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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 27, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 27 February 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, War Memorials, Exam Results 2019 (Analysis), Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Exam Results 2019 (Analysis)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a ministerial statement by John Swinney on analysis of the 2019 exam diet. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement.

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

Education is the highest priority of this Government, because we want all Scotland’s children and young people to reach their full potential. We believe that we have a moral imperative to ensure that all young people in Scotland receive a first-class education in their local school. Monitoring and analysing performance are key to ensuring that we deliver that overriding aim. That is why the Government and its partners regularly consider young people’s performance in exams and take action to support continued strong performance.

Previously in the chamber, I committed to publishing analysis of the 2019 exam diet, which I did last Thursday. Four papers considering diet performance—by the Association of the Directors of Education in Scotland, Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Government—were published, including summary information and proposed system-wide actions for partners.

A substantial proportion of that information was also contained in a response to a freedom of information review that I was advised required to be answered last Thursday in order to meet the statutory deadline. Because the bulk of the material formed part of the review response, I took the decision to release the report and the review concurrently. I was conscious of my commitment to Parliament to publish that material and therefore felt that it would not have been appropriate to release it to a private individual alone without making it available to Parliament through general publication. However, it was never our intention to release it as late in the day as we did.

The necessary material for issue was approved at approximately 5.30 pm. That was later than would have been ideal, but given the deadline that I had been advised of, I decided to proceed with publication. I have subsequently been advised that the statutory deadline that I was given was incorrect. Therefore, it is deeply unfortunate that a series of issues delayed publication, including the issuing of a press release, until later that evening.

We sought to be as timely and informative as possible with publication, but it must not be forgotten that much of the material is not new, but has been available since August last year, because the SQA publishes annually a commentary on exam results and individual course reports. Members will also be keenly aware of the number of times that we have discussed that information in the chamber and at committee.

I do not suggest that such an important issue does not merit discussion—far from it. I welcome any discussion on this Government’s education record and the significant improvements that it has delivered. However, I hope that we can all agree on the need to focus discussion on positive steps that we can take to support our young people in achieving their potential.

It is important to note that the papers demonstrate excellent collaboration with our partners in considering the drivers of exam performance, which identified a range of actions to underpin future positive performance in exams.

On 27 November 2019, I set out to the Education and Skills Committee that, in following up on the analysis, the key areas to focus on would include partners conducting further work to ensure alignment of the curriculum and assessment journey from secondary 1 to 6; partners considering how better to support professional learning and development; and the maintenance of a clear focus on enhancing learning and teaching.

The papers that we released last week include further details on how that could be achieved. The actions that were set out include the following. Partners will remind teachers and schools of the materials and activities that are available to support professional learning—particularly for subjects whose course reports have identified specific issues—and the SQA will evaluate its approach to assessment and the on-going appropriateness of that approach. There will be identification of key priorities for support for learning, teaching and assessment, and Education Scotland senior regional advisers will discuss national qualifications results with local authority directors, in order to identify which schools need further support or challenge, and to identify how best to meet need in a collaborative and empowered system.

We will agree how to identify schools that need the most support to raise attainment, and how to identify follow-up action, and Education Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland will agree how to share performance across regional improvement collaboratives and to include follow-up action within the plans of those collaboratives.

There will also be longer-term work to ensure alignment of the curriculum and assessment journey from S1 to S6. All partners will consider co-ordinated enhancement to support professional learning and development, and all partners will provide evidence to feed into on-going discussions on performance. There will be a focus on delivering those actions in order to support future performance.

I also highlight other actions that are under way. They include expanding teacher numbers to a 10-year high and increasing the focus on enhancing learning and teaching, strengthening leadership, reducing workload, and promoting teacher empowerment. We are empowering schools with the resources and flexibility that they need in order to close the attainment gap and to meet the distinctive needs of pupils through pupil equity funding.

We are increasing the capacity of local authorities and schools that face the greatest challenges through the Scottish attainment challenge, and we are strengthening the capacity to support improvement in our education system by creating regional improvement collaboratives and by expanding the work of Education Scotland, including the appointment of six senior regional advisers and 32 attainment advisors—one for each education authority.

An additional action that was identified was that we will continue to raise the profile of the mixed economy of awards and pathways, including consideration of a second national achievement day celebrating the impact of the wider range of pathways. We should never forget that one of the key aims of curriculum for excellence is to support all children and young people to achieve their potential, and to do so whatever form that might take.

Statistics that were released this week show that the number of young people who achieve one or more awards, which is monitored as part of the developing the young workforce strategy, reached 17.1 per cent last year, which was up from 14.8 per cent the year before. It is entirely appropriate to consider the drivers of exam performance and to better understand how we might best support future performance, However, that should be done in parallel with recognition of the significant achievements that are to be celebrated in Scottish education.

We have more young people leaving for positive destinations than ever, and there have been significant improvements in school leavers achieving one or more national qualifications at levels 4 to 7 over time. Specifically, performance at level 6—higher—has improved. When the Government took office, significantly fewer than half of pupils—41.6 per cent, to be precise—left school with a higher or equivalent, or better. Direct comparisons cannot always be made because of changes to precisely how statistics are collected, but I can say that the latest figure is that more than 60 per cent—60.5 per cent—of pupils are at at least that level.

In addition, where we can make direct comparisons, we find that the number of pupils who get a higher or better is up by more than 10 percentage points on 2009-10—from 50.4 per cent to 60.5 per cent in 2018-19. The attainment gap is closing there, too. Among those who achieve higher level awards or better, the gap between the most well off and the least well off has fallen by a fifth since 2009-10.

It is not the case that some subjects matter more than others. However, when we look at the subjects that are taken by the most pupils, pass rates in the majority of the top 10 have increased since 2015: maths, chemistry, modern studies, physics, biology and geography—major subjects—are all up.

We should also acknowledge volatility in pass rates. Last year saw an increase on the previous year in the pass rate at national 5, and a fall from the previous year in the pass rate at higher. We cannot expect continual increases in pass rates. The published papers set out pass rates by exam, and did so with a clear warning that, where subjects have small numbers of entries, changes in pass rates should be considered with caution. That is important advice from the SQA that should assist constructive and dispassionate consideration of the content of the papers.

It is clear that there are plenty of achievements by our children and young people to celebrate and to build on. We can celebrate current successes and at the same time recognise that time might yet still be needed to fully achieve what we have been working towards.

I remain committed to the changes that we have instituted, and continue to believe that they are the right things to do. In that, I am also committed to working with our partners to continue to monitor performance, to learn, and to drive further improvement. The Government has engaged constructively with Parliament on another element of the process through a review of the curriculum, the terms of which I was pleased to set out yesterday.

It is right to consider exam performance, and it is right to share the messages from that. That is what I said I would do, and that is what I have done. There is plenty to celebrate in the achievements of our young people, and we will continue with our efforts to ensure that there can be many more in the future. The published papers set out what future actions are needed. Those actions will be taken in order to ensure that every young person in Scotland will be able to achieve their full potential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I will allow about 20 minutes for that.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement.

I took up the education brief only a week ago, but it is clear to me that much good work is going on in Scottish education. Many people are working passionately to deliver the best possible education.

However, from the volume of correspondence in my inbox and what we learned in the past week, I know that the number of people who leave school with at least one qualification has dropped, and that the number of people who leave school with the gold standard of three or more highers is at its lowest since 2014. We know that there was a significant drop in pass rates at higher level in key subjects including English, maths and history. Rates in some subjects dropped by as much as 10 per cent, which goes far beyond acceptable annual variation.

We know that the remit for the review of curriculum for excellence has been expanded after political pressure from Conservative members and others, while the cabinet secretary was protesting that everything was fine.

Yesterday, we learned from a well-respected piece of research by the University of Dundee that Scotland has lost its coveted place as the top nation of the United Kingdom in children’s reading.

The jargon and excuse-filled statement that we have just heard from Mr Swinney simply will not wash.

Does Mr Swinney disagree with teachers who think that a 10 per cent drop in exam pass rates is way more than anticipated and acceptable annual volatility? Does he accept that attainment at many levels has been in decline for the past five years, which seems to suggest that the reforms to the curriculum and examination structure have not been as effective as they were intended to be?

Does Mr Swinney accept that the attainment gap is the result of a higher decline in attainment among the least-deprived pupils, rather than of a levelling up among the most deprived?

We all want to get this right, but until the education secretary has the humility to accept that when something is not working it needs to be fixed, we will not do so. That will be a shame that rests on his head and that of his party for a long time to come.

John Swinney

I know that Jamie Greene has only recently assumed his role, but if he looks at what I said—and at what I said yesterday in my speech at Wester Hailes education centre—he will see that I make it expressly clear that I do not believe that everything is perfect, and that I believe that there are issues that we need constantly to improve in Scottish education, and to which I face up.

I take some reassurance from the assessment of the international council of education advisers, which met last week. The council’s judgment, which I quoted yesterday, is that the Scottish education system is using all the approaches and making all the interventions that the council would expect of a high-performing education system. That is not to say that everything is perfect; it is to recognise that we are using interventions that are designed to strengthen performance.

Jamie Greene referred to the reading survey results that were issued today. Of course, the Conservatives regularly make a lot of the programme for international student assessment figures, and the PISA analysis that came out relatively recently—just before the turn of the year—indicated a significant increase in performance in reading in Scotland, up to the point at which only five countries in the world have discernibly stronger performance in reading than Scotland. That is from a survey that the Conservatives believe to be the strongest assessment of performance.

There will be exam volatility. If Jamie Greene is going to argue that exam pass rates must constantly increase, he will be at odds with all prevailing opinion on education, which recognises that we cannot have constantly rising pass rates. There will be volatility in individual subjects. However, I made the point in my statement that the majority of the large-volume subjects saw an increase in pass rates at higher.

Jamie Greene said that there has been a five-year fall in attainment. I have in front of me the figures on the percentage of school leavers who attain one pass or more at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 4, 5 and 6. I accept that in the past year, 2018-19, there were slight falls in those figures, but if we go back five years to 2013-14, we see that the rate for highers then was 58.1 per cent; it is now 60.5 per cent. That is an increase. If we go back even further to 2009-10, the percentage of young people achieving one pass or more at SCQF level 6 was 50.4 per cent; it is now 60.5 per cent. That is a huge increase in performance.

I am absolutely committed to working to close the poverty-related attainment gap and I am determined to make whatever necessary interventions I can to ensure that that happens. There is clear evidence across a majority of indicators that we are closing that gap. It will take time, but the Government’s resolve to secure that objective is absolute.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the Deputy First Minister for early sight of his statement, if not for early sight of the report. I remember some convoluted excuses from my teaching days, but today’s opening explanation was a classic of the genre. However, we now have the analysis and I have three questions.

First, can we agree that the key finding is a four-year trend of falling attainment in the majority of subjects at all levels, except for a slight one-year improvement at national 5?

Secondly, will the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review not only have the analysis made available to it but be expected to consider whether the trends are driven by the curricular structure?

Finally, I have been struck by the response from a number of teachers that they see the problem as the loss of specialist subject principal teachers in most schools and of specialist subject advisers in all authorities. Will Mr Swinney take positive steps to reverse that unplanned change to the way in which our schools are structured?

John Swinney

On Mr Gray’s first point, we have to look at performance over a number of years. When we do that, as I have just rehearsed with Mr Greene, we see a strong rise in the attainment of young people—the percentage of school leavers attaining one pass or more at SCQF levels 4, 5 and 6—over the duration of this Government. I heard Mr Gray’s point about the pass rate at higher, but he knows full well that there is no statistical difference in the pass rate performance over three years. Mr Gray is a man who knows his numbers; he is experienced in that area as a former teacher. He knows that there is no statistically significant difference in three years of those numbers, with the exception—which I have always accepted—of the fall in the pass rate between 2017-18 and 2018-19. However, Mr Gray must accept that the reverse took place in the national 5 pass rate, which fell in 2017-18 and went up in 2018-19. That analysis must be looked at over time.

The second point was about the OECD review. The OECD will be free to look at whatever it considers is appropriate. It can consider all aspects of those questions as it undertakes the review, which will be independent of Government. It is not for me to prejudge how the OECD goes about that exercise.

Thirdly, Mr Gray knows, from what I have said before, that I think that the loss of subject specialisms in schools, which has taken place over a number of years, is a matter of regret. That is why, under the career pathways work that I commissioned from Professor Moyra Boland of the University of Glasgow, I have supported the development of career specialisms in the teaching profession to ensure that some of that capacity can be restored. The second thing that I have done is make investments in Education Scotland over the past two years, strengthening the subject capability within it and its regional capability to support improvement in our schools. Those reforms will benefit schools in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The guidelines are that the front-bench questions should take five minutes, but we are almost halfway through the session. There are back benchers who will not be able to ask questions today.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

On Tuesday, I asked the cabinet secretary about sharp falls in the pass rates for specific subjects, such as higher history, and the need to investigate those declines. There is a clear trend across most higher subjects, indicating a systemic issue as well as problems with specific courses. Teachers have repeatedly identified the problem of excessive performance indicators creating a perverse incentive to move towards a burdensome tick-box culture of teaching. Will the Scottish Government take action to address the number and role of performance indicators?

John Swinney

I would be very pleased to explore the specifics of the issue that Ross Greer raises. As he knows, I have taken steps to remove many performance indicators. I removed unit assessments, which were burdensome—I accept that. I requested that those be removed over a three-year period. We have removed all manner of pointless management bureaucracy in the broad general education—for example, regarding experiences and outcomes and whether they are satisfied in all circumstances. If Mr Greer wants to write to me with some specific points about indicators, I will happily consider those, because I have no interest in the collection of pointless information if it distracts teachers from enhancing learning and teaching.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

The cabinet secretary said yesterday that pupil equity funding has been provided on a sustained basis. However, our analysis of Government figures has found that the total PEF allowance for 2019-20 is lower than what was spent last year in 23 local authority areas. That means that support could actually be scaled back in some areas this year. Will the cabinet secretary commit to making PEF a permanent feature of Scottish education, with multiyear settlements, so that investment decisions can be made for children for the long term and provide greater certainty to schools and staff?

John Swinney

Let me reassure Beatrice Wishart that we allocate £120 million of pupil equity funding each year. If that money is not spent in that year, the allocations are protected and preserved to enable them to be spent in subsequent years by the individual schools concerned. If a school does not spend all its PEF allocation in one year, it does not lose that allocation—that allocation is carried forward. If there is an example of somewhere that has not happened, I would be happy to explore it, because that should not have happened.

The Government had a manifesto commitment to sustain pupil equity funding until March 2021. Some months ago, I confirmed that we would extend that to March 2022, because we will formulate a budget in the spring of next year, which will cover the financial year to the end of 2022. PEF will be a permanent feature of education spending for the length of the line of sight that I have in this parliamentary session. If there is any carry-over from one year to the next, I assure Beatrice Wishart that that should be available to individual schools. If she has any examples of that not being the case, I encourage her to write to me and I will follow the matter up.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Recent figures show that, in my area of North Lanarkshire, 94.3 per cent of school leavers in 2018-19 went on to positive destinations after school. That compares with 86.9 per cent of school leavers doing so in 2009-10. How will the Scottish Government build on the excellent work that is already being done throughout the learner journey to prepare pupils for destinations after school?

John Swinney

There is some very good work going on in schools across the country. That is the case in North Lanarkshire, as I saw when Clare Adamson and I visited Braidhurst high school, in her consistency, where strong work is being done through developing the young workforce agenda, which connects school pupils with the world of work. That is enhanced by the availability of foundation apprenticeships, a strong new element of the learner journey that enables young people to progress.

There will be some groups for whom we face more significant challenges in enabling them to go on to positive destinations. Those will undoubtedly include young people with additional support needs and young people who are care experienced. As Clare Adamson will be aware, the Government is taking a range of measures, particularly in the light of the care review, to strengthen the outcomes for young people who are care experienced and ensure that they can enjoy the same positive destinations as the overwhelming majority of Clare Adamson’s constituents will be experiencing.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

In its analysis document, which was published last week, the Scottish Government said:

“Pass rates are only part of the attainment story.”

That shows a casual lack of concern when we are faced with another year in which attainment has fallen across a range of outcomes. The Scottish Government seems to be ignoring the fact that those pass rates represent individuals who risk being left with the consequences of that decline in standards for the rest of their life.

Does the Deputy First Minister, indeed,

“welcome any discussion on this government’s education record”?

Why has the Government failed to bring a full debate on education to this chamber for two years, and will he give a commitment today to ensure that more Government time this year is given over to debating what was once the Government’s number 1 priority?

John Swinney

Subject to the agreement of the Parliamentary Bureau, there will be a Government debate on education on 17 March.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In his answer to Clare Adamson, the cabinet secretary mentioned the need to focus on additional support needs. Recently released figures from the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition highlight that, since 2012, spend per pupil with ASN has fallen by 26 per cent and that the number of specialist ASN support staff has decreased by 403. How does the cabinet secretary explain that worrying trend, what will he do to fix it and does he agree with me that we cannot address the ASN attainment gap without those specialist staff?

John Swinney

As Daniel Johnson will be aware, the Government has invested £15 million of additional expenditure into supporting ASN education. That will be subject to a decision that will be taken this afternoon—the Government’s budget has to pass to enable that expenditure to be undertaken. I am sure that Daniel Johnson will reflect on that point.

I think that I heard an aside from Jenny Marra. I say to her that I am very pleased that local authority investment in education has been rising for three years in a row. That is a welcome investment in the education of our young people in challenging times.

I assure Daniel Johnson of the Government’s absolute determination to invest properly. As he knows, I await the outcome of Angela Morgan’s review of ASN education. I look forward to engaging with that review on the issues that it raises, so that we can directly address the issues Daniel Johnson has raised.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s outline of the review’s remit and thank him for his communication with the Education and Skills Committee during the process. How will the review engage directly with teachers and hear the views of education practitioners across the board?

John Swinney

I intend to establish a practitioner forum as part of the review. That forum will enable practitioners’ voices, and the voices of young people, to be heard within the review. It is important that the lived experience of those who are teaching and who are experiencing education in Scotland is heard by the OECD in the review.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am encouraged to hear that the remit will include the responsibilities for curriculum design and support. Does that mean that the OECD will examine the roles of Education Scotland and the SQA in that respect?

John Swinney

This is the first opportunity that I have had to acknowledge the reshuffle in the Conservative benches and its impact on Liz Smith. I thank her for her long interest in education. I had hoped, for a moment, that that interest had stopped, but she has just asked another question on education, so I presume that we are going to be stuck with it for some time—which will be a privilege and a pleasure for me to experience.

In relation to curriculum design, as I told Iain Gray, the OECD will look at any issues that it believes to be relevant. I am not going to prescribe to the OECD what should be explored; it is for the OECD to consider the topics and themes of the review.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The number of children who are leaving school in Dundee without any qualifications has risen again. It was 0.8 per cent in 2011 and is 4.8 per cent today. Those children have had every day, week, month and year of their education under the Scottish National Party, and they have been utterly failed by nationalism. Dundee has yet to set its budget. Will Mr Swinney pick up the phone to John Alexander today and tell him not to make cuts to education in Dundee?

John Swinney

I accurately predicted from Jenny Marra’s muttering earlier on where she might be heading with her question. I am very pleased that Scottish local authorities have increased expenditure on education for the past three years, and I look forward to local authorities continuing that trend.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. Unfortunately, Alasdair Allan, Gail Ross and Stuart McMillan were not able to get in. When the Presiding Officers cut off members mid-statement during questions and answers, there are complaints. The other side of that is that members rather ramble on, both in questions and in answers, and other colleagues get missed out. I ask members to please think about how we can deal with the situation in the future.