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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the portfolio on this occasion is education and skills. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. There is an awful lot of interest in supplementary questions, so they will need to be brief, as will the responses. I will be intervening when allocated speaking times are not adhered to.

Highland Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with the executive chief officer for education and learning at Highland Council, and what was discussed. (S6O-03232)

Scottish Government officials last met the executive chief officer for education and learning at Highland Council on Thursday 5 October 2023 to discuss a range of education matters, including attainment.

Edward Mountain

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, and it is interesting that no one seems to have seen her since. Does the cabinet secretary believe that members of this Parliament should be allowed to visit schools in their constituencies and/or regions, or should councils such as Highland Council obstruct and deny such visits?

Jenny Gilruth

As a general point of principle, I believe that MSPs should be able to engage with the schools in the areas that they represent. I do so regularly in my constituency. I do not know the specifics of the issue that Mr Mountain has raised. If he would like to share more information with me, that would be welcome.

I am aware—as members will be—that, during election periods, local authorities put rules and restrictions around when elected members might visit schools. However, if the member wishes to share more detail with my office, I would be more than happy to consider it.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

Proposals from the University of the Highlands and Islands are set to cut some science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at the Moray campus. That will have a negative impact on senior pupils who study there in addition to attending school. Given the importance of that model of delivery of school subjects, the rurality of the area and the impact on pupils, what can the cabinet secretary do to ensure the continued provision of those subjects to pupils in the area?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for her question. I might ask the Minister for Higher and Further Education to engage with her directly on the substantive point. I have seen reports in relation to some of that challenge. The Government supports the provision of additionality, through funding for bursaries for STEM subjects for example, in recognition of the challenge in that subject area. However, I will ask the minister to write to the member with more specifics in that regard.

ASN Assistants (Qualification and Registration)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the development of an accredited qualification and registration programme for additional support needs assistants. (S6O-03233)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

In taking forward that work, my officials have engaged extensively with a range of stakeholders, including local authorities, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the unions, the association of support for learning officers and pupil support staff. That included a national engagement programme that was undertaken by Education Scotland, which gathered 2,500 responses from pupil support staff across all 32 local authority areas.

Through that engagement, we have heard a wide range of views and now have a substantial amount of information with which to inform the development of a final report. Officials have confirmed that the intention is to publish the final report in the spring, which will contain proposals for further action.

Mark Griffin

We know that support assistants’ jobs are expanding. Their teaching burdens are increasing, they are more likely to be attacked and they have higher workloads, but they often get less training and support. They have to be classroom teachers, mental health workers and speech and language therapists in order to cover up some gaps in pupil provision. Will the cabinet secretary be clear about whether the Government will follow through on its commitment and give a timeline for publication of a pathway for additional support needs teachers’ training and education?

Jenny Gilruth

The member will be aware that that commitment stems from a Bute house commitment on looking at accreditation for pupil support assistants. It is vitally important that we consider that. I outlined in my initial response to the member that we expect to have the full detail of that report in the spring—in the coming weeks. I hope that that gives him some reassurance on the timescales involved.

More broadly, I hope that the member will welcome the data that was published earlier this week, which shows that we now have a record number of pupil support assistants working in Scotland’s schools. That number increased last year by 725, and that is because the Government is putting additional investment into pupil support assistants, recognising, as the member has done, that they play a key role in Scotland’s schools.

We have a couple of brief supplementaries.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary further detail how the record funding provided by local government—which was provided to it by the Scottish Government—is improving outcomes for young people with additional support needs, including in Dumfries and Galloway?

Jenny Gilruth

Spending on additional support for learning by local authorities reached a record high of £926 million in 2022-23. We have also invested £75 million in it since 2019-20, which, as I said in my response to Mr Griffin, has contributed to Scotland now having its highest level of support staff on record.

It is also worth recognising the achievements of our young people with additional support needs. We know that 93 per cent of secondary and special school leavers with an additional support need were in an initial positive destination three months after the end of the school year. That is certainly welcome news, and it is evidence of the impact of the Government’s further investment in supporting our children and young people.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Statistics that came out on Tuesday showed that Scotland has 392 fewer ASN specialists than it did in 2013. Over the same period, there was a 96.8 per cent increase in the number of pupils identified with an additional support need. What solution can the cabinet secretary offer right now to address the falling ASN teacher numbers and reduce the number of pupils that each of those teachers is supporting?

Jenny Gilruth

Liam Kerr will recognise that the data that was just published showed that the number of specialists was on an increasing trajectory. I hope that he will recognise that those numbers are now going in the right direction, in recognition of the need in the system.

The member and I, and a number of others, discussed that issue yesterday at the Education, Children and Young People Committee. I look forward to hearing the committee’s recommendations to the Government on that exact point.

During the committee meeting, I made the point to Ms Duncan-Glancy that, because of additional investment from the Government for teachers and pupil support assistants, we are now seeing record numbers of them in our schools. I hope that Liam Kerr recognises that in relation to pupil support assistants. I see him gesticulating from a sedentary position, but I hope that he accepts that in the past three years there has been an increase in the number of people with additional support needs as a specialism in classroom teaching. The numbers are going in the right direction, and that is because of that additionality in investment from the Government.

I encourage the minister to ignore any gesticulations coming from Opposition front benches.

Outdoor Learning (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to schools to facilitate the expansion of an outdoor learning-based curriculum. (S6O-03234)

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

As part of our “Learning for sustainability: action plan 2023 to 2030”, which was published in June 2023, we have committed to establishing a new national policy workstream on outdoor learning, to be supported by a national working group that will report to the Scottish ministers. The group will pursue a range of actions to ensure that all children and young people receive entitlement to outdoor learning in all its forms.

In addition, Education Scotland continues to support schools in taking learning outside through professional learning provision. A new learning for sustainability portal will launch later this year, as will a learning for sustainability peer mentor network.

Murdo Fraser

I thank the minister for that positive response. I am sure that she and the whole chamber are aware of the many recorded benefits that regular access to outdoor learning can have for learners—and, indeed, educators—across all levels of schooling. She will also be aware of the success of initiatives such as the teaching in nature programme. Is she minded to lend support to my colleague Liz Smith’s member’s bill to guarantee outdoor residential experiences for primary and secondary pupils?

Natalie Don

I have discussed the draft bill’s proposals with Ms Smith on several occasions, most recently earlier this year, and I will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months following the bill’s formal introduction, which I believe is imminent.

As with any new legislative proposal, all stakeholder views must be taken into account and the full range of consequences and costs must be explored. On that note, I had a fantastic visit to the Outward Bound Trust at Loch Eil, where I heard at first hand the benefits of that form of outdoor education and spoke directly to some of the young people who were benefiting from it.

In relation to the proposed member’s bill, although the Government will give any draft bill its full consideration, we will reserve our final position until the bill is introduced.

Will the minister set out what role Scotland’s universities have in supporting the outdoor learning sector?

Natalie Don

Universities are playing a really important role. A good example of that is Queen Margaret University’s new outdoor learning hub, which my colleague Graeme Dey, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, opened earlier this week. Further examples are the courses that are offered by universities including Queen Margaret University, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Stirling and the University of the Highlands and Islands. We are working with colleges and universities and the General Teaching Council for Scotland to develop a new national framework for initial teacher training that embeds learning for sustainability.

Digital Devices (School Pupils)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of free digital devices to school pupils. (S6O-03235)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

To maximise the impact of funding, we will provide support at household level, targeting device investment at disadvantaged families with children. That approach will improve equity of access to devices and connectivity for those who need it most, helping families to realise the broad range of benefits that are associated with digital inclusion and enabling access to digital tools and resources for learning. We are currently in the early stages of scheme design with Connecting Scotland, which will use its established model to distribute devices to eligible households.

Meghan Gallacher

I am afraid that it is broken promise after broken promise—from failing to close the poverty-related attainment gap to the roll-out of free school meals. Parents, teachers and pupils will now remember the SNP as the Government that stole the weans’ IT. Although I appreciate that the cabinet secretary was not in post at the time when the Government promised a free laptop to every school pupil, will she tell members why the Government promised something that it knew it would never be able to deliver?

Jenny Gilruth

It is worth putting on the record the fact that the Government has invested £25 million in devices and connectivity. That has resulted in more than 72,000 devices and 14,000 connectivity packages being distributed to disadvantaged learners all over Scotland.

I find it quite remarkable that Ms Gallacher has come to the chamber today to complain about the investment that is going to support digital connectivity across the country, given that it is her party that has cut this Government’s budget, particularly in relation to capital, by close to 10 per cent in real terms. That is having a direct impact on the Government’s spending priorities, and it means that there is less funding to go into things such as education. I hope that Ms Gallacher recognises the challenge in her question and the hypocritical approach that she has taken today.

There are a number of supplementary questions, which I will try to get in. I will have more chance of doing so if we do not have heckling of answers and questions.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

On that previous point, can the cabinet secretary say whether the Scottish Government has assessed the impact of capital budget cuts to Scotland by the United Kingdom Government on providing free digital services or other projects under the education portfolio?

Jenny Gilruth

As I alluded to in my response to Ms Gallacher’s question, this is particularly challenging because of the cuts that have come from Westminster, which are having a major impact not just on education but right across the Scottish Government. That is particularly acute in relation to capital funding, which Ms Gallacher’s original question was on. Capital funding is due to contract by almost 10 per cent in real terms over the next five years. That will have major impacts in Scotland, where we have one hand tied behind our back, when we want to make spending decisions that affect outcomes for our children and young people.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The education secretary’s predecessor, who is making a lot of noise this afternoon, made a solemn promise to the voters in 2021. He said:

“These tools are no longer luxuries.”

If they are essential, why has the Government deprioritised this programme, and why is it now means testing access to free laptops and devices?

Jenny Gilruth

Again, as I outlined in my previous responses, decisions that are taken by Governments in other parts of the United Kingdom—Governments that the people of this country did not vote for—mean that the Scottish Government has less money to go around for a commitment that was made some years ago. That is the reality of the UK. If Mr Rennie does not like it, perhaps he should come to the SNP benches and support independence for Scotland, which would give us the spending power that we need to make investments in improving the provision that we currently have in relation to public services. That is the challenge of the United Kingdom and the status quo that Mr Rennie backs.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

The most recent Scottish health and wellbeing census found that, for pupils between primary 5 and secondary 3, more than a third of bullying was online. Can the cabinet secretary please advise us what measures the Scottish Government has considered to limit harm to children during the roll-out of free digital devices?

Jenny Gilruth

The member raises a really important point. The Government is committed to rolling out a digital strategy, recognising some of that challenge. More broadly in relation to the issues around bullying, we published data towards the end of last year in the behaviour in Scotland’s schools research, which examined the issue in more detail.

Education Scotland has published a suite of resources on online bullying, which support teachers in our schools. In the next few weeks we will produce updated guidance on the use of mobile phones to mitigate some of the challenge in relation to online bullying.

Graduate Visa

5. Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the education secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding any potential implications for Scottish universities and colleges of the Migration Advisory Committee’s “rapid review” of the graduate route visa, as announced by the United Kingdom Government. (S6O-03236)

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

Scotland needs an immigration system that supports our higher education sector to deliver the best learning, the best research and the best experience for students who choose to study and stay in Scotland. Along with Scotland’s university and college sectors, I am deeply concerned that restricting or scrapping the graduate route will deter talented graduates from staying in Scotland.

Audrey Nicoll

Since 2019, international students have contributed between £4 billion and £6 billion to the Scottish economy. The UK Government has stated that the intended purpose of the review is to confirm, among other things, that the visa can support pathways into high-quality jobs. Any curtailment of the graduate route has serious implications for Scotland’s university sector at a time when the UK Government’s decision to end dependents’ visas for postgraduate students has had a significant impact on demand from key international markets such as Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

Does the minister agree that any change to the graduate route visa must ensure that it remains an attractive and competitive offer to those who wish to study here, and that the UK Government must ensure that Scotland and the UK remain open and that a warm welcome awaits international students?

Graeme Dey

I absolutely agree that we need international students and graduates to make their lives in Scotland. I share the member’s concern about the rapid review and the UK Government’s approach to international students generally, which is already having a serious impact on our university sector. I am therefore seeking to meet the Migration Advisory Committee’s chair in the coming days, prior to which I hope to hear directly from those in the university and college sector on their concerns, so that I can try to ensure that Scotland’s needs are reflected in the rapid review.

International students play a vital cultural and economic role in Scotland. We should recognise and celebrate that.

Autistic Pupils (Support)

6. Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the comments made by the National Autistic Society Scotland that some autistic pupils in Scotland have to “fail” in mainstream education before receiving the support that they need. (S6O-03237)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We want all children and young people, including those with autism, to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. The Scottish Government continues to work in partnership with Education Scotland and a range of stakeholders to improve professional understanding of and support for autistic learners in all settings.

In commitment to that work, a range of information, guidance, resources and professional learning opportunities continue to be supported and collaboratively developed for school staff to access. In addition to that, we fund a number of services to support children and young people with additional support needs and their families to get the support necessary to thrive. That includes funding a national autism implementation team.

Martin Whitfield

The situation around additional support needs was discussed earlier in these questions. I will quote Suzi Martin, the external affairs manager for the National Autistic Society. She highlighted the distressing reality faced by families of autistic children, who often find themselves having to “fight the system” to access the necessary support. We have heard that there are 392 fewer specialists in schools, and we have heard from the cabinet secretary about record high spending. What is the Scottish Government going to do to assist families of autistic children so that they do not feel that they have to “fight the system”?

Jenny Gilruth

The member may be aware that the Education, Children and Young People Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry on this very issue, and those comments were discussed at the evidence session yesterday. I am very sympathetic to the points that Ms Martin has raised in relation to parents’ experience of the current system.

In responding to the Morgan review, which was published back in 2020, the Scottish Government, in collaboration with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, committed to the additional support for learning action plan. We have been able to progress more than half of the actions contained in the plan, which include improving parents’ and young people’s experience of the system.

The member is right to say that we are investing in record numbers of pupil support assistants in our schools. However, the experience of parents is often challenging, and I look forward to engaging with committee members about their report, which I understand will be published in the coming weeks.

In the coming weeks, the Government will also publish our additional support for learning action plan review. I hope that that plan will identify further tangible steps that we can take to improve outcomes for our young people with additional support needs and to improve the system for our parents and carers, too.

There are a couple of brief supplementary questions, and I ask for brief answers, if possible.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary say more about the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to improve the support available to autistic learners and to equip teachers with guidance to support the inclusion of those learners?

Jenny Gilruth

As I said, we fund the national autism implementation team, which produces materials to support professional learning and development for practitioners working in the system. The NAIT has also developed a framework for assessment and planning to support multidisciplinary target setting for autistic children. That was written by allied health professionals, and it is fundamentally important that we recognise the link between health and education, which is another factor that we considered at the Education, Children and Young People Committee yesterday. We have also refreshed the autism toolbox, which provides school staff with professional advice and guidance on supporting the inclusion of autistic learners.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

The education committee recently heard from May Dunsmuir, the president of the health and education chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland, who highlighted the impact that masking is having on cases involving neurodivergent children. Will the cabinet secretary agree to work with Mr Whitfield and me, and with members of the education committee, to analyse the impact that masking is having on autistic and neurodivergent young people in schools and to look at how we can best support them?

Please be as brief as possible, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

I am happy to engage with the member on that issue. She should also recognise that the Government is committed to bringing forward legislation in that area. I think that the bill may offer some protection in relation to the issues that have been highlighted to the education committee.

School Transport Costs

7. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can provide to any local authorities that are struggling to meet the rising costs associated with providing school transport, so that children and young people can travel to school in a safe, efficient and affordable manner. (S6O-03238)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government is providing record funding of more than £14 billion to local authorities in 2024-25, including more than £600 million of additional revenue funding for day to day services, including the provision of free home-to-school transport for eligible children.

It is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their budgets and to allocate the total financial resources available to them on the basis of local needs and priorities. Decisions about the provision of home-to-school transport services rest with local authorities.

Monica Lennon

Notwithstanding the funding that the cabinet secretary has mentioned, and without giving away our exact ages, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 is older than me and the cabinet secretary and many people believe that the act’s minimum home-to-school provisions are no longer fit for purpose.

Changing legislation takes time, but my young Lanarkshire constituents and their families need action right now. I am pleased that Jim Fairlie, who has ministerial responsibility for buses, has agreed to meet locally with me and some of those families. Many children now face difficult walks of up to six miles a day between home and school, which is not fair on those children, so we need to find solutions. Will the cabinet secretary agree to take part in those talks?

Jenny Gilruth

I am more than happy to engage with the member on that substantive point, although I place on record the fact that the issue that she raises is fundamentally a matter for the relevant local authority, which I hope she recognises.

The member cites the age of the legislation, but it is important that local authorities are encouraged to engage on the issue of school transport with the communities that they serve.

There is a brief supplementary question.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I have been proud to stand with the local children, young people, parents and carers who have staged a brilliant campaign against South Lanarkshire Council’s unsafe and unworkable proposals to increase the qualifying criteria for school bus provision.

The Scottish Government is providing South Lanarkshire Council with record funding this year, although the legacy of Labour’s toxic private finance initiative continues, costing the council around £40 million every year.

With the school transport consultation now closing, will the cabinet secretary urge the Labour council in South Lanarkshire not to shirk its responsibilities, but to heed the concerns that communities have aired?

Jenny Gilruth

Although it is, as I said to Ms Lennon, ultimately up to the council to make local decisions on how best to deliver its services, Clare Haughey is absolutely right that South Lanarkshire Council is receiving record funding from the Scottish Government. That includes more than £752 million to fund local services, which equates to an extra £46.6 million or an additional 6.6 per cent compared with the 2023-24 budget, as well as the council’s share of the additional funding that the Deputy First Minister announced recently. There is, therefore, no financial reason for the council to take that unpopular decision. I am sure that people in South Lanarkshire will reflect on a Labour Party that is cutting front-line services and an SNP Government that is investing in communities.

Online Study (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what financial support is available to those in higher and further education who choose to study online. (S6O-03239)

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

Further education students who study through distance learning may be eligible for funds such as a tuition fee waiver if they receive certain benefits, are on a low income or have a disability, and they may be eligible to access support from discretionary funds. Eligible students can also access help with living costs in the form of education maintenance allowance and childcare support.

Higher education students who study through distance learning will typically be awarded tuition fee funding in the form of the part-time fee grant. Students may be eligible for discretionary funds and, if applicable, may apply for disabled students allowance.

Work is under way to review the financial support that is available as part of the wider reform work that is being undertaken.

Russell Findlay

A Renfrewshire constituent has turned his back on a corporate career to retrain as a Church of Scotland minister. The Scottish Government’s Student Awards Agency Scotland refuses to pay his fees or give him a loan because his full-time University of Aberdeen course is all online, yet he is doing exactly the same work as those who attend in person. Can the minister tell my constituent and others who are in that position why they are being unfairly penalised and what the SNP Government will do to close that loophole?

The member raises a specific case. I would be happy to engage with him further, and if he provides additional detail I will look into that with SAAS.

That concludes portfolio questions on education and skills. There will be a brief pause before we move on to the next item of business to allow those on the front benches to change positions.