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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 21, 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 questions on education and skills. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. I advise members that there is quite a bit of interest in supplementaries, so I make the usual appeal for brevity in questions and responses.

Summit on Tackling Violence in Schools

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the summit on tackling violence in schools. (S6O-02536)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

There are multiple strands to the behaviour in schools summit. In June, I convened the first meeting of the headteacher task force, which focused on issues surrounding school exclusion. On 5 September, I chaired a summit that focused on the recording and monitoring of incidents in schools—an area of concern that was raised during a parliamentary debate in May. The next two events are scheduled for October and November.

That approach enables engagement with a wide range of stakeholders so that we hear and learn from the broadest possible range of interests and experiences. It also allows for the key issues to be explored in depth and for the work to be informed by evidence from the behaviour in Scottish schools research, which will be published in November.

Annie Wells

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. I welcome the fact that the first part of the summit has been held. However, it should have happened before the Scottish schools returned.

During the debate that the cabinet secretary mentioned, the Scottish Conservatives also called for an action plan to tackle violence and disruption to be ready for the start of the new school year, a new standard reporting system, a plan to address the increasing issues with attendance, and new guidance for school staff. What work has been undertaken on those other key issues?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for her question. She raises a number of important points. First, however, I reiterate that the debate was held in May and I then convened the headteacher task force in June. The member will be aware that teachers are usually on holiday in July and August, so the earliest possible opportunity for me to reconvene the summit was the first week back in September. We will have further meetings in October and November.

I am really keen to work on a cross-party basis on the issue, recognising the support that I thought we heard across the chamber back in May.

The member made a point about attendance. I have been addressing that issue with Education Scotland directly and I receive fortnightly updates on national attendance. As the member might have heard during the debate in May, there are real challenges in relation to certain year groups. For example, the year groups that were going through a transition period during the pandemic are struggling, I think, with the return to formal education. There is more that we will need to do at a central Government level to help to support certain local authorities in tackling issues in relation to attendance. I recognise that.

I have made it clear that my priority is to use the summit process in its totality to identify solutions at the school, local and national levels to address the concerns that have been raised. We will use the insights that are provided through the summit process, but also—

Thank you, cabinet secretary.

—the behaviour in Scottish schools research, which will give us an accurate national picture in relation to—

Thank you. There is a lot of interest in asking supplementaries to this question. They will have to be very brief, as will the responses.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Preventative action is crucial in order to tackle this issue. I note that £2 million was provided to support prevention activity in 2022-23. Will the cabinet secretary outline what projects the Scottish Government is supporting to deliver that?

Jenny Gilruth

The member is right to highlight that investment. As she outlined, the Government is providing over £2 million to support really important preventative work. That includes a range of programmes across portfolio areas, including the education portfolio. The Education Scotland mentors in violence prevention programme helps young people to become part of the solution through peer education and by taking a bystander approach, supporting them to positively influence attitudes and behaviours of their peers.

The funding also enables Medics Against Violence to run a number of programmes, including its youth education programme, and it enables Police Scotland to deliver its youth volunteers programme to young people in Scotland’s communities.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

Under this Government, teachers are under more and more pressure, classrooms are like pressure cookers, class sizes have got bigger, and teachers have been left wondering when the commitment to increase their non-contact time will be delivered. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that fulfilling the promise on non-contact time is essential if we are to address the environment in the classroom, poor behaviour and violence in schools?

Jenny Gilruth

I have to say that the member paints a fairly depressing picture in relation to Scottish education. In Scotland, we have the lowest pupil teacher ratio and higher pay for teachers compared with anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It is also important to say that we have the highest spend per pupil of any part of the UK. We are investing in our education system.

I recognise the member’s call in relation to class contact. I wrote to her on that very issue before summer recess, and I will seek to give her a fuller update in the coming weeks.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The cabinet secretary did well to build consensus across the Parliament on the issue before summer, so I cannot understand why she has excluded members of the Scottish Parliament from attending some of the summits. I want to hear the unfiltered views of teachers and professionals about the issues that they face. I do not want to speak; I just want to listen, so that we can make the right decisions in the Parliament. I want to be properly connected with teachers. Will the cabinet secretary think again about allowing party spokespeople to attend the summits?

Jenny Gilruth

Mr Rennie has to recognise that, in the course of the summit, teachers will want to speak very openly but that they might be reticent about doing so if they think that that might be used for political ends. He has to understand that reality.

I am more than happy to meet MSPs from all parties on the issue, and I am more than happy to look again at how we can engage MSPs directly in the process. However, we need to be mindful that those professionals working in our education system might not feel comfortable speaking out in front of a group of politicians if they fear that that might be used in other ways—for example, in this chamber. I have been careful in building relationships across the education system over the past couple of months, and it is important that we build trust with the profession on the issue.

I will explore with my officials how we might be able to engage MSPs more directly in the work, recognising the sensitivities around those who work in our classrooms.

Learning Estate Investment Programme

To ask the Scottish Government when it will publish updated details of its learning estate investment programme. (S6O-02537)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I understand that local authorities are keen to get clarity on phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme. We wrote to local authorities to explain that consideration of potential phase 3 projects was still on-going.

It is important to recognise that we are making important investment decisions against a backdrop of market volatility on current projects, the need to keep Scottish finances on a sustainable trajectory and, more recently, as members will be aware, on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—prevalence in school buildings. Those are really big decisions and it is important that we get them right. I hope to announce successful projects as soon as possible.

Paul O’Kane

It feels a little like groundhog day each time we get an answer to this question. It is a year now since East Renfrewshire Council bid for two projects for replacements for Carolside primary school and Cross Arthurlie primary school. The schools are badly needed for the communities that they serve.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that issues with uncertainty around financing are causing real concern in local authorities, which are trying to undertake long-term capital and revenue planning? I appreciate that Highland colleagues will raise issues specific to their communities, but does she fear, as communities do, that councils might have to shelve other projects due to the uncertainty from the Government?

Jenny Gilruth

I have to say to the member that the uncertainty has been caused not by this Government but by a Government elsewhere, as he well knows. The decisions that have been taken by that Government are impacting on our ability to spend capital in Scotland. He must take cognisance of that. Indeed, that was raised at First Minister’s questions earlier today.

The issue around uncertainty more broadly is important. I am keen to go to local authorities as soon as possible with an update. The member will recognise that, in the interim, we have faced real challenges in relation to the Department for Education’s decision on RAAC in schools in England. That has meant that we now need to take a RAAC approach to how we administer the LEIP fund, and we are looking at how we might support local authorities to that end.

We are very clear, though, that we expect the Treasury to make further funds available across the United Kingdom to deal with the problems that are caused by RAAC across the public sector estate. I know that the Deputy First Minister has written to the Treasury on the issue, but we have not yet received a response. I have written to the Secretary of State for Education in England on three occasions, and we have yet to receive a response. I am keen to work with our local authorities—

Thank you, cabinet secretary. We have a lot of interest in this. I will move to supplementary questions.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The Scottish National Party Government has a strong track record in improving the school estate. However, there are still significant challenges facing teachers, staff and students in schools, such as Buckie high school in my constituency. When will we expect to hear an announcement on the LEIP phase 3 funding, which would build on that track record and could provide real support to address the challenges that have been mentioned.

Jenny Gilruth

As I alluded to in my response to Mr O’Kane, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement as soon as possible.

The other thing to remember is that the school estate does not belong to the Scottish Government; it belongs to our local authorities, which have the statutory responsibility for the provision of education at local level. Notwithstanding that, the Scottish Government has contributed to significant improvements across our school estate since 2007. I am absolutely committed to working with our local authority partners on how we can go further, recognising the very real financial constraints that the Government is currently under.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, Kirsty Flanagan, of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, told the Education, Children and Young People Committee that, even when the delayed funds are finally announced, local authorities will have to assess whether, in the current financial climate, they will be able to deliver what they had hoped to deliver last September. What is the Government doing to assess the impact on local councils and schools of its delayed funding announcements?

Jenny Gilruth

We will continue to work with local authority partners in recognition of the financial challenges that they face at the current time but, as Mr Kerr is aware, the disastrous economic mismanagement by the United Kingdom Government and the subsequent huge rise in inflation from Liz Truss’s mini-budget have had a real impact on the projects that had already been chosen in previous phases of LEIP. I remind the chamber that Tory MSPs urged this Government to follow that disastrous mini-budget.

We are currently giving very careful consideration to local authorities’ bids for phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme and, as I have already outlined today, I intend to update Parliament on that as soon as possible, because I recognise the concerns from local authorities.

John Swinney has a very brief supplementary question.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

I wonder whether the cabinet secretary believes that, in considering that question, Parliament has to be mindful of the fact that, when this Government came to office, our predecessors judged that it was acceptable for 63 per cent of schools to be in good or satisfactory condition. Despite austerity and all the public spending constraints, in excess of 90 per cent of Scottish schools are now in good or satisfactory condition. Does that not need to be recalled as we consider that important question?

Please answer as briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

Mr Swinney is absolutely correct to point out the significant investment from this Government. It is also important to remind the chamber that there are a total of 34 on-going Scottish private finance initiative contracts, and that the remaining payments on those contracts, which were awarded for all school PFI contracts, come to a total of £7.45 billion. The economic mismanagement by the previous Administration is still costing this Government, on top of the additionality that we will now be required to find for our investment in—and continued support for—improving our school estate.

Learning Disabilities, Autism and Neurodiversity (Support in Education)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports children within the education system that have learning disabilities, autism or neurodiversity. (S6O-02538)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential, including those with learning disabilities and neurodiverse children and young people. The additional support for learning legislation very clearly places education authorities under duties to identify, provide for and review the support needs of their pupils. We have developed a range of professional learning resources for school staff to better identify and support neurodiverse children and young people—for example, the autism toolbox and the addressing dyslexia toolkit.

Stuart McMillan

I welcome the proposals for a new learning disability, autism and neurodiversity bill, but it is important that the process of shaping it is also accessible for the communities that it concerns. What work is the Scottish Government undertaking to ensure that accessible engagement processes are in place and that lived experiences are both prioritised and heard?

Jenny Gilruth

Stuart McMillan is absolutely correct, and that is why we are taking a human rights-based approach to ensure that the bill is fully co-designed by the people with lived experience. We have also established three bill panels to support the development of consultation proposals, including a lived experience advisory panel, which advises on areas where change could have the greatest impact. We will also ensure that meetings and papers are accessible, including preparing easy-read versions of all meeting papers and providing bespoke support to panel members who have a learning disability. We will work with the panel and stakeholders to co-design a consultation process that is as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Martin Whitefield has a brief question.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Dyslexia is a condition that a significant number of our additional support needs-identified pupils suffer from. This Parliament has not had a debate in Government time on dyslexia since very early in its existence. Indeed, the most recent debate was a members’ business debate in session 5. Could we have a Government debate in its time on ASN provision, so that I can raise the case regarding dyslexia?

Jenny Gilruth

Martin Whitfield raises a hugely important matter—a third of our young people in mainstream settings now have an additional support need. I will speak to our Minister for Cabinet and Parliamentary Business about how we might secure Government time to debate that hugely important topic, which is crucial and fundamental to the inclusive education system that we have in Scotland.

Universities (Assessment and Marking Backlogs)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any assessment and marking backlogs at universities. (S6O-02539)

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

Following consultation with its membership, the University and College Union has withdrawn its marking and assessment boycott at universities across the United Kingdom, effective from 6 September, which is, of course, welcome. Now that the boycott has ended, universities are working to complete outstanding marking and assessments, so that affected students can get their final awards and degree classifications.

I thank students for their resilience during what has clearly been a difficult period. I also extend my thanks to all those people across the sector who have worked hard—and continue to do so—to minimise the impact on students.

Kaukab Stewart

My constituent Claire Shankie has been issued with a letter from the University of Edinburgh that confirms only that she has completed her degree; it does not include grading or a timescale for her final award. Like so many others, her life has been put on hold and she cannot plan for her future. Does the minister agree that that is a distressing situation for students, whose entire experience has been impacted by Covid and then strike action? What assurances can he provide that the situation can be resolved?

Graeme Dey

I empathise entirely with students such as Claire, who have been affected first by Covid and then by industrial action and who deserve to receive the rewards of their hard work.

The impact of the marking assessment boycott has varied across and, indeed, within institutions. Now that the boycott has been withdrawn, it is my expectation that Scottish universities with backlogs will work at pace to complete any outstanding marking assessments to provide affected students with their final awards and degree classifications.

I received a letter from the member just yesterday. I have asked my officials to pick up on that, and I will write to her on the University of Edinburgh’s progress with the marking backlog as soon as we have that information to hand.

School Estate Improvement (Highland Council)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with Highland Council to improve the school estate in the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency. (S6O-02540)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The £2 billion learning estate investment programme is being delivered in partnership with local authorities and will benefit tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland. Through phase 2 of the programme, we announced that Highland Council’s Broadford primary school project, which is in the member’s Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency, would receive Scottish Government-funded support. The school will deliver Gaelic medium and English education as well as community facilities for Broadford. It is being designed to Passivhaus standard, and construction is due to start next summer.

Kate Forbes

The cabinet secretary makes it clear that Highland Council is responsible for the school estate. It has applied for funding to replace the St Clements additional support needs school and two primary schools, in Dunvegan and Beauly, all of which are in a dire state of disrepair. Will the Scottish Government be able to advise the council whether it has been successful on LEIP phase 3 funding?

Jenny Gilruth

I very much recognise the member’s interest in LEIP phase 3 funding. We have heard other members raise that issue today, and I am keen to update Parliament as soon as possible on the matter.

As I have outlined, we have written to local authorities to explain that consideration for phase 3 projects is still on-going. It is important to recognise that we are trying to make significant investment decisions against a backdrop of market volatility on current projects, the need to keep Scottish finances on a sustainable trajectory and the additional challenge presented by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in school buildings.

However, I recognise the member’s interest in relation to her constituency. I know that other members across the Parliament will have similar interests. I seek to provide Parliament with an update as soon as possible, while recognising the financial challenge at the current time.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

We are now left with unsuitable and potentially unhealthy buildings, which will only be made habitable and not replaced with the new school buildings that are so desperately needed. While that make-do-and-mend approach from Scottish National Party ministers in Edinburgh and SNP Highland councillors in Inverness continues, when can teachers, parents and children in Dunvegan, Beauly and other parts of the Highlands expect to see the new schools that they were promised?

Jenny Gilruth

I have to say that, as we heard from Mr Swinney when the SNP first came to Government, about 60 per cent of our schools were in good or satisfactory condition. Today, that figure is more than 91 per cent. I think that that shows this Government’s good record on investment in our schools, particularly when the responsibility for our school buildings rests not with the Scottish Government but with local authorities.

Today, I have committed to Parliament to provide an update on the LEIP 3 projects. I hope that the member will welcome that and also the Government’s significant investment in improving our school estate.

Scottish Education Exchange Programme

To ask the Scottish Government what opportunities the development of a Scottish education exchange programme would present for young people in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley. (S6O-02541)

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

We are committed to addressing one of the most damaging consequences of Brexit for our young people—namely the fact that they cannot access the Erasmus+ programme.

This year, we have set up a test-and-learn project to re-establish some of those opportunities. In 2024-25, we will build on that initial project to develop a programme that provides opportunities for young people, including those in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley, prioritises placements for disadvantaged groups and further demonstrates our commitment to European Union and global partnerships with schools, colleges and universities throughout Scotland.

Willie Coffey

The knowledge education exchange programme forms a core part of our commitment to engage with further learning institutions in the EU. Does the minister agree that the best way—indeed, the only way—for Scotland’s young people to receive the full benefits of EU further education is for us to rejoin the European Union rather than to continue to reject it as Scottish Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are doing?

Graeme Dey

The member is absolutely right. The hard Brexit that both Labour and the Tories supported has robbed young people in Scotland of opportunities that previous generations were able to benefit from, including Erasmus. That is why we are committed to the education exchange programme, which will re-establish some of the opportunities that Erasmus provided that the United Kingdom’s replacement—the Turing scheme—does not. We are designing the programme in partnership with universities and colleges that have real expertise to offer. Instead of picking up the pieces of Brexit, would it not be much simpler for Scotland to play a full, positive and constructive role with our neighbours in Europe by rejoining the EU as an independent country?

Digital Education

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve digital education, in light of the increased prominence of artificial intelligence and cyber technology. (S6O-02542)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I am acutely aware of recent developments in artificial intelligence and cyber technology, and, in that context, the provision of high-quality digital education has never been more important.

In the programme for government, we have committed to developing a new digital strategy to help ensure that digital provision supports the wider aims of the education system. The £13 million that was allocated in the 2023-24 budget is the first step in delivering improvements in digital provision.

Clare Adamson

Earlier this year, I was privileged to visit the National Robotarium at Heriot-Watt University, last week, I attended the opening of the centre for data science and AI at the advanced research centre at the University of Glasgow, and this week, I hosted Census in the Parliament. The ambitions for Scotland's digital AI and robotics sectors at those centres are inspirational. What is the Scottish Government doing to foster a direct engagement between schools and centres of excellence to encourage diversity and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers?

Jenny Gilruth

The member raises an important point. She has outlined some examples of positive working, and I heard recently about the robotics centre from Liam Kerr, who I understand visited it earlier this week. We would certainly want to do more in relation to linking that opportunity with educational opportunities in school.

That engagement with employers and others to challenge existing inequalities, particularly in relation to access, is a theme of the STEM education and training strategy. There are 20 employer-led Developing the Young Workforce regional groups, which are well placed to make those connections as part of a wider ambition to create a highly skilled and competitive workforce.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

The SNP Government has failed to provide digital inclusion funding since 2020-21. As the SNP Government cuts council budgets year on year, how does the cabinet secretary expect local authorities to improve digital education without any support?

Jenny Gilruth

During the pandemic, we provided £25 million to local authorities, which supported the purchase of more than 72,000 devices and 14,000 internet connections for school children across Scotland. As I intimated in my response to Clare Adamson, we will introduce a digital strategy that will work with local authorities, many of which have practical challenges in relation to connectivity in their school estate, which looks different in different local authorities—I hope that the member would recognise that.

However, the important point to remember is that we have a generation of young people going through our education system who require to be upskilled digitally. That is why we launched the laptop scheme and made our commitment in relation to digital devices, and it is why we are introducing a digital strategy that will not only help those young people’s learning and skills but help to improve their learning and understanding as they move into the world of work and further education.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

In 2022, the number of people entering computing teaching training was half the target that the Government set. The STEM bursary scheme has clearly not succeeded in incentivising a career in computing teaching. Does the cabinet secretary accept that unless the Government tackles the chronic shortage of computing teachers, people will rightly question how serious it is about improving education in our schools?

Jenny Gilruth

Our new teacher bursary scheme provides bursaries of £20,000 for career changers who wish to undertake a one-year professional graduate diploma in education in hard-to-fill STEM subjects such as physics, maths and technical education—which includes computing science, I must say. National incentives are in place, too, to encourage teachers to relocate to more remote areas. For example, through the preference waiver payment, probationary teachers can receive up to £8,000 if they are willing to complete their probation anywhere in Scotland—I know that, because I undertook that myself many years ago.

The member is right to raise the challenge around certain subject areas. I raised those matters recently with the strategic board for teacher education in relation to how we can ensure that we have a teaching population that meets the needs of our young people. I have committed to work with the strategic board on that matter, and I will seek to update Parliament later this year in relation to that work.

National Allowance for Foster and Kinship Care

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of the national allowance for foster and kinship care. (S6O-02543)

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

Following discussions between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, it has been agreed that the Scottish Government will provide an additional £16 million of revenue to introduce a new Scottish recommended allowance for foster and kinship carers across Scotland, benefiting more than 9,000 families.

The Scottish recommended allowance will ensure that a consistent and transparent level of financial support is provided to all foster and kinship carers, helping them to provide the standard of living and wellbeing that the children and young people in their care deserve. This is another important step in our ambition to keep the Promise and ensure that all care-experienced children and young people grow up loved, safe and respected.

Roz McCall

I thank the minister and strongly welcome the news. The new national allowance, which was first promised in 2016, will make a significant difference to the daily lives of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in Scotland.

I thank the minister for writing to me on 8 September, stating that the £16 million has been found from the children and families directorate to fund the policy. Given that we are consistently told that, in order to spend money, we need to explain where it will be cut, can the minister tell me what the Scottish Government has cut to fund the policy?

Natalie Don

I am sure that the member will be aware of the complexities around the budget and that it is not quite as clear cut as that. If the member would like more information on that, I am happy to get back to her at a later date.

Colette Stevenson has a supplementary question. Please be very brief.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

The national allowance has been a significant step in Scotland’s journey towards achieving the Promise. Reflecting on the Promise implementation plan, what routes is the Scottish Government undertaking to ensure that the Promise is met?

Please be as brief as possible, minister.

Natalie Don

We are working with stakeholders across Scotland to ensure that we are driving forward the change that the Promise demands. To give just a few examples, we have set out our support for families through our whole family wellbeing fund; the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill is presently going through Parliament; and we are collaborating with care-experienced young people and adults on the support that they need as they move on from care settings.

Keeping the Promise requires a cross-portfolio and cross-policy response, and the work that we are doing is threaded through our recent programme for government. To guide that work, we are also creating a dedicated Promise sub-committee, which will link the cross-portfolio commitments and interdependencies.

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