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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 18, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio questions. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary question that they should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question. We are focusing on education and skills. I make the usual plea for brevity in both questions and answers.

International Student Visas (Impact of Marking Delays)

1. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government and universities regarding the potential impact on visas for international students at Scottish universities of any delays in marking assessments. (S6O-02244)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Although immigration arrangements are fully reserved, it is vital that Scotland attracts and retains talented people to study and work here without undue barriers. Although the Scottish Government welcomed the launch of the graduate visa, we continue to engage with the UK Government on ways to improve the system so that it reflects our specific economic, demographic and social needs.

On industrial action, I am of course concerned about any adverse impact on students, but I know that our universities are putting in place appropriate mitigations to minimise disruption to studies. I would expect that to include mitigations for international students, which are currently being worked up.

Although matters concerning pay and working conditions are for universities to determine on a UK-wide basis, I encourage Scottish university employers and trade unions to engage in constructive and meaningful dialogue in pursuit of a resolution.

Maggie Chapman

The minister will be aware that the current marking and assessment boycott is part of more than four years of industrial action, including strikes by University and College Union members, because their pay and conditions continue to degrade. They know that their actions will affect students, but staff employment conditions are students’ learning conditions, and the deterioration of one is bad for the other. Ensuring the quality and timely administration of degrees, including for international students, is the responsibility of universities’ management.

Will the minister outline what, if any, further engagement is planned to ensure that management responds to staff concerns about making their lives liveable, whether he considers intimidation with financial penalties to be appropriate, and what more the Scottish Government can do to ensure that international students on visas are not adversely affected?

Graeme Dey

Presiding Officer, you will allow me a moment to answer that in some detail.

Universities are autonomous institutions and, as such, matters concerning pay and working conditions are for them to determine in consultation with trade unions. However, I have met university leaders and will meet the UCU in the coming weeks. I am encouraging all concerned to get back around the table, because industrial action benefits nobody, least of all the students.

Regarding the possibility of institutions imposing financial penalties on staff who are involved in the marking boycott, I would expect fair work principles to be applied. I was pleased to see Queen Margaret University step back from its initial stance in that regard.

In response to concerns about the impact on international students, the Scottish Funding Council and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have indicated that there is scope for the marking boycott to affect aspects of international students’ studies. I understand that there are circumstances in which students can apply to extend their study visa, but that there is a cost associated with that.

I know that universities are taking steps to mitigate the impact of a boycott, particularly on fourth-year students. However, clearly, all that would best be avoided. I therefore encourage both sides to resume discussions.

Online Pornography (Education on Dangers)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to help educate children and young people about any dangers of online pornography. (S6O-02245)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Through the Scottish curriculum, curriculum for excellence, secondary school pupils learn about the damaging and exploitative aspects of pornography and how it can negatively affect mental health and healthy relationships. Pupils learn about that topic as part of their learning in relationships, sexual health and parenthood education.

Pauline McNeill

The cabinet secretary might be aware that, earlier this month, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a second report on the impact of pornography on children. The report focuses on the harms that children face from accessing violent pornography and how that might influence their own harmful sexual behaviour. That is why regulation of online material is so critical to the protection of children and young people. I agree with the Children’s Commissioner for England that no child should be able to access or watch pornography.

Worryingly, the report found that one victim said that their abuser made references to things that he had seen on porn. Two young girls said that they felt that they had been treated like porn stars by their abuser. I have mentioned the lack of data in Scotland in relation to the matter in the chamber previously. Does the cabinet secretary think that it is important to collect that type of data? Should the new Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland consider the collection of such data a priority?

Jenny Gilruth

Pauline McNeill raises a really important matter. I have not been sighted of the report from the Children’s Commissioner for England that she mentioned. I will certainly be apprised of it following portfolio questions because it is hugely important that we have a granular understanding of the challenge in Scotland.

On the point that Pauline McNeill made about regulation, regulation of the internet is a reserved matter and falls to the United Kingdom Government. We have been engaging with the UK Government on the Online Safety Bill, which would introduce additional measures to protect vulnerable children online. Pauline McNeill has made a valid poin.

I look forward to working with the new children’s commissioner who will take up post later this year.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Support for Teachers and Educators)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to better support teachers and educators who work with learners with ADHD. (S6O-02246)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We want all children and young people, including those who have ADHD, to get the support that is needed for them to reach their full potential. We work closely with partners, including Education Scotland, to ensure that teaching staff have access to a range of free professional learning and developmental resources. Those include free learning modules for practitioners on inclusive practice that are available via the Open University.

On 30 November last year, we published our updated additional support for learning action plan, which outlines further work that we will take on ASL to ensure that teaching staff continue to receive training to support all children with additional support needs, including those with ADHD.

Stuart McMillan

Although I recognise that Scotland’s teaching staff are committed to providing all children and young people in their care with the support that they need to succeed, too many occasions have been brought to my attention on which, for a variety of reasons, that has not been done to the parents’ satisfaction. Will the cabinet secretary indicate whether the Scottish Government will consider publishing updated guidance for teachers and educators on how best to support children and young people with ADHD, including those who do not have a diagnosis but present with ADHD symptoms?

Jenny Gilruth

As Stuart McMillan outlined, in our model of additional support for learning, support in school does not require a formal diagnosis of a particular condition. However, I recognise that a diagnosis can help families and our young people to understand how they can better deal with and respond to additional support needs. More broadly, other professionals who work in our education sector but are not teachers can help to provide specialism in that regard, too.

Through our additional support for learning action plan, we have committed to building on and developing the suite of resources that are already available to meet the needs of children and young people. As part of that work, the project board sub-group on training and resources will consider how to improve the support for neurodiverse learners, including those with ADHD.

We have a number of supplementaries and I want to get them all in. They will need to be reasonably brief, as will the responses.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I remind the chamber that I am the vice chair of the ADHD Foundation and have an ADHD diagnosis myself. With as many as one in five children in the classroom having a neurodevelopmental disorder, training in teaching children with neurodevelopmental disorders should be not optional but something that all teachers must have. Will the cabinet secretary confirm what conversations she has had with the General Teaching Council for Scotland about incorporating that in initial teacher education?

Jenny Gilruth

A number of teaching unions raised the issue with me directly over the weekend. I recognise some of the challenges in our classrooms. It is worth putting on record the increase in the number of pupils with additional support needs in Scotland’s schools. I think that, since 2010, there has been an increase of more than 30 per cent, which is quite substantial. In the past year alone, there has been an increase of more than 8,000 pupils being reported as having an additional support need.

It is crucial that our teaching staff have the professional support that Daniel Johnson spoke to. Of course, the GTCS has a crucial role to play in that regard. It has a requirement that 35 hours of professional development for teachers be completed within the year. What that development focuses on is at the teacher’s discretion but I take the member’s point on working with the GTCS on the issue, particularly noting the national increase in recent years in the number of additional support needs in our schools.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

In February, members of the Education, Children and Young People Committee were told that

“provision for young disabled people when they move on from school is a national disgrace.”

and that for young people transitioning out of school,

“It is a messy and terrifying place out there at the moment, particularly given the lack of co-ordinated plans.”—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 1 February 2023; c 18.]

With our college and university sectors strapped for cash, what action is the Scottish National Party Government taking to support individuals with ASN who attend university and college?

Jenny Gilruth

I will not answer on the specifics about universities and colleges because the initial question was focused on school education, although I would be happy to write to Pam Gosal on the transition period. I recognise that it is potentially a challenge for some young people.

In relation to school education, we have co-ordinated support plans—CSPs—that follow, or should follow, a young person as they transition, for example, from primary to secondary. It is really imperative that we in Government work with our partners in the university sector and in colleges to ensure that that co-ordinated support plan is followed through.

I would be more than happy to write to the member with some additional information in relation to the specific point on higher education.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

The questions today have mentioned ADHD and additional support needs. I go back to the original question about ADHD, which is a disability. Article 23 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, on which evidence is being taken today, gives a right to “special care” in education for children with a disability.

Can the Scottish Government explain how it is meeting that requirement for special care in education with the support that is being given to ADHD sufferers?

Be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

A direct response to the member’s question is that we currently have the highest record of support staff in our schools. In 2022, 307 additional pupil support assistants were recruited, which built on the increase of more than 1,000 from the previous year, bringing the total number of pupil support staff to 16,606. That increase is a direct result of continued investment from the Government.

However, I recognise the member’s point that, more broadly, we will need to go further to ensure that the increase in additional support needs in our schools is adequately supported in our classrooms. I committed over the weekend to working with the teaching unions on that very issue and I have already committed to the member’s colleagues that I will work directly with the GTCS on the professional requirements for teachers as they undergo teacher training.

Universal Free School Meals

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to roll out universal free school meals. (S6O-02247)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We remain committed to the expansion of free school meals in primary and special schools as described in our programme for government. All primary school pupils in primaries 1 to 5, children in funded early learning and childcare and eligible pupils in primary 6 through to secondary 6 can benefit from free meals in Scotland—the most generous provision anywhere in the United Kingdom—which saves parents £400 per eligible child per year.

Our additional investment that was announced in December 2022 will continue to fund the expansion of free school meals to all primary 6 and 7 pupils who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment. That will be the next step in fulfilling our commitment to universal provision in primary schools.

Jeremy Balfour

Three weeks ago, the cabinet secretary said that the Scottish National Party was committed to piloting free school meals in secondary schools. However, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have suggested that a targeted approach would be better. Can the cabinet secretary clear up that confusion and confirm whether the SNP Government is committed to piloting universal free school meals in secondary schools? If so, when will that start?

Jenny Gilruth

As the member said, the issue was raised in the chamber only three weeks ago. We are still very much committed to that secondary school pilot. It is important that we roll out that pilot so that we can learn how things might operate.

As I intimated in my initial response, we are also committed to universal provision in primary schools. That is being phased in through a process in which we are adhering to the Scottish child payment as a requirement for primary 6 and 7 pupils. However, we remain committed to universal roll-out in primary schools and to the secondary school pilot that the member mentioned.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

At the food for thought parliamentary reception last week, young people made it really clear that hunger does not end at the primary school gate, so the pilot scheme for secondary schools is important. What steps will the Government take to ensure that young people are involved in co-designing the pilot scheme and in the on-going roll-out of universal free school meals?

Jenny Gilruth

I was not in Parliament last Thursday, but I saw from social media that the event was well attended. I look forward to working with Monica Lennon on the issue, which we discussed at a previous portfolio question time. She makes a very valid point about co-design, and I would be more than happy to meet her to discuss that.

I have not yet met officials to talk about some of the proposals in relation to the secondary school pilot and how it might be administered in the future. I am more than happy to engage with the member on that really important issue for young people and with our young people directly on the roll-out.

Modern Apprenticeships (Motherwell and Wishaw)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to promote modern apprenticeships to constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw. (S6O-02248)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Skills Development Scotland provides an all-age career service in every local authority to highlight the options that are available to people across Scotland, including modern apprenticeships. SDS undertakes further activity, together with employers, to highlight the importance of modern apprenticeships, particularly through Scottish apprenticeship week.

Developing the Young Workforce facilitates engagement between employers and schools to highlight vocational pathways and support young people to transition into work. I met young people on work experience at a recent DYW Lanarkshire visit to Enevate Homes in Wishaw to observe that at first hand.

Clare Adamson

Today, I was delighted to attend the skills demonstration outside the Parliament that was hosted by the Scottish Traditional Building Forum, where I tried my hand at some slate cutting. I do not think that it is something that I see in my future, but seeing young people engaging in those endeavours was very exciting.

I understand that the initiative has not yet been rolled out across the country. Does the minister agree that supporting such heritage skills workshops through local schools is vital to promoting rewarding careers and delivering on the objectives of the developing the young workforce strategy?

Graeme Dey

I also tried the slate cutting, and I have to admit that the results are sitting in my office, not in public view.

The Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that we have the right traditional skills available to sustain our historic environment and progress our journey to net zero. Historic Environment Scotland continues to champion traditional skills and works with stakeholders to address traditional skill gaps to ensure that Scotland’s historic buildings can thrive as part of the country’s sustainable future. The role of colleges in all that will be essential, as will be the partnership working that I indicated.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Modern apprenticeships are essential to training and upskilling our workforce. Many constituents across my region will be concerned about the sector’s future and viability. Last week, the Scottish Training Federation said:

“Scottish Government delays in setting its skills and employability budgets this year is having a devastating impact on training providers. Many have made staff redundant, and several are on the brink of closure.”

If that comes to pass, it will have a devastating impact in my region, including in the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency. I say to the minister that this is a matter of urgency. When will the Scottish Government get its act together and support the industry? When will those budgets be confirmed?

Graeme Dey

That was a typically positive contribution from the Conservatives.

We have been focused on delivering the target of 25,000 modern apprenticeships. As part of that process, Skills Development Scotland has been redistributing some places that have not been taken up—it is doing that as we speak.

On the budget, that matter is being worked on just now, and we will provide further detail in due course.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Outside Parliament today, there is a construction and traditional skills demonstration, with young people from the industry delivering mini master classes to school pupils. I spoke with students who emphasised the importance of industry-based courses at colleges and universities across Scotland. They highlighted how important skills-based labour courses are to our heritage sector and how positively they can contribute to industry recruitment overall. Can the minister advise how the withdrawal of funding to universities and colleges is expected to impact on those essential industry-based courses?

Graeme Dey

I think that that betrays a lack of understanding of what the £46 million was for. It was transition funding. The actual teaching grant remained at the same level as it was last year. I recognise that that will still present challenges for some of our colleges and universities, but I know that they are committed to preserving some of these skills in partnership with the heritage agencies.

Question 6 was not lodged.

Colleges and Universities (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the withdrawal of £46 million of funding for colleges and universities has had on their ability to deliver courses. (S6O-02250)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The removal of the £46 million does not impact the core teaching fund that was allocated to colleges and universities for academic year 2023-24, which has been maintained at the same level as it was for academic year 2022-23, despite the very challenging financial environment. [Interruption.]

I hear Stephen Kerr chuntering from a sedentary position but, as he heard at yesterday’s meeting of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, the money was for transition purposes, some of which I identified at the committee.

Sandesh Gulhane

Despite the minister’s answer, the principal and chief executive officer of City of Glasgow College, Paul Little, has said that the loss of the £26 million from the college sector’s budget has further compounded significant financial pressures and forced colleges to make compulsory redundancies.

Having visited the college, I have been impressed with it, but I am deeply troubled by the fact that budget cuts are leading to more than 100 staff losing their jobs. I have been flooded with letters, with one constituent saying:

“I urge you to intervene in this matter and to investigate why funding has not been made available to avoid this redundancy situation ... My colleagues deserve ... better treatment than this.”

Will the minister offer some support and tell us what support the Scottish Government will provide to colleges that are being forced to consider redundancies?

Graeme Dey

I marvel at the brass neck of the Tories. Never mind imposing a damaging Brexit on the United Kingdom that will particularly harm the university sector or the impact of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng trashing the UK economy—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Minister, I ask you to resume your seat.

We have got through portfolio question time so far with the questions being asked and responded to without heckling. If members resist heckling, we will get through all the supplementary questions, too.

You may resume, minister.

Graeme Dey

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I was going to make the point that, just this lunch time, my friend Liz Smith was sitting on the Conservative benches calling on the Government to take a lower-tax approach, which would have meant the money available for our public services being reduced. We cannot have it both ways.

This is a serious matter. We are actively engaged with colleges, and we are working on flexibilities and other measures that would help to alleviate the challenges—there are challenges that they face—and improve the situation for them.

A number of members have requested to ask a supplementary question. I suspect that I will not get through them all, but I will do my best. Willie Rennie should be brief.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister knows that there is incredulity and frustration in the college and university sectors that the first step that he took was to cut £46 million from their funding. That will not help colleges and universities to transition to the new future that the minister wants to see. If new funds become available, can he confirm that that will be his first and top priority for investment?

Graeme Dey

As I said at the Education, Children and Young People Committee meeting yesterday, from my perspective—we have already indicated that we will look to address this—if there was an improvement in the funding situation, by working with colleges and universities, that would, of course, be a priority for the education portfolio.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The minister confirmed this week that the funding had been reallocated to account for the pay deal that was reached with school teachers. Does he accept that the reversal of promised funding, combined with more than 10 years of real-terms cuts to the sector, is limiting the ability to offer a fair pay deal to staff? Does he accept that teaching staff in all phases of education should be properly remunerated for their work?

Graeme Dey

I do believe that education staff should be properly remunerated for their work.

But here we go again. I have said this to the Conservatives and even more often to the Labour Party: the same money cannot be spent twice. If Labour wants to spend money on something else, that is fine, but it needs to tell us where the money is coming from.

I want to correct one small point. It is a point of fact that, since 2012-13, college resource budgets have increased by £168 million in cash terms.

Liam Kerr should be very brief.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In North East Scotland College’s latest accounts, the principal of the college warned that,

“if the College is required to reduce costs further then student experiences and outcomes will suffer, significantly.”

Did the minister consider the impact on NESCol of withdrawing the £46 million? What does he predict the impact will be on its ability to deliver?

Graeme Dey

We were, of course, aware that there would be an adverse impact from the withdrawal of the funding because of the transition measures that it was going to fund. However, the decision was not taken lightly. In many ways, there was no decision—the money had to be found. I find that regrettable, and I am disappointed that we had to do that, but if Mr Kerr was aware of the conversations starting to happen with all colleges—including North East Scotland College—he would know that we are looking actively at what we can do to give them the sustainable future that they require.

After-school Clubs and Out-of-term Activities (Access)

8. Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting local authorities to ensure that school children from disadvantaged communities have access to after-school clubs and other activities outside of the school term. (S6O-02251)

The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

Since 2021, we have invested £25 million in summer holiday programmes that have provided activities, food and childcare. Our priority now is to take the next steps in building a system of school-age childcare to provide year-round childcare support for families on low incomes in order to support sustainable employment. To do that, we are targeting our £15 million investment this year at community-based projects that will deliver year-round childcare and activities. We are rightly focusing on delivering lasting change for families and communities that need support the most.

Evelyn Tweed

In my Stirling constituency, there are gaps in after-school club provision. Can the minister advise how support from the Scottish Government could assist local authorities in identifying those gaps and how they would go about applying for that support?

Natalie Don

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 requires local authorities to consult parents about their out-of-school care and school-age childcare needs every two years and to plan and publish information on whether and how they will provide appropriate childcare, taking account of those responses. Local authorities should therefore have access to appropriate information that is relevant to their local communities.

The approach that we are taking, in building a system of school-age childcare, is person centred and place based. It involves engaging with local communities to support the design and delivery of services, initially in our early adopter areas. We will share those findings and identify new early adopter areas this year.

That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause to allow front-bench teams to change positions.