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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, February 2, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time, and the portfolio this time round is education and skills.

I make the usual request that members who seek to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. There is a lot of interest in asking supplementary questions, so I make a plea for succinct questions and succinct answers, wherever possible.

Additional Support for Learning

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve access to additional support for learning. (S6O-01852)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

All children and young people should receive the support that they need to reach their full potential. Local authorities are responsible for identifying and meeting the additional support needs of their pupils.

On 30 November 2022, we published our updated additional support for learning action plan, which outlines the progress that we have made and the further work that we will do in that area to ensure that all children can access the support that they need.

Donald Cameron

About 21,000 children in Scottish schools are on the autism spectrum, and levels of educational access for them vary across the country. The National Autistic Society Scotland has told me that local authorities need to be better at recording different types of absences, rather than using the catch-all category of authorised absences. That would better support young people. Will the cabinet secretary look at ways in which that can be done, so that more targeted support can be provided to young people on the autism spectrum?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

One of the aspects that we have just taken into the national improvement framework relates to attendance. An important aspect of that is ensuring that the national agencies support our local government colleagues to look at who is attending school and why some pupils are not attending school, and to assist people to go back to school when it is appropriate for them to do so.

I very much take the point that Donald Cameron makes. It is very important that we look at why children—including children who are neurodiverse and have autism—are not attending school and give them support that is particular to them.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer about children with autism.

The Scottish National Party’s 2021 manifesto said:

“Scotland’s education system should be accessible to all young people. We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full potential.”

We have the highest number of pupils who require additional support on record—that is the case at primary school and secondary school level. At the same time, numbers of specialist staff and support are being slashed.

Question, please.

Is the Scottish Government proud of its record at this stage? How will it change that record?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Of course, all teachers are responsible for the provision of support to pupils with additional support needs, not just the teachers whose role is specifically related to support for learning. I point out that, in 2021, 1,036 extra pupil support assistants were recruited. That built on the previous year’s increase, and it exceeds the programme for government commitment.

On teacher numbers and on pupil support assistants, there is more to do, but the Government is determined to carry that through.

Beatrice Wishart joins us remotely.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Another impact of Covid-19 has been a sharp increase in concerns about children’s speech, language and communication development. That is a phenomenon that has been recorded by health visitors. The greatest increase has been found at two years old, which is a crucial milestone in speech and language development.

What additional educational learning support in children’s communication development can the cabinet secretary commit to today, to head off concerns of a looming spoken language crisis in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Beatrice Wishart is quite right to point out the concerns that exist about the impact that Covid, in particular, has had. The Government has focused on the issue that she raises, and I will be happy to write to her with further details on what is happening on that in education and in health.

Foster Carers (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its action to recruit more foster carers. (S6O-01853)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

As part of keeping the Promise, we are committed to ensuring that children and young people who are looked after away from their own families and homes are provided with caring and loving foster families.

I am aware that the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have put pressure on foster carer capacity and that the situation has been worsened by the widening pressures that the social work sector faces, such as the pressures associated with the conflict in Ukraine and the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Although responsibility for recruiting a sufficient number of foster carers lies with local authorities, we are actively working with key national and local partners to identify action that we can take collectively, now and in the future, to improve the situation.

Joe FitzPatrick

A key aspect of encouraging more foster carers is ensuring that the right financial support is in place. Will the minister provide an update on discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about progressing the recommendations of the review of care allowances?

Clare Haughey

I agree with Mr FitzPatrick that ensuring that the right financial support and practical help are in place will be critical in encouraging more people to become foster carers. That is why the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to delivering a national allowance as quickly as possible. We know that that has taken longer than was originally anticipated, and we share the frustrations of care givers and those working with them. I assure Mr FitzPatrick that we are looking at all available options to make that happen. My officials will next meet COSLA on Tuesday 7 February.

I call Roz McCall for a brief supplementary question.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I note that the minister commented on some external factors, but last week’s shocking statistics from Barnardo’s, which revealed that the number of children needing foster care in Scotland has increased by 50 per cent in the past year, were not mentioned.

I have a similar question. The programme for government for 2021-22 said that the Government was committed to introducing a national minimum allowance for foster and kinship carers, but no such policy has been introduced. That means that foster carers in Scotland live in the only part of the United Kingdom—

Please ask a question.

—where carers do not receive such a payment. When will the Government introduce that long-awaited national minimum allowance?

Clare Haughey

I think that I covered most of what Roz McCall has asked about in my response to Mr FitzPatrick. We appreciate that the Fostering Network has said that there is a shortage of almost 500 foster carers in Scotland, and we are working with stakeholders to explore ways to increase the number of people becoming foster carers. As part of that, we are willing to consider all options that have the potential to improve the lives of children with care experience, including the possibility of national and local remuneration.

South Lanarkshire College (Dismissal of Principal)

To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it has received that the correct procedures were used by the board of South Lanarkshire College when it took the decision to dismiss its principal. (S6O-01854)

Any decision on the employment status of a principal is a matter for the relevant college board. The Scottish Funding Council is assured, and has assured me, that due process has been followed in this case.

Graham Simpson

In fact, the college board did not follow the college’s disciplinary procedures, which I have here. The principal, Aileen McKechnie, could not ask questions, call witnesses or challenge evidence and was not even shown any of the evidence against her. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, as I predicted. She was sacked, along with Brian Keegan, the clerk to the college board, who wrote the rule book on college governance and was then accused in a statement of having bullied Andy Kerr.

What really stinks is that there is no right of appeal. The college’s disciplinary procedure says that sacked employees have the right to an appeal, which should happen without reasonable delay and be dealt with impartially. Due process has not been followed, so the Government needs to step in.

The college branch of the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association—

Please ask a question.

Someone has lost their livelihood. The college branch of EIS-FELA has just had a vote of no confidence in the board—the second time that it has done so.

Ask a question, please.

What does the cabinet secretary intend to do? Given the facts, does she still have confidence in the board?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Funding Council has provided on-going assurance that the governance improvement plan, which has been agreed by the college board, is being implemented. The college is under strong leadership from the current interim principal and, with a new and effective board in place, it continues to function well.

The employment of a principal is a matter for the board, and it is important that that process continues. If Mr Simpson would like to write to me to make detailed points on the matter, I would be more than happy to take that up with the Funding Council, but I am content, and the Funding Council is content, that due process has been followed in this case. If any further action is to be taken, the Funding Council will, of course, support the regional board and the college board to facilitate that.


The Deputy Presiding Officer

Mr Simpson, I asked at the start for brief questions. I have had to interrupt a number of members to get them to get to questions. I would discourage you from challenging the chair when the chair has asked you to pose a question. Thank you.

Schools (Bullying)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle bullying in schools. (S6O-01855)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Bullying of any kind is unacceptable and must be addressed quickly and effectively. “Respect for All: The National Approach to Anti-Bullying for Scotland’s Children and Young People”, which is our national guidance on anti-bullying, supports that. We expect schools and local authorities to use the national approach to recording and monitoring bullying incidents. Local monitoring allows schools to identify patterns, intervene early and provide appropriate support.

We continue to fully fund respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, to build confidence and capacity to address bullying effectively.

Education Scotland has completed a thematic inspection of the national approach. We will consider the findings and next steps carefully. We are committed to refreshing the national guidance on anti-bullying later this year.

Rachael Hamilton

The cabinet secretary is correct: bullying in Scottish schools is not acceptable. However, under the Scottish National Party Government, abuse of teachers in our schools has spiralled out of control, with almost 75,000 recorded attacks on school staff since 2017. In my constituency in the Borders, teacher and staff abuse in schools has increased by 355 per cent since 2017. Staff absences for mental health reasons have almost doubled. The correlation is clear. Can the cabinet secretary, having presided over such appalling levels of abuse, provide the Parliament with a plan to fix this problem, which the Government has created?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

When we look at bullying, harassment or any violence and intimidation in our schools, whether that is towards pupils or staff, it is very important that we work together to find a solution. The Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools provides advice and guidance to ministers on improving relationships. That is where we work together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, representatives from local authorities and professional associations to ensure that we provide evidenced advice and guidance in order to get that right.

I would be more than happy to meet Ms Hamilton if she has particular suggestions about what policies need to change, because I think that we all take this matter seriously. We are determined to keep it under review, as I said in my original answer. The group that I mentioned is the way that we can work together to do that, and I hope that we can work together across the chamber, too.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will have seen this morning’s Herald exclusive that says that worried teachers have said that “toxic positivity” leads to bullying and fails pupils. A whistleblower who works in a secondary school in the east end of Glasgow comments on something called “pivotal behaviour method”, which is failing, in the words of this whistleblower,

“the 97 per cent of kids who are well behaved ... and doing well academically”.

Will the cabinet secretary investigate the failings that are identified in the whistleblower’s report?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I read the report in The Herald this morning. I reiterate that any form of violence is unacceptable. I am not going to comment on specific cases. It is up to schools and local authorities, as the employers, to decide what action should be taken in schools. However, as I said in my original answer, there is a national group that works with COSLA to look at the matter, and we will continue to work with our local authority colleagues and the professional associations to ensure that, if there are changes to be made, we take those decisions together.

Higher National Qualifications (Articulation)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to further encourage articulation from college-based higher national qualifications to university-based degree programmes. (S6O-01856)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government recognises articulation from college to university as a key route into degree-level study, including for many learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The commission on widening access recognised the importance of expanding articulation and we are committed to implementing its recommendations in full.

Since then, we have invested in additional places for students progressing from college to university. We continue to work collaboratively on articulation with the college and university sectors and the Scottish Funding Council, for example through Colleges Scotland’s joint articulation group.

Michelle Thomson

I thank the cabinet secretary for her reply. Does she agree that the progress that Scottish universities are making on fair access is significantly helped by colleges providing higher national courses that articulate with degree programmes? Does she agree that there is therefore every reason to further support colleges and encourage universities to develop more articulation arrangements?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I certainly agree with Michelle Thomson on that. It is a very important way that we can widen access to higher education. Articulation from college is a key route to degree-level study. As I said, many learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will take that route and, of course, learners can also study for degrees in colleges that are affiliated with a university.

We are keen to see further progress on that and, in particular, on full articulation and recognition of the work that goes on within our colleges, to allow students to articulate to a university with the full recognition of such study.

I call Meghan Gallacher, briefly.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

At present, a key issue in colleges is the inability to properly assess completion rates. When the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training attended the Education, Children and Young People Committee in November, he was questioned by several MSPs about what he is doing to resolve the issue, and when it would be fixed. Mr Hepburn said:

“My ambition is to do it as soon as possible”.—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 2 November 2022; c 17.]

It has been three months since then, so will the Government provide an update on what progress has been made? If no substantial progress has been made, why not?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am happy to ask Mr Hepburn, who is not able to attend portfolio question time today, to go through that in detail with the member. She has raised a very important issue so, if she will allow, we will get back to her in writing.

Tertiary Education (Monitoring of Commitments)

To ask the Scottish Government what monitoring is undertaken to ensure that any commitments made to tertiary education are delivered. (S6O-01857)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government monitors delivery through the normal processes that are set up by our tertiary education delivery arms, such as the Scottish Funding Council, the Student Awards Agency Scotland and Skills Development Scotland.

Every year, ministers issue a letter of guidance to public bodies setting out priorities in line with the programme for government. In turn, the Scottish Funding Council has yearly outcome agreements with colleges and universities, which set out what individual institutions will deliver. The Scottish Funding Council tracks delivery against those outcomes and regularly publishes various progress and statistical reports on its website. In addition, ministers and officials regularly engage with those organisations to monitor the delivery of key commitments.

Michael Marra

I am principally concerned with what the Government is delivering to those institutions. They still await any conclusion to the critical coherence review; a raft of actions under the 2017 student finance report; the production of multi-year spending plans, which were committed to back in 2021; a replacement scheme for Erasmus, which was promised at the election; replacement metrics for widening access, which have been on the desk since 2014, when Shirley-Anne Somerville held the post of minister for universities and colleges; and the international education strategy, which is years overdue. I could go on, but I will not.

Ministers’ failure to deliver such basic policy work is holding back the sector. Is the problem a lack of capability, a lack of energy or a lack of interest?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The Government is delivering both for colleges and for universities. That is demonstrated in the budget, the debate on which will follow portfolio question time, with additional funding going to our colleges and universities.

The Government was, of course, elected to deliver on a number of commitments during this parliamentary session, and we absolutely have the firm intention of doing so.

Will the cabinet secretary set out how the Scottish Government is supporting our tertiary sector?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my answer to Michael Marra, one of the important ways in which we are doing that is by providing funding to colleges and universities. The net college sector resource budget will increase by £26 million and the universities budget will increase by £20 million. That is important and significant, and the Government has undertaken to do that under very difficult financial constraints this year.

Pupil Support Assistants (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to increase the recruitment of pupil support assistants, including ensuring that they receive fair pay. (S6O-01858)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Local councils are responsible for the recruitment and deployment of their staff.

During the pandemic, the Scottish Government provided an additional £240 million to local authorities to support the recruitment of additional teachers and support staff. We have since committed further permanent funding of £145.5 million a year to support education staffing.

Pay for local government workers, including pupil support assistants, is a matter for councils. Despite that, the Scottish Government recognises the crucial role that council staff play in our communities, which is why we supported local government with an additional £260.6 million to enable them to successfully agree a pay deal for 2022-23.

Foysol Choudhury

Yesterday, it was reported that councillors in Edinburgh will be asked to approve a £2.4 million cut to teaching assistant posts. In an industry that is already struggling with the retention and recruitment of staff, that news is deeply concerning.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us what action will be taken to protect pupil support and classroom assistants’ jobs, given the vital role that they play in children’s educational and social development?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Clearly, councils have not yet taken those decisions. Those are proposals by officers at this point, but I point to the national work that the Government has undertaken, which has been well publicised, around teachers, and our determination to ensure that we recognise and protect the role of classroom assistants.

Will the cabinet secretary set out the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase classroom assistant numbers?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am firmly of the view that we will not improve Scottish education by having fewer teachers or, indeed, fewer classroom assistants in our schools. Our commitment remains to increase the number of teachers by 3,500 and the number of classroom assistants by 500 by the end of this parliamentary session. We continue to provide local authorities with £145.5 million of annual funding to support that investment.

Question 8 is from Pauline McNeill, who joins us remotely.

Gender-based Violence (Higher Education)l

To ask the Scottish Government what recent meetings it has had with Universities Scotland to discuss gender-based violence in higher education. (S6O-01859)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government engages frequently with Universities Scotland on a range of student wellbeing issues, including gender-based violence. For example, Universities Scotland is represented on the equally safe in colleges and universities core leadership group, which is chaired by the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training. The group meets on a quarterly basis and it met most recently on 16 November 2022.

Pauline McNeill

In December last year, the University of Glasgow published a report on the university’s staff and student procedures and support arrangements in relation to gender-based violence, which found that there had been a significant increase in reports of gender-based violence by undergraduates in the previous 18 months. Morag Ross KC, who led the review, highlighted serious problems in the university’s processes for handling incidents. One survivor said that when she went to the student newspaper, the Glasgow Guardian, she was threatened that if she took her case to the press she would be removed from her degree course. I am sure that the cabinet secretary agrees that, if that is true, it is wrong, but does the Scottish Government agree that Scottish universities need to make their sexual misconduct processes open and transparent to ensure that students have full confidence when reporting gender-based violence?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is absolutely critical in all workplaces or places of education that both students and staff feel supported to report an incident, and supported once they have reported it. The Scottish Government funds the EmilyTest charity to ensure that universities and colleges are not only taking the matter seriously but acting on it. I recently wrote to all the universities to encourage them strongly to join the EmilyTest charter, if they have not done so already. I reiterate that again today because Pauline McNeill raises an exceptionally important point: we need to ensure that the issue is tackled and that everyone feels safe in their workplaces and places of education.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

It should be common sense that under no circumstances should a rapist be allowed on a college or university campus, yet here I am again, for the second week in a row, raising the matter. Last week, I was discussing a rapist enrolled at a university; this week, it is a rapist enrolled on a college beauty course. That is appalling and unacceptable, not to mention dangerous. We need change, we need guidance and we need it now. Will the cabinet secretary ban suspected and convicted sex offenders from university and college campuses and will she issue national guidance?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The minister for further and higher education met the principal of Ayrshire College on 30 January to clarify enrolment procedures and safeguarding measures in that college, given recent cases. That builds on the work that he is already leading, and previous conversations about concerns, to protect students if other students are subject to criminal investigation.

Scottish Government officials are working at pace with representatives from colleges and universities, as well as a range of stakeholders, with the aim of producing guidance to address those concerns. The first meeting of the working group, which has been arranged for 10 February, will include issues such as information sharing across institutions and with regard to people already in the justice system. That builds on discussions that the Scottish Government has had with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Police Scotland, the College Development Network and Universities Scotland. I am also aware that the minister has met Ms Gosal to discuss the issue and he obviously remains happy to do so in the future.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business.