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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 30 November 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Autumn Statement, Education, Local Democracy, Policing and Crime Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, World AIDS Day 2016


Contents


Education

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

We move to Green Party business. I call Ross Greer to speak to and move motion S5M-02809.

15:11  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to move the motion in my name.

Every young person has a right to education; that is enshrined in international law. Young people with additional support needs have the right to support to ensure they can get the high quality of education that they deserve; that is enshrined in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2009.

By some measures, we are doing not too badly. Currently, Scotland is ranked highly among international measures on inclusion in education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development puts us alongside Norway, Sweden and Finland as part of a small group of countries with highly inclusive education, well above the average. That is good company to keep in international educational rankings.

By other measures, though, Scottish education is not doing nearly as well as it should be. One of those is how we support our children and young people with ASN.

In schools across the country, additional support for learning staff work exceptionally hard to ensure an inclusive environment for young people with ASN. That means supporting pupils with a range of additional needs—whether it is those who have learned English as an additional language, those who have dyslexia or behavioural difficulties or those who are on the autistic spectrum.

Children and young people with additional support needs are by no means a homogeneous group. Individual support is important for every child but, for those with additional support needs, it is essential and it requires dedicated, skilled staff to deliver it. The importance of teachers and assistants who are qualified to provide additional support cannot be overestimated.

Today, there are just under 3,000 ASL teachers and a further 5,500 ASN assistants in Scotland. They are providing a vital service to more than 150,000 pupils in Scottish schools who have an identified ASN—that is more than a fifth of all pupils. For those who do not enjoy mental arithmetic, that is about one dedicated teacher and two support staff for every 52 pupils with an identified ASN. Given the level of individual support that is required, that is just not enough. It is less than where we were just a few years ago. In 2010, there were just under 3,400 ASN teachers, so there has been a drop of around 400 staff in just a few years. In that same period, the number of young people with a identified ASN has gone up. Since 2013, we have identified an additional 22,000 young people in Scottish schools with an ASN.

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

As Ross Greer will know, the way in which the statistics are collected was changed in 2010, and they now capture a much broader range of requirements that are classed as additional support needs. For example, a child who suffers a family bereavement during an academic year and requires a short period of support would be captured in the figures, whereas previously they would not have been.

Ross Greer

I absolutely take Mark McDonald’s point. We have found that a large number of young people in our schools have additional support needs—they had those needs before 2010; there was simply a change in measurement—so it is completely unacceptable that, over the same period, we have lost hundreds of members of specialist support staff.

As we know, children and young people from deprived backgrounds are far more likely to have an additional support need. Demand for support for ASN has gone up, and that is on top of existing needs and educational barriers, but meanwhile there has been a significant reduction in the number of staff who can give that essential support. Resources are already stretched thin and, with cuts to council budgets, the situation is likely to get worse. Since 2010, local authorities have endured year on year of austerity measures that have amounted to a near 7 per cent drop in their total real-terms revenue.

If the Government is to meet the targets that it has set for itself on closing the attainment gap, a new approach is urgently needed. We are talking about young people for whom the attainment gap is considerable. Only a third of pupils with additional support needs achieved one or more highers last year in comparison with two thirds of pupils without an additional support need. Although the level of attainment among young people with ASN is rising, which we all welcome, that does not take away from the very unequal reality that those young people face.

Given that additional support needs disproportionately affect pupils from lower-income families and areas of deprivation, progress on ASN must be made as part of the wider effort to give every young person a fair start in life. However, the specific needs of individual young people with additional support needs cannot be lost in the wider debate. As things stand, we are concerned that the ASN aspect is not being given adequate regard. The cabinet secretary’s delivery plan makes one fairly cursory mention of ASN, stating that the Scottish Government will

“consider the impact of issues such as looked after status, additional support needs and English as an additional language”,

before quickly moving on.

The Scottish children’s services coalition has warned that, without action, we could face a

“lost generation of vulnerable children”

arising from the combination of spending cuts, staffing cuts and a rise in the number of pupils requiring support.

Similar concerns about cuts have been raised by the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland, as well as by parents and young people. Young people and their parents and carers are acutely aware of what is happening. Enable Scotland reported that more than seven in 10 pupils with a learning disability say that they do not get enough help and time from teachers, and 94 per cent of the parents of those pupils do not feel that schools receive enough resources to work with them.

It is teachers, who engage with their pupils daily, who know how to provide the best support. I am sure that no one in the debate will question the dedication and effort of teaching and support staff, but it is clear that teachers need the time and the resources that will allow them to give the individual assistance that pupils with additional support needs—indeed, all pupils—require. When class sizes become too large and teachers’ time is stretched too thin, and when the numbers of specialist ASN teachers and support staff have been cut, that assistance cannot be adequately provided. The Scottish Government must ensure that local authorities have the budgets that they need to make those resources available to our schools.

The Green manifesto for this year’s election set out our desire to recognise the skills and experience of additional support for learning teachers and to restore a career structure that allows teachers to stay in the classroom. In Finland, the job of additional support for learning teacher is a promoted post. I have raised that point with the cabinet secretary, and I would like to continue to explore it with the Scottish Government, teachers and the trade unions.

Today, we are asking the Scottish Government to commit to bring forward a budget that will allow councils to ensure that more additional learning needs teachers and support staff will be present in our schools, and to reverse the cuts of recent years. It is worth restating that we are not trying simply to raise capacity to add to what is already there. What is there has been disappearing: hundreds of staff have disappeared in recent years. We need to get back to where we were a few years ago before we can start to improve on that point. We need to meet the increasing demand as more pupils are identified as requiring additional support. All our young people deserve a quality education that is centred around their needs. I hope that the Scottish Government will take on board the suggestions not just from our party but from trade unions, education experts, charities, parents, carers and—of course—young people.

In making speeches, politicians often come up with entirely clichéd quotes from a conversation that they had the last time they were in a taxi. I was in a taxi last night, and the driver brought up a point—I did not raise the issue myself—that I thought was too good not to share. The driver has a contract with Glasgow City Council to take young people who have additional support needs from one school to another. What he said to me was totally unprompted; he did not know who I was. He said that he wants politicians to spend a day or a week with the staff in those schools. In his brief daily encounters with them, he is so impressed by the dedication, effort and compassion of the teachers and support staff. They desperately need additional support to provide every young person with the educational opportunities that they deserve.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that professionals who provide additional support for learning play a vital role in Scotland's classrooms; welcomes international comparisons that demonstrate that Scottish schools are inclusive, but is concerned that public sector cuts threaten the opportunities that are available to children with additional support needs; notes that real terms revenue cuts to the Scottish budget have been disproportionately focused on local authorities, where education is the biggest spend, and that the number of additional support for learning teachers and support staff has fallen by 13% and 8% between 2010 and 2015, and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward a budget that raises more revenue to support local educational priorities.

15:20  

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

I welcome the opportunity to take part in an important debate on the vital support for children and young people in Scotland’s school system. I begin with a point of agreement with Ross Greer. I do not enter the debate in any way questioning the commitment of teachers or other professionals who are supporting young people who have additional support needs in our schools. They have a demanding job that requires enormous commitment. I spend a lot of my time engaging with people on these questions and I see the delivery of excellent practice in different educational settings such as special schools and mainstream schools—in every context.

What unites the work that is done is the foundation of the Government’s approach to education policy, which is our wider approach of getting it right for every child. Whatever the setting and whatever the child’s circumstances, background or experience, we accept our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that we turn GIRFEC away from just being a slogan and into the experience that young people have of their education and wider support systems in Scotland, particularly if they have individual needs that require to be addressed as part of that system.

During his contribution, Ross Greer made a number of remarks about disproportionate cuts to local authority budgets and I want to take a little bit of time to address that point. Audit Scotland on behalf of the Accounts Commission published its report on local authority spending this week. It revealed that, far from councils being treated unfairly, real-terms reductions of council funding since 2011 are the same as the reduction in the Scottish Government’s total budget over the same period. We also know that, last year, rather than there being any cut in funding, spending on additional support for learning increased by £25 million to £579 million.

Ross Greer

Is the cabinet secretary not aware that the figures that he has cited can be brought about only by excluding non-domestic rates, something that even the Scottish Parliament information centre does not do when it produces the figures? When those figures are produced, it shows a disproportionate cut for our local authorities when Westminster austerity is passed on.

John Swinney

The total analysis that I have cited is that of the Accounts Commission, which is regularly cited to the Government as the touchstone of authority on such questions. I simply inform the debate about the conclusions of the Audit Scotland report, which demonstrate exactly the point that I have made.

I am committed to ensuring that all children and young people receive the support that they need for their learning in schools, and there have been a number of developments to support that as part of the Government’s agenda. We have established the attainment challenge, which is designed to close the attainment gap and support children and young people who are affected by socioeconomic deprivation in securing improved educational outcomes. That will also bring with it new resources that will be applied to the delivery of school education.

We have developed and published the national improvement framework, which is intended to drive excellence and equity in Scottish education through new and better information to support individual children’s progress, which is at the heart of delivering the GIRFEC agenda. We will be in a better position to identify where improvement is needed and we will have a better understanding of children’s needs so that we can support them effectively.

The consultation on the governance review is also designed to ensure that our schools are equipped with the approaches and skills that are needed to best meet the needs of children as they present themselves in individual schools.

The debate also touches on the presumption of mainstreaming, which is a principle that was established in law in 2000. That legislation offers children and young people who have additional support needs the opportunity, when it best suits their needs, to learn in their communities and to build and sustain the friendships and relationships that will last throughout their lives.

The legislation also allows for exceptions to be made for children and young people whose needs may be best met through specialist provision. I have seen young people with additional support needs operating satisfactorily and well supported in mainstream education and also in special educational provision. The key point is that we must make judgments, and our education system must make judgments, about how the needs of individual young people are to be met appropriately.

The Government also takes forward its responsibilities under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, which fundamentally changed the way in which young people and children are supported in schools, moving away from a model of medical deficit to a legislative framework that focuses on barriers to children’s and young people’s learning in our school system. The additional support for learning legislation gives a fundamental base to the approach that the Government takes to all these questions.

The Scottish Government is determined to ensure that we use the resources that are available to us wisely, in partnership with our local authority partners, to ensure that we meet the needs of young people with additional support needs. It is vital that every child, no matter their background or their circumstances, is effectively and well supported by the provision that we can make available. That provision will vary from setting to setting, but what is crucial is that we make the correct judgments about the assistance that young people require and that we meet their needs to the full. The Government is committed to taking forward an agenda that is based on that objective, to ensure that we deliver equity and excellence for every child and young person within Scotland.

I move amendment S5M-02809.3, to leave out from “but is concerned” to end and insert:

“and recognises that, despite challenges, there remains a focus on enabling all children and young people with additional support needs (ASN) to reach their full potential through the approach taken in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000 and the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004; acknowledges the increased achievements and attainment for young people with ASN since 2008; welcomes the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition’s call for greater collaboration and partnership working to deliver continued improvement in ASN provision, and commits to revising and updating the guidance on mainstreaming and the statutory guidance on the implementation of the additional support for learning framework.”

15:26  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In the current educational climate, it is probably not surprising that media attention is on some of the other issues, and it is all too easy to let the focus on additional support for learning take a back seat. That is not how it should be, which is why we have great sympathy for many of the comments in Ross Greer’s speech and in the Green Party’s motion, although we have a bit of a problem with the last part because of the specific focus on budgeting, which I will come to later.

There is no disagreement about the need to ensure that every child with ASN receives the appropriate help in an efficient and timely manner and that that support extends to the home and local community. As the cabinet secretary has rightly said, it is not just about what happens in schools. That has been a feature of the additional support needs legislation, particularly as it was adapted in 2009.

I notice that, among people who work in the sector, there remains an issue about some of the data that is collected and how clear it is in measuring the efficacy of the policy. Notwithstanding that, the statistics that we have speak for themselves. Ross Greer has outlined some of those and is right to make those points—for example, concerns have been expressed to us about the number of educational psychologists. We have talked before about the complexity of the definition of ASN—in fact, it is increasingly diverse, which is a point that Mark McDonald alluded to. That definition puts an additional pressure on staffing.

It is important to ensure that those with the expertise have the appropriate access to ASN work. I will pick up a comment that was made back in the “Residential Child Care Qualification” report of 2012. Although it was very supportive of the Scottish Government’s desire to have a professional qualification throughout the profession—that is all very important—it expressed concern that the requirement for a level 9 qualification for many staff was a bit too restrictive. It was putting great pressures on some of the schools that have residential facilities, not just the difficulty of attracting the right members of staff to work in the profession but the considerable stresses and strains caused by having to retrain and upskill the existing staff and, as a result, pay enhanced salaries. Mr Swinney and I have two of those smaller schools in our local areas, and that was a point that was made to us. We have to be mindful of that situation.

Another important aspect of the debate is mainstreaming. The cabinet secretary was right to say that it is an issue on which all parties in the Parliament have the same fundamental position, and I think that I am right in saying that the OECD praised Scotland for its inclusive approach to education. However, sometimes mainstreaming is not the best answer for individual children; in fact, sometimes it is very much not the right answer. We must be careful to ensure that we do not have a system in which mainstreaming is the accepted basis on which to proceed simply because we like the idea of mainstreaming. It is important that we look at the educational value of it, as the cabinet secretary said. That is a hugely significant consideration in providing the specialist services that are needed. Some of those are in the private sector, but sometimes a child will have to go to another local authority area to receive them. That is an important point.

Yesterday, some of us attended the launch of the STEP programme, which is Kenny Logan’s approach to ensuring that all children, regardless of whether they have additional support needs, are involved in physical literacy exercises that help to stimulate other aspects of literacy. The cabinet secretary has been very supportive of the STEP programme, and we were extremely impressed by the compelling results from some of the pilot studies, particularly for children who have additional support needs.

Many recommendations have been put to us by those in the sector, and it is important that we consider the issue in the context of looking after the best interests of every child. We must ensure that careful account is taken of that in the allocation of resources and the way in which the attainment fund is developed, because that could give long-term advantages to those who have additional support needs.

I move amendment S5M-2809.1, to leave out from “to bring forward” to end and insert:

“to give careful consideration to how the £100 million attainment fund will be spent in the context of children with additional support needs and to work with local authorities to re-examine the balance between educating these children in mainstream schools and in special schools.”

15:32  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I thank the Greens for lodging their motion, because it raises important issues. We need to be frank about the fundamentals of how education is being delivered in our schools.

I thank Ross Greer for raising so consistently the issue of additional support since his election to the Parliament. It goes to the very heart of how we deliver education, because if we are serious about child-centred education—getting it right for every child—we need specialists and support staff in order to deliver it. If we wish to deliver world-class education, there is simply no substitute for funding.

I am sure that every member in every council area has seen the impact of budget cuts to our local authorities, whether in the loss of janitors, librarians or music staff. We have heard the stories from teachers about how they struggle to fund the basics, whether that is stop watches for labs, text books for classrooms or even photocopying. That is why this debate is important. If we want to deliver for our children and to build the society and the economy of the future, schools need staff and professionals to deliver education, and it needs to be funded properly. The Scottish National Party Government’s record is that, on both those counts, it has presided over decline. We have fewer staff in our schools, and the impact of the budget cuts is all too visible.

The number of children with additional support needs is rising, as Ross Greer rightly pointed out. Since 2010, there has been a 120 per cent rise in the number of children with such needs. More than 150,000 children need some sort of additional support to learn in school. That is not bad news; I treat it as good news. That growth does not mean that there are twice as many people who have such issues and who struggle to learn; it is a sign that we now know who those people are and what their needs are. It means that we are no longer writing off the dyslexic child as stupid, the autistic spectrum child as difficult or the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder child as naughty.

Although we are better at understanding additional support needs, the Government has not matched that with the additional resources that are required; indeed, the opposite is true. The number of ASN staff has gone down by 8 per cent, and we have lost almost 500 specialist teachers from our schools, which represents a decline of 13 per cent. Those staff leave or retire and they are not replaced. Support and intervention are now often left to classroom assistants, or added to teachers’ existing workload.

The cuts are not just confined to those who provide specific ASN support. Over the past five years, there has been a fall in numbers across support staff in our schools. The number of lab assistants has been cut by half, the number of technicians is down by 20 per cent and the number of librarians is down by a quarter. In total, we have lost nearly 3,000 staff from our schools. The picture that is forming is one in which we are simply not supporting education in the way that is required. Our schools do not only need teachers; they need a full complement of support staff and professionals to deliver education that is at the standard that our country needs and that is tailored to each child’s requirements.

The reason for that decline is no mystery. It is not about how schools are organised, managed or governed; it is because local authorities have had £0.5 billion cuts to their funding and, if local government funding is cut, that is what happens. Education accounts for 44 per cent of local government spending, so cuts on that scale have an immediate and inevitable consequence in our schools.

The Government’s response is to reform the governance of our schools, to blame bureaucracy, and to launch more than a dozen consultations and reviews on education. However, whether the Government centralises or decentralises, and whether it creates new public bodies or scraps them, that will not add a single teacher to our schools and it will not add a single member of support staff.

Over the past few weeks, the Education and Skills Committee has been examining written evidence from teachers. The picture is one of change fatigue, with endless changes to what teachers have to teach and how they have to teach, when what they want is continuity and support, not more change. As one headteacher in my constituency put it, he does not want more control over his budget as he has responsibility for most of it, anyway—as much as 80 per cent. Instead, he wants funding to employ enough janitors so that he does not have to unblock the loos at lunch times when he does not have any janitorial cover.

It is a political choice. The Government does not have to preside over falling staff levels and it does not have to cut the support that we provide to the children who need it. Let us back the motion and see the Scottish Government put forward a progressive budget that is based on progressive taxation, and use our tax-raising powers to invest in and protect education in this country, rather than cut it.

15:37  

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

My colleague Ross Greer began by recognising the dedication and talent of ASN teachers and support staff, and I am sure that we can all recognise that. He also set out why we need to raise the necessary revenue so that we can support them better to do their jobs.

The Scottish Government’s approach, including its delivery plan, recognises that ASN is an issue that needs to be considered but, if ministers are serious about closing the attainment gap—I believe that they are—the issue has to move up the agenda significantly, which is why the Greens have lodged the motion. Children and young people from lower income families and areas of deprivation have disproportionately high additional support needs. Cuts to local authorities, for which education is the biggest spend, will not close the attainment gap or create a more equal society.

Children and young people with additional support needs are also significantly more likely to be excluded from school. According to the most recent set of annual figures, for every 1,000 children, 69 with additional support needs were excluded, compared with 16 children without additional support needs. Nearly 9,700 children with additional support needs were excluded from school in the latest figures, which was 2,000 more exclusions than in 2010-11. Children and young people who get support for mental health problems are twice as likely to be excluded from school as those without mental health problems.

Here is another link to demonstrate how ASN must be part of the agenda of closing the attainment gap. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us that children who live in low-income households are nearly three times as likely to experience mental health problems as their more affluent peers. One in five children in Scotland lives in poverty. It is a shameful failure that so many children who experience poverty and mental health problems do not have access to sufficient or appropriate resources and support, and that they are excluded from school as a result.

Although overall patterns of attendance, qualifications and leaver destinations have been slowly improving, children with additional support needs continue to face increasing levels of exclusion. Lack of ASN provision in schools can result in the misidentification of a child’s behaviour as simply disruptive, a misunderstanding of the causes of that behaviour and then a limited exploration of the possible ways of positively engaging with that child in line with their particular needs.

This is a complex process—the Greens are not here today to pretend that there is a simple or easy agenda to respond to. However, the difficulty and complexity of the issue are why it is vital that we have well-trained and well-resourced professionals who are equipped to identify educational objectives in line with the additional support needs of the child or young person. It is important to ensure that they have the resources that they need to do their job.

According to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, 92 per cent of teachers said that their school does not always get access to the external support that is needed to support pupil behaviour.

Parents in the situation that we are talking about must feel overwhelmed and bewildered. The assessment process and the process around accessing services and determining their child’s eligibility for them are complex and emotionally draining, and ASN staff are necessary to help them through that process, too.

I know that Ross Greer and John Swinney have disagreed about budgetary implications in the past, but we must bear in mind the cuts to local authorities that are yet to come, if Derek Mackay is right about the cuts that he is anticipating to the Scottish budget. It is time for the revenue to be raised to meet the need that our children and young people clearly have.

15:41  

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

I appreciate that we are short of time, Presiding Officer, so I will try not to take up my four minutes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Do not try, Mr Dornan; do it.

James Dornan

We should not get into a debate now, or I will never make it.

It was interesting to hear Daniel Johnson’s speech. At the end, he made a point that, for me, is crucial to this debate. He talked about political choice and he is right: where the Government puts its money is a political choice, and what it has done has ensured that local authorities have not suffered any more than the Government has.

The Scottish Government does not sack teachers. The Scottish Government does not get rid of the psychologists. Local authorities do that. Local authorities make a political choice to not hire the teachers that are required, or to close down some schools for children with additional support needs.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab) rose—

James Dornan

There is no point in standing up; I have no time to take interventions.

Local authorities close down schools that are working well with children with additional support needs and put them into mainstream schools, even though some of those children have already left mainstream schools because they were not capable of learning there. Those choices are made not by the Government but by local authorities.

The Government suffers budget cuts, and those cuts are then shared by local authorities and others. We have to be realistic about the money that we have, but the Scottish Government is spending a lot of money to try to help children with additional support needs. In 2010, the Government started its autism strategy, which has done a lot of good things, although there is still more to do. We do not have an endless bucket of money with which we can solve every problem. We have to make decisions. We have made wise decisions with regard to spending on education and we have ensured that education is protected as much as it can be. However, local decisions are for local authorities to make, not the Scottish Government.

Daniel Johnson said that the headteacher who he spoke to has control of 80 per cent or so of his budget but does not want control over the extra money. I find that very strange.

Daniel Johnson

That is what he said.

James Dornan

It is weird that there is a headteacher who does not want control of extra money, which he could use to support children with additional support needs.

Daniel Johnson

He just wants the money to fund the janitors.

James Dornan

Well, he could use it for that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Could you stop having private conversations, please?

James Dornan

My apologies, Presiding Officer.

The money has been given to local authorities. Local authorities have made their decisions about how to spend it. Do not get me wrong: these are not easy decisions. Everybody is having to make difficult decisions. However, let us ensure that, if we are putting pressure on people to make decisions concerning things at a local level, the people on whom that pressure is being placed are the people at the local level.

Ross Greer mentioned the Scottish children’s services coalition’s press release, which says that the cuts in public services mean that Scotland faces the prospect of

“a ‘lost generation’ of children and young people with Additional Support Needs ... making it extremely challenging for the Scottish Government to close the educational attainment gap.”

That is because of Philip Hammond’s budget. Again, I ask the same question: if we accept that Philip Hammond’s budget is making it hard for local authorities and if we have less money, how can we possibly put out more money that we do not have?

I accept that we are short of time, Presiding Officer. I have had three and a half minutes, and I want to stay in your good books for a change, so I will finish there.

15:45  

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I will come between James Dornan and Daniel Johnson. Speaking through you, of course, Presiding Officer, I gently say to Mr Dornan that the Scottish Government has choices—every Government has choices. I see that Mr Dornan agrees with me, but I will talk through the Presiding Officer; otherwise she will shout at me as much as she has shouted at others. When Mr Swinney was the finance secretary, he had a choice about the extent of the changes—I will use that word rather than “cuts”—to local government finance that would apply, as with any other part of the public sector. That is a choice, and I accept the choice that the Government of the day has made.

There is also a choice about using the Parliament’s tax powers. We have a perfectly sensible—or maybe not sensible, at times—debate about whether we wish to use the powers and what the impact will be on certain families and income brackets, but please let us not say that we do not have choices, because we absolutely and certainly do. I know that James Dornan is not making that point in absolute terms, but it is important to recognise, as Ross Greer and the Greens have done in opening the debate, that those choices exist. I thank Ross Greer for the way in which he made his remarks earlier.

This is a money debate so, if Ross Greer will forgive me, the best place to start is with the remarks on the autumn statement that the finance secretary, Derek Mackay, made to Parliament half an hour or so ago. Although I did not expect him to set out a budget—he will do that in two weeks’ time—in relation to spend on education, he specifically mentioned the

“commitment to further expand early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year”.

I accept that the Government made that commitment in the recent election, and it is right to seek to deliver that—believe me, I come from a place in politics where it is a good idea to deliver things that we say we are going to deliver.

The important thing is not just to reflect on what has happened, as Mr Johnson did, but to challenge Derek Mackay and his Government in two weeks’ time to take on the point that Ross Greer made in his opening remarks. He set out clear statistics that illustrate the demand in relation to additional support needs. Mark McDonald made a perfectly fair remark about the widening of how we judge that issue and deal with it in schools. That is perfectly true and needs to be taken into account. However, many of us across the chamber who care—I suspect that people on all political sides care—need to know how the budget will respond. That is the test of any Government and it will be the test of Mr Mackay as the new finance secretary when he outlines the budget. Ross Greer and the Greens are rightly saying to Parliament that they believe that it is important to have spend in the area to reflect the rising demand that Daniel Johnson, Ross Greer and, in fairness, Liz Smith mentioned. We may come from different places on how we pay for that, but it is important to recognise that.

I will make just one more point, so that I get in under time, Presiding Officer. It goes to the root of the point that Ross Greer made about how local government plans for the issue. The Scottish Government has provided one-year funding settlements in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Some of us remember the halcyon years of three-year funding settlements and, as the Accounts Commission made clear in its report to Parliament this week and as I hope John Swinney will concede, it would not half be helpful if we went back to that. I encourage him and his ministerial colleagues to do exactly that.

15:49  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I declare an interest as a councillor on the City of Edinburgh Council.

As has been said, all parties want the best for every child and the right support to be provided to them. As we have heard, the number of children with additional support needs has increased over the past few years. I think that that is actually good news rather than bad news—we have better diagnosis and better recording.

However, we have to recognise that each child is an individual. I will start where I left off with my question to the minister yesterday, by saying that I agree that the Government believes in meeting the best interests of each child, but I am not convinced that that has worked through to each local authority and to each officer within local authorities. Children are too often given a label: if they have a certain condition, that is what extra support is assigned for, rather than every child being treated differently and assessed according to their needs. It is vital that the needs of the child be put first, rather than any cost implication.

When we are looking at additional support needs, we often—and rightly—focus on the classroom and on what happens in that learning experience. However, for some children what happens at lunch time or at break time can be as important as, if not more important than, what happens in the classroom. Social isolation can be devastating for a child, whether it is because of a physical or mental disability, or for some other reason that means that they have an additional support need. Addressing that need must be carried through not only in the classroom but in ensuring that the child is included in all the activities of the school and is not bullied when the teacher’s back is turned.

My colleague Liz Smith spoke about mainstreaming. There has been a 25 per cent drop in special needs schools in the past seven years, which causes me concern about whether there will, where it is appropriate—I accept that in most cases it is not—actually be a school for a particular child to go to. We need to look at the provision of special needs schools across the whole country, because it is not an issue just for Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Highlands or other area, but for the whole country. We need to ensure that parents and professionals, as well as the child, are consulted, and that when it is appropriate to place a child in a special needs school, the local authority has the resource—either in its own area or in another part of Scotland—to provide such a place for that child.

I will raise one final issue, which is what happens once a child leaves school. Additional support needs are working only if that outcome is successful, and that is where I see the biggest concern that we must all face. The percentage of modern apprenticeships that were started in 2014-15 by self-declared disabled individuals was 0.14 per cent. Among people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are in employment, the figure is 8.6 per cent, and even that is too low when compared with the number of disabled people in Scotland. I ask the minister and his team to examine why people are failing to get into apprenticeships when they leave school and what extra support they need not just at school but as they go on to college, university and apprenticeships or other employment.

15:53  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I warmly welcome the motion in the name of Ross Greer and the acknowledgement of the importance of additional support for learning in Scotland’s classrooms. I also declare an interest as a local councillor in South Lanarkshire.

There is no doubt that additional support for learning teachers and support staff are absolutely vital to the successful development of children with additional support needs. Without that targeted support for those who need it, successful outcomes for children with additional support needs become much harder to achieve, and the extra pressure on teachers has a knock-on effect on the development of all the children in the classroom. Ensuring that we have adequate support for pupils with ASN is crucial not only to their individual development but to closing the attainment gap. However, we have heard repeatedly today that resources are not keeping up with the needs of children and young people with additional support needs. I hope that the debate will persuade any member or minister who is in need of persuasion simply that that is the case.

According to the official figures for 2015, more than one in five children were registered as having additional support needs, which is a big increase of 16 per cent. As Ross Greer and Daniel Johnson have said, one positive aspect is that we have improved information about the individual needs of our children and young people, no matter whether the additional support is for a short period, as Mark McDonald mentioned earlier, or is longer term.

However, although the information might be better, there has been no increase in the number of support staff to support children with additional learning requirements. In fact, as we have heard, the number of dedicated learning support and additional support needs teachers has declined significantly—by 13 per cent over the past five years—and is now at its lowest recorded level. Over the past five years in primary and secondary schools, in special schools and in centralised provision, the number of overall support staff has fallen by more than 1,500—or 7 per cent. That worrying trend, coupled with the fact that the number of children with additional learning requirements is on the increase, led the Scottish children’s services coalition to release this week a joint statement—a statement that it has not made lightly—warning that we face

“a ‘lost generation’ of children and young people with Additional Support Needs”

unless we reverse the cuts to public services and invest more in education. It is therefore to the credit of Ross Greer and the Scottish Greens that they have used their parliamentary business time to allow the fears of the coalition and parents to be heard.

At yesterday’s topical question time, I raised the issue with Mark McDonald, the Minister for Children and Early Years, but I was disappointed because he was unable to rule out, in order to protect the most vulnerable pupils, further cuts to local authority budgets. The minister stated that ASN spending across Scotland increased by £24 million in 2015—the figure has been repeated this afternoon—but that is an increase of just 1 per cent of education funding on the previous year. Any additional funding for education and pupils with ASN is, of course, welcome, but the fact remains that we can—and must—do more.

Despite the attempts to portray local government funding as rosy, yesterday’s Accounts Commission report shows that councils will be facing a predicted budget black hole of £553 million by 2018-19. When the third sector, parents and ASN staff are telling us that children with ASN are at risk of becoming “a lost generation”, it is simply not good enough for the Scottish Government to look away or to use Philip Hammond to explain the situation. Professionals, parents and organisations across the children’s sector are telling us that they need more than is being offered, and the Scottish children’s services coalition has made it abundantly clear that we must stop cutting the public sector and increase investment in services to protect the most vulnerable.

I am happy to finish on that point. I fully support Ross Greer’s motion.

15:57  

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Presiding Officer, and I thank you and the Green Party for bringing the issue to the chamber and giving me the absolute honour of being able to stand up here in our Parliament on St Andrew’s day. It is a real privilege.

As others have said, there is no doubt that the Scottish budget faces major challenges as a result of Westminster’s cruel cuts. We heard a bit more about that in Derek Mackay’s response to the autumn statement. It is to the Scottish Government’s credit that areas such as additional support for learning have been protected as much as possible. Clearly there are challenges in maintaining and improving additional support needs provision in our schools, but I believe that it is disingenuous of the opposition parties to suggest that the challenges are the result of the Scottish Government’s budget decisions. For example, as other members have pointed out, the Scottish children’s services coalition has noted that

“there is an increased demand for additional support in our schools as a result of the broadened legal definition of additional support needs, as well as an increased identification of those needing assessment and intervention.”

As Jeremy Balfour said, that can only be a good thing.

Daniel Johnson

Will the member give way?

Fulton MacGregor

I do not have time. I have only four minutes.

My personal value base and experience mean that I lean towards support for inclusion wherever possible. It is in everyone’s best interests for a child to be supported with his or her peers, and I believe that the Scottish Government has made good progress in that area. I saw as much in the work that I did before I became an MSP.

Inclusion covers a wide range of individuals, including children who have been bullied, children who have behavioural or learning difficulties, children who are suffering from a bereavement, and children who are being looked after by the local authority—an issue that I know Parliament has spent considerable time on.

That brings me to my next point. There are massive discrepancies among local authorities’ regarding the children whom they define as having additional support needs. North Lanarkshire Council—my area—defines as few as 8 per cent as having additional support needs, compares with about 20 per cent in other local authority areas. That fits exactly with what constituents tell me when they come to surgeries or to my office to meet me. Many parents come to me desperate and feeling that the council does not listen to them and that their child is not getting the support that he or she needs. I have even had a couple of cases recently in which parents have taken steps to remove their child from the education set-up in a bid to try to get the council to take action. Those parents are under absolutely no illusions: they do not come to me, as an SNP MSP, to blame the Government, but to say that their council is not listening to them. I will go back to the point that James Dornan made: we all have a role to play, but we need to consider where decisions are made.

James Dornan also mentioned North Lanarkshire Council’s one-stop shop, which was an absolutely fantastic service, before its funding was cut by the Labour council. It covered my constituency and all of North Lanarkshire, and it had fantastic results.

Monica Lennon

Will the member take an intervention?

Fulton MacGregor

As I have said, I cannot take an intervention. I have four minutes, and I am nearly finished.

The one-stop shop consistently got positive results. I have to mention my former colleague Councillor Rosa Zambonini and many parents who led a protest against the service’s closure. Unfortunately, the local Labour Party would not listen. That said, Hope for Autism, which I met at the caring for carers event on the college campus at Coatbridge, has been absolutely fantastic in stepping into the breach.

We must focus on the future. Parliament’s recent decision to increase rates of council tax in the four highest bands means that more funding will be available to schools throughout Scotland. I expect that that will lead to more money being spent on additional support needs in schools.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please wind up.

Fulton MacGregor

It seems that, on St Andrew’s day, the Westminster Government has no intention of reversing the cuts. There is no doubt that until such time as we in the Scottish Parliament make all our own decisions about our own priorities, there will be more strain to come for those who are most in need.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You have to close, Mr MacGregor.

Fulton MacGregor

I welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing funding in ASN.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We come to closing speeches. Iain Gray has absolutely no more than four minutes, please.

16:02  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I start with a point on which I think there is underlying agreement, and which Liz Smith and Jeremy Balfour examined to a degree: the presumption for mainstreaming. I think that we agree across the chamber that children with additional support needs should have their education needs met in the main stream. However, it is worth noting that that was not the case not so long ago, and that it represents a change. To be honest, my mind has changed a bit about that over the years. When I was younger I was probably much more hard line and believed that absolutely everyone should be in the main stream, but my view has softened a bit.

Ross Greer mentioned that 95 per cent of pupils are in the main stream. Internationally, that is considered to be outstandingly inclusive. We can be very proud of that, but we have to understand that the promise to mainstream works only if it is matched by a promise to provide the support that is needed to allow the young person to achieve all that they can in the mainstream setting. I know about that from experience. Way back in the 1980s, when I taught at Gracemount high school in Edinburgh, Kaimes school was also on the campus. At the time, it was the school for the partially sighted. Pupils from it would spend some of their time in mainstream classes, including my science class. That worked incredibly well because my class size was kept small to allow that to happen, and the pupils came with specialist support staff to assist them. However, the additional support disappeared over the years. Class sizes went back to their maximum size and the additional support teachers disappeared. I knew then that the service that was provided to those young people was simply letting them down, and I could not do the work. The service works only when we do not allow it to be squeezed by cuts.

My fear is that we are in a similar position now. I know that both the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and the Minister for Childcare and Early Years understand the challenges that ASN children face, and I am sure that they are absolutely sincere in their desire to serve them well, but there has been a degree of denial.

All of us will have had constituents tell us that support for ASN pupils is shrinking. Pupils who perhaps a couple of years ago had support for the whole week now have it for only half the week, or pupils who had a support worker to themselves are now sharing that support worker with somebody else, or even with two other pupils. We heard in the media yesterday people saying that that is happening to their children, and the Scottish children’s services coalition tells us that it is happening. I do not think that we can deny it.

I say to Fulton MacGregor that it is not the Labour Party that is being disingenuous—although there is a certain amount of being disingenuous with regard to that additional £24 million. As Monica Lennon said, that is an increase of 1 per cent of total education funding, which is a real-terms cut: there are real cuts in additional support. Irrespective of whether we look at additional support teachers or at additional support workers—it does not matter which kind of support worker—we see that their numbers have been reduced. That is a real consequence of the cuts to local government.

We can argue about whether local government has had its fair share of cuts, or more than its fair share, until the cows come home. I say to James Dornan in particular that the important thing is that, as of today, it is our choice: we do not have to accept Philip Hammond’s budget. James Dornan and his colleagues need to learn to feel the freedom, make their own choices, raise the resources and support our children and our schools.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Ross Thomson. You have less than four minutes.

16:05  

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I declare an interest as a serving councillor on Aberdeen City Council.

Across the chamber, we have the ambition to ensure that absolutely every child, regardless of who they are, where they are from or their circumstances, should be able to reach their full potential. We are aware that the responsibility for delivering positive outcomes for our vulnerable young people falls on the shoulders of our councils, and our councils are facing an increasingly challenging financial situation. We have seen council spending on in-school support for pupils fall by 11 per cent since 2012, and, outside school, funding for charities has also fallen. That is despite the fact that in all local authority areas, with the exception of Shetland and South Ayrshire, the percentage of children with additional support needs is increasing.

The debate gives me an opportunity to talk about the work of Aberdeen City Council, in my region, which carried out a full review of inclusion that concluded in August 2014. The recommendations of that review are being implemented, and some great progress is being made.

The review highlighted that many children were needlessly travelling long distances to access appropriate support for their needs, and that there was a lack of support in mainstream schools. Following approval of the review and its recommendations, the council made a number of changes to help local schools identify what interventions could be made to meet the needs of a wide range of young people and to ensure that additional resources, where required, were in place to meet those needs within a mainstream setting.

Since 2014, the number of children with additional support needs who attend their local school with their peers and siblings has significantly increased. To touch on a point that was made by my colleague Liz Smith about mainstreaming, but which also relates to the important role of parents, in Aberdeen we have seen a reduction in placing requests, as parents and carers have become more confident that individual needs will be met in their local schools. Furthermore, the number of children being transported to a school outwith their local area has reduced and continues to fall.

My colleague Jeremy Balfour made a point about children with additional support needs not having a particular school to go to. I am pleased that Aberdeen City Council is constructing a new, £17 million centre of excellence for children with additional support needs. The first of its kind, it will be a hub for best practice in supporting learners with additional support needs and for outreach services such as speech and language services. It will also be a new resource centre for training and a community hub that families and charities can access.

As my colleagues have articulated in the debate, Conservative members welcome the increase in funding for the Scottish Government’s attainment fund. However, rather than that funding being assigned to a particular school, we believe that it should follow the child, particularly if they have additional support needs. We also believe that the money should be allocated on an individual basis, so that it can be tailored to meet the needs of children with additional support needs.

Some great progress has been made, but there is still work to be done. We need to continue to work in partnership with agencies such as the national health service and with the third sector, parents and the young people themselves to ensure that a holistic service that truly meets the needs of young people and children with complex additional support needs is delivered.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Mark McDonald. No more than five minutes, please, minister.

16:09  

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

Okay. Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will try to get through as much as possible of what I have to say.

I begin by thanking Ross Greer and the Greens for bringing the debate to the Parliament today.

We have seen in the media this week comments from the Scottish children’s services coalition, which I have met previously and which I am happy to continue to engage with, as I said yesterday during topical questions. The coalition has identified the challenge but also opportunities to drive greater collaboration, which I think all parties in the Parliament have signed up to under the public sector reform and Christie agenda, and it is important that we examine how best we can take that forward.

Let us look at some of the points that members made in the debate. Liz Smith and a number of others highlighted the presumption of mainstreaming. We absolutely want to ensure that children are educated in their local community where that is possible, but it is worth noting that there are within the legislation three clear exceptions: where that does not meet the needs of the child; where it negatively affects the learning of other children; and where there is disproportionate cost around mainstream provision. We will be revising and reviewing the guidance around the presumption of mainstreaming during 2017.

Daniel Johnson, James Dornan and Monica Lennon spoke about the concept of political choices, and they were quite right to do so. This Government made a clear political choice to put in place £88 million specifically to protect teacher numbers because, as Mr Dornan identified, we saw that, unencumbered by that requirement, local authorities were reducing teacher numbers, particularly Glasgow City Council, where the figure was 4,000 teachers. That was not a decision that this Government took; it was a decision that those local authorities took.

On political choices, Monica Lennon and her colleagues on the Labour benches are quite entitled to stand up and ask for additional resource. However, when they are told that it has been provided—that resource has been increased—they complain that it has not gone up by enough. They now also have an opportunity at the local authority level. They have spent almost a decade telling us that we should remove the council tax freeze. We have now done that and enabled local authorities to make the political choice to increase the council tax if they feel that that would be a means by which they could increase the resources that are available to them. Monica Lennon should know that her local authority in South Lanarkshire has announced that it has no intention, in the coming budget, to increase the council tax. It has made that political decision not to increase its revenues by increasing the council tax. When we are talking about the political choices that exist, we need to consider that context.

Patrick Harvie touched on exclusions. We are absolutely clear that exclusion should always be a last resort. We will bring out refreshed guidance early next year, which will include a strengthened focus on prevention and specific guidance on the considerations that need to be given to children and young people with additional support needs. I met the National Autistic Society Scotland this morning, and exclusions was one of the issues that came up during our discussion.

On the approach that is taken in relation to teachers and teacher input, I think it is fair to say that we have to ensure that we do not create the perception that teachers who are not additional support for learning teachers are not capable of supporting and dealing with some of the issues that children with additional support needs face. We have seen an increase of 111 in the number of classroom assistants who are available to support those teachers, and teachers have a range of opportunities, through both initial teacher training and continuous professional development, to build those skills in order to deal with some of the issues that they may face in their classroom.

Mr Johnson made the point that it is not about reducing bureaucracy, but—

Iain Gray

Will the minister give way?

Mark McDonald

I am sorry. I am in my final minute.

The fundamental point about the reduction of bureaucracy is that it does not just free up teachers to be able to teach; it also frees them up to be able to undertake that continuous professional development, which then enables them to harness and enhance their skills.

Ross Thomson highlighted the situation in Aberdeen, which is my local area. I was going to highlight examples from Aberdeen in the context of what Jeremy Balfour said about a reduction in special schools. Mile-End school and Bucksburn academy would not be classified as special needs schools, but there is strong additional support needs provision within those mainstream schools. Different approaches are taken. However, I will reflect on the point that Jeremy Balfour made.

I do not have time to cover a number of points that members made. I will look at the Official Report and I will happily write to members if there are points on which I need to expand.

16:15  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I declare an interest: I am a councillor on Stirling Council, which has difficult choices to make about budgets in the months to come, as Mr Dornan suggested.

I thank all members, including the minister, for their speeches. There were some thoughtful contributions to the debate, and I think that all members talked about the pressing need to ensure that every pupil with additional needs has the support in place to ensure that they receive a high-quality education. If we are truly to meet the Parliament’s aim of closing the attainment gap, we must support all our pupils to learn in the way that best suits them. I welcome the minister’s announcement of the review of the guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming. Liz Smith also raised that important issue.

The number of children who need additional support has risen dramatically in the past five years, as a number of members said. One in five pupils is now estimated to have additional needs. I thank Mark McDonald for pointing out that the definition of additional support needs has been widened recently.

Iain Gray

Does the member note that the change in definition took place in 2010, but the increase of 16 per cent has happened since 2013, so the change in definition does not explain the increase?

Mark Ruskell

I take that point on board.

The key thing is to think about how we meet the needs of children who have been identified as needing additional support. There is a recognition that the getting it right for every child approach, which is centred on the needs of the individual, is important.

Fulton MacGregor talked about a disparity between councils in the identification of children with additional needs. I am the father of a child with Asperger’s, and I have to say that the early assessment that my child got in primary 1 was excellent, and that the support that he has had from professionals in the classroom, additional support workers and others has been fantastic. However, I see how pressures to do with resources are building up in the classroom, and that is a concern for me, as a father, as it is for the many constituents who get in touch with me and other members of the Parliament.

Children with additional needs continue to have lower attainment than their peers and are more likely to be excluded from school, as Patrick Harvie said. They are also less likely than their classmates to enrol in further education and training or to get a job when they leave school. Jeremy Balfour made an important point about the transition from school to the wider world, of which we need to take cognisance.

We are tightening local authority budgets, and the number of highly qualified additional support for learning teachers has fallen by more than 460 since 2009. We need to pause and look at what is happening in councils. We can argue about the causes of some of the cuts—we can argue about whether Audit Scotland figures include non-domestic rates income and about whether everything is Westminster’s fault—but the reality is that the cuts are happening. Councils’ financial positions do not just need to stand still; the cuts need to be reversed, so that additional support is provided in our classrooms again. That point was made strongly by Ross Greer and Monica Lennon. Iain Gray, too, reflected on his extensive experience in that regard.

I talk to directors of education, and the reality is that they are under enormous pressure. I say to James Dornan that, yes, there are local decisions that need to be made, but directors of education are the biggest budget holders in local authorities, and although teachers’ salaries, which are the biggest component of that budget, have been protected in the local government settlement, other aspects of the education budget have not been protected and are being cut. An unintended consequence of the policy is that there is pressure on other areas of education.

Daniel Johnson pointed out some of the impacts that are being felt in the classroom. There are reduced budgets for paper, reduced budgets for caretakers and reduced budgets for music tuition specialists and others. Of particular concern to many of our constituents is that cuts are falling on ASL teachers and classroom assistants.

We have some choices here. Liz Smith talked about the need for flexibility in the attainment Scotland fund. I brought the issue up in the Parliament last week and I am glad that the cabinet secretary is reflecting on how we can give headteachers genuine flexibility in the fund. That is a welcome step forward

However, there is a more fundamental political choice to be made, which has been raised by a number of members, including Tavish Scott, Iain Gray, Monica Lennon and my Green colleagues. The Scottish Parliament now has tax-raising powers and councils will now have the ability—finally—to raise council tax. It will be interesting to see which councils do that. However, any rise is capped at 3 per cent. On such an important topic and with so many other pressures on local authorities, from health and social care to the sale of assets and reductions in services, we need to make progress.

The Green motion is a wake-up call for the Scottish Government. These vital posts in our schools cannot be overlooked if we are to make real progress on closing the attainment gap. Training in additional support needs is not currently mandatory for teachers or support staff but, by raising more revenue for education, local authorities can be in a better position to ensure that more staff—both teachers and classroom assistants—are better informed of how to respond to pupils’ needs and behaviour and how to address any problems as they arise.

Although we respect the fact that decisions on education spending lie with local authorities, we call on the Scottish Government to provide councils with the financial resources to address the growing shortfall in ASL in our schools, ensuring that every individual child’s needs are not just assessed and recognised but acted on so that they can deliver their full potential.