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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 29, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 October 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Brian Taylor, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Exit (Further and Higher Education), UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Points of Order, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Good afternoon, everyone. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place across the chamber and the Holyrood campus. Please take care to observe those in the course of this afternoon’s business.

I warn everyone that I am going to be quite strict on timings for questions and answers, because over the past couple of days too many members have missed out on the chance to ask questions.


Additional Support for Learning

1. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that children and young people and their families are actively involved in decisions regarding additional support for learning that directly affect them. (S5O-04697)

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

On 21 October, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published a joint action plan that accepted the recommendations of Angela Morgan’s independent review of additional support for learning. At the heart of the action plan is a commitment that, at national, local authority and school levels, we will actively involve and listen to children, young people and their families in decisions that affect them. We will seek to remove any remaining barriers and will consider support that can be put in place to encourage participation. Progress will be monitored by the additional support for learning implementation group and will be reported on by October 2021.

Ruth Maguire

Children in Scotland’s young ambassadors for inclusion contributed to the review. One of their questions was whether the review’s recommendations would affect their own experience of school. Bearing in mind the impact of the pandemic, but also the fact that our children and young people are in school, can the cabinet secretary say when the young people who contributed might see such change?

John Swinney

The issues that Ruth Maguire raises are central to how our entire education system has to operate in listening to the voices of young people. The contribution of the Children in Scotland young ambassadors for inclusion has been effective in putting that point at the heart of Angela Morgan’s review. I am certainly committed—and I know that educators the length and breadth of the country are, too—to ensuring that we listen carefully to the voices of children and young people.

I expect the changes resulting from the review to be felt in the course of this school year, but the review that will take place in October 2021 will provide us with an opportunity to take stock of the progress that has been made.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The Morgan review said that

“Additional Support for Learning is not visible or equally valued within Scotland’s Education system”

and that not all young people who need support are

“being supported to flourish and fulfil their potential”.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm the date by which the Government will have fully implemented the review’s careful recommendations?

John Swinney

That is an on-going priority, but I have committed to reporting again in 12 months’ time, once we have seen the achievements that have been made.

Fundamental to the issue that Mr Greene raises is another important point, which is that we must ensure that the needs of every young person are met within our education system. That means that different forms of support should be in place for individual young people. That point has been reinforced by Angela Morgan’s review. Further, the fact that we have established a joint agreement with COSLA on the review’s implementation—because that will be done in schools, which are run by local authorities—shows that we have made a crucial commitment to ensure that the review is effective in changing practices.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 2 will come from Bob Doris—I hope.—[Interruption.]—Oh, there he is. He appeared just in time.


Covid-19 (Financial Support for Students)

2. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support has been made available to further and higher education students during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04698)

Richard Lochhead (Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science)

Eligible students in further and higher education have continued to access bursary, grant and loan payments throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, earlier this year the Scottish Government provided emergency funding of £5 million to support students impacted by the pandemic. We also provided early access to £11.4 million of higher education discretionary funds to support students over the summer period and into this academic year. The Scottish Funding Council also brought forward £2 million of funding for further education students at college.

If students are continuing to face additional hardship as a result of Covid-19, they should apply for discretionary funding support from their college or university.

Finally, we announced a digital inclusion fund of £5 million to support access to digital equipment and to tackle digital poverty.

Bob Doris

I have had students contacting me who have been forced into significant hardship due to delays in getting their Student Awards Agency Scotland funding. The students were forced to apply for student hardship funds, with some applications being rejected by institutions as they did not have SAAS award letters. I have three specific brief questions to ask the minister. What progress has been made in tackling the backlog? Can SAAS seek to prioritise students who may be in the most precarious financial situations? What guidance can the minister give universities and colleges to try to ensure that those who are most in need are not rejected simply because they do not have a SAAS award letter?

Richard Lochhead

It is important that any student who requires support at this time receives it from their university or college in relation to the hardship funds. I thank Bob Doris for bringing to my attention the issue that some institutions are not providing support where the SAAS award letter cannot be produced by the student. If that is the case, I will certainly investigate, because we have to make sure that that particular issue is addressed.

Due to the uncertainty around the pandemic throughout the past year or so, there were not as many early SAAS applications, so a bit of a backlog built up, because many of the applications came in a bit later than usual. However, SAAS has determined and processed 97 per cent of the undergraduate applications that have been received and SAAS is also working with the Student Loans Company to make sure that everything is being co-ordinated so that students get the help that they deserve. I thank the member for bringing that point to my attention and I will investigate it.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The National Union of Students has today asked that additional support be promised for students who cannot, or choose not to, leave their term-time address over Christmas. Will the minister ensure that that is the case?

Richard Lochhead

Iain Gray will be aware that the Scottish Government is working hard with all our stakeholders to ensure that we can have the safe return of students over Christmas where they choose to do so, if indeed that is possible in terms of the pandemic.

However, it is the case that many students—more than usual, I expect—will wish to stay in their term-time accommodation over Christmas, particularly international students. We are therefore in discussions with our universities and colleges—mainly, in this context, with universities—to ensure that adequate support is available for those students. First and foremost, that is the responsibility of the universities, but of course we are discussing that matter with them.


Offshore Energy Training and Skills (Initiatives from Industry Bodies)

3. Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what initiatives have been brought forward by industry bodies in support of offshore energy training and skills. (S5O-04699)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

I welcome [Inaudible.] energy products which will provide flexibility for oil and gas and offshore wind workers to pursue opportunities across both sectors. I also welcome the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board train to retain scheme, which is supporting essential skills and providing long-term opportunities for sustainable employment and ensuring the retention of skills to support a net zero energy transition, and the creation of the Energy Skills Alliance, which is creating an integrated all-energy career proposition for a net zero energy industry.

It is crucial that a sustainable and resilient future is developed for those who work in the energy sector supply chain, whose skills and expertise will be vital for the transition to a zero carbon future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister’s connectivity seems quite bad. Would you like to ask your supplementary, Mr Macdonald?

Lewis Macdonald

I hope that the minister agrees with me that the key here for the worker is that if the worker has the skills and qualifications, he or she is able to move freely between the oil and gas and offshore renewables sectors in both directions, as employment opportunities arise. Will the minister undertake to work to ensure that employers in all the offshore energy sectors support that principle of mutual recognition of relevant skills and qualifications?

Jamie Hepburn

That is a principle that I broadly agree with and I can say to Mr Macdonald that the oil and gas and energy transition strategic leadership group, which is chaired by Paul Wheelhouse, was refocused in April and is meeting monthly to identify practical actions to support the sector and its workforce and that would be one such issue that it can explore.


School Grade Appeals

4. Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to recognise school grade appeals made by young people in exceptional circumstances. (S5O-04700)

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

The Scottish Government fully recognises that young people are rights holders and key stakeholders within the education system. In line with the Priestley review recommendations, we have asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority to review the appeal system for national qualifications in a fair and transparent way. The SQA will conduct the review working closely with key stakeholders, including learners and their representative groups, to ensure that the review best meets young peoples’ needs.

Dean Lockhart

I have been corresponding with a constituent whose son was unable to attend full-time schooling for over a year, due to a disability. My constituent’s son received independent tuition and self-studied throughout the period. However, his school submitted his estimated grades to the SQA without consultation with those independent tutors, who were best placed to assess his progress. My constituent and the tutors disagreed with the estimated grades that the school submitted, but they have been unable to appeal that directly to the SQA, because only schools can appeal. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that there are exceptional circumstances in which the existing SQA appeal system does not work? What advice can he give my constituent and others who find themselves in similar exceptional circumstances?

John Swinney

There is provision in the existing arrangements for exceptional circumstances to be considered. Mr Lockhart fairly raises with me a set of circumstances that, on the face of it, appear to be exceptional. I am happy to consider the case that Mr Lockhart has raised. If he cares to write to me with the details, I will correspond with the SQA on that point.

It is important that the appeals system recognises that there can be specific circumstances that will impede a young person’s ability to have their performance properly recognised in the examination circumstance. The appeals facility should be available to young people in those circumstances.

As I said, the Priestley review recommended that we look at the issue again, which we will do, and I am happy to consider the specific case that Mr Lockhart has raised.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary referred to the review of exam appeals. Can he confirm when that review will report? Will it address directly the point that the decision to appeal should ultimately be the candidate’s rather than the school’s?

John Swinney

There is a pretty fundamental point at the heart of Mr Johnson’s question about where the ability to initiate an appeal should lie—should it lie with the candidate or with individual schools? Until now, we have always followed the approach that it should rest with schools, but I recognise that there is a changing dynamic on the issue because of the commitments that we have made in relation to the incorporation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, which will in a sense change some of the fundamental assumptions. Mr Johnson raises a legitimate point. I cannot give him a definitive answer today, but the point will be explored in the review.


Covid-19 (Protection of Teachers in North East Scotland)

5. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect teachers in the north-east from Covid-19. (S5O-04701)

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

The safety, health and wellbeing of teachers and other staff are of paramount importance. Any teacher who has symptoms of Covid-19 should book a test through the NHS Inform portal. In addition, if a teacher or other essential staff member in a school setting does not have symptoms but is worried about their circumstances, they can book a test through their employer.

Our guidance for schools, which was developed with the education recovery group, sets out clearly the mitigations that should be in place to ensure that schools are safe, open and welcoming. Furthermore, “COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework”, which was published last week, sets out our latest position on community-wide protective measures, which are designed to ensure and enhance the safety of our schools.

Liam Kerr

Last week, The Press and Journal reported that Aberdeenshire schools are recording 240 coronavirus-related absences each week. To protect teachers, Aberdeenshire Council has implemented mitigations, including enhanced cleaning routines, but it has warned that resources are stretched, especially in rural areas, and that it is having to take urgent remedial action. The council urgently needs help and resources if it is to continue to keep teachers and kids safe. Will the Scottish Government provide that?

John Swinney

Mr Kerr will probably be familiar with the financial arrangements that we have put in place with local government in respect of such expenditure. We have already distributed £20 million of new resources to all local authorities for schools to cover activities such as cleaning activities and other costs that arise out of the Covid requirements.

We have indicated that a further exercise will be carried out to examine the costs to individual local authorities. The Government has committed to putting on the table a further £30 million, based on the costs that are incurred by local authorities. That data collection exercise, which will be based on the experience since the return of schools in August, will be considered during the month of November. I am sure that Aberdeenshire Council will have access to some of those resources—I would be surprised if it did not.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will allow two short supplementaries.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

What extra safety measures and support are being considered for schools in areas such as Lanarkshire, which will enter tier 3, to help to protect staff and pupils?

John Swinney

The education recovery group’s guidance makes it clear that a range of measures should be routinely undertaken in schools to ensure that they are safe in the Covid environment. Obviously, those measures to ensure that our schools are safe should be applied in all circumstances, regardless of the level at which a local authority is placed.

Schools in Mr Lyle’s constituency in North Lanarkshire and in South Lanarkshire will be at level 3. The guidance is very clear about the steps that need to be taken to support education in that context. We hope to avoid a situation in which North Lanarkshire has to move into level 4. I appreciate the dialogue that I have had with North Lanarkshire Council in the past few days about the steps that it has committed to take to ensure that that is the case.

Further education recovery group guidance will be published tomorrow, which will set out further measures to ensure that our schools remain safe for all staff and pupils, which is our essential commitment.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

There have been reports of some local authorities forcing vulnerable staff to come to work even when they do not feel safe. The education secretary will be aware of my proposal to import the Danish model for keeping vulnerable teachers safe by making doctors’ advice on working arrangements mandatory. Will the Scottish Government take that forward?

John Swinney

I think that the duty of care of any employer would extend to considering the appropriateness of a member of staff being required to be at school. The education recovery group’s guidance sets out the relevant provisions, which enable individual teachers to make representations to their local authority about their circumstances. I think that that should be done in all cases. The education recovery group monitors some of the patterns on such matters.

In addition, I indicated in my original answer to Mr Kerr’s question that testing opportunities are available for staff even if they do not have symptoms, and I encourage staff to take up those opportunities if they think that it would be appropriate for them to do so.


Skills Development Scotland (Training Provider Register)

6. Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when Skills Development Scotland will reopen its training provider register. (S5O-04702)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

In Scotland, we do not hold a training provider register. However, Skills Development Scotland contracts annually for modern and foundation apprenticeships, the employability fund and—[Inaudible.]—through the year. Bids from training providers can be submitted through the public contracts Scotland website.

SDS is currently inviting bids from training providers for modern apprenticeship starts. That procurement was opened on 15 October and will close on 16 November. Successful contracts will then be issued to training providers in time to deliver places in 2021-22.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

It was very difficult to hear that answer. Did you get what was said, Mr Burnett?

Alexander Burnett

I am afraid not, but I will ask my supplementary and perhaps the minister can reply in writing.

I thank the minister for that answer—what we heard of it—and I refer to my entry in the register of interests.

Professional Drone Training Ltd in my constituency, which is a recognised assessment entity that is authorised by the Civil Aviation Authority but not by Skills Development Scotland, was told that there were no plans to reopen the training provider register. Instead, SDS sent people to be trained in Devon, which led to further travel and accommodation expenses, while simultaneously failing to support Scottish jobs.

What confidence can we have that the minister is focused on jobs when fast-growing sectors are treated in that way? What can the minister do to fast-track training providers that already possess United Kingdom-wide accreditation?

Jamie Hepburn

I am sorry if people could not hear my initial answer; what I said was that, contrary to any training provider being told that the register is closed, we do not have a training provider register. However, there is a process of putting contracts in place.

If Mr Burnett wants to write to me with specific details, I would be happy to explore the issue with SDS. If there is demand for specific training, my expectation is that SDS explores that and looks at it seriously, so if the member gives me that information, I would be happy to look at it further.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I suggest a good read of the Official Report tomorrow, Mr Burnett.


Showpeople (Addition of Children to SEEMiS Records)

7. Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of showpeople being added to the 2022 census, what action it will take to ensure that their children will be added to the SEEMiS educational records in schools. (S5O-04703)

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

Following the introduction of showman/showwoman as an option for Scotland’s Census 2022, we will consult local authorities and other partners on the introduction of showman/showwoman as a specified category for the pupil census.

Richard Lyle

In a meeting that Christine Stirling, the educational officer for the Scottish Showmen’s Guild, and I had with the cabinet secretary, he agreed to raise the matter with local councils, and I know that he did that. However, Glasgow City Council seems not to be taking that on board. Will the cabinet secretary raise the issue again with Glasgow City Council and send further guidance to all councils in Scotland to address the views of the Scottish Showmen’s Guild?

John Swinney

I recognise the long-standing interest that Mr Lyle has taken in those issues and I recall the meeting that we had with Christine Stirling. I reiterate my commitment to encourage that approach to be taken, and I will look into the issues that Mr Lyle has raised and take further action if necessary.


Attainment Gap

8. Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the education attainment gap is reportedly continuing to grow. (S5O-04704)

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

Tackling the poverty-related attainment gap is a critical priority of the Scottish Government, which is why we have committed over £750 million to the attainment Scotland fund and are continuing the Scottish attainment challenge into 2021-22. We are making progress on closing the attainment gap. The attainment Scotland fund year 4 evaluation reported that the attainment gap had narrowed on a number of indicators and 91 per cent of headteachers reported improvements in closing the attainment gap as a result of Scottish attainment challenge-supported approaches.

Neil Findlay

The schools exam fiasco showed the entrenched nature of educational inequality and signed off a system that had discrimination by social class at its core, bearing for all to see the educational attainment gap. Where is the big substantial intervention to end the scandal of educational inequality in Scotland?

John Swinney

I contend that that is the Scottish attainment challenge, which is a £750 million commitment that has now been taken forward in every locality in the country to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. I encourage Mr Findlay to take heart and encouragement from the fact that our education system sees that as an essential priority and focus of its activity. I am certain that Mr Findlay and I will be able to agree that the issues that drive the poverty-related attainment gap are not only issues in our schools; they are wider issues that are influenced by some of the damaging decisions that are taken in relation to welfare and employment, and we are currently experiencing and wrestling with some of those challenges as a consequence of Covid and the economic disruption that is taking place.

Our schools will do a phenomenal amount of activity to try to close the gap, but we have to recognise that there are wider policy choices made by the United Kingdom Government that are changing the landscape of our country in relation to poverty. We have to tackle that issue as well.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

What is the Scottish Government’s response to the 2019 headteachers survey, in which nine out 10 headteachers said that the attainment Scotland fund is making an impact on closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and 98 per cent of headteachers said that they expect to see improvement in closing the gap over the next five years?

John Swinney

One of the points that I made in my answer to Neil Findlay’s question is relevant to my response to Rona Mackay’s question: the commitment of educators the length and breadth of the country to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Doing that is a central educational priority of the Scottish Government and educators, and I am confident that the evidence demonstrated by the response to the headteachers survey gives us a strong foundation on which we can take the necessary action to close the attainment gap in the forthcoming period.