Election 2021

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 May 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 (Transport), Covid-19 (Economy), Covid-19 (Education), Decision Time


Contents


Covid-19 (Education)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney. The cabinet secretary, who is joining us remotely, will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

16:15  

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

I welcome the opportunity to update Parliament on the phased reopening of schools and early learning and childcare settings in Scotland, as set out in “Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making—Scotland’s route map through and out of the crisis”.

I start by expressing my appreciation to all those in the Scottish education system for their commitment and efforts during the pandemic. Education staff have gone to great lengths to sustain learning and teaching, and to support the wellbeing of young people and their families, and parents and carers have contributed significantly to the education of children at home since the lockdown began.

I want especially to thank the children and young people of Scotland for their resilience during these difficult days, and to assure them that we are listening carefully to their concerns and hopes about how we plan the way ahead. We are again reminded that the children and young people of Scotland are a credit to our nation.

Last week, we published the strategic framework for reopening schools and early learning and childcare settings. It was developed by the Covid-19 education recovery group, which has brought together the Scottish Government, local authority partners, trade unions, parent representatives and other stakeholders. Collaborative working has allowed all stakeholders to share their knowledge and experience, and to build the widest possible agreement as we plan the way ahead.

The framework is designed to achieve safe reopening of schools, and provides consistency and equity in a national approach for children and young people, which is underpinned by local planning and delivery. A suite of supporting guidance will also be published to cover the practical issues that local authorities and learning settings must consider when developing local arrangements. It will include implementation measures, models of curriculum and assessment, wellbeing support and delivery of early learning and childcare. It will also include specific considerations for each sector, based on the health evidence that is relevant to each age group.

I have written to local authorities to ask them now to prepare local phasing delivery plans. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to implementation, given the different contexts in which individual local authorities and schools operate. Flexibility within clear and consistent national guidelines will provide an essential balance between equity and localism.

Decisions that will be made regarding the reopening of schools and ELC provision must be consistent with Scotland’s framework for decision making and the latest scientific advice. We will continue to be guided by the national improvement framework, our shared vision of excellence and equity for education in Scotland, the getting it right for every child policy and other legal requirements. I am aware that school closures are considered to have a negative effect on all aspects of the progress and development of children and young people, as well as their wellbeing, which is why we are working to enable as many children and young people as possible to return to education and care settings at the earliest date on which it is safe to do so.

Scientific evidence and advice are important parts of that decision, alongside consideration of the other harms that are caused by on-going restrictions. I am therefore publishing today a summary of the scientific evidence that has informed our discussions and decisions to date. The evidence around coronavirus in general, and that relating to children in particular, is continuing to evolve. Some aspects are not yet well understood—the science in many cases cannot provide us with definitive conclusions.

Our consideration of the scientific advice that we have received so far leads us towards taking a cautious approach. We will continue to monitor the evidence and advice and we will use them to inform decisions on further changes to restrictions. The research and evidence base is changing and growing quickly, and we will build in an appropriate mechanism and capacity to review our approach, as it evolves. That will include learning from the experience of other countries, including experience in other parts of the United Kingdom, as they begin to reopen their education settings and children’s services.

I am grateful to the Covid-19 advisory group for the work that it is doing to advise us on our strategy for reopening schools and early learning and childcare settings. The majority view of the advisory group is that it is necessary to consider actions to support physical distancing guidance in schools and in other situations in which children are indoors for extended periods of time. It follows that almost all children and young people across Scotland will experience a blend of in-school and in-home learning from 11 August 2020. That will bring benefits, including an earlier return to school for many, and the ability of all learners to engage with weekly in-home learning tasks.

I expect that that will apply to all pupils except those who are unable to attend because they are following the latest public health guidance. We will ensure that pupils in that category are catered for so that there is no detriment to their learning experience.

Those safeguarding protocols will be kept under constant review, and the time that is spent in school will be increased further as and when it is safe to do so in working towards full-time in-school learning for all.

Education Scotland is providing nationally available learning materials to support in-home learning and to augment and support schools’ own arrangements. That includes consideration of children and young people with additional support needs, and of other families who are most in need of support.

In-home learning takes many forms and is by no means all based online. I recognise that some pupils will need extra help, particularly with home access to technology. That is why the Scottish Government is working with local authorities and schools to identify families in need and is initially investing £9 million to provide 25,000 free laptops or tablets, with internet access included if it is required. That is part of the first phase of our £30 million commitment to support digital learning outside school through provision of appropriate devices.

The phased return of pupils will need consideration of the emotional, physical and mental health and wellbeing of learners. School leaders will need time to work with the school community to explain local approaches and to provide reassurance and support to learners and families.

The implementation of physical distancing will impact on the capacity for in-school learning within a specific setting. Initially, schools should assess the maximum number of pupils whom they can safely accommodate at any one time while maintaining a positive learning environment.

We want to maximise the time that children can spend with their teachers and their peers, so we are calling on local authorities to expand the size of the learning estate where possible. That could include use of community facilities or vacant office accommodation, subject to health and safety considerations and risk assessments. We are also working with the General Teaching Council for Scotland on plans to call on registered teachers who are not currently teaching or are recently retired to consider returning to work to support children through the blended learning model.

Local authorities and schools should use those capacity assessments plus knowledge of their local circumstances to determine the optimum pattern of in-school attendance. In keeping with our belief in equity, it is right that they will also consider the needs of different groups of learners. Access to education and childcare for children of key workers will continue to be provided.

There will remain an important role for assessment, in supporting progression in learning, during the phased return to schools. The Scottish Qualifications Authority will continue to develop plans to deliver the 2021 exam diet, and it will provide further advice to ensure that arrangements are in place to capture on an on-going basis the learning outcomes of young people in the senior phase in the 2020-21 school year.

In early learning and childcare settings, and for the youngest primary school children, it would not be desirable for children’s wellbeing were we to implement strict physical distancing between young children or between a child and a key worker.

Alternative age-appropriate public health measures, building on expertise that has been developed across Scotland in delivering critical childcare, will be put in place. Childminding services and outdoor nurseries will be able to reopen when we move into the first phase of our managed relaxation of lockdown restrictions. We are working with the childcare sector, the Care Inspectorate and public health advisers to prepare guidance in advance of their reopening. Other types of childcare provision will reopen over the summer. It might be that fewer children can be accommodated in each setting, so capacity will be prioritised.

The timetable for reopening services will take account of the lead-in time that is required to bring staff off furlough. The framework for ELC provision will safeguard the financial sustainability of services across all sectors. To ensure on-going provision for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, critical childcare will continue throughout June and the summer break. As recovery progresses, use of childcare hubs might reduce as more children return to their familiar settings. To prepare for August, teachers and other school staff should return to schools in June, when it is decided that it is safe to do so. Health and safety guidance, including risk assessments, must be in place prior to their return.

I am mindful of the impact of lockdown on many of our most vulnerable children. Local authorities have been asked to increase the numbers of children attending critical childcare provision, and there will also be a focus on supporting children at key transition points, which could include some in-school experience in late June.

I look forward to working with all partners to monitor and review continually the support that is in place, and to ensure that children and young people’s wellbeing and learning are prioritised in these challenging times. We have a mission to make that work, to educate Scotland’s children and young people and, above all, to keep them safe. That approach, working with our teachers, school staff and local authorities, gives us a way to do that. We can safeguard our children’s future and get them learning alongside their classmates again.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow approximately 30 minutes for questions.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement and add my thanks to the teachers, parents and young people who find themselves in the most difficult time of their academic lives. It is only right that schools do not open until it is safe for them to so for both pupils and teachers, but every day out of school is another day that is lost from the full learning experience and another opportunity for the attainment gap to grow.

How set in stone is the 11 August date? If the scientific advice, or the Government’s interpretation of it, changes, is that date also likely to change? Schools have remained closed for months, so if, when they reopen, they offer only part-time attendance, the fundamental question on the minds of many parents will be how they can possibly return to work with their children still at home. If our economy reopens and people are able, or find it necessary, to return to work, childcare becomes the central barrier to that.

Does the cabinet secretary have any expectations around how long that blended learning model might last—are we talking weeks, months, or all of the next academic year? Will detailed guidance be issued around changes to the restrictions that govern childminding and indoor nurseries, the majority of which are currently off-limits to most parents? Will the hubs for key workers’ children remain open throughout the summer to allow those workers to continue with their vital duties? Finally, can he confirm that there are absolutely no plans to cancel next year’s exam diet, as unavoidably happened this academic year?

John Swinney

Mr Greene has posed a range of questions and I will give some answers across them all.

My view is that the 11 August date for the start of term is set in stone; I cannot see it being any earlier than that, and it is important to provide clarity to parents on that point. Of course, there is the risk that scientific advice indicates that even 11 August is not safe for us to reopen schools, but I believe that the current direction of the scientific advice that is available to us contains a significant amount of confidence that we will be able to reopen then.

On the duration of the blended learning model, it will continue for as long as we require it to operate but not for a moment longer, because I recognise the importance of restoring full-time schooling for pupils as early as possible. My statement made reference to the fact that, as the scientific advice improves, we will be enabled to move out of the blended learning model at the earliest possible opportunity.

I recognise the challenges that all of this poses for parents. Mr Greene will note from the Government’s route map that the other steps that the Government is taking, particularly in relation to employment and the return to work, are predicated on the importance of ensuring that people work from home where they are able to do so. I regularly discuss with the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture—and she regularly discusses with employers’ representatives—the importance of taking a pragmatic approach to the working location of individual employees in order to enable us to tackle coronavirus, which obviously has a knock-on effect on the education system, into the bargain.

Finally, Mr Greene asked about the exam diet. The exam diet for 2021 is being planned now. We are uncertain about the path of Covid over the next 12 months. The Scottish Qualifications Authority will give advice to schools on the importance of capturing evidence of the performance and achievements of young people, so that that can properly be borne in mind in any certification process in 2021.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I echo the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the efforts of parents and carers, teachers and young people themselves during the period of school closure. Now, however, we need them to be confident that it will be as safe as possible to return to school as planned—the cabinet secretary has quite a challenge ahead of him. I will ask about creating that confidence.

The cabinet secretary has acknowledged that the scientific advice and modelling are evolving, and in some respects remain inconclusive. Will he promise to publish updated evidence as he has it in the coming weeks? Can he guarantee that all teachers in all schools will have access to an established test and support system in June, when they are asked to return to school? Can we be assured that the Government will provide all the extra funding that is required by councils to reopen our schools safely, whatever that takes?

John Swinney

Earlier today, I published the latest scientific advice that we have; I hope that Mr Gray and parliamentary colleagues find that to be of assistance. I am committed to ensuring that there is openness around that information, and I will certainly publish further information as it comes to hand to ensure that we can have an effective, open and accessible debate about the scientific issues. I fundamentally agree with Mr Gray that we can reopen schools only when it is safe to do so and only when there is public confidence in the actions that are needed around reopening them.

I will be happy to engage in discussion with members of Parliament, as I am doing with members of the education recovery group, about the scientific advice that is available. If members of Parliament, having had the opportunity to reflect on the material that I have published today, have any other specific requests for information or data, or have other questions to pose, I will be happy to address those issues.

Mr Gray will be aware from the announcements that the First Minister made today that the test, trace and isolate strategy that the Government is bringing forward will be in place and operational on 1 June. That addresses the testing issues that he raised.

The Scottish Government is in regular dialogue with local authorities on issues of funding. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, takes forward those discussions and is fully sighted on the issues and discussions that we have had in the education recovery group on those questions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move on to open questions. I have a lot of requests and we will also have quite a lot of remote contributions. Members should bear that in mind and try not to prolong their contributions.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement. I note his comments about the investment in digital and about vulnerable children.

The barriers facing vulnerable children and some additional support needs children when they access education are varied and complex. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that pupils are not excluded from engaging with the full curriculum during the phased reopening of schools?

John Swinney

One of the key priorities of the locally delivered approach that we have taken in the national framework that I have set out to Parliament today is to ensure that the needs of individual young people in their localities can be fully and adequately met. Our local authority partners will be looking closely at how to ensure that the needs of individual young people, vulnerable young people and young people who have additional support needs can be most effectively met through the blended learning model that we are taking forward.

Given the local flexibility that is available for young people to be more deeply engaged with formal schooling, local authorities will, where possible, take those opportunities to advance that approach, which is the benefit of the local flexibility that we have put into the framework. I reassure Clare Adamson that the focus is very much on the interests of individual young people and making sure that their needs can be most effectively met by their participation in the education system.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The Scottish Government has announced that it is having to spend £9 million so that 25,000 laptops can be provided to disadvantaged children to support home learning. That is part of a total of £30 million that has been allocated to the area. Will 25,000 laptops be enough to cover all disadvantaged children, or will some miss out during phase 1 of that scheme? Will the laptops be with the children by 11 August, when schools go back? If 25,000 laptops represent £9 million of spend, what is the remainder of the £30 million earmarked for?

John Swinney

That is the subject of active discussion with local authorities. The 25,000 laptops have been ordered and we await their delivery so that we can make them available to the young people.

As we take that provision forward, we will be in discussion with local authorities because, fundamentally, this must be a locally driven set of decisions about who requires to be supported with technology. We will continue those discussions with local authorities, and they will heavily influence our discussions about how the further resources that have not yet been finally allocated are spent. We want to make sure that the technology is able to reach the young people who require it, and to deliver that on the ground, we need an effective partnership with local authorities.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Many parents made sacrifices to be able to afford to send their children on school trips this term. Many low-income families will have put themselves into debt. Those trips have now been cancelled because of the Covid-19 restrictions, but some providers are trying to get schools to rebook for next year, rather than provide refunds.

Will the Scottish Government use its power and influence and work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that every family is immediately refunded the full value of what they paid? If any travel companies refuse to co-operate, will the Scottish Government and COSLA circulate a list of those companies to every school in Scotland?

John Swinney

I recognise the seriousness of the issue that Mr Bibby raises. I give an undertaking today that we will pursue that issue with our local authority colleagues.

I am conscious of the fact that—as Mr Bibby rightly suggested—many families make significant financial sacrifices to make sure that young people are able to participate in school trips. Making those sacrifices puts significant strain on families, and I am sure that they will be making other sacrifices during the pandemic.

I therefore give Neil Bibby the commitment that we will explore that issue with COSLA and that, if there is a need for us to publish any information about a lack of co-operation—although I hope that there is not—I will certainly give consideration to doing exactly that.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. Given the difficulties for parents who are working if their children are at home, will this mean that the children of people who are in work are more likely to be expected to attend school than the children of parents who are not? What level of viral spread will be considered low enough to allow children to attend school as normal and to end blended education?

John Swinney

On Mr Gibson’s first point, there has to be equity of access to education for young people. That is one of the fundamental principles of Scottish education; young people must be able to gain access to education services on an equitable basis. It is for that reason—to enable them to have that access—that we are putting in place the support that some young people might require due to a lack of digital connectivity.

In relation to the second point that Mr Gibson raised—the significance of which I recognise—we have to take great care in making judgments about the scientific advice and evidence that are available to us. All our judgments as a Government are designed to ensure that we take no actions that fuel coronavirus in our society, and that we take every action that we can to try to suppress its effects. The plans to resume education in the fashion that I have set out are consistent with those aspirations.

As we see progress being made, I hope to be in a position in which we can move away from the blended learning model and into the traditional formal schooling model. However, that will depend on our seeing further reductions in the key indicators that the First Minister set out in her statement last Thursday. Those key indicators are to do with the reproduction number, the number of admissions to intensive care units, the number of fatalities and the number of cases that have been diagnosed. Of course, the testing strategy that the First Minister announced at lunch time today will also provide us with a significant amount of information with which to determine the progress of coronavirus, which will influence our thinking.

Finally, there is an emerging evidence base around the transmissibility of Covid-19 among young people, which will also have a bearing on our thinking.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

This coming term, from August, young people are set to spend less time in school than at any point in modern history, which the Deputy First Minister acknowledges is to their detriment. To have them sit exams at the end of that will therefore only compound the inequalities that reduced schooling brings, particularly for those who are already disadvantaged by poverty.

Why have the Government and the Scottish Qualifications Authority not considered the Educational Institute of Scotland’s call for national 5 and higher exams next year to be scrapped and replaced by a system of continuous assessment that can be planned for ahead of schools reopening in August?

John Swinney

There is a general view within Scottish education of the importance of our having reliable and certificated qualifications for all as part of the way in which we deliver education, and the exam diet represents a significant part of that process.

However, as I acknowledged in my statement—and as I acknowledged in my answer to Jamie Greene—although the exam diet is planned for in 2021, we cannot be certain that it will be able to take its course. The SQA will therefore deliver guidance to schools on the way in which we capture evidence of the performance of young people, to make sure that it can be as influential on the certification process as it might need to be in the spring of 2021.

That guidance will be available to schools before the start of the term in August and will be a significant element in relation to the evidence that teachers can gather of young people’s performance and attainment, which will be critical in assessing performance in 2021.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I return to a point that Mr Gibson made with regard to teachers who have children who are at school. Will teachers whose children are still at school go to school full time every week? How will they be expected to teach week in and week out, if they have childcare problems?

John Swinney

Local discretion and planning is the most appropriate level at which those judgments should be made.

A multiplicity of issues will affect the availability of the teaching population once schools return. Given the prevalence of Covid-19, some teachers might not be able to present for teaching purposes for health reasons. There will be other issues, such as the one that Mr Balfour raised.

In the strategic framework that the Government has put in place through its dialogue with the education recovery group, local decision making is critical in coming to judgments about many of those questions. Local authorities in schools will be best placed to undertake their workforce planning, with that degree of flexibility at their hand.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I welcomed the offer from the Scottish Government to support blended learning by providing laptops and broadband for young people who require them, because that will be crucial.

Many young people in my constituency attend our excellent further education colleges. Student representatives from Glasgow Kelvin College told me that many FE students depend on college information technology and do not have laptops or broadband at home. Will the support that was announced also be open to those students?

John Swinney

That is one of the issues that we are considering in relation to the other resources that are available to us, which I talked about earlier. We will actively look at the position of further education students, to determine whether we can put in place appropriate arrangements with colleges to deliver such support where it is necessary.

It is important that all elements of the education system are able to take steps forward after this period of disruption. I am committed to ensuring that that is the case; we will work with the further education sector to enable that.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Scotland’s teachers work long hours at the best of times. How will the balance of blended learning work, given the demands of teaching children in the classroom while other children learn from home? Is that one of the reasons why the Government is looking to hire extra teachers? How many extra teachers does the cabinet secretary think might be needed, and how many might be available, according to the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s list?

John Swinney

The judgment on the need for local teachers to supplement the existing workforce will be arrived at at local authority level. I have indicated a number of times that the framework that I have put in place provides sufficient flexibility for local authorities to make such judgments and come to decisions.

A number of teachers are registered with the GTCS but are not actively teaching. The GTCS will contact those teachers to set out the opportunities that exist for them to contribute and participate in formal education, should they wish to do so, which would assist in providing the necessary skills and capacity.

Local authorities and schools have to wrestle with the important question of how the model can most effectively be delivered at local level. Circumstances will vary significantly. The composition of the school estate in Beatrice Wishart’s constituency is dramatically different from the composition of the school estate in Mr Doris’s constituency. There will be great diversity in provision, and it is important that local authorities actively look at how arrangements can be put in place at local level to ensure that young people’s needs are met effectively.

Education Scotland is providing additional nationally based support and materials to assist schools in ensuring that the blended learning model is maintained and supported actively at local level.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In Edinburgh Southern, there are four schools with school rolls that are above capacity, and a further four that have rolls of more than 95 per cent. Even with blended learning, it will be extremely difficult to implement social distancing without the use of additional space, which will obviously incur costs.

What practical and financial assistance will the Scottish Government extend to local authorities with significantly high school rolls?

John Swinney

We have committed to discuss those issues with local authorities. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is sighted on the discussions that it has been agreed will be taken forward, and we will look at any issues of that nature that arise.

The framework that we have put in place provides the maximum amount of flexibility to local authorities to design arrangements that meet the needs of children and young people in a diverse range of educational settings. I encourage local authorities to take forward that consideration to enable us to come to conclusions about the most appropriate way of delivering education in the different circumstances that we face.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I refer to the local phasing delivery plan. In my rural constituency, there is a key role for local bus companies in transporting pupils to school. Given that we are looking at part schooling—possibly in shifts—what discussions has the cabinet secretary had with his colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, to ensure that buses can also operate a shift service and observe social distancing, which would involve additional journeys and might need additional funding?

John Swinney

In one of the answers that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity gave earlier this afternoon, he indicated that he and I are in active discussion around the whole issue of school transport and its interrelationship with some of the wider issues that Mr Matheson wrestles with in relation to support for the bus industry and how it operates around the country.

The issues with physical distancing are as relevant on school transport as they are in the school estate and will be actively discussed at local level. The issues will be challenging to resolve, particularly for rural areas such as the areas that Christine Grahame represents; indeed, the issues are very significant for the areas in Perthshire that I represent.

I assure Christine Grahame that those issues are very much at the heart of discussions. As I indicated in my statement, a number of practical elements of the arrangements will vary from area to area across the country, so we need to ensure that there is appropriate opportunity for local flexibility in deploying those elements, where that is necessary.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I remind members that my eldest daughter is a secondary school teacher.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that many teachers have raised the issue of losing contact with some of our most vulnerable pupils during this time and that they are struggling to maintain a contact protocol that protects the pupils’ welfare. What measures can the Scottish Government put in place to protect our most vulnerable pupils during the crisis?

John Swinney

One of the steps that I have taken during the crisis is to discuss with local authorities the need to maintain contact with some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. There are two elements to that, the first being the children and young people who are in our child protection system. In the most recent data, more than 90 per cent of those young people had been contacted by local authority staff in the previous seven days. That picture has been broadly consistent throughout the pandemic, and I pay tribute to local authorities for the effectiveness of their contact with those young people.

The other element is the work that is under way in individual schools to maintain contact with young people. I have taken part in a number of events with schools over the past few weeks—remotely, I might add—and one of the points that we have been discussing is that schools have demonstrated over the course of the pandemic that they do not have to occupy buildings to retain their communities.

When schools have not been able to use their buildings and infrastructure, they have successfully reached out to maintain the school community through the connections that exist between staff, pupils and their families. I can provide the example of a school in my constituency with which I was in touch last week through a parent council discussion. The volume and quality of teacher-pupil engagement by that school was very high, indeed. In the course of the past seven days, I have also heard of similar examples from Christine Grahame’s constituency.

On a sustained basis, teachers are maintaining contact with pupils. It is harder to do so now, but, where there are good strong relationships between teachers and families, that is bearing fruit in the context of the current pandemic. Scottish education is the better for having that strength in its foundations.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I add my thanks to those of my colleagues to teachers and staff for keeping everything going at the moment.

My question is about practical subjects. When the schools return, how will equipment, kit and instruments be used in a hygienic manner? Will teachers be responsible for cleaning and sterilising everything, or will schools have to employ extra cleaners? Will additional equipment need to be purchased?

John Swinney

Without doubt, effective hygiene measures will need to be in place in schools when pupils return in August. Into the bargain, those measures will need to be in place before any members of staff return in June.

I issued a letter to local authorities, inviting them to develop delivery plans for the resumption of formal schooling. They will have to give consideration to the substantial issues that Gail Ross raises, which will be integral to ensuring that there is no diminution, as a consequence of the reopening of schools, of our efforts to tackle the coronavirus. The cleaning of the school estate and equipment and the maintenance of the cleaning regime will be critical to the resumption of school education in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

There are three questions left, and I am minded to take them, so we will continue for a couple of minutes past 5 o’clock.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

There was a strong emphasis in the cabinet secretary’s statement on blended learning, which means home schooling. In families in which the parents work—often all day and full time in order to make ends meet—their children will be in school for part of the day and in childcare for the rest. Will there be any changes in how childcare is delivered to provide the home schooling element of that? Otherwise, it is difficult to see how that schooling will be delivered in many households. Will those parents have to pay for childcare if it is being delivered during what would have been the normal school day?

John Swinney

Colin Smyth raises a number of complex questions, and it is impossible to give a general answer to all of them. The approach to blended learning will require a degree of pragmatism among employers that is commensurate with the route map that the First Minister set out last Thursday, which, fundamentally, envisages that home working will continue for many people as a consequence of the pandemic.

The discussions that I have with the economy secretary and that the economy secretary has with the business community are critical to creating a shared understanding of how the blended learning model can work and how individuals can return to active employment effectively in different settings around the country.

Mark McDonald (Aberdeen Donside) (Ind)

During one of the cabinet secretary’s recent statements, I spoke to him about the issues around transition, particularly for those children who have additional support needs and who might be transitioning from nursery to primary school—or, as is the case for my son, from primary to secondary school—and the potential for some special measures to be required. Given that we now have the August 11 start date for schools and the probability of blended learning, what further thought has he given to the impact on children with additional support needs and the special measures that might be required for them?

John Swinney

The route map that was published last week envisages transition support opportunities being available for pupils who are leaving primary 7 to enter secondary 1, and my statement gave express account of the importance of ensuring that we meet the needs of young people who have additional support needs. It is crucial that, at local level, the opportunities for transition that we would envisage arising before the summer break, at the end of June, can be taken forward and that specific account is taken of the needs of young people who have additional support needs, in order to manage and support their transition into the next stage of their schooling. The framework envisages that that will happen in a sustained way to meet the needs of children and young people across the country who have diverse and different needs.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the concerns that have been raised by teaching unions in England about the reopening of schools there this coming Monday and the risks that they fear that might involve. Can the cabinet secretary provide people in Scotland with some reassurance that he has engaged with our unions, local authorities and—crucially—parents, to ensure that their views have been heard and that health and safety are at the forefront of any decisions that have been taken, and that are to be taken, ahead of the phased reopening of schools in Scotland?

John Swinney

My objective throughout the whole discussion—which is a challenging one—about the resumption of formal schooling has been to work in a manner that creates maximum agreement and unity around the reopening of formal schooling in Scotland.

The education recovery group has brought together the Scottish Government with our local authority partners in joint leadership of that work. We have been working closely with the professional associations, teaching trade unions, education stakeholders and the National Parent Forum of Scotland, and the proposals that were announced on Thursday were endorsed by all the partners that are involved. Unison was also involved in those discussions, in recognition of that fact that staff in our schools are not only teachers—there are many other critical staff, whose interests are represented by that union—and we reached a point of agreement.

I very much welcome the endorsement of the approach that we are taking, which has been based on looking at the evidence and making judgments about the safety of the decisions that we are taking to ensure that we do nothing that jeopardises the safety of pupils or staff, and that we do everything to contribute, as an education community, to tackling the coronavrius.

Annabelle Ewing has my absolute assurance that that is the manner in which we have embarked on that exercise and that it is the manner in which we will take it forward in the period to come.