Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 30 April 2009.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15, 30 April 2009

The first item of business this morning is a debate on motion S3M-4007, in the name of Margaret Smith, on education. We have some time in hand, so we can be a little flexible on speaking times.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Earlier this week, we were reminded of the Government's broken promises to Scotland's students. Today, we will focus on some others, such as class sizes and teacher numbers.

After two years of the Scottish National Party Government, truly glacial progress has meant that just 13 per cent of our children in primaries 1 to 3 are in classes of 18 children or fewer and, with even that slow progress now stalling, it does not take a maths teacher to figure out that the Government is on course to fail to meet its target by the end of this four-year session.

I make no apology for focusing today on issues affecting Scotland's 53,000 teachers. They are at the heart of our education system and they are fundamental to the delivery of first-class education. That is why the minister must support teachers, from new trainees and probationary teachers to those who are heading to retirement. The sad fact, however, is that the Government is letting teachers down, just as surely as it is letting down children and parents.

Today's debate is particularly topical, given this headline in today's Herald:

"Teachers may take industrial action over new curriculum".

The story under that headline expresses the frustration of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association over the implementation of the curriculum for excellence.

The SNP promised parents that smaller classes could be achieved by keeping teacher numbers constant while school rolls fell. However, instead of class sizes, it is teacher numbers that have fallen, by nearly 1,000 in a year.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member acknowledge that we now have the lowest class sizes since devolution and, indeed, the lowest pupil teacher ratio, despite a reduction in teachers? That is progress. The member implied that there had been no reductions in class sizes but there have been.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I think that I said that progress has been glacially slow—which is not easy to do at this time in the morning. The main point is that that is not what the Government claimed that it would make happen. A better pupil teacher ratio was not what was all over its election leaflets. The Government's leaflets said that it was going to reduce class sizes to 18 in primaries 1 to 3, and the fact is that the progress towards that target has been in the nature of about 1 per cent. At that rate, we are about eight decades away from the target being achieved.

There is a record slump in teacher numbers, which is concerning to parents across Scotland. The reduction in maths and science teachers also runs directly contrary to the Government's pledge to boost the study of science among Scotland's young people. Recent figures show a real terms fall in funding for secondary school education. In this time of recession, that is deeply concerning. There has never been a more crucial time to provide adequate funding for secondary school education. The real-terms increase in primary education funding is just 0.5 per cent, and the national spend on employing teachers has fallen in real terms in primary and secondary education.

As the recession deepens, the concern is that, in the face of Government inaction and tightening council budgets across Scotland, the situation in Scottish education will only get worse. What chance of success does the curriculum for excellence have in our schools if we do not have the resources or the dedicated teaching professionals that are required to implement it properly? No wonder the SSTA and the Educational Institute of Scotland have raised concerns.

Last week, I met Universities Scotland and the principals of Scotland's universities. Many of them told us that undergraduate applications were up by about 5 per cent and that, interestingly, postgraduate applications in some places were up by more than 50 per cent. That is hardly any wonder given the economic situation, but against that backdrop there is uncertainty about the numbers that will enter teacher training this year.

Last month, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council announced intake targets that involved an overall rise of 9 per cent. Since then, however, there has been intense media speculation that the minister has ordered universities to slash the student intake in the coming year by a fifth. Today's debate gives the minister an ideal opportunity to tell us whether that is the case and, if it is the case, to tell us whether those cuts will mean a drop in teaching student numbers of 500. The funding council has said that it will release a revised circular in a couple of weeks.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The level of initial teacher training intakes will be roughly the same as it was in 2007. The reduction on the initial target for this year is a drop of only 4 per cent. That will amount to 157 teachers, which—funnily enough—is less than the number by which the Labour-run Glasgow City Council reduced teacher numbers in only one year.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I am sure that we are all delighted at the fact that we have got that on the record. [ Interruption. ] The minister might scoff, but the fact is that there has been a certain amount of speculation about what is going to happen. People across Scotland are making decisions about their futures and deciding whether they want to go into a teaching career. All of us want the best and brightest people to go into teaching, so it is helpful that the minister has put that information on the record. It is disappointing that there will be a fall from the numbers that were originally talked about—157 teachers being lost from our schools is a move in the wrong direction. Those issues matter to parents and to people who are thinking about becoming teaching students.

We remain concerned about the number of trained teachers who are failing to find permanent employment. In the past year, The Times Educational Supplement, the General Teaching Council for Scotland and various surveys have pointed to the problems that are faced by post-probationer teachers trying to find work. Only last week, I met probationer modern studies teachers who raised concerns over a lack of supply positions, which is partly due to schools' use of recently retired teachers.

I know that this issue has been considered in the past. Perhaps the minister can tell us whether action will be taken to address the issue and whether she plans to set up more permanent supply pools, which would go some way towards assisting.

That was one of the many issues that were addressed by the teacher employment working group. I have a number of questions about what progress has been made on those issues since the group reported last October.

None of us should underestimate the difficulty of workforce planning. The group highlighted the difference between decisions on national workforce planning that were taken at the end of the year and decisions on local staffing needs that were taken by councils in the spring. Last October, the minister committed herself to addressing the matter. What progress has been made?

What progress has been made towards increasing the number of permanent teaching positions, particularly in the primary sector?

Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently warned that local authorities are struggling with education budgets and class size targets with little assistance from Government. There is a fault line through the heart of the SNP's education policies—it is called the historic concordat. The SNP went into the 2007 election making education commitments that it knew that it could not keep. It is not good enough to pass the buck continually to local authorities when those commitments are dropped. The SNP must take responsibility for its own inactions. The reality is that it is the SNP that made promises on class sizes, teacher numbers, nursery teacher numbers and the school building programmes. It made those promises knowing that it could not keep them.

Scottish Liberal Democrats in Government delivered year on year increases in teacher numbers, bringing them to a record high. Our manifesto for the 2007 elections contained a clear and costed commitment to deliver 1,000 teachers to cut class sizes in our schools. We agree that that is a target that is worth aiming at; yet, halfway through the SNP's term in office, we are looking at a fall in teacher numbers of 1,000 and a fall in the number of those going into teaching training. That means that the SNP's commitment to reduce class sizes remains as elusive as ever.

The Government has the brass neck to try to sidestep an investigation of its broken promises in Government by attacking us. Let us, therefore, consider a few points. We extended nursery places to three and four-year-olds; the SNP promised an increase in nursery teachers and delivered a whole-time equivalent decrease across Scotland of 13. We introduced sure start schemes in our communities to bring together early education, child care, health and family support in one place; the SNP promised the earth through an early years strategy that has no financial teeth. We delivered new schools the length and breadth of this country; the SNP promised that the Scottish Futures Trust would help to match our policy brick for brick, but the reality is that it has yet to commission any new schools—perhaps ministers cannot deliver because they are too busy traipsing around Scotland opening schools that were begun by the Labour and Liberal Democrat Executive.

We stand accused of investing in education—guilty as charged. We also stand accused of focusing on inputs rather than outputs. That is the complete opposite of this Government, which produced an election manifesto of unattainable outputs on class sizes and teacher numbers. That manifesto was long on unattainable outputs, and for the past two years the Government has failed to produce the inputs needed so that councils across Scotland could go any way towards achieving any of the outputs.

What we need now from the Government is not more empty gestures or more promises to be broken but a detailed plan to tackle the problems facing schools and teachers. We need a properly timetabled workforce plan from the Government to restore teacher numbers to the levels that it promised to maintain, to deliver the staff needed for the smaller class sizes that it promised, and to provide the training places required by the young people whom it encouraged to get into teaching.

I move,

That the Parliament notes that, on the second anniversary of the election of the Scottish Government, the index of its broken promises contains more references to education than any other area of public policy; believes that the failures of the SNP on teachers and teaching are potentially the most damaging to the long-term interests of Scotland; notes the drop of 1,000 in the number of teachers in Scotland's schools despite the SNP promise to maintain numbers; regrets the microscopic progress on class size reductions; recalls the failure to offer ongoing job opportunities for newly qualified teachers and laments the pressure on teacher training places when demand for such places from talented graduates remains high, and calls for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning to publish, by the end of the school year and in time for September, a detailed workforce plan for teaching that can restore teacher numbers, increase training places, get newly qualified teachers into work in schools and provide assurance that the Scottish Government is prepared to learn from the mistakes of the first half of its term of office as it embarks on its second.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 9:26, 30 April 2009

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government and to move the amendment in my name.

Since this Government took office, we have debated many Opposition motions that were misconceived and that, by trying to score narrow party political points, often missed the bigger picture. However, this particular motion is rare indeed, given that it so completely and profoundly misses the point.

I noticed when she spoke that Margaret Smith mentioned the curriculum for excellence, which her motion does not. We in Scotland are in a unique, and perhaps historic, position in relation to our education system in so far as we are faced with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform education for Scotland's children and ensure that the education system of the future equips our children, and their friends and peers across Scotland from whatever background, to meet the demands of the future. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to drive up standards in Scottish education through ensuring the provision of a single system of lifelong learning, from the early years through school and beyond, that puts the child—the learner—at the centre. That opportunity is the curriculum for excellence, and it is instructive indeed that in a motion of "War and Peace" proportions those words, that concept and that opportunity do not appear.

I will come to the issues raised in the motion about teachers presently, but it would be remiss of me not to remind Margaret Smith what the curriculum for excellence is about and why it is such an important opportunity. At its heart, the curriculum for excellence is about raising standards of education for all children and young people. The standards embedded in the experience and outcomes that were published on 2 April—a hugely important milestone for the programme and for Scottish education that seems to have escaped the Liberal Democrats completely—are demanding and stretching.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

The minister made the point that the motion does not mention the curriculum for excellence, so why is he focusing on something that is not meant to be debated and, so far, not speaking about teachers?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

When the member spoke, she said it was important to focus on "outputs"—I would say "outcomes". I made the point at the start that in my view the motion misses the point completely. The biggest change for education is the curriculum for excellence, but for some reason the Liberal Democrats seem immune to that point. The member did not even mention the experiences and outcomes published on 2 April.

Standards that are demanding and stretching are appropriate for an education system that is ambitious for its learners and a nation that is ambitious for its people. It is unfortunate that the Liberal Democrats appear ambitious only for themselves.

The curriculum for excellence will drive up standards—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I must ask the minister to speak to the terms of the motion. It is up to the members who lodge the motion to dictate its terms.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I repeat the point that I believe the outputs mentioned by Margaret Smith are extremely important; that is why I mentioned the curriculum for excellence.

On the question of teachers raised by Margaret Smith, the most recent final outturn figures we have available are for 2007-08 and show that net revenue expenditure on education by local authorities continued to increase to more than £4.4 billion, up more than £180 million on the previous year.

For too long in Scotland we have rested on our laurels in relation to education. I acknowledge the fact that successive Governments have raised the level of investment in schools—as Margaret Smith mentioned—and in education, and we now invest record amounts of resources in education, more than 40 per cent more in real terms since the advent of the Parliament. Despite all that investment, however, a range of national and international reports and indicators tell us that we have not yet made the progress that we might expect.

John McLaren, who is well known to the Labour Party, said before the previous election:

"England has continued to progress while Scotland has stood still since 1999".

Very worryingly, international comparisons for standards tell us that, while we have reached a plateau, some of our competitor countries have forged ahead. We are being overtaken, and unless we raise our game we will be left behind. The curriculum for excellence is the means by which our game will be raised.

This Administration works in partnership with local government. Margaret Smith made the point that we have signed up to various commitments, but so have her councillors across Scotland in signing up to the concordat. Perhaps she should remember that fact.

The Administration, in partnership with local government and a wide range of other partners, is making excellent progress. The experience and outcomes were published on 2 April, and two more of the key building blocks of the programme of transformational change, on assessment and on skills, will be published in the coming months. I will make an important announcement about qualifications in due course.

The importance that we place on education is clear. At the start of the Administration, we invested an extra £9 million in teachers for the curriculum for excellence and in general terms.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

A total of £4 million was specifically invested to allow teachers to come in to help us with the implementation of the curriculum for excellence. In that context, we should ask where the Liberal Democrats would have us concentrate our efforts. They would have us return to the culture of compliant central direction that I described, and with a vengeance.

The Government will not take that route. We believe that our new relationship with local government is the right one and that local decision making in education authorities and in schools about how to drive forward improvement and raise standards will pay the highest dividends. Of course, that means we need to have a robust, honest and frank relationship with local government and COSLA. We have exactly that.

I make no secret of the fact that the Government was disappointed by the results of the teacher census published on 24 March. We said that publicly at the time and I have said it since privately in discussions with COSLA and local authorities. We were also disappointed that the proportion of children in P1 to P3 classes of 18 or fewer increased by only a marginal amount.

However, we should not let that disappointment cloud the facts that remain. Average class sizes in P1 to P3 in Scotland are at a record low, which Margaret Smith did not mention, and pupil teacher ratios across Scotland are also at a record low. Councils have made significant and important progress in reducing the proportion of children in P1 to P3 in the largest classes of more than 25. Immediately that the Government took office—and to clean up the mess we had been left by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration—we invested £9 million in providing 300 new teaching posts in schools, funding that was baselined into the settlement. We have invested record amounts in local government in Scotland—£23 billion for the period 2008 to 2010—and local government knows that, which is why—

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

We are investing £4 million in new resources to create 100 new teaching posts for the next school year, which means that 100 teachers who would not otherwise obtain employment will be given jobs in the classroom and 100 experienced teachers will be freed up to support the curriculum for excellence implementation plans that authorities are pulling together.

We established the teacher employment working group, and to her credit Margaret Smith acknowledged the difficulties in teacher planning. Although that group concluded that the system was fit for purpose, it recommended a closer liaison between national and local planning. We are taking that and the group's other recommendations forward.

Let us not forget that when the teacher census was published on 24 March we acted, as all responsible Governments would, to ensure that we have enough teachers to fill vacancies and maintain a pool of supply teachers but not to train more than we need.

These are the real facts of this debate. The Liberal Democrats say they would have employed 1,000 more teachers. How can they square that with an £800 million cut in public service expenditure?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No, and if the member put it in front of maths teachers, they would not accept it either: the sums do not add up. There is a certain degree of disconnect between what the Liberal Democrats said they want to do and the fact that they wanted to cut expenditure by £800 million.

I hope that, when Rhoda Brankin speaks on behalf of Labour, she mentions the £500 million cuts that we all have to face—some say it will be substantially more than that in future years.

My ministerial colleagues and I are engaging with COSLA and councils to discuss how progress on teacher numbers and on reducing class sizes can be improved in the next school year. That dialogue will continue, and it will deliver results.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

No.

The half-baked plan set out in the motion before us today will not do that. Unlike the Liberal Democrat plan, our dialogue is not solely focused on inputs. Our dialogue will focus on how through the curriculum for excellence—which is missing from the motion—we can deliver the transformational change in Scottish education that our children and society depend on for our continued prosperity.

I move amendment S3M-4007.1, to leave out from "the index" to end and insert:

"spending on education has risen by more than 40% since the advent of devolution; further notes that, despite a decade of investment, standards of attainment and achievement have only been maintained while key international competitors have improved; welcomes the recent report by HM Inspectorate of Education, Improving Scottish Education 2005-2008, highlighting the need for further and faster improvement in our education system; believes that the focus on inputs under previous administrations masked the lack of significant improvement on standards of attainment and achievement; further believes that the reform of the curriculum is a critical step in improving standards of attainment, and calls on the Scottish Government to maintain progress towards implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 9:34, 30 April 2009

Education debates in this chamber currently seem to fall into two categories. There are those that are led by the Opposition parties, as we systematically expose the catalogue of broken promises in the SNP election manifesto, and there are those that are led by the Scottish Government, which seeks to select the appropriate spin that will most conveniently divert attention away from the extent of those failures.

I am not surprised by the Scottish Government's tactics, but even a Government that has used every opportunity to hide behind the convenient excuse of the historic concordat—which, as Margaret Smith said, shifts the blame on to local authorities—cannot ignore the facts. On class sizes, school meals, teacher numbers, nursery staffing and school discipline, there have been huge let-downs for the Scottish electorate and—more important—for parents, pupils and teachers.

It is desperately sad that that comes at a time when so many good things are happening in Scottish schools and when there is huge potential for exciting new developments within the curriculum and the examinations structure. It is simply unacceptable, as is the evidence that each of the local authorities supplied in response to two freedom of information requests that the Scottish Conservatives commissioned last month.

In response to the first request, the answers from local authorities exposed the true extent of the postcode lottery in determining which higher and advanced higher courses are on offer in different schools. In response to the second, there were shocking statistics about the lack of accurate data held by local authorities on teacher numbers.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

With regard to the first freedom of information request to which the member refers, does she realise that there has been a net increase of 33 in the availability of highers and of 114 in the availability of advanced highers? That completely negates some of the comments that were made at the time of the request.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I am sorry, but I do not accept that. It is true that the presentations of highers and advanced highers have increased, but there is a postcode lottery with regard to where certain subjects are on offer. The point is that there is no level playing field.

The response to the second FOI request flagged up a huge amount of inaccurate data on teacher issues. I have a great deal of sympathy with the section of the Liberal motion that flags up our concern about teacher recruitment, especially as the cabinet secretary assured us that the joint working party on workforce planning would address that issue. Broken promises are broken promises, but positive action is important now, so I turn to the amendment in my name.

The Government amendment states the need for

"further and faster improvement ... on standards of attainment and achievement".

We all agree with that sentiment, but it is time to take full responsibility. Every party in the chamber agreed—and confirmed by a unanimous vote—in the first debate of this year that no issue is currently more important in education than ensuring all our pupils are properly schooled in the three Rs. I want to hold the Scottish Government to its duty to do something about that.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Although I agree with the member about literacy and numeracy, does she agree that it is worrying that one reason why the SSTA appears to be concerned is that it is not so keen for the testing and the work on literacy and numeracy to be carried out in the way that has been discussed in the Parliament? Does she agree that the cabinet secretary should turn her attention to that?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Many aspects about the testing issue are concerning, but when I canvass opinion among the teaching profession—and particularly among secondary level teachers—I find that they are adamant that we must have more rigorous testing: end of story.

I suspect that virtually every member agrees that, when parents send their children to school, the one thing that they expect them to do when they come back is to be able to read, write and count. Parents rightly expect us, as members of Parliament, to ensure the teaching of the three Rs is at the top of the schools agenda. They know, as we do, that it is completely unacceptable for only 30 per cent of secondary 2 pupils to have a competency in maths when 85 per cent had that competency in primary 3; and for 10,000 pupils to leave Scottish schools each year unable to read, write and count properly. They see the unfortunate slide in Scotland's position in too many international league tables, and they know as well as we do that we should be doing so much better.

It is the depth of that concern that makes every party in the Parliament deeply anxious about what the future holds if we cannot improve those outcomes and rebuild confidence in our system. That is why we voted for better testing of primary school pupils. We did not vote for more testing, or for tests that are applied only when a teacher thinks that the child is ready to cope with them or when the league tables are about to be announced, but for more rigorous tests that are conducted against nationally agreed standards and that truly reflect the ability of the pupil by the end of primary 7, before they move on to secondary school.

There are two important facts. One is that far too many Scottish pupils are leaving school without competency in the three Rs, and the second is that the Parliament voted unanimously to introduce more rigorous, nationally agreed tests by the end of primary 7.

I move amendment S3M-4007.1.1, to insert at end:

"and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward detailed proposals by the start of the 2009-10 academic year as to how it will implement amendment S3M-3164.1, which recognised the need for the Scottish Government to ensure that pupils in Scotland are properly tested in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy by the end of primary 7 and which was given unanimous support by the Parliament on 7 January 2009."

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 9:40, 30 April 2009

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on bringing forward a ringing denunciation of the SNP's record on education.

It was education that brought me and many other people into politics, where we work and try our hardest to create a Scotland of opportunity in which people can get on no matter where they live or who they are. That is what drives many Labour members, including me, and that is why education and our children should be at the heart of our thinking and our politics.

Our ambition is to have the best education system in the world, in which no one is left behind and all young people can develop their full potential. I think that all members recognise that we face significant challenges to that in Scotland.

As has been said, Labour, working with the Liberal Democrats in Government, made real progress in improving our education system, which included the delivery of the biggest school building programme that Scotland has ever known. The SNP has squandered that progress; yet now, more than ever, we need a world-class education system. As we seek to come through the global financial crisis, we cannot afford to waste the talent of a single person.

The SNP election manifesto made lots of promises on education, but so many of them have now been ditched or broken. The SNP said that it would deliver class sizes of 18 in primaries 1 to 3 by 2011, but the latest figures show that, at the current rate of progress, that promise will not be delivered until 2096. Teacher numbers are down by 1,000, which makes a mockery of the SNP's manifesto promise to maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling rolls.

To reverse the previous Government's record numbers of teachers is bad enough, but to preside over the loss of 1,000 jobs in one year since coming to office is unforgivable—and Scotland's teachers will not forgive the SNP.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

No—the minister did not take an intervention from me. I am happy to take interventions from other members, but the minister has something to learn and should perhaps try listening.

Newly qualified teachers are not getting jobs. Barely a day goes by in which I do not receive another heartbreaking e-mail from a newly qualified teacher who is desperate for work. Such people are still passionate about their chosen career, but they are bewildered and increasingly angry at an SNP Government that has cruelly misled them with empty promises about a teaching career.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is the member aware that the post-probationers who are currently seeking jobs started their training under the workforce planning that was devised, implemented and decided on by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration?

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I am aware that under Labour and the Liberal Democrats we had a record number of 53,000 teachers, whereas the SNP has lost 1,000 in one year.

The SNP pledged to match Labour's school building programme "brick for brick". To be fair, Alex Salmond and Fiona Hyslop are scuttling around in ministerial cars to open quite a few new schools—but every one was commissioned by the previous Government.

The SNP Government's promise to have more than 20,000 teachers in training between 2007 and 2010 is yet another empty promise, as we now know that teacher training places are being cut. New schools are an abject failure, which is why SNP ministers are scuttling around to open schools that were started by the previous Government.

Last night, I met two outstanding pupils from Lasswade high school, both of whom were the first from their families to go to university. Lasswade is a great school, but the school buildings are simply not fit for purpose: they are category D. Midlothian Council was told by the previous Labour education minister that Lasswade high school was a priority for the new round of funding, but today, under an SNP Government, there are still no plans for Lasswade. There will now be no new school before the next election—it is a disgrace.

On nursery education, the SNP manifesto promised to increase access to nursery teachers. No amount of SNP spin can hide the truth of the real figures that the Government's own statisticians use, which show a cut in whole-time equivalent nursery teachers. Perhaps the cabinet secretary should listen to what I have to say: the fact is that there are now fewer, not more, nursery teacher hours. I would be interested in getting an honest response to that—indeed, I challenge the cabinet secretary to tell the truth for once on the issue.

These failures are serious and put at risk the progress that has been made in the past decade at Holyrood and in local authorities across the country. One cannot run an education system by press release. SNP spin will not build new schools, it will not teach a single child to read, and it will not employ any teachers. As the recently released figures on pupil expenditure clearly show, this Government has presided over the worst ever education budget settlements and the lowest real-terms improvement in expenditure—0.3 per cent—since the Scottish Parliament's establishment. No amount of spinning can get away from that. That is not political point-scoring; it is simply the truth. I urge members to support our amendment.

I move amendment S3M-4007.2, to insert after "remains high",

"; deeply regrets that the SNP government's response to the reduction in full-time teaching posts has been to cut teacher training places by 18% despite its pledges to maintain teacher numbers and reduce class sizes".

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 9:46, 30 April 2009

Two years ago, the SNP came to power on a manifesto that contained a raft of bold promises, and none of those promises was more radical and bold than those on education. The SNP not only promised parents that their youngest children would be taught in classes of no more than 18 and that their pre-school children would be taught by qualified nursery teachers; it promised that it would match the previous Executive's school building programme brick for brick.

This morning's mid-term debate provides us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on the SNP Government's progress. I have to say that, despite Ms Hyslop's protestations, its report card two years on looks very poor indeed. Those bold promises have quickly become broken promises, producing a catalogue of disappointments that has left parents throughout Scotland feeling disappointed and betrayed. For example, on class sizes, the Government has singularly failed to meet its flagship pledge to reduce all P1, P2 and P3 classes to 18. In fact, recent Government figures show that only 13.2 per cent of P1 to P3 classes have 18 pupils or fewer. Class sizes of 18 look more distant than ever; indeed, based on the current rate of progress, it will take the SNP another 87 years to meet its own manifesto pledge. Of course, it will blame our local authorities for that.

I find it astounding that, in the face of such failure, the SNP Government has made matters even worse by reducing teacher numbers and training places. Despite its promise to maintain teacher numbers, the latest Scottish Government figures show that there are now 1,000 fewer teachers in Scotland. To compound the situation, the SNP Government has decided to cut teacher training places by 500, which is an 18 per cent reduction.

It is little wonder that for an increasing number of Scotland's young people who might have wanted to enter teaching, the profession is becoming insecure and disheartening. Of the newly qualified teachers who have been fortunate to find jobs, almost 60 per cent are in temporary employment. The situation in primary education is even worse, with the figure standing at 70 per cent. In some local authorities, between 300 and 400 qualified teachers are chasing every job.

All that stands in sharp contrast to the Labour and Liberal Democrats' time in office, when the Executive delivered an extra 2,000 teachers and increased teacher numbers in Scotland to a record 53,000. Indeed, had we remained in office, we would have maintained that figure.

The SNP also made bold promises and pledges on early years education. It suggested that every nursery child would be taught by a nursery teacher, but after the election the Government admitted that such access might mean seeing a qualified teacher only once a week, if they were lucky. According to the Scottish Government's pre-school and child care statistics for 2008, the number of qualified nursery teachers employed in Scotland has declined.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The member paints a picture of local authorities that have been starved of the necessary cash to employ teachers. If that is the case, why, at the concordat's launch, did COSLA president and Labour councillor Pat Watters say:

"The package has been agreed within a tight financial context but the role that local government plays in the governance of Scotland has been substantially enhanced and the decline in local government's share of total expenditure has been halted"?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Unfortunately the picture that the member paints is not accurate. According to what teachers throughout Scotland and particularly in my constituency have told me, things at the chalkface are very different to what he has suggested.

Let me move from the broken promises on nursery education to school building. Although the SNP promised parents that its Scottish Futures Trust would match the school building programme "brick for brick", not a single brick has to date been laid as a result of that funding mechanism. Nevertheless, the SNP is running around attempting to take credit for schools that were built by the Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive in partnership with local authorities.

In fact, Ms Hyslop is so desperate to cut a ribbon and open a new school that the Government even opens schools more than once. For example, in Dunfermline, Duloch primary school, which was built by the previous Labour council, was opened to pupils early in 2007, was opened again by Douglas Chapman in May 2007 and was opened yet again—officially this time—by Fiona Hyslop just a few months ago. In other words, one school was opened three times.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

The Scottish Government is letting down Scotland's children. I urge members to support the motion and Labour's amendment.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party 9:51, 30 April 2009

Over the two years of this Parliament, I have been delighted to support the massive steps forward that the SNP Government has taken to improve the quality of education that is available to every level of Scottish society. The Government reinstated free higher education, has legislated for free school meals for our youngest children and is making real progress on reducing class sizes. I am happy to defend the SNP Government's strong record on education. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats' motion is like a broken record, endlessly repeating the same old complaints with little to back up its claims and even less in the way of positive suggestions.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Are you genuinely happy to stand there and defend the fact that your Government has managed to lose 1,000 teachers in a year and that, as the cabinet secretary herself has admitted this morning, there will be a 4 per cent drop in teacher training numbers in the face of the recession?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I remind all members to speak through the chair, not directly to each other.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

I believe that you delivered 1,100 fewer teachers than you said you would, so I am quite happy to stand here and defend the Government.

Perhaps more than any other sector, investment in education is investment in the future. It takes time for the full rewards of any particular policy or funding decision to be seen, because time spent in education is about preparing learners for what they will do afterwards. That is as true for youngsters entering P1 as it is for mature students in one of our colleges or universities. As a result, the Scottish Government has invested in the full spectrum of our education services in order to benefit not just individual learners but, ultimately, society as a whole.

Some of this Government's education legislation is among its finest and most important achievements. Having as a student campaigned for the restoration of free education, I am proud to have been able to vote here in Scotland's Parliament for the legislation to reinstate that policy. The Liberal Democrats might not understand the egalitarian principles behind the introduction of free school meals, but that move was one of the Parliament's most progressive acts. Tavish Scott might dismiss it as feeding "rich kids", but that does a disservice to a policy that reduces inequality in the playground, improves concentration in the classroom and is, in itself, educational by teaching kids from all walks of life healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

The Lib Dems complain that progress on reducing class sizes has been neither fast nor significant enough. They might want to tell that to the nearly 14 per cent of P1 to P3 pupils in South Lanarkshire who are now benefiting from being in a class of fewer than 18. In 2006, under the previous Administration—of which the Liberal Democrats were a part—only 6.9 per cent of young primary pupils were in small classes.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

I want to make progress.

Of course, the motion says nothing about the previous Administration, which, after all, formulated the plans for training the current number of teachers now entering the workforce. If the Liberal Democrats believe that there are more trained teachers than there are places available, they should perhaps have thought of that when their ministers were signing off workforce planning models before 2007. As the minister made clear, the Government has taken steps to reshape those models for the future to ensure that the right number of teachers are in place to give our children the education that they need and deserve.

There is also a responsibility on councils to spend the funding that they have been given through the concordat in a way that helps to reduce class sizes. February's statistics show that 18 out of 32 councils are making progress and that more than 75 per cent of pupils in the early years are in classes of fewer than 25 pupils, which is an improvement on the figure of 60 per cent in 2006, under the Lib-Lab Administration.

The motion, like most of the motions that the Liberal Democrats bring to the Parliament, could simply read that they are still shocked that the voters of Scotland had the bare-faced cheek not to vote them back into government in 2007. However, two years ago, people voted for a different kind of government, because they were fed up with the lack of ambition and the steady-as-we-go managerial complacency that was the hallmark of the previous devolved Administrations. People in Scotland voted for the SNP Government and Alex Salmond as First Minister because they were ambitious about the future of the country. People believed that the devolution settlement could deliver more than it already had and they were ready for the boundaries of the settlement to be pushed. That is what people voted for and that is what is being delivered. Opposition members might not like it, but that does not mean that the SNP Government is not making real and tangible progress on the ground.

Of course, more can always be done, and the task will become more difficult in the face of the cuts that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are imposing on the Parliament. The Liberal Democrats might be happy to live with a union dividend of £500 million-worth of cuts to public services, including education, but I believe that the best future that we can build for our teachers and the children whom they teach is in an independent Scotland. If the Liberal Democrats were prepared to concede to the people of Scotland the liberal and democratic option of a referendum, we might be prepared to take some of their arguments a bit more seriously.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 9:56, 30 April 2009

If the SNP Government has failed in one area, it is education, as the motion and some of the amendments make clear. Scotland's established teachers, our newly qualified teachers and our schoolchildren have been failed. Good and enthusiastic young teachers are unable to find anything other than supply posts and the few posts that are available often attract upwards of 300 applicants. Manifesto pledge after manifesto pledge has been broken, and parents, teachers and children have been let down.

Let us not forget what the SNP manifesto said about new schools. The SNP said that it would match Labour's school building programme brick for brick. On Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting a new school in my constituency that was opened to pupils just last week. It is a replacement for two old schools and a nursery, and provides new community facilities, including a library, gym and other opportunities for people to gather together. That is the kind of school that every community wants and that every child and teacher deserves. It is only one of 11 secondary and 53 primary schools that Glasgow City Council has built in the past 10 years, at a cost of about £0.5 billion. However, that school is one of the last that the council will be able to build because, since 2007, the money has dried up and the ability to borrow has disappeared.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, I know that the debate is meant to be on the motion, but if we are addressing school buildings, I ask the member whether she is aware that the previous Administration left an unpaid bill of £60 million a year for public-private partnership projects. Is she also aware that Glasgow City Council has available to it £300 million in capital over the next two years, but that for some reason it has made the political decision to spend only £5 million on school buildings?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Of the capital that the member talks about, £115 million is ring fenced to pay for measures such as the M74 extension and the White Cart Water flood prevention measures. Glasgow City Council was at least able to decide to build those 11 secondary schools using PPP, although it decided to use its own resources to build the 53 primary schools in the past 10 years. We do not need to take any lessons from Ms Hyslop.

It is no secret that I have opposed proposed school closures in my constituency. I have done so because I do not believe that all the options have been explored or that all the arguments have been considered. However, I am in no doubt about the real culprit—it is the Government, which has overseen a reduction in capital spend on education in Glasgow of astronomical proportions. Let me put some of the figures on the record. In the past 10 years, Glasgow City Council has spent £550 million building new schools. This year and next, the council will spend £100 million to deliver new-build schools that were commissioned under the previous Labour-led Scottish Executive. The Wyndford and Cadder areas of my constituency would benefit hugely from new joint-campus schools, but it is their misfortune to be part of phase 5 of the on-going school review process and not part of a previous phase, because phase 5 is taking place when the SNP is in power in Scotland and when education strategy is in disarray. What does the minister have to offer the pupils and teachers in the schools in my constituency that look set to close in June?

The Government stands accused of letting down the pupils, parents and teachers of Scotland. It is about time that the Government faced up to its responsibilities and did something to ensure that Scottish pupils and teachers work and operate in the best possible facilities.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 10:01, 30 April 2009

I am shocked and stunned to hear Patricia Ferguson, a Glasgow constituency member, being an absolute apologist for Glasgow Labour, which is closing schools in my city. You should be ashamed of yourself. I will remind the parents that you were that apologist.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Sorry, Presiding Officer but, like the parents, I get passionate about these issues.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

No, thank you. We have heard quite enough from you.

To borrow a word from the Liberal Democrat motion, it is with much lament that I must criticise that illogical and ill-considered motion. The Liberal Democrats know very well that councils, not the Scottish Government, employ teachers throughout Scotland. They also know that the concordat between COSLA and the Scottish Government sets a direction of travel on class sizes. That direction of travel is clear—class sizes are falling and pupil to teacher ratios are the best in the United Kingdom. The motion is not constructive opposition; it is political opportunism. The figures show that the bulk of the drop in teacher numbers—55 per cent—is attributable to only four councils. I will return to that shortly.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary said on 20 June 2007:

"After only a month in office, we are already working to meet other parties' demands for 1,000 new teachers."—[Official Report, 20 June 2007; c 882.]

Does the member accept that the cabinet secretary has not been working very well and that she could do better?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I am aware that 300 additional places have been funded.

In all likelihood, if the Liberal Democrats and Labour had signed a third partnership agreement, Scotland would now have even fewer teachers. We must remember that the former coalition partners promised 600 fewer teachers than there currently are in Scottish schools. Given that councils, not Governments, employ teachers, if Opposition parties had been in government now, that figure might have been far worse. The record funding of councils by the Government has given councils the opportunity to maintain teacher numbers.

I will assist Opposition members with constructive opposition.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As a back bencher in the Government party, I am happy to provide Rhona Brankin with that assistance, so I ask her please to listen. Opposition members should ask the Government how it intends to work with local authorities that are not performing to drive forward the agenda on teacher numbers and class sizes. The approach of blaming the Scottish Government for any council that is not making better progress on education surely gives local authorities a get-out-of-jail-free card. For example, in Glasgow, a Labour council is acting with impunity and arrogance in closing schools and not replacing retiring teachers. The Liberal Democrats had an opportunity to use the topic of teacher numbers to place the spotlight on a wayward local authority and to attempt to help devastated parents throughout Glasgow but, oh no, the Lib Dems did not choose that option. Instead, they put narrow party-political opportunism ahead of parents.

Let me help out the Liberal Democrats. Will the minister enter into discussions with those local authorities that we would like to make more progress than they are currently making? When he does so, let us hope that the message that he passes on from the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party is not to encourage councils to do as poorly as possible so that they can blame the SNP Government. Parents will not buy it and voters will not buy it. We will stand up for education.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour 10:05, 30 April 2009

I begin by thanking the Liberal Democrats for introducing a useful debate this morning.

As members have made clear, it is unarguable that education has been the poor relation in the first two years of the SNP Government. On teacher numbers, it has failed. On class sizes of 18, it has failed. On physical education in schools, it has failed. On nursery teachers, it has failed. On the school building programme, it has failed. Nowhere in the SNP manifesto did it say, "These are our hopes for education, but it is entirely up to each and every local authority as to whether they choose to fulfil any of these promises," yet that is the policy stance of this Government.

I genuinely welcome the regret that the Minister for Schools and Skills has expressed today—I think for the first time—about the falling teacher numbers in Scotland, and I hope that we will also hear regret about the cuts in nursery teacher numbers in Scotland. However, the disturbing aspect of the Government's approach is that in this place it continues to profess commitments on teacher numbers, nursery teachers, class sizes of 18 and physical education in schools, yet it is not prepared to do anything about them. The Government has a laissez-faire approach to what is happening in schools up and down the country.

The odd private chat with a council does not make a policy. After two years, that is what the schools minister and the cabinet secretary need to address. Even more disturbing than trying to suggest that a private chat amounts to a policy is the fact that while ministers rarely miss the opportunity to condemn publicly the education decisions of Opposition party-run councils—we have just had a spectacular example of that from the back benches—they avoid studiously any criticism of SNP-run councils. As so often with this Government, we are driven to the conclusion that party politics comes first and the fate of our children second. I want to hear from ministers today whether they will do better than praising Renfrewshire Council, whose performance on education, spending, teacher numbers and curricular choice is frankly a disgrace. However, so far, we have had nothing but warm words from the cabinet secretary.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I know that the member is astute in researching her figures. Is she aware that there has been an increase in spend per pupil in Renfrewshire under the most recent council budget?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Indeed I am. I will deal directly with the spending issue. This year, the Scottish Government received a 4 per cent increase in cash terms from the Westminster block grant. Renfrewshire Council got a grant increase of more than 3 per cent from the Scottish Government this year, but it spent less than 1 per cent extra on education services—that is a real-terms cut in education spending in Renfrewshire. I would like to hear what the cabinet secretary has to say about that, because when she has been challenged on the point before, she has defended it on the basis that rolls are falling. Let me enlighten her—school rolls in Renfrewshire are falling by less than 2 per cent and teacher numbers have fallen by in excess of 6 per cent. Is that acceptable?

I offer the cabinet secretary more statistics. Renfrewshire now has the worst pupil to teacher ratios of all Scottish secondary schools. Average class sizes in primary 1 did not come down or stabilise last year in Renfrewshire; they rose. Renfrewshire has one of the worst records on curricular choices as regards the withdrawal of highers and advanced highers, and the total number of nursery teachers has been halved.

I will conclude on this point: personally, I have a lot of time for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning—we sat on the Education Committee together. However, two years into office, she faces a fundamental choice.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Is the character of her leadership of Scottish education simply to defend what her party colleagues have done or will she mount a defence of parents, pupils and teachers irrespective of the political colour of the local administration? I hope for the sake of Scottish education—

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 10:10, 30 April 2009

This morning, the Liberal Democrats have given us yet another opportunity to discuss the SNP's broken promises on education. As members will know, it is a recurring theme in the chamber, in that it does not seem many weeks since we debated the self-same topic. Much to the dismay of members on the SNP benches, no doubt, this is a well that never runs dry when Opposition parties look for a subject to debate.

Although the subject of this morning's debate is education, it is disappointing that the Liberal Democrat motion does not refer to higher education or student funding. This week, an unprecedented coalition of student leaders in Scotland and Opposition education spokesmen have queued up to point the finger at the SNP Government for breaking its manifesto pledges. We well remember that just two years ago, SNP candidates on campuses up and down the land were wooing students with promises to wipe out student debt. How quickly that relationship with the student body has turned sour. Earlier this week, the cabinet secretary told student leaders to grow up and stop complaining. Perhaps she needs lessons in how to win friends and influence people, if that is the way that she approaches an important body of the electorate.

There is much in the Liberal Democrat motion with which we can agree. The Liberal Democrats are right to draw attention to many of the problems in education, such as the drop of 1,000 in teacher numbers in Scotland's schools and the microscopic progress on class size reductions. However, I say to the Liberal Democrats that they seem to have a selective memory when it comes to some of the longer-term problems in Scottish education. We know—and this point is fairly made in the Government amendment—that achievement and attainment standards have stayed steady in Scotland while those of our international competitors have improved considerably. Although Scotland once did well in comparison with the rest of the world, we have been slipping down the table in recent years. For their part in government during the previous eight years, the Liberal Democrats must bear at least some of the responsibility.

We cannot agree with the proposal in the Liberal Democrat motion for a detailed workforce plan for teaching. That is the top-down centralist approach that is exactly the opposite of what we require if we are to improve Scottish education.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am interested in what the member's solutions are to local discretion or a top-down approach. Is he comfortable with the Conservative policy of primary academies, about which we are hearing, but from which the member has distanced himself? That policy would mean a top-down approach from private enterprises.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The member refers to a policy that is being introduced south of the border. Of course we will study the detail of it with great interest.

I am glad that Mr Purvis intervened, because he is the Liberal Democrat finance spokesman. I am interested to know how the Liberal Democrats have costed the proposal in their motion—I listened in vain for Margaret Smith to spell that out.

As the Liberal Democrats will know, the Parliament's Finance Committee heard earlier this week that the Scottish budget is likely to fall in real terms by between £2 billion and £4 billion, a figure that puts in the shade not just the current concerns about cuts of £500 million but, even more significant, the proposed Liberal Democrat cuts of £800 million that we heard so much about during the budget discussions.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am sorry; I do not think that I have time.

We all know that the blame lies entirely at the door of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling for their economic mismanagement and ruination of the public finances of this country. Notwithstanding that fact, we in this Parliament cannot ignore the impact that those cuts will have on public funding. That means that every time we make a proposal in this Parliament, it is incumbent on us to say how much it will cost and where the money will come from. Once again on that score, the Liberal Democrats have been found wanting.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 10:14, 30 April 2009

I, too, thank the Lib Dems for this morning's debate.

This week, I met a bright young probationary teacher who was full of enthusiasm for his job, school and pupils. However, when I asked him about his plans for the future, his enthusiasm dimmed visibly—his hope was replaced by anxiety and pessimism. I discovered that both he and his wife are probationers and that both are so depressed by their job prospects that they are actively considering finding work in Spain. That is not the first time that I or other members have heard such a story. How long must we hear such stories before the cabinet secretary takes action to help? For how many years is the cabinet secretary willing to preside over such an appalling loss of talent?

The contrast with the record of the previous Administration could not be greater. The teacher to whom I referred was in charge of a small group of pupils. I was asked, as MSPs often are, which achievements we in the Scottish Parliament are most proud of. Like many, I mentioned first the smoking ban, but I went on—as I nearly always do—to point to the difference that we have made over the past decade to our schools and the life chances of so many young people. We have provided new school buildings, smaller classes, better-paid teachers, nursery education for all and classroom assistants in all schools—the list is comprehensive. In fact, it is so comprehensive that it makes a mockery of the SNP's attempt to defend its record by challenging and attacking us. I challenge the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning to find one teacher who does not believe that the previous Administration made a significant difference to Scottish education.

Perhaps what is most ironic, or just depressing, this morning is that I used to think that there was a shared agenda and that at least some on the liberal/social democratic wing of the SNP—if it exists—identified with our vision and shared some of our commitment to education. In government, as in opposition, SNP ministers have not been shy about using our language or adopting our policies. For example, this morning the SNP promised—in theory, at least—to continue the reforms that are encapsulated in the curriculum for excellence. However, in practice, we find that ministers will not provide any money for implementation or continuous professional development. They then wonder why teachers are unhappy.

Another example is the SNP commitment to build schools, which was mentioned by Margaret Smith, Karen Whitefield, Rhona Brankin and almost everyone else who has spoken this morning. The commitment is to match brick for brick what we would have done; it is framed with reference to one of our benchmarks, rather than the SNP's targets. How hollow repetition of that promise sounds now. In practice, the SNP's dogmatic opposition to public-private partnerships comes before the needs of our children. Two years on, we find that not one new school has been commissioned in the whole of Scotland. Given the shortfall in public construction projects, SNP dogma appears to come before the needs of our economy, too.

Over the past couple of weeks, all members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee have found out that the SNP has similarly refused to fund the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill. Ministers talk a good game and say that they want to work with the committee to identify and improve the rights of Scotland's most vulnerable children but, when put to the test, they refuse to will the means to make that happen.

As many members have reminded us, this week Scotland's students have issued a general reminder to the cabinet secretary to address their needs, especially the issue of hardship. They could have castigated the SNP for breaking its promise to dump the debt; instead, they restricted their comments to questioning whether best use was being made of the limited sum of money that is available to tackle student hardship. As Murdo Fraser pointed out, the cabinet secretary's response was an arrogant and condescending put-down.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

In his discussions with the students, did the member remind them that, if Labour had won the 2007 election, they would still be having to pay for their tuition?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Yet again we are presented with the rather puerile defence, "Never mind us, you were even worse than we are." That is not an excuse for the SNP's failures.

I am disappointed by the SNP's contribution to the debate. The motion calls on the Scottish ministers to learn from their mistakes. I urge members to support it and Labour's amendment.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 10:19, 30 April 2009

The Government is fully committed to improving Scottish education. Excellence in education is central to the ambitions that we have for Scotland and its people.

Scotland has succeeded and prospered and has historically made its mark on the world precisely because of the quality of our education. We have been at the leading edge of educational innovation in the world since 1696. Of late, under the previous Administration, Scotland has fallen behind the front-runners in education performance internationally, and into the following pack. That point was highlighted most markedly in the trends in international mathematics and science study survey that was carried out in April 2007. Between 2003 and 2007, performance in secondary 2 science declined. The Government is determined that we should regain our place at the forefront of change and improvement. Our education science summit will take place on Tuesday, and we will tackle the decline in performance that took place under the watch of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.

The vehicle that will propel us to the front of the field again is the curriculum for excellence—the programme of transformational change that will drive up standards by freeing the professionalism of teachers to support our children and young people. Given how important that agenda is to Scotland's future, the failure of the Liberal Democrats to present constructive education policies in the debate is disappointing.

To address some of the points that have been made, I will focus on the action that the Government has taken on teachers. Despite the fact that we provided funding to maintain teacher numbers fully, despite the fact that we provided an extra £9 million in baseline funding to provide 300 additional teachers in 2007—I make that point to Mike Rumbles—and despite the fact that we have provided £4 million to fund 100 teachers to support the curriculum for excellence this year, the Liberal Democrats still want to attack the Government.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We provide the funding—we are not the employers.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

No.

Margaret Smith may want to consider raising her concerns with Jenny Dawe in Edinburgh, Kate Dean in Aberdeen and Eileen McCartin in Renfrewshire—all Liberal Democrat leaders—and asking them why they have not used the resources with which they have been provided to maintain teacher numbers. They are the Liberal Democrat leaders—granted, in administration with the SNP—of three of the four local authorities that are responsible for more than 50 per cent of the drop that is recorded in the teacher census.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it in order for a cabinet secretary not to take any interventions after members took many interventions from her?

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I suspect that Rhona Brankin, who is a member of long standing, knows the answer to that question. It is up to the member who is speaking to decide whether to take interventions.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I would like to address some of the points that have been made in the debate. The number of people in teacher training is back at 2007 levels. This year 3,662 students will be trained in four-year and one-year courses. That figure is higher than the average number of teachers who were trained each year under the previous Administration, which was only 3,144.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I ask the member to wait for one second.

The figure is down by only 4 per cent. Teacher training will take place at levels that are comparable with those of 2007. If Mike Rumbles is patient, I will give him the opportunity to intervene.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The cabinet secretary has already heard me refer to the statement that she made on 20 June 2007, in which she said:

"After only a month in office, we are already working to meet other parties' demands for 1,000 new teachers."—[Official Report, 20 June 2007; c 882.]

Does she accept not only that the Government has failed to do that but that it has dropped 1,000 new teachers? Does she take personal responsibility for that failure?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

If Mike Rumbles had been listening, he would have heard me make the point that in August 2007 we provided £9 million in extra baseline funding for 300 additional teachers. Do I take responsibility for putting extra funding into education to increase teacher numbers? I do indeed.

More primary and secondary teachers are in employment now than in any year of the previous Administration except 2006. Even with the reduction in teacher numbers, we are still making progress. We have the lowest class sizes in primary 1 to P7, the lowest pupil to teacher ratios and record-level funding for pupils. There has been a real-terms increase, despite the tight settlement from Westminster. Murdo Fraser provided us with a reality check. The £500 million of public sector cuts that may extend into the future are a serious agenda, which is why quality in education must be the focus.

I am conscious of time and want to address the Conservative amendment. Elizabeth Smith talked about issues related to assessment. Work on assessment generally, and on literacy and numeracy in particular, continues. I have already stated publicly that the assessment framework plans will be announced this summer. The means for ensuring that primary school children are properly assessed and tested in literacy and numeracy before they leave primary 7 will be part of that framework. As the member knows, the Government is not in favour of external tests in this area, but we need a robust assessment system that is nationally benchmarked.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I will. I am happy to accept the Conservative amendment on the basis that I have outlined.

The Liberal Democrats want us to revert to a centralist form of administration. We think that local authorities, including those that are led by Liberal Democrats, can and will achieve. We will continue to discuss with them how we can roll out the curriculum for excellence to improve our education system.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 10:24, 30 April 2009

I wish to clarify a couple of comments that Murdo Fraser made in relation to our motion. The workforce planning group, as part of the programme that it is working on, could easily address the point that Margaret Smith's motion highlights, about the plan. It would not necessarily cost any more money. I would be interested to see what progress the cabinet secretary will make on the recommendations that the workforce planning group has made—which she has already accepted, of course.

That aside, birthdays and anniversaries, even second ones, are normally happy occasions. The debate perfectly illustrates the fact that this second birthday of the Government is far from being a happy one as far as education is concerned. The catalogue of failures and broken promises that have been inflicted on Scottish education is thicker than the one than Argos provides. The details of failure have been amply demonstrated by various speakers in the debate this morning, so there is no great value in my intruding on private grief within the SNP and on the part of the cabinet secretary, when so many members have already done so much more effectively than I could.

I agree that everyone here recognises the importance of a good education base for the success of individuals in our country. All the political parties, including the Liberal Democrats, made substantial commitments on education two years ago. In the end, however—this is the point of our motion—the SNP became the Administration on the back of its substantial promises, including a brick-for-brick pledge and the commitment on class sizes. At current rates, as Margaret Smith has already said, it would take 87 years to bring them down. The SNP also made promises on the numbers of teachers, nursery teachers and training places, on student support, and so on. It is the SNP that must be held to account. This is not a comparative exercise about who is doing better. The fact is that the SNP made its commitments, but has universally failed to deliver on them.

"Scottish education has been lacking in strong political leadership. It's time for new energy, actual delivery".

It was not me who said that, but I agree entirely with the cabinet secretary's assessment—although how she could have known when she said it just how badly the SNP was going to do is a mystery.

The lack of teachers in Scottish schools is a ticking time bomb in education. Well, cabinet secretary, that time bomb has exploded on your watch. Who are you going to blame this time? Are you going to blame Westminster? Most of the events concerned took place before there were any indications of budget cuts in the block grant.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

I will not at this stage, I am afraid.

How about the councils? You cannot blame them, cabinet secretary. You are in a concordat with them. You are supposed to be making them do what you want as part of that concordat. That is what Government is about. However, you are so afraid of rocking the boat—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Could the member speak through the chair?

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer. The cabinet secretary is so afraid of rocking the boat in relation to the concordat that nothing happens. The cabinet secretary made promises as a candidate, time and again. There was press release after press release—and I have every one of them with me here.

One deputy minister has already been sacrificed on the altar of failure in education—the failure of the cabinet secretary. The new Minister for Schools and Skills has barely had time to get the seat warm but, if the past is anything to go by, he had better not get too comfortable in the job. The cabinet secretary has to take responsibility for the Government's unmitigated failures. She must stand up and be counted—they are the cabinet secretary's failures. Nobody is fooled any more—if anyone ever actually was—by the SNP blaming Westminster for shortages of money, rolling up budgets and claiming that it has given local authorities bigger budgets. It was all in the SNP's manifesto pledges, with no ifs, no buts, no maybes, and nothing contingent on compliance. It is time the SNP Government realised that Lincoln was right: you can fool some of the people some of the time,

"but you can't fool all of the people all the time."

That is coming home to roost for the Government.