Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:10 pm on 6th March 2003.

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1. Mr John Swinney (North Tayside) (SNP): To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Scottish Executive's Cabinet. (S1F-2554)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

First of all, I welcome Winnie Ewing back to the Parliament for question time. She has been missed and we have all been thinking about her. [ Applause. ] I say to her that my invitation to her to visit Bute House before she finishes is still on.

Next week's Cabinet will discuss matters of importance.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I will be happy to extend the invitation to Dr Ewing to Bute House as well.

In 1999, the First Minister promised the people of Scotland that 80 per cent of children would

"reach the appropriate standard in reading ... by the time they leave primary school" and that that target would be delivered within four years. This week, it was revealed that only 41 per cent of children in their final year of primary school had reached that standard. On 14 January, the First Minister said:

"I don't make promises I can't keep".

How can he reconcile that statement with his broken promise to the pupils and parents of Scotland?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

This is becoming a bit like "Groundhog Day". Yet again, we have statistics from Mr Swinney that are totally distorted. The statistic that he quotes is one of a large number of a mixture of good and bad statistics in a report about 2001 relating to children who started their education in Scottish primary schools—indeed, some even in Scottish secondary schools—before the Parliament was created. By using statistics in that way, he distorts the facts about the hard work that is going on in Scottish primary schools and the various initiatives to improve reading, writing, listening, mathematics and arithmetic that make a real difference week in, week out in Scottish schools. Real improvements are taking place. Mr Swinney refuses to recognise that. He uses selective statistics in the Parliament week after week. In doing so today, he has done a disservice to Scottish teachers, just as last week he did to doctors and nurses.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The First Minister sounds rattled. Members should bear in mind the fact that he was the Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs at the time that the statistics relate to. I am talking about a promise that the Labour Government made in 1999 to ensure that 80 per cent of children reached a certain standard within four years. If its promises were not worth making four years ago, how on earth can we believe what the First Minister will say in the weeks to come?

Let us move on from reading to writing. The First Minister made a promise:

"80% of children to reach the appropriate standard in ... writing ... by the time they leave primary school."

However, the real figure is only 57 per cent in the final year of primary school. How can the First Minister reconcile saying

"I don't make promises I can't keep" with his appalling record in improving the education system?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

When Mr Swinney does not listen to the first answer, it is hard to respond to his pre-prepared second question. It is, of course, possible to come along week after week and quote selective statistics. It is also possible to do something about our education system, to take the right actions and to ensure that standards in our schools improve.

We said that we would improve standards in our schools in those basic necessities and that is exactly what we are doing. The fact that the statistics for 2001 do not show the results of that is patently obvious. Of course, if the statistics and performance in Scotland's schools are going to improve, that will take longer than two years for children who were already in school long before the Parliament was created.

Mr Swinney and Mr Russell did exactly the same thing a couple of months ago when the last set of education statistics came out. Those members were absolutely wrong. In reading, writing and mathematics, school results in Scotland had dramatically improved in secondary 2. We went from a percentage in the mid-40s in each of those categories to one in the 50s, which was a substantial improvement. That matters to each and every child whose education is improved. Mr Swinney should recognise that improvement, congratulate the teachers who have achieved it and support the parents of pupils who want it to happen.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I get accused week after week of using selective statistics, yet the statistics that I use week after week are those of the present, discredited Executive. The report to which the First Minister referred says that, between 1998 and 2001, average performance in primary 7 reading dropped 10 per cent at level D. Performance went down during the first two years of the Administration. If the First Minister wants to do something about that, how about cutting class sizes in primaries 1, 2 and 3 and giving the kids a break? Is it not time that the First Minister started getting some good ideas from our side of the chamber before we get to his side and start implementing them?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Cutting class sizes is exactly what we did between 1999 and 2001, which is exactly why performance has been improving ever since. Every survey, every anecdote, every piece of evidence and every school visit that I undertake in Scotland shows that, where class sizes have been cut in primaries 1, 2 and 3, that has made a difference. That and the early-intervention programme have been boosting the opportunities to learn and the chances of children in our most deprived communities. When we go on and reduce class sizes in S1 and S2—in the early years of secondary school—that will do exactly the same thing again. The priority now for schools in Scotland is to improve attainment in the early years of secondary school when results drop off, when ambition declines and when children start to fail, and to give those children the chance that they deserve.