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Meeting date: Thursday, May 12, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Striking University Staff, Portfolio Question Time, Cladding Remediation, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Appointments to Scottish Fiscal Commission, Business Motion, Decision Time, International Nurses Day


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Education and Skills

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.


Gender-based Harassment

To ask the Scottish Government what additional action it plans to take to tackle gender-based harassment in schools, in light of its response to the report “Misogyny—A Human Rights Issue”. (S6O-01070)

A range of actions is being taken to address gender-based violence and harassment in schools. Alongside relationship and sex education, there are a number of targeted programmes to support positive behaviour and relationships. Those include mentors in violence prevention, to tackle gender stereotyping and attitudes that condone violence against women and girls; Equally Safe at School, to tackle gender-based violence; and Fearless, to educate and support pupils in speaking up about crime. The gender-based violence in schools working group is developing a national framework to ensure consistent messaging on gender-based harassment for everyone who works with young people.

The Scottish Government will be aware that organisations such as Girlguiding Scotland and Zero Tolerance have called for the introduction of more specific gender equality and consent-based sex and relationships studies as part of curriculum for excellence. What progress has the Scottish Government made in addressing those calls for preventative measures? If such implementation is to go ahead, what support and resources can the Scottish Government offer to schools and local authorities in the meantime, to ensure that teachers are confident in dealing with complaints or reports of sexual harassment in their schools?

In addition, it was not clear from the original answer what measures are being taken by the Government, in addition to those that the cabinet secretary has just described, in response to the report “Misogyny—A Human Rights Issue”.

I thank Fiona Hyslop for raising what is a very important issue, and I am grateful to the organisations that she mentioned for engaging with the Scottish Government.

Obviously, the Government wants all children and young people to develop mutually respectful, responsible and confident relationships. We are committed to ensuring that all children and young people receive high-quality relationships, sexual health and parenthood education, so that pupils learn about safe and healthy relationships. Shortly, we will bring forward a consultation on revised RSHP teaching guidance, which will provide a focus on learning and teaching about gender equality and consent.

In the meantime, and alongside the initiatives that have been mentioned, Education Scotland’s national improvement hub contains resources to support professionals. As part of our shared policy programme with the Scottish Green Party, we are also committed to exploring what further actions are required beyond those that are already planned. That includes providing guidance for schools.

On 16 December 2021, I raised this matter with the First Minister, and she confirmed that she would look into local authorities’ responsibility for the wi-fi in schools, over which much of the bullying and misogynistic attacks take place. Will the cabinet secretary follow up on that to find out the Government’s current position on that responsibility?

In the past, we have said clearly that online bullying should not be treated any differently from face-to-face bullying. It is the responsibility of local authorities—rather than that of the national Government—to address the use of wi-fi in their schools. However, the Scottish Government is certainly keen to work with local government and the organisations that I spoke about to see what more needs to be done to tackle all types of harassment in schools—in particular, sexual harassment bullying. We are determined to work with local authorities and other partners on that, both online and offline.


Race Equality and Anti-Racism in Education

To ask the Scottish Government what the expected timetable is for the race equality and anti-racism in education programme to report. (S6O-01071)

The Scottish Government is fully committed to addressing the issues that continue to perpetuate racism in schools. The race equality and anti-racism in education programme’s ambition is to create real, tangible and lasting change, rather than to issue one single report. Effecting systemic change takes time and, as such, working in partnership with stakeholders on the development and delivery of the programme is a long-term commitment.

As part of that process, we are working with stakeholders to develop a shared vision and a set of actions, with realistic timescales and milestones attached. Those will be key to providing a clear idea of when the ambitions can be met. Subject to stakeholder agreement, we expect that the programme will be published this summer and will be underpinned by an evaluation framework for the REAREP, which is also being developed in partnership with stakeholders.

The programme that the Scottish Government has set up is important, and I applaud the work that has been done so far. However, we cannot afford to miss the opportunity to ensure that the curriculum itself is inclusive and representative. Will the cabinet secretary reassure me that curriculum reform will be given equal weight to other considerations?

I absolutely confirm that curriculum reform is one of the four key areas that the REAREP is looking at and will act on. There has been progress to date, and, as I said, we will publish more information about the programme in the summer, if stakeholders agree.

We are already seeing some examples. For instance, Education Scotland has begun to roll out the building racial literacy programme, and the national race diversity lead has been appointed by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. In addition, Education Scotland is developing a whole-school resource for practitioners, “Promoting Race Equality and Anti-racist Education”.

I confirm that reform of the curriculum is a key strand of the work, which we will publish details of in the summer.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in recognising the work of local authorities such as Glasgow City Council, which has passed a motion to support decolonisation of the curriculum and has produced a modern studies guide for its schools?

Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on how the Scottish Government is supporting all local authorities to ensure that Scotland’s colonial history is acknowledged and reflected in the curriculum?

I commend local authorities—including Glasgow City Council, as recognised by Kaukab Stewart—for the work that they are already doing to prioritise anti-racism education. We are drawing on such good ideas and on the good practice that is emerging in different parts of Scotland as part of the race equality and anti-racism in education programme. As I mentioned to Foysol Choudhury, the programme includes curriculum reform workstreams, which involve reviewing the curriculum for excellence framework. That is an important piece of work, and I commend Glasgow City Council and other local authorities for being so proactive in their work on the issue.


Circular Economy

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the education secretary has had with the circular economy minister regarding progress to enhance education and skills for a circular economy. (S6O-01072)

I last met the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity on Wednesday 4 May to discuss the role of the tertiary sector in promoting and supporting the development of, among other things, the skills that are required for the circular economy.

The Scottish Government promised to recruit circular economy teaching champions. As of 2020, fewer than 100 out of a total of 24,000 secondary teachers were involved. Does the minister accept that, after eight years, that progress is not good enough? What steps are being taken to train more circular economy teaching champions?

What the member has laid out is progress, but we would like to see more. I absolutely recognise the need to ensure that young people are equipped with the necessary understanding of the world around them and, in relation to my area of activity, a deep understanding of the skills that they will require in order to take advantage of the opportunities that will exist through the circular economy.

The work that the member mentioned will continue, and I recognise that we need to do more in that regard. If the member wants to write to me, I would be happy to get back to him with further details.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.


Subject Choice (Secondary Schools)

 

5.

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to increase subject choice for secondary pupils. (S6O-01074)

Young people should be able to access a range of pathways that meet their needs, abilities and aspirations. Schools and local authorities are encouraged and supported to consider innovative ways to ensure that a wide choice of courses is available to their learners. It is for them, working together with partners, to plan course choices in their areas.

That is all very well and good, but I would like to know what the cabinet secretary has to say to my constituent who wrote this:

“As a parent of an S3 who is picking her options for next year, I am very concerned at this narrowing of the curriculum and education generally at such a young age. We have relatives in England of the same age as my daughter and they will be sitting ten exams next year. It just doesn’t compare and surely leaves our children here in Scotland lacking a wide and rounded education and massively disadvantaged against their peers in other parts of the UK and, indeed other parts of Scotland where children still get to sit at least eight subjects at Nat 5 level.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that there should be a minimum number of subjects offered to all pupils in Scotland?

One of the important issues that was raised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, quite rightly, was the importance of having a discussion about the breadth and depth of education within different years of the high school setting.

Oliver Mundell might think that the recommended approach is that a young person should sit 10 exams, and that that is the good practice that we should be aiming for. However, I again point to the OECD’s recommendation that Scotland should have a discussion about ensuring that children and young people have a broad and deep education, and that we need to get that balance correct.

Quite rightly, it is up to schools and local authorities to ensure that they design curriculums that are right for them, right for the children and young people and right for the communities that they are there to serve.

We should have that national discussion, but it is important that we leave it to local authorities to make final decisions that are right for the children and young people they know best.

The cabinet secretary knows that members are greatly concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum in terms of the qualifications of young people and the experiences that young people seek.

In relation to the broad experience of senior phase pupils, I was greatly concerned by reports this week relating to the Scottish Government shelving plans for a replacement for the Erasmus scheme. In Wales, the replacement model is reaching out, in particular, to young people in the later years of schools who have missed out on experiences in the past couple of years. Can the cabinet secretary confirm when we will see plans for a replacement scheme in Scotland?

As has been made clear on many occasions by the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, who is right beside me, we are discussing the scheme with stakeholders. It is important that we have those discussions in depth in order to ensure that we make decisions that are appropriate.

Clearly, we are in a situation that we deeply regret. It is one that, had Scotland not been forced out of the European Union and forced to deal with Brexit, we would never have got ourselves into.

The cabinet secretary still cannot explain why, last year, Wales was able to put in place a replacement scheme with a £65 million fund. Many students from Wales and from other countries are able to benefit from that scheme right now. However, Scotland, under the Scottish National Party, has been unable to move an inch. When will we get a replacement for Erasmus? If Wales has done it, surely Scotland can.

The Scottish Government has looked carefully at what has been introduced in Wales, as Mr Rennie would expect us to. That is part of our discussions with stakeholders, and we will, of course, make announcements on a replacement scheme in due course.


Fair Work Conditions (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether industrial relations in the college sector could be improved by applying fair work conditions to funding provided via the Scottish Funding Council. (S6O-01075)

I expect the Scottish Funding Council to continue its progress in adopting the guidance set out in “Fair Work First”, both as an employer and through attaching fair work first criteria to its grants, procurements and other funding.

Dundee and Angus College staff and others have been in touch with me about management delaying negotiations and causing additional strike action and disruption to students by refusing to meet for over one and a half weeks. There are concerns that that is an attempt to wear the unions down and anger at the disproportionate bloating of management and rising management pay compared with that of lecturers. If principals’ pay had increased in line with lecturers’ pay, it would be around £90,000 a year rather than £164,000 a year. Does the minister agree that it is unacceptable for college management to delay talks to grind the unions down, which has resulted in another week or more of strikes and disruption? Will he instruct college management to get back around the table until a fair pay deal is reached? Should we limit the pay rises of management to ensure that staff and student support services do not suffer?

On the fundamental point of the question, which is ensuring that both parties are at the table, I have emphasised that previously, publicly in the chamber and directly with College Employers Scotland and Colleges Scotland. I have no hesitation in saying to them and, indeed, to the unions that I want to see them around the table negotiating in a timeous fashion and, I hope, being able to resolve the issue together.

Maggie Chapman is right, of course. The people who suffer most in the situation are the students, who are having their studies, assessments and final tests massively disrupted. That creates huge uncertainty for them and about their futures. However, it does not help that the college sector in Scotland has had a core budget cut from the Scottish National Party at the very moment when that sector should be at the heart of a Scottish economic transformation. How many jobs in the college sector will be lost because of that SNP cut?

What Mr Kerr omitted to say, of course, is that the Scottish Government is dealing with a 5.2 per cent real-terms reduction in funding as a consequence of United Kingdom Government decisions. I do not know whether he deliberately omitted that fact or neglected to say it—perhaps he has forgotten that. The decisions that we have taken this year have not only been about maintenance of the core college sector resource. There has been an additional £10 million through the young person’s guarantee, an increase of £41 million in capital funding, and £5 million capital funding for digital poverty, for example. We are stepping up and supporting the sector and students.


Neurodiversity (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made with regard to supporting pupils with neurodiverse conditions. (S6O-01076)

We are committed to ensuring that children and young people, including those with neurodiverse conditions, get the support that is needed to reach their full potential. Last year, we published our updated additional support for learning action plan and progress report, to deliver the Morgan review recommendations. We will publish a further update in the autumn. We also published last year our progress report on the autism in schools action plan. The majority of actions are complete, but we acknowledge that there is more to do to improve the support offered to neurodiverse learners. We continue to engage with partners to take that forward.

I have met people who feel that there is gatekeeping to help and support and a lack of understanding of neurodiverse conditions. Either a behaviour issue or an educational issue must be noted before support is offered. However, many neurodiverse people can pass or even thrive in academic and social situations due to masking. That can have a profound impact on many aspects of their lives. Can the Scottish Government give assurances that the many aspects of neurodiverse conditions, such as eating disorders, chronic pain, anxiety, depression and vulnerability to manipulation and bullying, will be given the focus that they deserve?

I can absolutely reassure Karen Adam that, in education, a formal diagnosis is not required for a child or young person to receive support with their learning. If a child or young person needs additional support for any reason, including the circumstances that have been mentioned, the education authority has a duty to identify, provide for and review that support.

I am aware of the issue of the masking of autism symptoms, particularly by young girls, and I would be happy to meet Karen Adam to discuss that if she wishes to go into it in further detail.

The mental wellbeing of pupils with neurodiverse conditions should be of paramount importance. How does the Scottish Government support that in the classroom setting and—this is important—in extracurricular activities to ensure that our schools are as inclusive as they can be and that they provide much-needed support and opportunity?

The member raises a very important point about support in the school setting and for extracurricular activities. I spoke in my original answer about the autism in school action plan, and there is also an autism toolbox, which is a free online resource that has been developed and is being hosted by Education Scotland to support the inclusion of autistic learners. If there are particular circumstances or particular constituency issues that the member has in mind, I would be happy to receive further details of those in writing.


Closing the Attainment Gap

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what progress it has made in closing the attainment gap among school pupils. (S6O-01077)

Closing the poverty-related attainment gap remains a key focus of the Scottish Government and speaks to our wider mission to reduce child poverty. Over the course of the previous parliamentary session, there was demonstrable progress on a number of long-term measures to close the poverty-related attainment gap, with pre-pandemic attainment gaps in literacy and numeracy in primary schools narrowing.

Covid-19 has made our ambition of achieving equity in education more difficult, but our increased investment of £1 billion in the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge programme is empowering local authorities, headteachers and teachers to identify evidence-based approaches that are right for the children and young people in their schools, to tackle the attainment gap.

The attainment gap remains stark—it is at its highest level since 2017—and, despite the First Minister’s ambitious rhetoric, it is frustrating that evidence continues to point to education not being this Government’s number 1 priority. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, following years of damaging cuts to local government funding, councils and schools have one arm tied behind their back as they work to close the attainment gap?

I again point to the £1 billion-worth of expenditure on the Scottish attainment challenge, in addition to the local government settlement. I also point out the 3,500 additional teachers that the Scottish Government will fund. We already have 2,000 more teachers than we did pre-pandemic.

The Government has taken and will continue to take action to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. We were making progress before the pandemic, and I am sure that we will see more progress with the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge funding, including the more than £500 million that is going directly to our headteachers, who have been empowered through our system.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, since the Scottish National Party Government formed, in 2007, Scotland has the highest pound-per-pupil spend in the United Kingdom and that attainment and the number of pupils who go on to positive destinations have improved? The figures for East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire, both in my constituency, are 95.7 and 98.4 per cent respectively. Does the cabinet secretary also agree that that is down to the SNP Government’s funding to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap, to give it its full title, and empower schools and teachers, who know their pupils best? That is in sharp contrast to the UK Government’s colossal failure of a tutoring scheme. It is clear that only the SNP can be trusted to give children the best opportunities that we can against a backdrop of continuing Tory austerity and the spiralling chaos of the cost of living crisis.

[Interruption.] Mr Kerr may not like that—he comments from a sedentary position. He probably did not like the results of last week’s local government elections, which proved that the Scottish people have once again put their trust in the Scottish National Party at national and local level, because they see the action that is being taken on the issue.

Elena Whitham is right to point to our work across Government to tackle child poverty and the cost of the school day. That includes the extension of free school meals and the Scottish attainment challenge, which I mentioned in my original answer. It is important that the Government has taken and will continue to take action on the issue.

That concludes portfolio question time.