Ambitious, Excellent Schools

Question Time — Scottish Executive — Education and Young People, Tourism, Culture and Sport – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 23rd February 2006.

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Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 2:15 pm, 23rd February 2006

To ask the Scottish Executive what progress has been made on the implementation of its ambitious, excellent schools agenda. (S2O-9036)

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

We have completed 39 of the 69 commitments in "Ambitious, Excellent Schools" and we are well on the way to achieving the rest.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I welcome the progress that has been made on this. I am sure that the minister will agree that one of the aims of the ambitious, excellent schools agenda is to provide greater choice and opportunity for pupils. The report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education entitled "Improving Scottish education", which was published this week, shows that Scotland is providing a high quality of education for most of Scotland's children. It also highlights several areas of concern. In particular, the overall level of attainment in secondary 1 to S4 is unsatisfactory. In terms of the ambitious, excellent schools agenda, what further measures does the Executive intend to take to improve the transition between primary and secondary education and to improve the overall level of attainment in the lower years of secondary schools?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Iain Smith makes a wide range of points. He is right to draw attention to the fact that the HMIE report that was published this week—which is the most comprehensive report that we have seen of our entire education system—is positive about the ability of the Scottish education system to deliver. It reports clearly the success and strength of the Scottish education system. However, he is also right to say that the report also points out some of the concerns that we ourselves have pointed out. The report confirms the areas that we have identified as requiring attention, and that is where the ambitious, excellent schools agenda comes from.

Part of that is about widening choice and opportunity for young people. We are considering, for example, new vocational courses and skills-for-work courses in our schools. We have changed the age-and-stage regulations to give more freedom of choice to teachers and pupils about what to study, when to study it, what exams to sit and when to sit them. A range of changes are taking place, but we need to do more, as Iain Smith has said, to plan transitions from primary to secondary education. That is one of the reasons why we have changed the rules to allow primary teachers to move into secondary education. That is also why we are in the midst of a major curriculum review that is looking particularly at S1 to S3, in which years we know that too many young people are disengaging. We want to find the excitement and pace in learning that they require to remain engaged.

We are making progress, but we will redouble our efforts in the light of the HMIE report, which confirms that our direction of travel is the right one.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

Highland Council states that it has been given one third of the funding that is needed to implement the McCrone settlement and that, if it cannot cut back primary education, it will be faced with cutting back advanced higher classes. Pupils in one Inverness secondary school are already being told that the only advanced highers that will be on offer next year will be in Gaelic and maths. Can the minister confirm what statutory obligations councils and schools have to offer the advanced higher and how these cuts will affect pupils from the Highland region in their career and university choices in the future?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I will address the point about statutory obligations first. As Scottish education is structured, in relation to the curriculum, there is no statutory requirement to provide specific courses. Curriculum guidance is given, but it is very much down to local authorities and schools to tailor their curriculum to suit their particular group of young people.

It is regrettable that Mary Scanlon uses the word "cuts" in this regard. We are actually putting more money into teaching than ever before. Huge additional resources are going into education. We exempted teacher costs from the efficiency targets that have been given to local authorities, and an extra £60 million has just been allocated to bring extra teachers into the system, not to reduce their number. In Highland, we are allocating more than £2.6 million over the coming two years to do that. In addition, there will be more than 100 probationer teachers in Highland this year, and there will be more next year.

I have here a letter from the director of education of Highland Council. I do not know whether Mary Scanlon has been able to read it yet. I will quote from it, as it clarifies the position in the Highland Council area. The director of education says that

"there is an ability in the vast majority of schools for the 22.5 hour entitlement"— which was part of the McCrone settlement—

"to be absorbed within the current staffing entitlements."

Most secondary schools in the Highland area are already meeting the requirements and do not need the extra resource to do so.

The letter goes on to say that pupils should still be being asked

"to list those courses that they feel are required" and that

"final decisions on the timetable will not be made until after the Easter Holiday period."

That is some weeks away. I quote further. The letter says:

"it is very unfortunate that pupils and parents have been given the impression that there are to be significant cuts in curriculum options across all Highland schools when in fact it is clear that this is not the case."

The director of education then asks his head teachers—and I ask the chamber—to

"be very careful not to set any premature worries in the minds of pupils and parents" about these matters. I ask Mary Scanlon to follow that advice.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

I appreciate the minister's answer to Mary Scanlon, as my worries were in the same direction. The minister may recall the conversation that we had yesterday on this subject.

Is the minister aware that the former sixth year studies, now advanced highers, have always been under pressure because of the small numbers of pupils involved? Could I ask the minister to look into how schools in the Highland area in particular, but also in other rural and even city areas, might combine and amalgamate, possibly delivering classes and lectures via their intranet services? As a former SYS teacher, I know the pressures that schools are under to deliver courses.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Maureen Macmillan happens to be a former, and very distinguished, teacher at Millburn academy, and she made a big contribution to that school's success over the years. She understands intimately the nature of the changing size of the school population and the changing interests of pupils, as well as the pressure that that puts on very small course numbers at the top end of the school.

Maureen Macmillan makes at least two other good points. In the letter from which I have just quoted, the council's director of education, culture and sport discusses the opportunities for schools in the Inverness area in particular to work collaboratively to provide more, not fewer, opportunities for young people. He also mentions the SCHOLAR programme and the interactive learning being provided at a distance. For many schools in the Highlands and Islands, the Borders and other areas, that provides the only way to provide some courses at the level concerned.

There is a range of ways in which schools can hope to accommodate their pupils' needs—it is about trying to widen opportunities and to accommodate pupils' needs and desires. That is why we are investing a huge amount of additional resources in extra teachers throughout the school system.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware that the withdrawal of advanced highers from pupils in Inverness is a direct response to the failure to support the class contact time reduction that was agreed nationally under the McCrone settlement? Is he aware that, in the same letter from which he has quoted, the explanation of the difficulty with class contact reduction is that

"the allocation of additional resources from the Scottish Executive does not allow us to pass on any additional resources to secondary schools"?

Will the minister look into the issue of the top-slicing of the nationally agreed McCrone settlement to fund reductions of provision elsewhere? Will he ensure that Highland Council and the pupils who are directly affected are not compromised by a failure on the part of the Executive to fund the McCrone settlement fully?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am absolutely confident that we have fully funded the McCrone settlement. Highland Council is rightly pointing out that the priority for the significant amount of extra cash that we have given them lies in the primary sector, which is still to make reductions in class contact time, whereas that has been significantly achieved in the secondary sector already in Highland schools. That is why money is not being passed on to secondary schools.

Here we have a classic piece of opportunism by the Scottish National Party. The SNP is just taking another chance to scaremonger. I will quote again from the letter of the director of education, culture and sport, and I ask Fiona Hyslop to take this seriously:

"be very careful not to set any premature worries in the minds of pupils and parents in this respect."