacher numbers is also designed to ensure that there are enough resources at hand for all of us to deal with whatever the health crisis throws at us. More teachers means smaller class sizes, which is something that we would have clearly benefited from in the current climate. That was another missed opportunity and another broken promise.
The policy of increasing teacher numbers means a reduction in multilevel teaching, which is a practice that is condemned by the teaching profession. Importantly, it also means that no teacher feels worry over how much time that they can give to any individual pupil. However, as we heard earlier today, the cabinet secretary does not even know how many newly qualified teachers have secured jobs this year.
Teacher recruitment is one thing, but retention is another. That issue is more pronounced in our rural communities, as many of us know. Liz Smith will talk more about teachers.
Our proposals aim to empower pupils with maximum choice, and that requires more than just teacher numbers. It means fairness in the breadth and depth of the subjects that are available to them. Subject choice has reduced in recent years. Professor Jim Scott, who is honorary professor of education at the University of Dundee, outlined to the Education and Skills Committee that certain subjects, including modern languages and technology, have experienced sustained declines since the appearance of curriculum for excellence.
Iain Aitken, the principal teacher of geography at Belmont academy in Ayr, described the system that is leading to a reduction in subject choice as “fundamentally broken”. He said:
“Pupils are now effectively picking their Higher options in S3, which is far too early and the number of subjects they can do is far too restrictive.”
His words, not mine.
Those are all live issues. Therefore, it is critical that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s review must report as soon as feasibly possible and most certainly before the next Holyrood election.
If we want to truly empower our young people, we need to equip them with skills that translate into careers and jobs, not least because our economy is shifting in new and uncertain ways.
We are proud to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in our policy announcements. Our policy aims to ensure that every primary school has access to a STEM teacher, so that a young person’s interests or ambitions are not curtailed because of their postcode.
I make no apologies for being ambitious on STEM. We need to prepare the children of today for the jobs of tomorrow. Between 2017 and 2018, the United Kingdom’s tech sector grew at the rate of almost 8 per cent, six times faster than the rest of the economy. There are hundreds of technology jobs in Scotland and demand on recruitment search sites for coders, software developers, app developers and data analysts increases day by day.
Although tech is excelling in the outside world, the same cannot be said of STEM attainment in our schools. We know from the programme for international student assessment scores that Scotland is underperforming in maths. Scores in that subject are now lower than they were in 2003 and we know that one in four pupils is failing to achieve OECD level 2 ability. We also know that one in five pupils is failing to achieve that level in science, with both girls’ and boys’ attainment far lower now than it was in 2006 and well below the UK average.
I want young people not just to be excited by science and tech but to be able to study those subjects and achieve in them. That has to start with primary education. Attainment matters from a young age not just in STEM but across all subjects. The most recent Scottish household survey shows us that almost three in 10 adults in our most deprived communities have no qualifications.
Earlier this year, we saw that the attainment gap in Scotland has narrowed, as I am sure we will hear from Mr Swinney. Normally, I would say that that is something to be proud of and to take credit for, but it narrowed only because the proportion of young people in a positive destination fell faster in our least disadvantaged communities than in the most disadvantaged. Yes, it narrowed, but both groups are worse off, year on year. Mr Swinney celebrated that as an achievement. We have to close the attainment gap, but we must close it in the right way—that is, in a way that is fair to all peoples of all backgrounds.
I close my remarks with the same point that I made when I started them. My belief is that the Scottish Parliament already has not only the power but the opportunity to get things right for every child. We do not need a referendum to put Scottish education at the heart of our work.
The amendment that has been lodged by the SNP in Mr Swinney’s name is beneath him—and I think that he knows that. Quite simply, it is like someone having a last, desperate punch in the ring when they know that their time is up and the bell is about to ring. Whatever ridiculous, empty rhetoric we might hear in the debate from the SNP in defence of its position, one thing remains true. The education secretary, his party, and each and every one of us can make it abundantly clear at decision time where our priorities lie. Let us put education ahead of separation. Is that really too much to ask for?
That the Parliament believes that the Scottish Government should drop its plans for a further Referendum Bill and focus on closing the attainment gap.15:35
I associate myself with Mr Greene’s remarks on the contribution of the teaching profession during the lockdown period, in which, in his words, its members delivered on the learning that was required by young people in extreme circumstances. Hearing that from Mr Greene is welcome, because that has not always been the line of argument that we have heard from the Conservatives on that point.
I welcome the opportunity to reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to closing the attainment gap and raising standards for all children and young people across Scotland. The irony—which will not be lost on anyone—is that the Conservatives have linked the debate to the question of independence. That is ironic first and foremost because they are forever claiming that we are the ones who always raise the issue of independence. [Interruption.]
However, that is not the only irony. We know that the root cause of the attainment gap is poverty. Schools do not create poverty—far from it; they are one of the best tools that we have to overcome it. Therefore, it is ironic that the Scottish Conservatives—the party of welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and devil-take-the-hindmost economics—should decide to bring a debate on the attainment gap.
Conservative members sit here and support policies that lead to children being fed from food banks, mothers being sanctioned on their benefits, and our most vulnerable people being abandoned by a UK Government as uncaring as it is unelected by the people of Scotland. That is not just ironic; it is downright astonishing that they have decided to pair the attainment gap with the issue of independence. They sit in a Parliament that would willingly pass laws tomorrow to end welfare cuts, that would legislate in a heartbeat to end benefit sanctions and that would pass a budget to feed the poorest and lift the most vulnerable out of destitution. The Scottish Parliament would do all that and more—so much more—to tackle the root causes of inequality in education and across society if we had the powers of an independent nation.
The Scottish Parliament had the opportunity to pass a new education bill. Why did that not happen?
Because the Government was able to make the reforms without legislating for them. [Interruption.] Those reforms were about empowering schools—putting powers into the hands of our teachers and headteachers and enabling them to take the action that is required to close the attainment gap.
Not only is there irony in the Conservatives’ position in the debate; there is hypocrisy. Their position is actually worse than simply refusing to will the means to tackle the root cause of the attainment gap, which, as I have said, is poverty; they are actively trying to strip the Parliament of its powers to tackle such issues. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is a “naked power grab”. Those are not my words but those of the First Minister of Wales.
The Scottish Government has set out its plan to publish, before the end of this parliamentary session, a draft referendum bill that would set out, clearly and unambiguously, the terms of a future referendum on Scottish independence.
If there is majority support for the bill in the Scottish Parliament, there can be no moral or democratic justification whatsoever for the UK Government to ignore the rights of the people of Scotland to choose their own future, and be in no doubt, Presiding Officer—that day is coming. Soon—very soon—the people will be heard and the Tories will be left on the wrong side of history on the Scottish question.
I will call Daniel Johnson in a moment but first, I say to Conservative members in particular that it is important that we are all able to hear members’ questions and the replies to them.
I understand the Deputy First Minister’s frustrations about how the motion for debate was drawn up by the Conservatives, but we are four minutes into his speech, so could he maybe talk about some of the things that the Government is doing to close the attainment gap, rather than pointing the finger elsewhere?
That is timely as that is precisely the point that I have got to in my speech.
Until the Government has the opportunity to put the Scottish question to the people, we will pursue the commitment that we set out in 2015 to close the poverty-related attainment gap. Our relentless focus is on ensuring that every young person can reach their potential, with the support and the encouragement of the education system. We have the highest level of education investment per person across the UK.?Indeed, spending on education has increased in real terms for the past three years—it was up by £189 million in 2018-19. As a result, teacher numbers are the highest in a decade, with the number of primary teachers the highest since 1980. That has happened against a tide of austerity over a decade from the Conservative Government.
Does Mr Swinney accept that many of those new teaching posts are part time or temporary because of how he has chosen to fund teacher number increases?
No, I do not, because the overwhelming majority—[Interruption.] The overwhelming majority of teaching posts are permanent posts, which I would have thought that a former teacher would have known something about.
The Government is also making a range of other investments to support struggling families. We have introduced a national minimum school clothing grant of £100 to help more families afford to meet school uniform costs. Our expansion of free school meals saves families with children in P1 to P3 an average of £400 per child, per year and it means that children are being provided with a nutritious meal at the heart of the day. We are leading the way as the only Administration in the UK to offer bursary support targeted specifically at care-experienced students. ?That and more has been done to directly help struggling families.
We have also put more resources into the hands of schools through the pupil equity fund. That makes teachers the decision makers on how best to invest in their schools. Earlier this year, we confirmed that, for the first time, more than £250 million in pupil equity funding will be available to 97 per cent of schools in this school year and the next.
National evidence shows that that focus is making a real difference. The attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged has narrowed on most indicators, with 95 per cent of school leavers in a positive destination such as study, work or training three months after leaving school in 2019, which is up from 87.7 per cent in 2009-10, and most headteachers have indicated that the poverty-related attainment gap in their school is closing as a consequence of the Government’s investment in the Scottish attainment challenge.
We know that lockdown has been particularly difficult for pupils and families from the most disadvantaged communities. One result of Covid-19 is a widening of the attainment gap, which is why it is key that we continue to act by investing in extra teachers, digital learning and youth work to ensure that we close the poverty-related attainment gap.
I return to a subject that I have asked the cabinet secretary about many times before—the digital poverty gap and the technology that is required. I am still getting correspondence—as I am sure other members are—from teachers, pupils and parents about pupils who do not have access to digital learning because they do not have the facilities or the technology.
Can the cabinet secretary tell me how many pupils across Scotland the Government thinks do not have access to digital learning?
The estimates of the likely number of pupils who did not have access to digital learning were of the order of 70,000. Through the first tranche of the proposals that the Government put in place, we provided 25,000 devices to tackle that issue. We then distributed a sum of money that was almost three times the amount that was allocated for the 25,000 digital devices for local authorities to fill the local gaps in a targeted way to meet that need. The Government put the resources directly into closing the digital divide, empowering our schools and local authorities with the resources to do exactly that.
This is a timely and welcome debate focusing on the attainment gap, but it is the ultimate in hypocrisy for the Conservative Party to suggest that the link between the closure of the attainment gap and the debate on independence is negative. The attainment gap is created by poverty; independence would give us the powers to tackle the issue of poverty and that is why Scotland needs to be an independent country.
I move amendment S5M-22780.3, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“supports work to close the attainment gap; confirms that closing the attainment gap and raising standards for all must remain the top priority for the education system; recognises that the attainment gap is caused by the underlying poverty and inequality in society, which are exacerbated by the policy choices of the Conservative administration at Westminster; further recognises that the impact of COVID-19 has disrupted teaching and learning and risks exacerbating the attainment gap and considers therefore that the Scottish Government, local authorities and all education agencies must do everything practicable to support early learning and childcare, schools, colleges and universities through the pandemic; commends the hard work and dedication of teachers, staff and pupils in adapting to the impact of coronavirus, and believes that in education, and across a broad range of powers of the Scottish Parliament, the UK Government is using the EU exit to enact a power grab against the people of Scotland, demonstrating beyond all doubt that decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who live here and not by a Conservative administration at Westminster led by Boris Johnson, which has been comprehensively rejected by the people of Scotland.”15:45
I know that the Tory motion is designed to wind up the SNP—it seems to have worked with Mr Swinney—but it points to an inconvenient truth for SNP members, because all the evidence shows that they have consistently prioritised the pursuit of independence over education.
Since 2007, we have had not just an actual referendum and a white paper on independence, but countless discussion documents, draft bills, bills, consultation papers, commissions, consultations on draft bills and more white papers, and now here we are with the machinery of government putting its shoulder to the wheel of yet another draft referendum bill.
Meanwhile, those same years have seen broken promises on teacher numbers, class sizes, student debt and closing the attainment gap. Cuts in teacher numbers, cuts in support staff, cuts in additional support specialists, rising class sizes, falling literacy and numeracy rates compared with those in other countries and in previous years, falling higher pass rates year on year, and pupils routinely being taught in classes of two, three, or even four different levels.
Those years have also seen an attainment gap that stubbornly refuses to close, except through Mr Swinney’s ever more convoluted ways of trying to measure it. What is more, not only has the Government failed on the attainment gap, but it is failing on the causes of the attainment gap.
Mr Swinney is correct that it is poverty that underlies that attainment gap. There is no doubt that success in education is the best route out of poverty. If there is a magic key to unlock greater opportunity and a better life, it is education. Equity in education means that we must provide every additional support that we can to the pupils who face the greatest barriers to educational success, to help them overcome those barriers and achieve.
However—in this Mr Swinney is right, too—schools cannot by themselves rid society of poverty. If we are to eliminate the systemic poverty-related attainment gap, we must eradicate poverty itself. That is why I will move the amendment in my name.
I say that the Government is failing because the evidence shows that by the age of three, children from higher-income families already outperform those from low-income households, and by the age of five, there is a 10-month gap in problem-solving development and a 13-month gap in vocabulary. In the struggle between poverty and education, education is running to catch up from the word go.
One in four children in Scotland lives in poverty and faces those barriers to educational success, and there are 50,000 more of them than there were just five years ago. Much of that is, indeed, to do with welfare reforms and austerity programmes driven by Conservative Governments in Westminster, but the Scottish Government’s poverty commissioner has repeatedly told the Government that it is failing those children, too. We see the consequences in their mental and physical health and in the attainment gap.
I invite Mr Gray to reflect on what he has just said. Perhaps that will help him to understand why his party is in some political difficulty in Scotland. In the way in which he expressed his position, he absolved the Conservatives of their responsibility for inflicting poverty on thousands of children in our society.
No, I did not. The truth is that those children are being failed by Mr Swinney’s Government and by the Conservative Government.
That is why the Government’s amendment, for all that there is much in it to agree with, is ultimately unsupportable. Dreadful though the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is, to suggest that it is the most urgent threat to school education today is just daft, and to imply that the attainment gap and poverty are all completely to do with 13 months of Boris Johnson and nothing whatever to do with 13 years of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon really is a Herculean denial of reality and responsibility. [Interruption.]
If making education the top priority for Scotland’s Government was an imperative before the pandemic, how much more so is it now? Everyone knows that the attainment gap will have increased during lockdown—after all, we know that it increases over a normal summer closure, never mind a closure for months on end. We know that low-income families found home schooling more of a challenge and harder to engage with. We know, too, that the pandemic has increased poverty, and that it will increase it more as the economic consequences play through, furlough ends and those families who depend on low-paid and insecure part-time or zero-hours contracts get hit the hardest.
Therefore, we would think that every sinew of Government would be aimed at addressing poverty and providing additional support to those young people as they return to school, who face a mountain that is higher than ever, yet that is not what we have seen. An awards algorithm that institutionalised systemic inequality was signed off and defended to the hilt until pupils had to take to the streets in protest; schools have returned with no targeted support in place; and an equity audit to scope the problem will fade away into December—there is simply a long-term strategy, with no timescale at all for any consequent action.
Resources for closing the gap have increased by not a single penny. All that is there is what was there before the pandemic.
The Government has put in £135 million of new resources to assist schools in the recovery, including through the provision of new staff. Why can Mr Gray not acknowledge that in his miserable speech?
The resources that John Swinney refers to are the additional resources that local authorities needed just to get schools reopened safely for everyone. [Interruption.] That is what councils say. The additional resources that he refers to are the pupil equity fund resources, which were already in place before the pandemic. No additional funding has been allocated to provide additional support to close the attainment gap. [Interruption.]
When we look at the Scottish Government’s programme for the year, what do we see? There is nothing new to address the widening of the attainment gap. [Interruption.]
Nothing will be provided to help the families of children who are living in poverty until February. Despite that, there is all the time in the world for the Government to draft an independence referendum bill.
The programme for government is about the priorities of the Government, and the SNP Government’s priorities are laid bare in its programme. We can only conclude that, whatever it says, its priority is not lifting children from poverty or raising their educational aspirations and attainment; it never has been and it never will be.
I move amendment S5M-22780.1, to insert at end
“by action in schools and also by addressing the underlying cause of that gap, the negative impact of poverty on children and young people’s wellbeing, development and life chances, which affects one-in-four children growing up in Scotland.”
I again remind members to desist from making comments from a sedentary position, in order that the debate can be properly heard.15:54
I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by the Tories’ motion. At the weekend, they were briefing the press that they would bring the issue of the 2021 exam diet to the chamber for debate this afternoon. That might have been pre-emptive, given that the Priestley review is not yet complete, but it is certainly a topic of substance and one that is genuinely focused on an important issue in our education system this year.
The motion that Jamie Greene lodged instead is not really about Scottish education. It is about independence—the one issue that the Tories claim everyone is sick of talking about, but which they cannot help themselves from bringing up at every opportunity. I think that they are a bit obsessed. However, I am happy to take the motion at face value and explain to our Conservative colleagues why the goal of independence is not mutually exclusive with closing the attainment gap and why their actions simultaneously grow support for independence and make the attainment gap worse.
Before moving on to the wider issue of the UK Conservative Government driving up child poverty and inequality, I want to pick up on the cabinet secretary’s argument, which is contained in his amendment, regarding the Brexit process and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, because it is relevant to Scottish education.
Clauses 22 through 27 of the bill cover recognition of professional qualifications such as teaching qualifications. In 2017, the cabinet secretary seemed to be toying with the idea of allowing Teach First and similar so-called fast-track teaching programmes to begin in Scotland, to address the teacher shortage. A number of us—inside Parliament and outside it—made it clear that that would not be acceptable, and with such powers being entirely devolved, the Scottish Government’s decision not to proceed with Teach First was the end of the matter.
However, Teach First is permitted in England, of course, and with the passage of the bill, it could be imposed on Scotland as well. The Tory power grab directly threatens the high professional standards of Scotland’s teaching profession, which that profession has fought hard to maintain.
I turn to the attainment gap. The Conservatives need to accept that that gap is not created in classrooms, as the cabinet secretary and Iain Gray have already said, but is the result of existing inequalities in our society. The Scottish Government may not be bold enough to take the action that is available to it to close the gap, but it is not causing it.
As every child poverty campaigner, every children’s rights organisation and every food bank provider in this country will tell us, it is decisions that are made by the UK Government—a Conservative Government—that are making inequality worse and pushing more families into poverty.
The changes to the welfare system that were introduced by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have driven more families into crisis. The process to claim universal credit was made convoluted and arbitrary, with the imposition of cruel sanctions for even the slightest misstep by people who are just struggling to get by.
Every member of this Parliament knows that food bank use in our communities exploded after the introduction of universal credit. Every one of us will have stories of parents—often single parents—being sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions. What impact do the Conservatives think hunger has on a child’s ability to learn?
If the motion had been lodged by the Labour Party, I would still have opposed it, but I would at least have believed it to be a sincere motion for a sincere debate. I cannot believe that there is any sincerity from the Conservatives here today.
The indisputable reality is that Conservative policies and Conservative actions in government make the attainment gap worse. They push more children into poverty and more families into crisis. Their actions and their contempt for the most vulnerable people in our society are among the reasons why the Scottish Greens believe in independence. With full powers over social security sitting with this Parliament, we could tackle the causes of the attainment gap and not just its symptoms once they reach the classroom.
Of course, it goes beyond social security. Some 72 per cent of children who are living in poverty in the UK are in households where at least one parent works. The reason for that is very simple: the Conservatives have kept the minimum wage below the level that is needed to live above the poverty line.
With independence, we can—and I believe that we will—choose differently. With independence, we can set a real living wage, ensure that proper employment protections are in place and restore the role of trade unions in our society. We can eliminate in-work poverty; we in the Greens certainly do not believe that it will be eliminated within the UK. That is how we can tackle the socioeconomic inequalities that cause the attainment gap in our schools.
To be clear, we believe that far, far more can and should be done now with the powers that are currently available to the Scottish Government. The Greens have long proposed universal free school meals, including a breakfast offer, and it looks as if we are approaching a consensus on that, which is really welcome.
We can also reduce unnecessary costs to families, particularly for required items such as uniforms. Some schools, especially in more affluent areas, require completely unnecessary and expensive items, such as blazers with braiding and logos that are often available from only one retailer, which puts huge pressure on family budgets, even after the uniform grant.
We can restore the hundreds of lost additional support needs posts—both teachers and support staff—because we know the link between additional needs and socioeconomic background, and we can expand the healthier, wealthier children scheme in Glasgow by ensuring that every school has associated income advisers.
Those proposals were all made in the “Level the Playing Field” paper that the Greens published in 2018, alongside others that have already been achieved, such as restoring the bursary for educational psychology. They are actions that the Scottish Government could take today. Unless it does so, it cannot credibly claim to be doing all that it can for Scotland’s children.
The Greens are committed to closing the attainment gap, eliminating child poverty and achieving a more just and equal society. It is for exactly those reasons that we are also committed to the cause of Scottish independence. We will not take any lessons from a Conservative Party that, with deliberate malice, inflicted further suffering on the most vulnerable children in our society, so we will certainly oppose the motion.16:01
In March, just as the country was starting to comprehend the scale and seriousness of the pandemic, we debated the state of Scottish education. The PISA results had just made clear what many teachers had long suspected: that, despite their best efforts, something was going wrong in Scottish education. Now, as we gear up to bear more restrictions once again, there is a strong sense of history repeating itself.
During that debate in March, we spoke about subject choices narrowing, the harmful roll-out of standardised testing, the decimation of the ASN and support staff workforce, and the overburdened workforce that remained. Those problems have not gone away—the list has just got longer.
Since then, Angela Morgan’s review has shown that parents and carers of children with additional support needs are battling a system that does not have the resources that it needs to help their children to thrive. Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland says that children will have been “severely traumatised” by the past few months and that “schools have been stripped” of the staff that are needed to support them.
The “credible” alternative to exams that the Scottish Government promised was anything but. Ministers were repeatedly warned by teachers, pupils and this Parliament that the 2020 exam alternative was going to crush ambitions and penalise pupils from poorer backgrounds the most. However, the warnings fell on deaf ears and teachers are now being asked to plan lessons without knowing what pupils will be assessed on or how those assessments will be made.
None of those problems will be addressed by the constitutional wrangling that both the Conservatives and the SNP are determined to put this Parliament through. The head of the Scottish civil service warned the SNP Government that the “de-prioritisation” of public services would be the result of its referendum planning. That is the last thing that is needed.
Instead of using their time to stand up for those at the hard end of the SNP’s Scotland, the Tories have leaned into the constitutional divide. Their motion offers nothing constructive. This debate could have been an opportunity to generate parliamentary consensus or for Opposition parties to force the pace of this minority Government. Instead, it has been used to play the political game that the Tories and the SNP enjoy so much. As a result, there will be no grown-up decisions made in the Scottish Parliament today.
I want to bring the chamber back to something more helpful for the teachers, pupils and parents who are doing their best in these challenging times. These are concrete actions that could make things better for everyone, and I believe that we should all be able to agree on them. My amendment sought to set some of them out.
We should get the 1,140 hours provision fully up and running as soon as possible, so that children have a safe space in which to be looked after and parents have the certainty of stable childcare while the working world gets back on its feet. The meeting to review the new timescale needs to take place urgently, as a first step.
We should embolden the pupil equity fund, so that it can be used to address the attainment gap as it was originally supposed to do, instead of plugging all the other gaps as it has been left to do. We should strengthen Covid testing for staff and pupils so that their return to school is not put in jeopardy. We should accept, and clearly set out how to address, the concerns that were raised in the Morgan review.
We need to get more boots on the ground, so that mental health support can be transformed. Child and adolescent mental health services waiting times should not be the only marker of how child and adolescent mental health is doing.
Money needs to be spent before crises demand it. Counsellors, educational psychologists and support staff need to be widely and consistently available across Scotland. Outdoor learning centres, which have offered generation after generation the opportunity to experience and learn outside the classroom, cannot be left to shut their doors. Colleges and universities should be setting up for the emergency that will exist long after a vaccine has been found. If we are to meet the 2030 targets that are set out in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, they need to be ready for a mass programme of training and retraining.
Finally, the Scottish Government must request an early report on education from the OECD so that, when the Conservatives and the SNP try to throw constitutional blinkers over debates ahead of the election next year, voters might have a fighting chance of being able to clearly see the facts.
That is what Parliament should be agreeing on today.16:05
It is, of course, common knowledge that, in several programmes for government, the SNP has been unequivocal in placing education at the top of its priorities—and, specifically, policies that are designed to narrow the stubborn attainment gap. When that was first announced, it was generally popular and very well received by parents, schools, colleges, universities and members of the Scottish Parliament. The commitment chimed with public opinion and the need to restore our schools to their former pre-eminence. They were much admired and, indeed, copied around the world.
Looking back at what the SNP said at the time, in the chamber and in committee, it was hard to disagree with the broad principles, especially those that aspired to excellence and equity. Sadly, we are here now, several years later, with the unequivocal evidence that Iain Gray spoke about in his speech to support us, noting that the SNP’s commitments have most certainly not been delivered and that there has been no closing of the gap between the SNP’s rhetoric and its delivery. For the sake of our young people, it is surely incumbent on all of us not only to analyse what has gone wrong but to make policy recommendations to improve matters quickly.
Let me concentrate on the question of teacher numbers. In our book and in the eyes of parents, teacher numbers are absolutely critical to improving educational standards. They are also, of course, the key to getting curriculum for excellence back on track.
Teacher numbers are bound to fluctuate as a result of changing pupil demographics. I remember Mike Russell saying that when he was the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. However, that does not explain away the significant drop of just under 3,000 teachers since 2007. That has had a profound effect on the ability of schools to deliver top-class education, given the resulting pressures on resources. In particular, groups such as the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition have regularly produced worrying statistics that show the cumulative effects on additional support for learning—and the most recent data indicates that around a quarter of Scottish school pupils are identified with those additional support needs.
I understand Liz Smith’s argument about teacher numbers, but is she going to pass comment at some stage on the financial environment of austerity that we have been living under since 2010, which was created by the Conservative Government?
In the past few days, we have laid out exactly how we hope to address the question of teacher numbers. We have made specific calculations—[Interruption.] They are about exactly what we are going to do.
Liz Smith has made an historical point about the reduction in teacher numbers compared with the number in 2007. I accept those numbers, but I ask Liz Smith to acknowledge the fact that we have had to operate withing the financial constraints of austerity that have been inflicted by a Government that she has enthusiastically supported.
It has been the choice of Mr Swinney’s Government to make those decisions. That is why we have seen a reduction in teacher numbers. It is nothing whatever to do with what has happened at Westminster.
Let me come to the question of subject choice, which is relevant to the number of teachers. We know that there has been a reduction in subject choice and that that has had a significant effect on core subjects. Of course, that will get worse with Covid-19, but the reduction in core subjects has had a significant effect. As Iain Gray set out, it has also had an effect on multilevel teaching.
We also know that, on far too many occasions in recent years, the inability of some local authorities to find teachers to employ, often after extensive advertisement, has laid bare the fact that workforce planning is inadequate in some crucial areas. There are clearly barriers within the system that are preventing a more flexible and freer movement of qualified teachers across it.
As I have said before, I fully appreciate that we cannot turn that around overnight. However, we can make a lot of progress—and we should have been making that progress, because we were warned about the problem many years ago. To give Fiona Hyslop due credit, when she took over the job of Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, she said in 2008 that she was surprised that local government teacher requirements were not fully factored into national planning. She asked her teacher employment working group, as it was known in those days, to address that. However, on top of that came cuts—from 30 million teachers down to 22 million in 2016.
Too often, we have heard from probationers who have given evidence to the Education and Skills Committee that there are constraints within the system that create a disincentive to apply for some of the posts of their choice. Too often, there has been a disconnect between teaching universities, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and local government. Although that is beginning to improve, there are still situations in which willing teachers are finding it very difficult to get work because they have to manipulate the system to get the necessary accreditation. That puts some people off.
I will tell the Parliament about the Teach First situation, because I understand that, at one stage, Mr Swinney was interested in having a Scottish version of it. At the time, he spoke to the University of Aberdeen and the GTCS about having a GTCS-accredited Scottish Teach First programme. I will be interested to see whether he chooses to deny that, because that held the possibility of getting rid of some of the inflexibility in the system.
We also know that in 2016, the Scottish Government’s STEMEC—science, technology, engineering and mathematics education committee—report called for the routes into science teaching to be diversified. I think that we are making some progress on the STEM bursary scheme, but we have not had very many updates on that. I re-echo the Conservative Party’s support in 2015 for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s call for a dedicated science teacher to be assigned to every primary school.
Quite rightly, Mr Swinney acknowledges that he is ultimately responsible for decision making in education. The public agree, but they share our frustration that, despite all the undoubted talent in Scotland’s schools, we are not performing nearly as well as we should be, which is a conclusion that the OECD came to in 2015.
The oft-quoted mantra that education is the SNP’s top priority has proven to be no more than hollow words, especially when the main priority in this year’s programme for government is all about independence.16:12
I am glad to be speaking in the debate led by the Conservative Party, but I note that in lodging the motion and telling the SNP to focus on closing the attainment gap, the Conservatives have failed to give the matter at hand its full title: the poverty-related attainment gap.
I say to Mr Gray that the inconvenient truth of the afternoon is that the Conservatives are responsible for the austerity policies that cause poverty and that they hold the levers of power to address the issue fully. That leaves the Scottish Government mitigating for poor ideological decisions that are taken elsewhere—a conundrum that would easily be solved by a vote for independence.
The Scottish Government has tackled poverty. We are still in the delivery stages of every child, every chance. That will deliver £12 million of investment in intensive employment support for parents, increased funding for the workplace equality fund to support employer-led projects to advance equality at work and a new minimum payment for school clothing grants. An additional £1 million will be provided for practical support for children who are experiencing food insecurity during school holidays. There is also a new focus on families in the warmer homes Scotland initiative; £3 million of investment has been made in the new financial health check service; and the UK Carnegie Trust affordable credit loan fund has been delivered. All those measures are designed to improve the poverty situation that causes the attainment gap.
When I sat on the Welfare Reform Committee during the last session of Parliament, we commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to report on the cumulative impact of welfare reform on households in Scotland. It was known that welfare reform would reduce incomes in Scotland by £1.5 billion a year—that is £440 for every adult of working age. Families with dependent children are one of the largest losers in the welfare reform agenda. Couples with children lose an average of £1,400 a year, while lone parents lose up to £1,800 a year. Those cumulative impacts have been largely hidden. Families with children lose an estimated £960 million a year, which approaches two thirds of the overall financial loss to Scotland from welfare reform. Nearly half of those benefit cuts were expected to fall on in-work households.
Since then, the Scottish Government has invested over £576 million in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. The UK, on the other hand, has binned statistics on child poverty, cut benefits and introduced the despicable “rape clause”.
The Scottish Government has made its central mission the delivery of both excellence and equity across our education. I will not reiterate the successes that have been mentioned this afternoon. The SNP Government has brought in a host of measures and achievements to attain the goal of excellence and equity in education, but that is not what the Conservatives are interested in. They have chosen to position their own debate on education around constitutional politics.
I will accept the Conservatives’ invitation and discuss the constitutional situation in Scotland. The Conservatives do not accept that constitutional constraints on the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have a direct impact on our ability to deal with issues that the Opposition professes to care about. Constitutional constraints have a very real and tangible impact on our ability to legislate and invest in policy areas that matter to the people of Scotland.
The Scottish Government is delivering on its commitment and, at the same time, polls show that a consistent majority in Scotland are in favour of independence. The Conservatives believe that those issues are mutually exclusive, but I disagree. I do not agree that independence comes at the expense of all other issues, and neither, it seems, do the people of Scotland.
Conservative members seem rancorous when independence is even uttered by the members of the SNP, but they are content for their own party to drive a coach and horses through our constitutional arrangements. They are silent when faced with UK legislation that will rip up the devolution settlement, but irate when the Scottish Government suggests that it should take its own decisions when they will affect the people of Scotland.
In an interview answer, it was said once that the first referendum would be a once in a generation opportunity and that has been held to be sacrosanct, yet binding laws that arise from an international treaty are being broken at will by the UK Conservatives. They cannot have it both ways.16:19
I welcome the opportunity to discuss how we create a fairer society and tackle inequality—inequality that is particularly visible in education.
We know that decisions in an education system can reinforce inequality and deny opportunity but, where policy is rigorous, education can also be seen as an important means of creating greater fairness in society. That is why I was so angry about what the Scottish Government chose to do about the exam results. That was a clear example of choices being made that would disadvantage those who are already most disadvantaged. We need to understand that tackling inequality in education requires an understanding of economic and social inequality and the inequity of life chances more broadly in our communities, and how that feeds into formal education.
In response to a request from the young me for some frivolous spending money, my mother would say, “Every penny should be a prisoner since it came from the sweat of your father’s brow.” Although I have never lived by that approach myself, possibly because I have never had to work as hard as my father did, there is a truth there for the Government to reflect on in these terrible and frightening times. Every penny, every budget, every resource, every bit of intellectual time and energy needs to be focused on tackling this crisis and understanding how disproportionately it is now affecting those who are already the most disadvantaged.
The evidence of the unfolding disaster for all too many families is all too clear. In recent weeks, I have heard evidence from groups such as adult survivors of abuse, carers, unpaid young carers and disabled people, among others. They have all given powerful testimony about the toll of the current crisis on their wellbeing, their income and the support that they receive, and how that is compounding the challenges that are already at the core of their lives. It does those people a grave disservice to suggest that focusing on the constitution can address their needs now. We should not be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, but we need and expect the Government’s total focus to be on those challenges. It is not good enough to point out what we cannot do when Government is resisting taking many of the actions that would make a difference.
In every aspect of our lives, there are examples of inequality, but today’s debate focuses on education. I repeat my strongly held view that the Scottish Government’s action in education is making things worse, whether it is around multilevel teaching, the reduction in subject choices, the reduction in support for young people with additional support needs, or the reduction of support staff in our schools. In this crisis, those problems are multiplied.
We are clear about the impact of the lack of access to digital support. We can only fear what the impact of lockdown was on young people for whom school has been a sanctuary. We see the way in which opportunities for some young people are enhanced and determined by what their families can make available to their own children; in their own way, trips, visits, access to books and extra tutoring can make up for the loss that all young people have experienced by being out of school. We can also see how excluded and disadvantaged those children are whose families cannot bring to bear those extra resources to close that gap.
In education, we need to harness the important work of groups such as Home-Start or the Volunteer Tutors Organisation, or many of the other groups that support vulnerable young people in our communities. At the same time, in my city, cuts are being made to the budgets of the very groups that work closely with individual families. Those choices, made by the Scottish Government, are having a direct impact on the opportunities of young people in our cities. Indeed, the great idea is for libraries to support all in accessing knowledge but, in our city, we are seeing the potential for libraries to be closed.
Will Labour members support our calls for a national tutoring and mentoring scheme, using some of those organisations, properly funded, to deliver support to families who need it most in some of those communities?
I would be hesitant to support any proposal without reading all the details, but I know that there are people who are willing to support youngsters. I am involved with Volunteer Support Scotland, which looks at how we can harness people’s commitment to supporting our young people, not as a substitute for formal education but as a way of bolstering and supporting individual families.
We need more support staff, not fewer. We need more home link staff, not fewer. We need more teachers and learning support teachers, not fewer. We need resources to be directed into the most disadvantaged communities. I have not heard a commitment from the cabinet secretary to direct resources into those schools where the most vulnerable children must now be supported when heaven knows what has happened to them when they were out of school.
Local government is critical to delivering support at the local level into families, and the cuts to local government budgets need to stop. The Government needs to stop its top slicing for headlines—such as the invisible 25,000 laptops—and needs to get resources into our communities. We cannot mark our success only in how we support those who survive through to higher education. We see young people drop out long before the end of their compulsory education, so we need to dismantle the barriers that see young people achieve less than their full potential. Nobody says that it will be easy.
I will be kind to Ross Greer, but it is beyond belief to suggest that the only cause of the attainment gap is what is done at UK level—although, of course, what the Tories do at UK level has a massive and disgraceful impact on our communities.
We know that there is much to do: we should use our time, resources, energy and the talents of our people to make a real difference to the lives of young people, right now. There is no greater challenge or privilege and nothing more dishonest than a get-out clause through the constitution, which prevents us from confronting the real challenges that our communities face right now.16:26
Rather than a get-out clause, a constitutional change would mean that this Parliament would have the responsibilities to take all the decisions that we need to take.
It was once said that President Gerald Ford was so dumb that he could not walk and chew gum at the same time—at least, that is the polite version. Jamie Greene and other unionists appear to be from the same stable as Gerald Ford—they think that Governments can do only one thing at a time. If education is that one thing this year, what will next year’s be—the NHS, the economy, police and fire? When will we get around to the environment or rural affairs? Governments can do more than one thing at a time—that is why we have different cabinet and ministerial portfolios.
I represent many of Scotland’s most-disadvantaged children and young people, and I know the challenges that they face. I have also seen at first hand the positive impact of the Scottish Government’s commitment to closing the attainment gap. The cabinet secretary recognises that there is no room for a one-size-fits-all approach to education funding. Every child in school has different needs, hence the specific focused funding that is available at all levels to support the children who need it most.
Through the Scottish attainment challenge, the Scottish Government has invested £750 million over the past five years to support pupils in communities with the highest deprivation. North Ayrshire is currently one of nine challenge authorities, and it received £5.8 million this year, as well as additional resources to provide focused support to pupils in literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing. That funding sits in a range of Government initiatives and programmes that are geared to providing all our children and young people with the opportunity to fulfil their potential. The Government believes that schools know their pupils best and must have a say in how additional resources are spent and work closely with school leaders at every level to ensure that they play an active part in the closure of the attainment gap.
Parental socioeconomic background has more influence on attainment than the school that the pupil attends. Pupil equity funding is allocated directly to help close the poverty-related attainment gap in each school. This year, headteachers in North Ayrshire will see £4.3 million go directly into their schools, which is ring fenced to support children who are eligible for free school meals and additional children at the headteacher’s discretion.
Through the co-ordination of authority-wide investment and school-specific funding, the cabinet secretary delivers real change for the children who need it most. Eighty-eight per cent of headteachers agree that those interventions have had a positive impact on the closure of the attainment gap and 95 per cent expect further improvements over the next five years.
When significant improvements are made, ministers are committed to learning from those experiences and implementing them in a way that works well for every school. Investment in school infrastructure is also vital to raising attainment. Teachers teach better and pupils learn better when they are equipped with modern, fit-for-purpose facilities and when their building does not crumble around them.
I am delighted that the Government invested over £40 million through the schools for the future programme in Cunninghame North, including £25 million for the Largs campus and £19 million for Garnock community campus, both of which I campaigned for. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has further committed to investing in a new Ardrossan campus, which was given the go-ahead this summer.
Those campuses not only provide an enhanced education environment but create a sense of community and pride in one’s learning environment. Construction is now under way on the Lockhart campus, which is a new, state-of-the-art additional support needs campus and respite and residential facility with purpose-built facilities in partnership with North Ayrshire Council, which will provide ASN-specific nursery care for the first time in North Ayrshire.
Those brand new schools either currently have or will have a profoundly positive impact on young people and their families for years to come. The Government has worked hard to continue to support young people throughout the coronavirus pandemic and recognised the disproportionate impact that lockdown has had on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is why it has extended the pupil equity fund, making £250 million available over the next two years.
Councils and schools have also been given power to redirect attainment Scotland funding towards the measures to mitigate the impact on the most-disadvantaged families. That has enabled schools to provide tablets and deliver digital and summer learning and support programmes over what has been a difficult six months for many families.
Clearly, the SNP Government believes that independence is a vital step for Scotland; it is always better to make your own decisions than to allow your next-door neighbour to make them for you, especially when that neighbour is led by Boris Johnson. Independence is not an end in itself, and we are determined that we must deliver a fairer and more progressive Scotland. In education, the Scottish Government has worked relentlessly to provide, through targeted investment and close communication with those who know Scotland’s pupils best, the best possible start for every child. That is a far cry from independence at the cost of all else.
What Labour cannot accept is that SNP members actually believe in something. In recent years across the UK, Labour has moved from centre-right to soft left to hard left and back again. When I was Glasgow’s only SNP councillor, Labour offered me all sorts of blandishments to join—for example, the convenership of the housing committee with a stipend and a safe Westminster seat. “The SNP will never amount to anything,” Labour said. How political fortunes can change when you persuade people of your beliefs rather than trying to go with the flow and second-guess the electorate.
Liz Smith and Iain Gray attacked the Scottish Government on teacher numbers, yet there are only 5,445 teachers per 100,000 pupils under the Tories in England and 5,038 per 100,000 under Labour in Wales; here in Scotland there are 7,485 teachers per 100,000 pupils, so Scotland is clearly doing better than the areas of the UK that are run by the unionist parties.
As for Mr Greene, who is attacking me from a sedentary position, what does he believe in? Who knows? Take Brexit for example—he abstained on our first parliamentary vote before coming out after the European Union referendum as a remainer who was saddened by the result but keen to make Brexit work. He then transformed into a committed Brexiteer who had always been so. He is a gun for hire who just wants to get on. The majority of the Scottish Parliament will be relieved that it is John Swinney and not Mr Greene who is in charge of Scottish education.
I remind everyone who is hoping to take part in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons in good time.16:32
The Scottish Government must regret saying that education would be its number 1 priority and the issue that it wanted to be judged on by parents across Scotland. It was clear, even before the coronavirus pandemic, that that was not the case. As we heard from my colleague Liz Smith, teacher numbers have fallen significantly, with a drop of just under 3,000 teachers since 2007, when the SNP came into power. The performance rates of pupils in a number of subjects, not least core topics such as numeracy and literacy, were not on a level with other countries across the world, and the infamous attainment gap, which has plagued children from deprived communities across Scotland for years, was not closing. Then the Covid-19 global pandemic hit and the SNP Government faced a new range of problems in relation to education.
Recent months could have been a chance for the Scottish Government to finally come good on its pledge that education would be its number 1 priority, but instead the problems have worsened. SNP ministers will not want to be reminded of the exam chaos that left tens of thousands of children devastated that years of school work had resulted in hugely unfair rewards, leaving their dreams, ambitions and prospects in tatters. Although I appreciate that decisions were reversed after vocal and passionate pressure from parents and pupils, and from across this chamber, we must do everything possible not to repeat the situation for pupils who are sitting exams next year. Those pupils and teachers need certainty, and although the pandemic is unprecedented, the Scottish Government must exhaust all avenues before scrapping next year’s national 5 exams and restricting highers. Surely we owe that to our children.
As my colleague recently said, nobody is pretending that it will be easy, but our central goal must be to give pupils a return to as much normality as possible. It is important, at this stage, to pay tribute to the hard-working teachers who have helped to make that happen across the country. Their dedication needs and deserves to be repeatedly recognised in this Parliament.
I want to address something else in our education system: school inspections. We know that, under the SNP, more than 600 primary schools have not been inspected for more than a decade—in fact, one has been identified as not having been inspected for 16 years. That represents thousands of children going through their entire primary school journey without a single visit from inspectors.
I know that we are currently living with coronavirus, and suspending inspections until next year to relieve pressure on the system in order to allow education establishments to focus on reopening schools was the reason that was given for school inspections being suspended. That was perfectly reasonable. However, the fact is that schools are back, and they should be inspected as normal. That is essential to the maintenance of high standards. We need to get inspections up and running now.
A major concern that I have is that Education Scotland has a role in both running and inspecting our schools, essentially marking its own homework. That is simply not good enough. The Scottish Conservatives have long believed that that needs to change. That is why we would create an independent body of inspectors that would shake things up and report directly to the Scottish Parliament.
As well as the inspectorate proposals, the Scottish Conservatives have put together a comprehensive package of education pledges, set out by my colleague Jamie Greene earlier, to restore our schools and restore Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in the education of children. That package includes investing to recruit 3,000 new teachers; allowing every primary school pupil access to a free school breakfast and lunch; and introducing a national tutoring programme, which would go some way towards helping bridge the attainment gap. Those are measures that will take Scottish education back to where it belongs, making it again a world leader in the schooling of children.
Too much has gone wrong under this SNP Government—before the pandemic and, indeed, during it—and parents, pupils and teachers deserve a much-needed change. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I am just about to finish.
With all that in mind, and for the sake of Scotland’s schools, we should all support the motion in the name of Jamie Greene today.
I say to the member who just tried to intervene that, without their card being in their console, that might have been rather difficult.16:37
I welcome any opportunity to debate education in the chamber as it is, without doubt, an overriding priority of this Government. The education of our young people—the next generation of Scotland—is crucial, and I know that that, at least, is agreed throughout the chamber. Of course, opportunities to debate education should lead to some consensus, and it would be good to think that we could achieve that at some level today, despite the tone of the Conservative motion.
The motion calls on the Parliament to drop its plans for a referendum bill and focus on closing the attainment gap. The fact is that, in an independent Scotland free from Tory welfare cuts that constantly disadvantage more and more people, plunging them into poverty, the job of closing the attainment gap would be much easier.
These are also facts. In 2020-21, the Government is investing a further £182 million in education, including more than £121 million of pupil equity funding, which goes directly to 97 per cent of headteachers in Scotland. A further £750 million is being invested in the attainment Scotland fund to help Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas. All pupils in primaries 1 to 3 now benefit from access to free school meals, allowing families to save around £400 per child per year. The Scottish Government has provided extra resources to councils, allowing spending on education to increase in real terms for the past three years, and it is now up by £189 million.
In addition, record numbers of students from the most deprived communities are now winning a place at university, and we are leading the way as the only Administration in the UK to offer bursary support that is targeted specifically at care-experienced students.
Further, as part of earlier announcements in May, the Scottish Government committed £30 million to support digital inclusion for disadvantaged learners. Headteachers have said that attainment Scotland funding is making a difference. Most improvements around closing the poverty-related attainment gap are as a result of those interventions, and almost all headteachers expect to see improvements over the next five years. The Scottish Government has committed to publishing evidence of progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap by March 2021.
Perhaps those facts, which show the progress that we have made, are an inconvenient truth for the Tories—or rather, an inconvenient Ruth.
The Tory motion ignores the growing number of people in our nation who want the chance to live in an independent Scotland. The Tories would deny them that chance and ignore the democratic wish of the people. The SNP would never deny the Scottish people that, and the Tories know it. We will always stand up for Scotland, despite Tory cynicism.
Before the end of this parliamentary session, the Scottish Government plans to publish a draft bill for an independence referendum that will set out clearly to the people of Scotland the terms of a future referendum. Independence would allow Scotland to make the public spending choices that are best suited to its own interests, such as not investing hundreds of billions of pounds—
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
No, thank you.
I was talking about public spending choices, such as not investing hundreds of billions of pounds in the Trident missile programme or in a rail track that comes nowhere near Scotland.
This year, young people have had an upheaval in every part of their lives due to coronavirus. As a Government, we must do everything that we can to minimise the harmful impact on them of having lost months of education. A further £135 million has therefore been allocated over the next two years to support the return to school. That new funding will see us invest to tackle the impact of coronavirus, including investment in teaching resources to support the wellbeing and attainment of children and young people.
During normal times, every MSP will have visited schools in their constituencies. Like me, they will have been super-impressed with the learning environment and dedicated staff.
Last weekend, pupils at Bishopbriggs academy took part in a fantastic team effort to raise funds for the Beatson Cancer Charity. Their aim was to walk and run the distance from their school to Dubai via Mount Everest and K2. They set £3,000 as their fundraising target, but, amazingly, over three days, pupils and staff covered 7,759 miles and raised more than £12,000 for the Beatson. Those pupils have attained their goal and have created memories that will last throughout their lives.
Let us therefore put more emphasis on the amazing positivity in Scottish education, rather than concentrating on the negative. Let us focus on the achievements of young people and their teachers. That would be far more productive than talking about failure and crisis, in this year of all years. Surely we owe our children and young people that, as well as the chance to prosper and grow in a flourishing nation.16:42
The debate is a wasted opportunity from the Conservatives. Rather than use their time for a real focus on education, the debate is a proxy for an argument on constitutional questions. The debate is nothing more than a press opportunity for the Tories, because they know that it would force the Scottish Government to amend their motion in favour of independence and divert the topic of the debate away from the very important issue of education and on to the constitution.
I will address the motion directly. The pandemic has placed a considerable strain on public services, and schools have not been immune to those pressures. It is unforgivable of the Scottish Government to plan for a second referendum at this time. Civil servants’ time and resources should be focused on our recovery, not on breaking up the UK. They should be focused on tackling the stubborn education attainment gap at a time when the risk of poverty is growing because of the pandemic. That is why Scottish Labour lodged our amendment, as it raises the underlying issue of poverty, which causes the attainment gap.
Poverty is more than an economic issue; it is a health issue and an education issue. One in four children in Scotland is growing up in poverty, and that impacts daily on their development and learning.
The Tories are not absolved from blame when it comes to the attainment gap and they cannot be trusted when they claim to stand up for the education of our children and young people. For more than a decade, children and young people, and the poorest and most vulnerable, have borne the brunt of austerity imposed by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the UK Government.
Child poverty reduction was and remains central to Labour but was abandoned by the Tories for ideological reasons.
Children from higher-income families significantly outperform those from low-income households at ages 3 and 5. By age 5, there is a gap of 10 months in problem-solving development and of 13 months in vocabulary.
In primary 1, the gap in literacy between the most deprived and the least deprived is 19.2 points. In primary 4, the literacy gap rises to 21.5 points. The numeracy gap follows the same trend, rising from 13 points in primary 1 to 18.3 points in primary 4.
The attainment gap is exacerbated by the cuts to resources and spending in schools that the SNP Government has made, year on year, since 2007. There are now 2,853 fewer teachers than there were in 2007, and primary class sizes have increased, despite the SNP pledge to cut class size to 18 pupils or fewer.
In secondary schools, before the grading fiasco of a few months ago, attainment rates at higher had fallen for the fourth year running. There is also a narrowing of the curriculum in our secondary schools—Reform Scotland and the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee back that statement up. Reform Scotland found that only a minority of Scottish state schools allow pupils to sit more than six exams, whereas independent schools offer eight or nine. The Education and Skills Committee found that around three quarters of schools said that difficulty in recruiting teachers limited subject choice and that more than half of pupils said that they had not been able to take all the subjects that they had planned to take.
It is clear that neither the SNP nor the Scottish Conservatives can be trusted to improve schools and tackle the attainment gap. Instead, they would rather focus on the constitutional questions of the day, despite the global pandemic. When we finally come out the other side of this crisis and return to some form of normality, there will be young people who have been let down by the Scottish and UK Governments throughout their education and young lives. They will be blighted by poverty and a lack of opportunity.
Tackling poverty is central to tackling the attainment gap. The crisis through which we are living will leave more people in poverty, and we need both Governments and all parties to focus on the needs of the people and not on the constitutional aims of their parties.16:48
From what little I dimly remember of such things, “reductio ad absurdum” is a method of proving the falsity of a premise by showing that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory.
What I have to say today does not claim to subject the Conservative motion to that test in any strict logical sense. I leave Stewart Stevenson to apply his skills to confirm or deny that, after the debate. However, more generally, I want to challenge as absurd the premise of the Tory motion today, which asserts that supporting independence and supporting education are somehow in competition with each other, to the point of incompatibility.
Before I do that, let us consider some of the achievements of Scotland’s education system in recent years. Some 95 per cent of young people leave school to go on to positive destinations, and the gap between the achievements of those from the most and least deprived communities, albeit that it is still very real, is reducing.
Pupils in primaries 1 to 3 now benefit from access to free school meals, which is allowing families to save about £400 per child per year. More than 900 schools have been upgraded since 2007 and now provide well designed, accessible and inclusive learning environments for pupils, the benefit of which I have seen in my constituency—as, I am sure, other members have, in theirs.
In recent years, record numbers of students have enrolled at Scottish universities and record numbers of students from the most deprived communities are now winning places at university. Since 2012, more than £1 billion per year has been invested in Scotland’s universities, and the Government in Scotland is also leading the way as the only Administration in the UK to offer bursary support that is targeted specifically at care-experienced students.
Since 2015-16, the Scottish Government has invested more than £576 million in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. In 2020-21, a further £182 million is being invested, which includes more than £120 million of pupil equity funding that is going directly to headteachers.
The Scottish Government has also invested in the attainment Scotland fund to drive improvements in Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas, and has introduced a national minimum school clothing grant to help more families to afford school uniforms.
There are many more things that I could list in that vein, but I want to say just this: the Tories seem to think that countries that seek their independence do so out of wanton carelessness about education. That begs the question whether the Tories are implying that countries that are already independent—we can take the UK as a hypothetical example—continue in statehood out of a similar disregard for their nation’s schools.
The intention of the motion is quite simple. I have a question for Alasdair Allan, which gets to the crux of our motion and also applies to all members in Parliament today, about what we should be doing with our parliamentary time. Does he think that a referendum bill is more important than an education bill?
I was rather hoping for that intervention, because before the Conservatives tell us that they are not the ones planning to divert political energies from education into constitutional matters, they would do well to reflect on the ramshackle constitutional mystery tour on which their party has taken us all, these past five years. For long months on end, the Conservatives’ constitutional obsessions ensured that it was not possible to get a single piece of legislation on anything whatsoever, education included, through the UK Parliament—and that was before they illegally attempted to shut down Parliament altogether.
Since then, of course, they have shifted their energies not into education but into further constitutional mayhem, by attacking the powers of our national Parliament, breaking international law and, most recently, showing an increasing determination to destroy our only immediate chances of a meaningful economic relationship with our European neighbours—and all in the middle of a global pandemic.
Yes—we do need to think boldly about how to improve continually our education system in Scotland, and we have heard ideas on that from across the chamber. However, the Conservatives’ relentless negativity about Scotland’s state schools is as unhelpful as it is ill-founded. The premise of the Tory motion deserves to be called out for what it is. I will not take lectures from the Conservatives about prioritising education over the constitution.
To date, the Conservatives’ argument against independence has, in part, rested lazily on the assumption that they speak for the majority and therefore do not really need to say much more than that. That might explain the quality of their offering today, in their argument that people who believe in independence somehow do not really believe in education. This fact might have passed them by, but seven opinion polls in a row have suggested that the Conservatives who attack independence are, in fact, speaking for what is now a minority position in Scotland. Perhaps above all else the Conservatives should look at what those polls have had to say about the views of the young people for whom they have attempted to speak today. One recent poll showed that almost three quarters of Scotland’s young people support Scottish independence.
Minority opinions are often honourably held and are worthy of respect, but they also deserve to be held up to the cold light of democracy, as I expect the Conservatives’ opinions on independence will be at a future election and, more immediately, at 5 o’clock tonight.16:55
I declare that one of my daughters is a secondary school teacher.
I have always maintained that education is the solution to health and welfare, and I will not apologise for using my time to continue to develop that argument. My point is that education has such a significant impact on just about every portfolio.
Here we are again, in another education debate that has been brought to the chamber not by the Scottish Government, but by the Opposition. Let us be honest: the topic is not one that has been a particularly happy hunting ground for the Government.
However, Deputy Presiding Officer—
I just demoted you, Presiding Officer. I want to discuss what we could achieve by focusing effort on developing an inclusive, innovative and effective education environment that enables all pupils to achieve, no matter their background or personal circumstances.
When we are discussing improving the economic activity or developing economic productivity—I think that phrase was stolen from the Scottish Conservatives, I have to say—I am always struck by how the Government never says from where it will develop that. It has to be from the point of view of improving the opportunities and aspirations of the people who have the least. Given that, we will support the Labour amendment. We agree whole-heartedly with that approach, although we might disagree about how we would get there. However, it is about the changes that need to be made to enable that intervention and outcome.
I have always been struck by the variance and the inequality that exists in accessing extracurricular activity across schools. Last night, Liz Smith led a members’ business debate on the importance of residential outdoor activity centres; that very point about inequality of access was highlighted by members of all parties.
We know that mental health is at its lowest in the lower Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas, but we also know from Scottish Association for Mental Health reports, among others, that being physically active is a key driver of good mental health.
The Mental Health Foundation has a fantastic publication called “Food for Thought: Mental health and nutrition briefing”, which makes what should be an obvious point: having a decent diet promotes good mental and physical health.
The school environment is the obvious place to promote that policy. Therefore, I am pleased that free school meals and breakfast clubs feature so prominently in a recently published Scottish Conservative education document.
Developing the Government’s centrist and controlled procurement contract would be an excellent opportunity to support our rural economy and our food producers, through procuring local produce. I have been talking about the topic since I entered Parliament. Surely, it is an obvious route to take. It makes perfect sense to me, but not to the Scottish Government, apparently, because only 16 per cent of the food that is served in schools and hospitals comes from Government-procured contracts. However, East Ayrshire Council, which does its own procurement, manages more than 75 per cent. The Government’s response, of course, was to bin the one piece of forthcoming legislation that was on the books that could have made the difference—the good food nation bill. Once again, we see avoidance.
Despite all the political machinations and gnashing of teeth, there are obvious positive policies that we could implement while we are having our political bun fights. I have to say that, in my opinion, the greatest failing of this Parliament, and especially of the SNP Government, is that although portfolios such as education and health having been devolved to this place for 20 years, thereby affording the Government the opportunity to innovate, to be creative and to look at different ways of allowing our children to experience education, this SNP Government has singularly failed to do those things. It has shown a lack of ability to think for itself.
Instead, the Government is content to point down south and to deflect blame for its inadequacies towards anyone but itself. If members want evidence of how desperate the Scottish Government is to deflect any scrutiny of its record on education, they should look at the Government’s amendment, in the name of John Swinney. Did he say, “Quickly—let’s just throw in ‘UK Government’. Say ‘Conservatives’. Can we squeeze in ‘Westminster’ and ‘Boris Johnson’? In fact, throw in ‘EU’ and ‘power grab’ for good measure.”? That is, it will say anything but will not take responsibility for a portfolio that is completely devolved and is therefore the responsibility of John Swinney and his Government alone.
In his amendment, John Swinney also says that
“closing the attainment gap and raising standards for all must remain the top priority for the education system”.
Words, Mr Swinney. Words. What matters are outcomes.
In the 13 years for which the SNP has been in power, teacher numbers have fallen by nearly 3,000. We have seen all the issues that multilevel teaching and limiting of choices have caused, and a litany of failures has been highlighted in the debate. Instead, Mr Swinney and the one-dimensional SNP Government end their amendment by referring to the only thing that matters to them—their answer to anything and everything, and their reason for failing—which is their blinkered charge towards independence. I ask Mr Swinney: where is the planned education bill?
To be honest, if I were sitting in Mr Swinney’s seat, as the Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I would be reluctant to get on my feet and look teachers and pupils in the eye while trying to explain the Government’s failure and to defend its actions. “Judge me on education,” Nicola Sturgeon proclaimed in her first speech of this parliamentary session. [Interruption.] I am just getting toward the end of my speech. I say that that is exactly what we are now doing—and the report card does not make good reading.
The Scottish Government should get back to working on what is important to the people of Scotland: education, health, justice and closing the attainment gap. It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I say to Mr Swinney and the rest of the SNP that they should lift their heads, dump their obsession with independence and get back to the day job.17:01
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. As other members have thanked those in their constituencies, I sincerely thank the teachers, school staff and all educational professionals in mine, who have been absolutely magnificent over the past six months. They really are among the best of us. There is no adequate way for me to express my gratitude for their selfless dedication to ensuring that young people in my constituency have been continuously provided with learning opportunities.
I also thank them for their professionalism and the expeditious way in which they responded to pupils’ concerns when the exam results were announced last month. I am grateful to all the headteachers, education directors, other teachers, pupils and parents for the opportunity to engage with them directly following those results, to hear about the particular issues and challenges that they were facing, and I thank them for making their time available.
Since I was elected to the Scottish Parliament, I have had the opportunity to visit all the schools in my constituency—many of them on multiple occasions. I am always astounded by the levels of professionalism and enthusiasm that exist among our teaching staff. I say that because I recognise that we in the Scottish Parliament have a duty to debate the subject of education, but from many of the conversations that I have had with staff I know that hearing the political rhetoric around it can be quite demoralising for them. Whatever our intent and purpose might be, hearing that rhetoric has an effect on the people who are listening and paying attention to it. We therefore have a duty to ensure that we always have debates in a way that is respectful and recognises the work that goes on in our schools.
One of the key pieces of work that is under way is the work on attempting to close the attainment gap. As other members have pointed out—but the Conservative motion fails to highlight—that gap is caused by poverty. Mr Whittle might have said that education is a fully devolved portfolio, but the social determinants of inequality, and the policy levers to address it, are not the exclusive preserve of the Scottish Parliament; they are part of a split competency. As other members also recognised, many of the policy drivers for inequality and poverty emanate from decisions taken by the UK Government over the past 10 years, on welfare and social security spending. That factor has also been recognised by many third sector partners and, indeed, by the United Nations.
What action is the Government taking to address poverty? There is the attainment challenge fund. Renfrewshire Council, which is one of the local authorities in my constituency, has such funding. There is also the pupil equity fund, from which millions of pounds go directly into schools in my constituency. I have seen at first hand the variety of ways in which that resource has been deployed by teachers, the difference that it makes and the impact that it has. There is also the investment that is being made in our school estate—for example, the new Barrhead high school, the new Neilston and St Thomas’s primary campus that will soon be under construction, and the commitment to a new Thorn primary school in Johnstone, all of which will make a positive impact by providing safe, secure and warm environments in which our pupils can be educated.
However, the Government’s approach is not just about the money that goes into our schools—it is far wider than that, which is why the impact that will be felt from the Scottish Parliament using its limited powers on social security will be profound and transformative.
The Scottish child payment for children aged under six, which will begin next year, will be transformative. Combined with the best start grant and best start foods, that will provide over £5,000 of financial support for families by the time their first child turns six. For their second child and subsequent children, that will provide £4,900 of support.
The Scottish child payment will have a positive effect on 3,700 children in East Renfrewshire and 6,300 children in Renfrewshire and the Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that 194,000 children aged under six will be eligible for that payment across Scotland. We are providing other benefits, such as the carers allowance supplement and young carers grants as well as the best start grants. There is also the work on housing. In East Renfrewshire, in Barrhead in my constituency, we are seeing council houses being built for the first time in a generation.
All of that combined will have an impact on reducing poverty and the attainment gap. It is not just about what goes on inside our classrooms. I should declare an interest—before I was in politics, I was a music tutor and although the one hour or 30 minutes that I had with each student was important, what happened in the intervening week was the most important part. That is the reality for all educational environments; it is about not just what goes on in the classroom but what goes on at home.
The Conservatives have to realise that their policy decisions at Westminster have resulted in an increase in child poverty. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I am afraid that I do not have time to take an intervention. I am in my last 30 seconds. I want to speak about the lack of willingness to acknowledge that point and the fact that, in moving his motion, Jamie Greene could not even bring himself to mention the word “poverty”. He is an MSP for West Scotland, and, even with all the inherited inequalities that we have from 18 years of Conservative Government, he cannot bring himself to mention the word “poverty” when talking about inequality in my constituency. He comes here to lecture this Government about the actions that we are taking when he has voted against budgets year after year that have delivered pupil equity funding and attainment challenge money to schools in my constituency. It is easy for Mr Greene to come out with the rhetoric, but maybe when we have the budget negotiations in the coming weeks and months, he could come forward with some constructive proposals; he could come forward and engage; and, for once, he could call out the disgraceful actions of his colleagues at Westminster.17:08
My personal connections with teaching are relatively substantial. My grandfather was a fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland and was a teacher; my mother was a teacher; I have nephews and nieces who are teachers in England, Scotland and Denmark; and I have great-nephews and great-nieces scattered across the globe, so I get regular reports on what goes on.
We have heard from the Tories in particular the suggestion that STEM is important and that is one thing on which I can absolutely agree with them. Jamie Greene wants us to spend more time on education and less time talking about independence, so I will use my mathematical background to look a little bit at how the Tories talk about independence. I decided to get up early this morning, at about 4.30, and do a quick analysis, using the www.theyworkforyou.com website, of how often different parties reference independence. I had time to check only the Conservative and the SNP members. Of the top 11 members who most frequently use the word “independence”, five are Conservatives, and at the top of the table is Baroness Davidson. On average, she speaks 22.22 times per annum on independence.
With five Tories in the top 11, the Tories are 1.7 times more likely than SNP members to be in the top part of the speaking-about-independence group in Parliament. Specifically, the average number of times that a Conservative speaks about independence is 6.24 per annum while for SNP members the average is 5.4 times.
Therefore, the obsession with independence in the Parliament comes from the Conservative members. It is quite proper to ask ourselves why that should be. The answer is straightforward. It is simply a cover for their inattention to the development of policy, not just in education—vital as that undoubtedly is—but right across a wide range of the areas of responsibility that lie with this Parliament.
I see, as will others in Parliament, that the Conservative leaflets that are coming out in advance of next year’s Scottish Parliament election, and the leaflets that have come out over the past 10 years, talk about virtually nothing but independence. That happens not just in the leaflets but on the websites of Conservative MSPs.
The person who comes bottom of the frequency table for talking about independence in this place is Tom Mason. Well done, Tom—you obviously have other concerns. However, when we look at his website we see that it lists only two campaigns: one is about cashpoints—I can probably make common cause with him on that—but the other is about opposing independence. The message that comes across every time the Tories open their mouths is their opposition to independence, which is because they have so little time to think about anything else.
Jamie Greene talked about choice. We have choices about the issues that we bring to the Parliament and education is a perfectly proper choice. However, the debate was not about education. In reality, by putting independence for Scotland front and centre, the Tories showed once again that they are using their obsession with it to cover up their shortcomings elsewhere.
By the way, Jamie Greene could not even get the Government’s plan right. It is to bring a draft bill, so I am not sure why he talked about committee time and so on. Ross Greer clearly agrees with the points that I am making because he talked about Tories bringing up independence every time they speak.
I will close by going back to the fact that Baroness Davidson came top of the table.
Mr Stevenson, can you hear me? I will stop you there and let you finish in a second. I was going to wait til the end. The leader of the Conservative group in the Parliament is called Ruth Davidson. She does not have a title. I am sure that Mr Stevenson will be respectful to all members as he always is, so he can call her either Ruth Davidson or Miss Davidson. Those are the only terms by which she will be called.
I apologise if I have transgressed the rules. I have obviously not been keeping up with her plans to become Baroness Davidson. I am sure that that is something that she will look forward to in the future. I apologise unreservedly to her, but she has been a wee bit shy on the whole subject.
She does have one novel achievement in this Parliament, which is not about being a baroness. She is the first leader of the Conservatives to announce that she is standing down before she assumed the office. However, she is also the cheerleader for talking about independence in Parliament.
We move to the closing speeches.17:14
This might have been a debate about education, but I, for one, have found it profoundly unenlightening. It was perhaps summed up by the argument of the member who spoke before me, who attempted to claim that, were it not for the Conservatives, the SNP would not discuss independence at all.
Education must be the top priority in this place and across all Governments, because it impacts everything. The economy depends on education—it depends on education to provide the skills and understanding that future workers will need. We cannot have wellbeing in our society if people do not understand themselves and their context in society. When it comes to equality, as a number of members have said, education is the single most powerful tool for enabling people to deliver themselves from poverty.
However, the problem with education is that its effects and actions are long term. It takes 13 years for a child to progress from primary 1 to emerge from secondary 6. It is somewhat ironic that we have now had an SNP Government for 13 years. Therefore, it must answer for and own the results of our education system.
I agree with what Alasdair Allan said in that there has been a degree of absurdity in the debate. The terms of the Conservatives’ motion are such that it would be a bit like me lodging a motion that asked the Scottish Parliament not to think about penguins. I bet I know what flightless bird every member in the chamber is now thinking about. A party cannot pretend that it is lodging a motion about education when it explicitly cites the constitution in that motion. Quite frankly, as Gordon Brown put it yesterday, the Conservative Government and the SNP Government are engaged in a war of nationalisms. Instead of focusing on issues, they would rather focus on divisions; instead of finding solutions to the long-term problems that we have in our society, both of them would like to create new borders.
The issues were best summed up by Iain Gray and Liz Smith, who are long-standing members of this Parliament with a deep insight into education. Iain Gray spoke about the Scottish Government’s record on education, while Liz Smith focused on the attainment gap. Despite the figures and the supposed facts that Mr Swinney is able to muster, the simple facts are that, according to the OECD, we have the largest class sizes; we have fewer teachers teaching in our schools today than we had in 2007, when the SNP came to power; and, despite what Mr Swinney says about investment in education, the local government benchmarking exercise makes it clear that, since the SNP came to power, spend per pupil in our primary schools is 10 per cent down, and spend per pupil in our secondary schools is 4 per cent down, in real terms.
In our education system, we have very few measures that we can use consistently across the 13 years of the SNP’s term in office, but we can look at the higher pass rate. Over the most recent four years in which pupils were able to sit highers, the proportion of those who passed their highers declined.
On a point of consensus, I think that we can all agree—as Liz Smith pointed out—on the importance of closing the attainment gap. It is important that we use all the energies of Government to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. When the Scottish Government came forward with its renewed focus on the issue, we all agreed with it, but I did not hear it say, “We would like to focus on this, but we do not have the powers to do so,” or, “This is the most important issue, but we cannot tackle it because the powers that we have in this place are such that we are incapable of doing that.” Those were not the terms on which the issue was raised. In fact, the assumption was that the necessary powers were available.
Therefore, we must ask ourselves why we have not been able to tackle the attainment gap. Although there has been a marginal improvement, as others have pointed out, that is largely because of a fall in the level of more affluent pupils going on to positive destinations. Likewise, if we look at SCQF level 6, there has again been a narrowing of the gap, but only because more affluent pupils are attaining less well.
The real issue was perhaps highlighted best by Ross Greer, although he may have conceded the point grudgingly. He put it like this: the Scottish Government has the options available to it, but it is unwilling to use them. The reality is that this Parliament has powers over tax. We can raise income tax to levels that would enable us to sustain the changes to poverty and inequality that our society needs. We can introduce new levies and new welfare benefits, but unfortunately this SNP Government keeps delaying them.
The reality is that education has been devolved, certainly from an administrative perspective, ever since the act of union. It is baked into that act. However, it seems to be this Government’s contention that, even though we managed to maintain a world-leading education system throughout that period, we have somehow been unable to sustain such a system since full parliamentary devolution. That contention is quite simply unsustainable and absurd.
I call the cabinet secretary, Michael Russell, to conclude for the Government.17:21
I want to start with something that should be non-controversial, but which I suspect will become controversial eventually. I think that all of us across the chamber should agree that dealing with the attainment gap, using the resources that we have and working every day to do so should be a priority for any Government. Indeed, the work that the Scottish Government has done on the matter is considerable, and it continues.
We know that the poverty-related attainment gap is narrowing. At SCQF levels 6 and 7, the gap has narrowed. There has been a steady increase, between 2016 and 2018-19, in the proportion of primary pupils who are achieving the expected level in both literacy and numeracy. The gap between the proportion of primary pupils from the most and least deprived areas who have achieved the expected level in literacy narrowed between 2017-18 and 2018-19.
In secondary schools, the proportion of S3 pupils who are achieving the expected levels of numeracy has risen, and the gap between the proportion of secondary pupils from the most and least deprived areas who have achieved the expected level in numeracy has narrowed.
Those are all facts, and the work continues. It continues, as Mr Swinney said, against the headwind of Tory austerity and the legacy of poverty—physical and aspirational—that was left behind in the poorest places by Labour over generations.
The challenge is to take the resources of Scotland and apply them to the problems of Scotland—it is the old “Highland problem” writ large. However, that cannot be done at the present moment. Why not? It is because the powers do not exist in this Parliament to take the resources of Scotland and the achievements that have been recorded so far and go further. That task should engage us all and bring us all together.
It is therefore a shame that, this afternoon, the Conservatives chose the most divisive way possible to debate the issue, and it is even worse that Labour and the Liberals lapped it up. They lapped up the opportunity not to come together and agree on attainment but to put politics before education. That is what we have seen demonstrated this afternoon.
Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?
I will not. I do not have enough time. Jamie Greene made the point that this is the most important debate in which he has ever taken part in the chamber. Well, I want to take part in it and put some facts on the record for a change. [Interruption.] The Tories will not like the facts. We know that they do not like educational facts, and I will come on to that in a moment, too.
Let me ask a question. Why would the Tories choose this incredibly divisive way to debate the issue? The reason is that they are absolutely scared stiff of the polls as they are at the present moment, particularly on the issue of independence. They are absolutely scared stiff, and we can predict the behaviour of all three Opposition parties based on that fact.
The first thing is that the Tories will do anything that they can do to avoid responsibility for the austerity and poverty that they created. They will run a mile from it, and in doing so they will run down anything they can that is positive about Scotland. We can also predict the reaction of the Labour Party, because its will go hand in glove with the Tories. Indeed, it will go further. Let me quote Ian Murray: it will “destroy itself” in order to be alongside the Tories on this issue.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
Moreover, Ian Murray has said that it would “do it again.” That is born out of bitterness and a sense of thwarted entitlement.
We can predict that the Liberals will do anything to get themselves noticed. They will have failed in that this afternoon, as ever.
I am saying this helpfully to the Opposition parties. Unfortunately, they have made—[Interruption.] I know that Mr Simpson appreciates my being helpful to him. I am trying to be helpful, so let me be helpful.
They have made a number of serious mistakes in how they have approached these issues. The first of those mistakes has been a common theme across the chamber for the past 13 years that anything and everything that this Government does is bad. The reality, of course, is that that is not true. This Government has been successful on a wide variety of things. We could always do better, but that view is a mistake.
The evidence that it is a mistake is all around us. In the past 13 years, we have been elected to Government three times. We are currently at more than 50 per cent in the opinion polls. Independence is the choice of the majority, so the tactic of saying, “Everything these people do is bad” clearly has not worked.
Will the member take an intervention?
Oh, no. I shall come to Ms Lamont in a moment.
The second mistake is to say that discussing anything to do with the future of the country is a constitutional abstraction. Let me answer that in a single word: Brexit. That is all we are hearing about all the time from the Tories. This very day, in the House of Commons, Michael Gove admitted that there will be queues in Kent of 7,000 lorries, which will be carrying, of course, medicine and vital supplies—[Interruption.] No, I am not seeking a point from the member. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
I will make another point, about the internal market bill. What we have in this chamber is a deflection from the constitutional abstractions that are impoverishing Scotland all over again. The poverty that we have, which is worsening the attainment gap and working against the work that we are doing on it, will be made much worse by Brexit. [Interruption.] No, thank you. It will be made much worse by Brexit and the loss of the powers that are going to be taken away from this Parliament.
The third mistake and fallacy is this: if only the public could see the truth.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
That leads to the ludicrous action of trying to prevent the First Minister from undertaking public health briefings. Such is the ludicrous position of the Opposition parties that we get to the stage where they would try to stop the public hearing from Scotland’s First Minister.
The Tories cannot understand why they cannot get any traction on any of those issues. [Interruption.] I admire the member’s persistence, but the answer is still no.
The reason that they cannot get traction on those issues is that they are the people who have created poverty in Scotland. Scotland will not forgive them. They have been seen through.
Will you begin to conclude, please?
Labour cannot understand why it has lost its hegemony in Scotland. The reason that it has lost it is that it has gone hand in glove with the Conservatives on these matters. It has sold every principle that it had to go hand in glove with—
I hear the word “nonsense” from Johann Lamont—a woman who today used all the arguments against independence that the Tories used against devolution for 20 years, and she did so without a blush; a woman who today used the words “my city” about Glasgow, which says a great deal about her sense of entitlement.
Let me come to the saddest part of all this, which is that there was agreement on Scottish education a decade ago. Indeed, there was agreement on Scottish education at the start of this parliamentary session. Curriculum for excellence was born out of a national debate and the inquiry into the purposes of education, which I took part in. We agreed that we should work together. [Interruption.] I hear Mr Whittle shouting, “Outcomes.” The outcomes that we should have had included ensuring that we have successful learners.
Please conclude, Mr Russell.
We should have absolutely confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective communicators. On the evidence today, there has been no successful learning by the Tories. After 13 years, they are still getting it wrong. There are no confident individuals in the Opposition, because they are terrified of independence, and there are no responsible citizens in it, because the Opposition parties have put politics before education. As for effective contributors, they are only on the SNP benches.17:30
I am not sure where to start after that abysmal contribution to a debate about education. It probably left all members wishing that we had had an encore from John Swinney so that at least somebody from the education team had closed for the Scottish Government, because it really was woeful.
The debate has been important. Over the year, Scotland’s schools have faced a double challenge. Most obviously, they have faced the unprecedented situation in which education throughout Scotland has been severely interrupted by the Covid pandemic. We still do not know what impact that will have on thousands of young people. However—and just as important—the consequences of more than a decade of neglect by the Scottish Government and successive education ministers have come to a head.
Over many years, we have seen Scotland’s education system, which was once the envy of the world, tumble down the global rankings, and we remain in the unenviable and unacceptable position in which the background of a young person in Scotland still plays a key part in whether he or she will reach their potential.
The situation should come as no surprise. Teachers are overstretched, with their number 3,000 lower than when the SNP came into government. ASN education is a patchwork, with some schools having virtually no resources to cater for young people with additional needs. Many of us will have heard directly from teachers about just how hard they have been working over this period. They have worked themselves to the bone to try to maintain high-quality learning for their pupils. However, in too many cases, they find themselves swimming against the current and operating in a system that is increasingly overstretched. The sad reality is that our schools have suffered from a lack of remaining resilience in a system that has been continually expected to do more with less.
To some extent, the debate is about priorities. Time after time, we are reminded that, for all the nationalist Government’s rhetoric, education is not at the top of its agenda.
It is important and very welcome that pupils returned to school at the end of this year’s summer holiday. It is vital that something approaching normal education has returned, and I do not underestimate the work done by schools, teachers and local authorities that went into making that happen. I thank them all. I am sure that we all recall that that came after the same teachers, schools and local authorities were told to plan extensively for a plan A that never happened.
During the extended lockdown period, some schools embraced remote learning, but that was not feasible for many. Although many pupils were able to engage with the opportunities that remained available, too many—often those who were already the hardest to reach and the most difficult to support—could not or did not. The inequalities that we have seen in our education system worsened.
When targeted practical support from the Scottish Government and its agencies was needed, there was too often a void. When the Scottish Government was challenged, we repeatedly heard that central Government simply did not hold, and was not seeking to hold, information on remote learning and engagement. The Scottish Government all too easily took to the role of dispassionate observer. It watched from the sidelines when it should have been leading from the front. Although the Covid outbreak is unprecedented, the impact on pupils has been made worse not just by the Government’s previous actions, but by its inaction.
It is now more than a month since the schools returned. However, where is the detailed plan to address the disadvantages that have been caused for our young people? Where is the national leadership in supporting schools to help pupils to catch up with what they have missed?
The debate has brought forward not just a reflection of where we are. There have been positive ideas for change, such as proper workforce planning to ensure that staff are in place to deliver for pupils throughout Scotland; investing again in our school buildings to address those that remain in an unsatisfactory condition for learning; and a national tutoring programme to help some of the pupils who are most in need of direct support on a personalised level.
I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge—none of us should. I appreciate that change is not always easy or cost free. However, in this debate, there has been an understanding, once shared by the education secretary, that things are not working and that a new direction is necessary.
As it became ever more clear that a different approach was required, the Scottish Government responded by dropping its flagship education bill. When shown the need to reform the curriculum around a broad general education, the Government sat back and watched as subject choice narrowed across schools. After getting halfway across the line in acknowledging the problems that are faced by the curriculum for excellence, the independent review of its workings has been pushed into the long grass until after the 2021 election. When faced with positive examples of improvements in other countries, the Government’s response was to pull Scotland out of international comparisons. Coming from a Government that once promised to
“oversee a revolution in transparency about school performance”,
that action alone would be laughable if it were not so serious. Quite simply, that is not good enough.
When the First Minister labelled improving Scotland’s education system as her top priority and asked to be judged on her achievements, many took her at her word. However, with every passing year, it has become clearer and clearer that education is seen not as the defining mission of the Government—its interests lie elsewhere—but as something to be explained away. The First Minister’s words now ring hollow: a cheap commitment buying time to get through a new cycle. The Government amendment for today’s debate again focuses on what the Government claims it cannot do, rather than on what it can do, and is the clearest indication that the SNP’s approach is about finding excuses, not solutions. That is shameful.
There were a number of notable contributions to the debate. Jamie Greene thanked teachers and young people for all their efforts during Covid-19 and talked about the benefits of having more teachers: smaller class sizes, reduced teacher workloads and more individual education for pupils. He also highlighted the importance of STEM, about which I am sure that most members in the chamber can agree.
Liz Smith spoke extensively about the proposals to narrow the attainment gap and the principles that were presented to the Parliament. Sadly, she noted, as did I, that there is a clear lack of delivery, with pressure on teacher numbers and ASN resources. There are pressing problems with vacancies, particularly in some local authority areas, and there are barriers to working in the profession. We often praise work to diversify routes into professions where there are identifiable shortages, but it appears that teaching is not one of those professions. We all value having skilled and dedicated people working in our schools, but there are real signs that the system remains far too inflexible.
Alison Harris touched on the 2020 exam diet and spoke about her sincere hope that any severe changes to examinations are seen as a last resort.
Iain Gray made an important contribution in which he highlighted the SNP’s broken promises, falling pass rates and cuts in the sector.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am struggling to hear Mr Halcro Johnston given the noise in the background. I am keen to hear about education and the points that he is making, but that is difficult when people at the back are talking—I cannot hear.
Mr Mountain raises an important point of order. There is a tendency among all members when they come into the chamber to continue conversations that have been happening outside. If members are in the chamber, they should listen to the contributions, please, and then get ready to vote.
My fellow Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP made an important and loyal point.
Johann Lamont said that the Scottish Government’s action on education was making things worse and highlighted the impact of SNP cuts in Glasgow.
At least for part of his speech, Kenny Gibson talked about education before enlightening us about his flirtations with the Labour Party. He also talked about Scottish Government investment in schools in his area, but he did not mention the 250 Scottish schools whose condition is deemed to be bad or poor.
Brian Whittle talked passionately about his experience of schools and about the need to provide good nutrition and physical activity in schools. He also highlighted the Scottish Government’s failure to take responsibility for this devolved area.
Predictably, SNP ministers have attacked the Scottish Conservatives’ plans. I ask them to show us their own plans—show us an alternative vision for an education system that gets better, rather than one that is in managed decline. Then, perhaps, the Scottish Government will have something to bring to the chamber other than more denial and negativity.
The sense that we are moving backwards has gone beyond the chamber. It can be seen—while we still participate in PISA—across the world. It is a concern of parents outside every school gate, who are worried about their children’s progress and their futures.
Change is not simply about creating strategies that are soon forgotten; it is about real investment—in people, in the resources that teachers need to do their job, and in our schools as modern centres of learning. It is that investment that pays dividends. The return is not simply a better skilled, more productive workforce, although that alone is a good enough reason; it is young people having the opportunities that they deserve.
There is time for the Scottish Government to do the right thing and set aside its real priority—the constitutional obsession that drives it at the expense of everything else. There is time for it focus instead on improving education for all Scotland’s young people, to listen to this Parliament and the voices of experts, teachers and parents across Scotland, and to do what it promised to do: to make education a priority—and to do it before it is too late.
That concludes the debate on prioritising education over independence.