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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 22, 2022


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The next item of business is portfolio question time. The portfolio is education and skills. I remind members that questions 1 and 2 are grouped together and that supplementaries on those questions will be taken when they are answered. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function.

Attainment Gap (Cowdenbeath)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on measures to close the educational attainment gap in schools in the Cowdenbeath constituency. (S6O-01364)

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

We are absolutely committed to substantially eliminating the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026, and are investing an increased £1 billion in the Scottish attainment challenge over the course of this parliamentary session to do that.

Schools in Fife are receiving more than £10.4 million in pupil equity funding in 2022-23, with allocations confirmed over four years. Fife Council will also receive a further £8.5 million strategic equity funding over four years. Those long-term commitments will support headteachers and local authorities to develop their short and longer-term plans to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

Additionally, Fife Council is receiving almost £700,000 in funding for care-experienced children and young people in 2022-23.

Annabelle Ewing

I welcome the significant investment that the Scottish Government is making in tackling the poverty-related education gap.

Could the cabinet secretary provide further information about the pupil equity funding that will be available to schools in my Cowdenbeath constituency? It would also be helpful if the cabinet secretary could indicate what assessment has been made of the significant role that that funding can play in closing the attainment gap, so that every pupil enjoys the same life chances wherever they live.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I can advise Annabelle Ewing that schools in Fife, including in her Cowdenbeath constituency, have had their PEF allocations confirmed for four years. That means that schools throughout Fife will receive almost £42 million over the next four years, which will help to support schools and headteachers, who know their pupils best, to invest in approaches to improve children’s literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing.

A new Education Scotland PEF resource has been published to support school leaders as they further develop their approaches to PEF. Such sharing of effective practice, including how some schools in Fife have invested their PEF, helps staff to reflect and build on the practice to help ensure that every young person in Scotland has an equal chance of success, including, importantly, the children and young people in the member’s constituency.

Attainment Gap

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what work has been done to close the attainment gap. (S6O-01365)

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

The impact of the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis means that accelerating progress to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap is as important as ever. That is why we are investing £1 billion this parliamentary session, up from last session’s £750 million. That includes the distribution of more than £520 million in pupil equity funding and more than £174 million to all 32 local authorities over the next four years, which will enable them to make longer-term plans.

Additionally, we provide local authorities with targeted funding for care-experienced children and young people.

Finally, we have introduced a requirement for local authorities to set ambitious local stretch aims by 30 September, to accelerate progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

Alexander Stewart

The statistics show that the attainment gap for pupils achieving A to C at national 5 and higher has widened in the past year, with the gap at higher level nearly double the 2021 figure. Given that the gap is getting wider, has the Scottish Government failed to tackle its supposed defining mission?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I would urge caution in comparisons with the 2021 and 2022 results because, as members will know, young people were assessed in an entirely different way in those years because of the pandemic. However, we have seen progress and positive signs in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. For example, since 2009-10, the proportion of school leavers attaining one pass or more at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 or higher has increased by 19.5 percentage points for the most deprived areas. That shows that progress has been made. However, we are aware that there is much more to do, which is exactly why we have been increasing investment in that area.

We have a number of supplementaries.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary has already cut vital attainment funding for the poorest communities in Scotland, but we know that another £43 million of cuts to the education portfolio are still to come. Can the cabinet secretary guarantee to Parliament today that attainment funding will not be cut as part of that project, especially for the poorest communities, which have suffered the brunt of the cuts that she made most recently?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member is well aware, the investment that comes from the Scottish attainment challenge funding, and particularly the part of it that is now going to the 32 local authorities, is a recognition of the fact that there is poverty in all parts of Scotland and that the impact of the pandemic is to be found throughout Scotland. It is very important that we recognise that and ensure that local authorities right across Scotland have the funds available to enable them to assist children and young people during this time.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

We know that poverty drives the attainment gap. I welcome the steps that are being taken by the Scottish Government that I hope will narrow the gap, including the game-changing Scottish child payment and the £1 billion in investment over this parliamentary session through the Scottish attainment challenge.

However, we need to see meaningful actions by the United Kingdom Government. Ahead of the fiscal event tomorrow, does the cabinet secretary agree that the Tories should take the opportunity to end child poverty instead of delivering tax cuts for the rich?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank the member for that very important question. We will do everything that we can within education—certainly our teachers and our local authorities are doing everything that they can—to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap but the best way to tackle it is to tackle poverty itself. That is exactly why we are investing in the Scottish child payment, for example.

The member is quite right to point to the fact that the Westminster welfare reforms have severely impacted on families right across Scotland. If the two-child limit, the removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit and the benefit freeze, among other policies, were to be reversed, it would put £780 million into the pockets of people in Scottish households and lift 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty next year. We are determined to do all that we can. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems intent on prioritising bankers’ bonuses rather than children.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Back to education. When I was on the Education, Children and Young People Committee, the cabinet secretary promised the committee that she would publish a statement of the plan and the expected outcomes for the £1 billion that has been spent during this parliamentary session. When will her statement on the plan, with its detail on those outcomes, be published, so that we can review it at a further meeting of the education committee, which I am looking forward to rejoining?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I welcome Stephen Kerr to his role as education spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives. I gently say to him that education is impacted by many things. It is impacted by poverty. It is impacted by his Tory Government down in Westminster. Not to see that would be a disservice to the education committee.

If Stephen Kerr had listened to my answer to Alexander Stewart, he would have heard that local authorities are set to give their local stretch aims to the Scottish Government by 30 September. The Scottish Government will analyse those aims and publish that analysis. I look forward to appearing before the education committee, should it wish me to do so, and taking further questions from Stephen Kerr at that point.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am intrigued by the very careful language of the education secretary. She now says that she is going to “substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap”. I have checked the Scottish National Party website, which is very clear that the party wants to “close” the poverty-related attainment gap.

The education secretary was pulled up by the First Minister before when she tried to slip away from the 2026 target for closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Is this another attempt to get around that very important target to help young people from our deprived communities?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The 2016-17 programme for government says that it

“is the defining mission of this Government to close the poverty-related attainment gap. We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this Parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.”

That is exactly what my answers refer to, and that is exactly what the policy of this Government remains.

Question 3 has not been lodged.

Student Accommodation Strategy

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress of its student accommodation strategy. (S6O-01367)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

The Scottish Government is committed to delivering a student accommodation strategy for Scotland that will be, in part, informed by a review of purpose-built student accommodation. The review will look at a number of issues, including supply and affordability.

The PBSA review research report has now been received and will be considered by a review group, with recommendations being submitted to ministers later this year.

Kaukab Stewart

The minister will be aware that a number of institutions, including the University of Glasgow in my Glasgow Kelvin constituency, find themselves unable to guarantee accommodation for students this academic year, and that that is a source of concern and anxiety for students and their families. Will the minister undertake to continue to work with institutions on the complex supply issues that they are facing, to ensure that next year’s intake does not face the same difficulties in securing appropriate accommodation?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes, I can give that commitment. I am aware of the challenges that some students going to the University of Glasgow have encountered. I should add that it is my understanding that all first-year undergraduates who applied for accommodation by the deadline that had been set by the university and who do not live within an hour’s commute have now been offered accommodation. I know that other students have thus far not been able to do so, and the university continues to work with them.

As I have laid out, we have a commitment to our student accommodation strategy for Scotland, and Kaukab Stewart and other members can be assured that we will work with Scotland’s universities and others with an interest in that to take it forward.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

I have been contacted by multiple constituents saying that they have been advised by the University of Glasgow to suspend or withdraw from their courses because, as they put it, “Glasgow is full” due to a significant contraction in the private rental market. The Fraser of Allander Institute warns that the situation will get worse following the announcement of rent control. Further to Kaukab Stewart’s question about next year, my question is: what will the minister do to help students now?

Jamie Hepburn

It is interesting to see the Tory mask slip in terms of their opposition to rent control—[Interruption.] Well, that is what I heard very clearly from Mr Gulhane.

Turning to the specific point of the question, I am aware of the issues. We have made commitments to work towards a student accommodation strategy, and that is exactly what we will do. The member can be assured that we will continue to work with universities and others on the matter. If Mr Gulhane wants to contact me directly about any specific concerns, I will of course be happy to respond.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Students have been venting their fury at the lack of accommodation, with the Government failing to take any meaningful action to support them. Following the written answer that the minister gave to me yesterday, does he agree that, under the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 and articles 27 and 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Scottish Government has a substantial additional responsibility to our young people who are under 18 and who attend university to ensure that they are safe, accommodated and supported? The evidence is that that is not happening. Indeed, as we have heard, universities are asking them to drop out of their courses.

Jamie Hepburn

Of course we have responsibilities in that regard, and I have set out the work that is under way. I do not know whether there is a suggestion that this should alter, but I observe that the Scottish Government is not directly involved in the provision of housing for students. However, we recognise that we have responsibilities along the lines that Mr Whitfield has laid out, and that recognition will be at the heart of the strategy that we take forward.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

As other members have highlighted, the serious lack of accommodation for students has been well reported. Island students have also been experiencing problems, just like their peers on the mainland. I was actually aghast to hear the short-sighted suggestion that students should suspend or defer their studies. Will the Government’s student accommodation strategy include plans to guarantee students from Scotland’s islands accommodation at their chosen place of study, and will it also recognise that accommodation is required at the University of the Highlands and Islands Shetland for those studying there?

Jamie Hepburn

I understand the concerns that Ms Wishart raises, but I go back to the point that, thus far, there is no direct role for the Scottish Government in the provision of accommodation. However, I take her points seriously and, as we take forward the strategy, we can consider that as a particular matter for further reflection.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister is only too happy to take the credit when things go right, but he is absent when things go wrong.

There has been a dramatic impact on students at the University of St Andrews, as well. The minister knew that that was coming. We knew that there would be an uptick in student numbers as a result of Covid and that there would be consequences from the housing legislation, whether we supported it or not. However, the minister sat idly by and did nothing. What is the practical plan to make a change now and for next year, because the problem is not going away any time soon?

Jamie Hepburn

Mr Rennie is frequently happy to deride me when I am, apparently, trying to take the credit for the successes of the Administration, but I will not linger on that point.

As I have laid out, we have plans to take forward a strategy. We have already taken on board the purpose-built student accommodation research report, which will be considered further. We will consider those issues as part of the strategy that we will take forward. I understand the current stresses in the housing market. There is a degree to which we are seeking to work through those issues in our wider housing policy, for example, by tackling short-term lets to make sure that there is increased supply in the private sector. Fundamentally, however, we will look to tackle the issues and improve on the current situation through the strategy that we take forward.

Question 5 has not been lodged and question 6 has been withdrawn.

Child Protection Policies

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with local authorities regarding child protection policies in schools. (S6O-01370)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

All children in Scotland should grow up feeling safe, loved and respected. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that robust child protection measures are in place across Scotland. Last year, we published updated national guidance for child protection. The Scottish Government engages regularly with local authorities on the implementation of consistent good practice on that critical issue. The national guidance implementation group was set up last September to lead on that activity. Education Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland are both represented in that group.

Liz Smith

I am sure that the minister is aware of the article in the Perthshire edition of The Courier on 5 September that reported a high absence rate among child protection committee members. The committee encompasses Perth and Kinross Council and NHS Tayside staff. Over two years, there were 148 apologies, with three members of the committee missing on 12, 11 and nine occasions respectively. What action will the Scottish Government take to impress on local authorities and health boards the importance of people turning up to such meetings, particularly at a time when we have so many vulnerable children who are desperate for our assistance?

Clare Haughey

Liz Smith raises an important point. Child protection and child safeguarding are everyone’s business, whether they are in education or health. I will certainly have my officials look into that and will come back to her in writing.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

How can the Scottish Government be assured that the new national guidance for child protection is being implemented in schools? How is the Scottish Government ensuring that there is oversight of private music or dance lessons in schools and other settings?

Clare Haughey

Local authority schools, grant-aided special schools and independent schools were instructed to review and update their procedures in line with the 2021 national guidance. The national child protection guidance implementation group was established to support that implementation. A monitoring and evaluation sub-group is developing an approach to monitoring the extent and quality of guidance implementation. The multi-agency sub-group includes education.

On private music or dance lessons in schools, the 2021 national guidance describes the responsibilities and expectations of everyone who works with children and young people and their families in Scotland. It makes clear that those who are responsible for the organisation of activities, whether those are regulated or otherwise, must ensure that safeguarding is integral to the recruitment, training and oversight of staff and volunteers, and that children know how and with whom they can voice their questions and concerns.

Pupils with a Disability (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to support pupils with a declared or assessed disability at school. (S6O-01371)

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

We are committed to ensuring that all children and young people get the additional support that they need to reach their full learning potential, including those who have disabilities. In October 2020, we published our joint response to the independently chaired review of the implementation of additional support for learning. The action plan sets out the measures that we will take to implement the recommendations. We will publish an updated action plan in autumn 2022. Further, under the Equality Act 2010, responsible bodies—including local authorities—have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils and to provide auxiliary aids and services.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer, but the stats show that, in the past five years, there has been no noticeable improvement in the attainment gap between declared and assessed disabled children and those who are non-declared and assessed, particularly at national 5 and higher levels. Therefore, the policy is simply not working. Will the Scottish Government’s approach change to allow disabled pupils to do better in school and, if so, when will that change be implemented?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Jeremy Balfour for raising this important issue. I think that the updated action plan that I mentioned contains the measures that are required to ensure that our education system works effectively for all children and young people. I would of course be happy to have further discussions with Mr Balfour following on from today should he wish to raise particular issues that he does not think were in the previous action plan or that he thinks should be in the updated action plan. I would be happy to receive correspondence from him on that issue should he wish to write to me on that.

We end where we started: with Annabelle Ewing, who has a supplementary.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

Support for pupils with a disability in schools is certainly an issue that has been raised by my Cowdenbeath constituents over the years, and it seems to me that much anguish could be avoided if there were more early and direct engagement on the part of the school with the pupil and their family. What could the cabinet secretary do to help to ensure that such engagement happens in schools in my Cowdenbeath constituency and, indeed, across Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I certainly agree with the context that Annabelle Ewing has described. It is incredibly important that not only schools but everybody who is involved in the life of a child or young person has very close discussions with them directly and with their family at the earliest opportunity. It is also important that continued support is provided to the family even before diagnosis is given. That period can be very difficult for families, but it does not necessarily need to be as difficult as it is for many families. I am sure that Ms Ewing has had those types of issues in her mailbag from constituents. I certainly think that there is a role in the matter not only for education but for wider Government and local agencies, which can also play a part.

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