Curriculum for Excellence

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 25th February 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 25th February 2010

Good morning. The first item of business is a Liberal Democrat debate on motion S3M-5809, in the name of Margaret Smith, on education.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Why have the Scottish Liberal Democrats decided to focus on the curriculum for excellence in this debate? First, so that we can reiterate our commitment to it. We began the curriculum for excellence process in government, with cross-party backing. From the start, the aim was to introduce a more holistic approach to learning and development that took us beyond teaching to the exam and gave our teachers and schools greater responsibility in shaping the curriculum.

We continue to support the principles that are behind the new curriculum. We want a curriculum that provides opportunities for children and young people to develop as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. However, it is now time—in fact, it is well beyond time—to move from the principles on which we all agree to clear practicalities of implementation on which we can equally agree. The lack of detail and clarity about the practicalities of implementation is a cause for concern for people throughout the sector.

The changes that are involved in the curriculum for excellence and the new qualifications are the most important challenges to face Scottish education in the coming years and it is imperative that we get them right. The 54,000 primary 7 pupils who will enter secondary school in August, begin the curriculum for excellence and eventually sit the new national qualifications are not guinea pigs or lab rats—they are children and their futures depend on everything being implemented and resourced properly in the crucial next four years.

The second reason for the debate is that we want to make it clear that what is most important is not when the curriculum for excellence and national qualifications are introduced but introducing them properly. It would be totally wrong if, for example, the Scottish Qualifications Authority were put under pressure to make quicker decisions on assessments that delivered a limited or flawed model for examinations.

We are not here today to advocate particularly for a delay; we are here to say that, if the key partners that are represented on the curriculum for excellence management board believe that the curriculum cannot be introduced effectively and properly by the autumn and that, consequently, the new national qualifications cannot be introduced in 2013-14, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning must listen to them. He must show leadership on this important issue and let everyone know—we suggest ideally by Easter—whether the timetable is realistic and can be delivered.

Teachers, pupils and parents all want an answer sooner rather than later. We suggest Easter as we believe that it is reasonable to give teachers a full teaching term to deal with whatever needs to be done in preparation for the introduction of the curriculum for excellence after the summer break. That would be particularly relevant if any increases in continuing professional development were made before the curriculum's introduction.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary has his reasons for not accepting our suggestion on the timescale in his amendment and I look forward to hearing them but, whether or not a decision is made by Easter, it is clear that decisions should be taken soon. I do not wish to be accused of dancing on the head of a pin with the cabinet secretary about timescales—indeed, I do not want to be accused of dancing anywhere with him—but we need to know exactly what he means by a "few months" in his amendment. Does that mean six months or by April or May?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

It takes two to tango.

We are certainly talking about a matter of months and well before summer. There is a strong technical reason for not choosing Easter.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will elucidate his reasons for not choosing Easter and we are interested to hear those.

We do not suggest that, if the curriculum for excellence does not proceed in the autumn, the preparation work should come to a halt—quite the opposite. We want the work on national assessment resources for all subjects to continue; we want CPD to continue; we want planning to continue; we want engagement with parents to begin in earnest; and we want all the relevant partners to ensure that the necessary resources are in place for implementation.

The cabinet secretary must listen to the key groups that are represented on the management board—the teaching unions, the SQA, Skills Development Scotland and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education—but it is also essential that he gets out there and listens to teachers, headteachers and parents about what is and is not happening on the ground. There is a lack of clarity—each and every MSP knows that. Each and every MSP knows that progress in their constituency is patchy. That simply is not good enough when we are close to the proposed implementation date of August.

The third reason why the debate is important now is that a perfect educational storm is making the continuing implementation of the curriculum for excellence difficult—some might say impossible. Our motion refers to some challenges that face local authorities. We know that schools are dealing with the consequences of budget cuts and that, if anything, the coming two years will be even worse.

Parent councils in Edinburgh wrote to local MSPs recently to outline the impact that cuts would have in local schools. I am delighted that the City of Edinburgh Council was able to minimise the cuts, but the parent councils' document highlighted the fact that a consequence of cuts was less development and management time for senior management teams, which must do more classroom teaching instead of preparing for the curriculum for excellence. One great failing of the process so far is that few parents understand what the curriculum for excellence means for their kids, but they worry that budget cuts in schools will badly affect implementation and development.

Teachers are at the heart of the new curriculum. We will rely on their commitment and professionalism and they will assume greater autonomy over what they teach in Scotland's classrooms. Most teachers welcome that, but concern is increasing that insufficient CPD in-service days have been allocated and that guidance on what they are expected to teach and—until recently—how that will be assessed has been insufficient. Even now that exemplars are due out in the summer, national assessment resources will begin to be available only in the autumn. The resources will start with literacy, numeracy and healthy living, and other subjects will follow at some pace or another.

At a time when we will rely increasingly on Scotland's teachers, the Government has presided over a drop of more than 2,000 in the 53,000 teachers it inherited. Throughout Scotland, university staff unions are concerned that plans to strip a further 1,500 teacher training places out of the system this year might do lasting damage to the capacity of Scotland's teacher training schools to meet the need to train teachers to replace the third of the workforce that is likely to retire in the next five years.

Ronnie Smith of the Educational Institute of Scotland shares those concerns. He said:

"These drastic cuts in teacher numbers are ... threatening the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence, which simply cannot be delivered in an environment of continuing cuts to education budgets and drastic reductions in teacher numbers."

We believe that all the political parties are committed to the curriculum for excellence. In principle, it is the right approach for education in Scotland. We want it to succeed, but we are concerned by the concern of parents, teachers and others throughout Scotland about basic questions on the practical implementation of national qualifications, such as when their children can decide the courses that they will take, how the interface with general teaching and learning in broad subjects up to third year will operate and when national qualification 4 will start. All those practical questions remain to an extent unanswered and that is not good enough.

We need clear leadership from the cabinet secretary. We need a clear steer in the next few weeks on whether the development timetable, which says that the curriculum for excellence will begin in the autumn and that national qualifications will begin in 2013-14, is realistic.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I must hurry you, please.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

If the timetable is not realistic, the cabinet secretary must show leadership and say that our children's future is more important than an arbitrary timetable. We need a decision on that in the next few weeks—we suggest by Easter. I will listen with interest to what he says.

I move,

That the Parliament supports the full and effective implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence; notes the ongoing concerns of teaching unions, education academics and parents' organisations about the lack of clarity and the impact of education budget cuts and reduced teacher numbers and training places on implementation plans; agrees that it is essential that the new curriculum and assessment arrangements, including literacy and numeracy tests, are properly resourced over the full four years and that teachers are given the required continuing professional development and support; believes that if this cannot be guaranteed then the Scottish Government must be prepared to give the implementation process more time, and recommends that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning take advice about the timetable from the Curriculum for Excellence Management Board with a view to making a final decision about the timetable for the introduction of the new curriculum by Easter.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 9:23 am, 25th February 2010

I thank Margaret Smith for lodging the motion and I hope and expect to thank Liz Smith, Des McNulty, Ken Macintosh and others for their positive contributions to the debate.

I am glad that members throughout the chamber accept that we are not talking about the curriculum for excellence as something that should or should not happen. I will marginally correct Margaret Smith—it is wrong to say that the issue is the beginning of the curriculum for excellence, which is working well in primary schools. The issue is its implementation in the secondary sector. We can all agree that that is the core matter that we are discussing.

The timetable is not arbitrary. The management board has set the timetable, which education ministers of two Governments have agreed again and again. We are talking about a timetable that is not arbitrary—that word was used—but was agreed. However, I agree that it needs to be looked at from time to time.

We all know that our children and young people must be equipped to respond to the demands and opportunities of our changing world. That is axiomatic. In Scotland, we have been talking about change for nearly a decade. I was going to say that several of us in the chamber were members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee when it held an inquiry into the purposes of Scottish education in 2002-03, but I think that I am the only member in the chamber who was a member of that committee at that time. [Interruption.] Mr Macintosh is indicating that he, too, was a member. How could I have forgotten that? Perhaps I wanted to blank it from my memory.

Mr Macintosh and I took part in the inquiry. The objectives that the committee set for the future of Scottish education are fully reflected in the curriculum for excellence, as are the outcomes of the Liberal-Labour Executive's national debate on education. We have now arrived at the point where the national policy decisions that were presaged in 2002-03 are being fully realised. However, it is entirely proper for the chamber to stand back and say, "Do we need to do more?" Let us remember why the changes are coming in, but let us also ask ourselves whether we are doing things in exactly the way that we should, because circumstances and times change.

There is no doubt that Scottish education performance compares well internationally and with the other parts of these islands, but children's attainment has plateaued over the past decade. We perform well, but not well enough; others are catching up with us and, in some cases, exceeding us. Yesterday, all of us across the political spectrum were united in expressing concern that the Scottish survey of achievement results have plateaued too. There is a very obvious deterioration the further through the system one goes. That is why secondary education needs to change. It is axiomatic; it is there before our eyes in the SSA.

We have to accept that, instead of there being a cost in going ahead, there may be a cost in delay. I raise that as a genuine issue. The cost may be in the achievement of children in the secondary sector, if we accept, as the chamber does, that the curriculum for excellence is the right set of reforms for the secondary sector. Another cost may be in building and developing the professionalism of our teachers. That issue must be put in the balance.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The minister is right in saying that we have to get this right for the long term, but Margaret Smith's point was that our children are educated once. It is very important to get it right for the children who will start their secondary education this year.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I do not dispute that for a moment. We need to do the best for our children. The issue with which the chamber is struggling is whether the changes that we want to make, which we know are the right ones in the longer term, are sufficiently well developed to have an immediate impact when they are introduced. I accept that that is the issue that we have to discuss.

A number of things have to be considered in the balance. The assessment framework that was published last month sets out in straightforward terms what we want children and young people to achieve and how we will know that they are making progress. That is a positive. Work is progressing well between the management board and the SQA to develop the new national qualifications. We know that that, too, is a positive. Significant resources have been put in place. Indeed, we have extended CPD, although that has not been an unqualified success. Last night, I received an irate e-mail from a parent in which they said that it was outrageous that there was to be yet another day on which teachers were not teaching but learning. You cannot win all the time on this front. We are putting in significant resources to CPD—there is an additional CPD day. I have said repeatedly that we will provide additional resources to local authorities to ensure that all the needs are met.

The Parliament has to acknowledge the huge range of activity that is under way by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, local authorities, Learning and Teaching Scotland and others. Of course, in the balance, we also have to consider the views of teachers. I assure Margaret Smith that I am listening to headteachers and others in secondary schools every day. This very morning, before I came to the chamber, I had a long telephone conversation with a senior headteacher. I am having that type of conversation with classroom teachers and headteachers day in, day out and when I visit schools. I am very conscious of their views.

The curriculum for excellence management board is meeting today. Indeed, I cannot attend to hear its advice because I am here listening to the Liberal Democrats telling me to listen to its advice. The board is considering the issue at its meeting today. I am examining the evidence and talking to the stakeholders. I give the chamber an absolute assurance that, if the evidence says, "We want to do things in a different way," we will do them in a different way. That includes perhaps delaying the in-point and ensuring that the system works for those children who enter secondary school this August. There will be no delay for delay's sake, but delay if the evidence proves it.

I lodged the amendment in my name because I think that the evidence will build towards a decision some time within the next few months. Easter falls on 4 April and I cannot guarantee that the evidence will have built by that date. However, I give the chamber the assurance that I am looking at and listening to the evidence—I will be very open to all the evidence that comes to me—and, provided that the Easter barrier is taken away, I have no difficulty in supporting the motion. Indeed, I have no difficulty in supporting the other amendments. My only problem in doing that is a technical one: Labour's amendment pre-empts my amendment. I am trying to be unselfish, but I have not got that far. I will support my amendment and not the Labour amendment.

The debate is an important one, and it needs to be positive. That is the spirit in which I tried to approach it this morning.

I move amendment S3M-5809.3, to leave out "by Easter" and insert:

"within a reasonable timeframe over the next few months".

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 9:31 am, 25th February 2010

I thank Margaret Smith and the Liberal Democrats for bringing the curriculum for excellence to the chamber once more. The members of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee discussed the matter with the cabinet secretary at our last meeting before the recess, I think that I am giving away no secrets in saying that I found the experience frustrating. Yet again, we seemed to be left with more questions than answers. As Margaret Smith said, the curriculum for excellence is suffering simply from a lack of clarity and direction. Some decisiveness from the cabinet secretary would go a long way to addressing many of the outstanding concerns. The tone of the cabinet secretary's opening speech was very welcome but, yet again, he seemed to be describing the problems instead of offering the guidance that we all seek.

We have been debating the curriculum for excellence in the Parliament for several years now, yet the Scottish Government seems to be unable or unwilling to answer the most basic question on what the curriculum for excellence means for our schools. That became evident when I took a quick look back over our previous debates. For example, in 2007, the legacy paper of the previous session's Education Committee suggested that

"the successor committee may wish to consider seeking an early update from the Scottish Executive" on the new curriculum. In February 2008, I asked Scottish Government officials what the curriculum for excellence would

"look and feel like. Will the current situation remain, whereby most secondary schools have a boxed curriculum"?—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 27 February 2008; c 668.]

In March 2008, I asked witnesses to the committee what the exams or the curriculum would look like and what decisions would have to be taken. In January 2009, I asked the cabinet secretary's predecessor whether she could describe to me in simple language what the secondary school curriculum would look like under her plans. I asked how many subjects pupils would choose and at what stage.

I am not the only member to ask those questions. Elizabeth Smith, Mary Mulligan, Margaret Smith and, before her, Jeremy Purvis have all asked them. Everyone—MSP, teacher or parent—wants to know the same things. In particular, we want to know what the impact of the curriculum for excellence will be on a typical secondary school pupil's timetable. How will it affect subject choice?

It is fairly easy to grasp how the new curriculum for excellence will work—indeed, is working—in our primary schools. The concepts behind the new curriculum lend themselves to open learning. However, the landscape of the secondary school is dominated by single subjects. Choices are often made with the end point of exams and qualifications in mind. Given that, it becomes harder to understand how themed learning will operate. That is not a new difficulty; it was flagged up from the word go. It is therefore deeply worrying that we still do not know how many subjects a pupil will take in third or fourth year and how many exams they will sit. Will they start to study for those exams in third year? Is so, how many will they do and on what criteria?

Many of the questions surrounding the curriculum for excellence are tied up in the nature of the examinable curriculum and the point at which it starts. One of the original—indeed, continuing—motivations behind the new curriculum is that it would help us to move away from an exam-dominated system. The idea was that it would take us away from teaching to the test and de-professionalised teachers. However, so far, we do not seem to have got rid of many exams. Abolishing standard grades was almost a free hit, given that some schools had stopped offering them to pupils several years ago. Intermediates have simply been renamed or replaced. In fact, we have now introduced new qualifications in literacy and numeracy, although the debate continues on how the tests will be regarded if they are not externally tested or moderated.

As we know, teachers and parents have quite varied views on testing. Parents want to know how well their child is doing. Of course, any assessment of a child's performance, attainment or achievement can be used to assess the performance or attainment of teachers.

No one has ever pretended that that is an easy balance to strike, but the cabinet secretary would do all of us a favour if he were a bit more honest and straightforward about his views. There is nothing wrong with having further discussion of the issues but, in seeking consensus, the cabinet secretary should be aware that consensus may not exist. I am left with the impression that this is a difficult decision postponed; rather than incur the wrath of some vested interest, it is better to leave the matter and hope that the good old Scottish educational establishment will muddle through, as always. Of course, the good old educational establishment will muddle through, but is that what we really want from this innovative reform? Just as we have yet really to face up to tough choices on testing, so we remain in the dark about teaching by subject at secondary school.

Mr Russell suggested to the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee that any criticism of the Government was criticism of the curriculum for excellence working group or was in some way disloyal or unhelpful to our overall policy direction. In fact, when answering my questions, he suggested that I was asking the wrong questions. Without wishing to offend the cabinet secretary—I worry about his sensitivity—I make clear that we are interested only in restoring confidence in the curriculum for excellence and securing the future of our pupils. Given that all the Opposition parties are united in asking the same questions, is it not time that we heard some answers?

I move amendment S3M-5809.2, to leave out from "and that teachers" to end and insert:

"believes that the professional development of teachers and the updating of their skills is vital to successful implementation; asks the Scottish Government, in conjunction with local authorities, to ensure that the continuing professional development needed to underpin the Curriculum for Excellence is put in place; considers that greater clarity is urgently needed for teachers and parents regarding the impact on subject choice in secondary schools and the standards that will be set for the new levels of qualification, together with reassurance that the necessary resources will be made available, and asks that consideration is given to greater consultation with parents and the involvement of parent representatives in the management and co-ordination of the implementation process."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 9:36 am, 25th February 2010

I welcome the fact that the Liberals have brought this debate to Parliament, as it affords us the opportunity to reaffirm our strong commitment to the principles of the curriculum for excellence. More important, it gives us the opportunity to address with some urgency the remaining challenges, if we are to ensure that the benefits of the curriculum for excellence are successfully implemented in our schools and in the reform of the SQA examination system.

Most people know when they meet someone who is well educated—it shows in the way in which they behave, their conversation and their range of interests, as well as in the skills that they bring to their occupation. A good education is about acquiring the basic skills in literacy and numeracy at an early age, acquiring a good understanding of the world around one and the ability to gain qualifications. However, it is about far more than just passing exams—it is about the qualities that give people good judgment, self-confidence, self-esteem and a sense of responsibility as a citizen in a community. For me, the curriculum for excellence must be about striking an effective balance between improving the academic rigour of our qualifications and making learning more relevant and meaningful to each child, so that they are better prepared with the skills that they require for life after school.

So far, so good. However, as other members have said, there is no doubt that serious questions remain about the implementation of the curriculum for excellence. That is why we have sympathy with the content of the Liberal motion and the timescale that it proposes. If, as I am sure the cabinet secretary has done, we listen to classroom teachers, headteachers, the teaching unions and various educational commentators, representatives of whom have appeared before the committee, we find that there is deep concern—even, dare I say, despair in some quarters—that teachers, especially those in secondary schools, do not feel that they have been fully engaged in the process of developing the curriculum for excellence, that too many of the guidelines are woolly and vague and that insufficient time has been allocated to improving teachers' CPD training in this area.

There is enough concern to suggest that it might be preferable to introduce a short delay in implementation. Six years down the line on the curriculum for excellence, the Scottish Government should be able to make a timing decision. One teacher summed up the situation well in a comment to the Times Educational Supplement that

"this is the biggest and most exciting curriculum change in schools for a generation but the one for which teachers are least prepared."

In other words, they were positive about the principles that underpin the curriculum for excellence but warned that time is crucial if the change is to work to best advantage.

Of course, matters were made much worse by the fact that, at the same time as introducing this major reform, the Scottish Government piled substantial other pressures on our local authority education departments—expensive and, dare I say, wrong-headed priorities such as insisting on class sizes of 18 or fewer in primary 1 to 3 and universal free school meals. Those policies meant that in some cases, resources were diverted away from the curriculum for excellence.

In my final minute, I turn to the question of raising standards throughout Scottish schools. Rightly, the cabinet secretary identified that as the main ambition of the curriculum for excellence, but it will happen only if there is a determined effort to provide more formal vocational options for pupils in the early years of secondary school and to restore more academic rigour to the SQA examination system—academic rigour that recognises the importance of what the cabinet secretary described to the committee as the "deepening experience" of the curriculum for excellence, involves pursuing greater knowledge and understanding of relevant subject content and enables those pupils who wish to pursue academic courses to develop sophisticated interpretive and analytical skills that are so eagerly sought by employers in this country. I take nothing away from the excellent teaching and hard work that our teachers and pupils undertake, but I worry greatly that the constant "improvement" in exam passes increasingly reflects the ability to recall key bullet points of a limited range of knowledge rather than the ability to develop more sophisticated argument and analytical thinking.

On the same point, the cabinet secretary is aware of my concerns about the accessibility of the advanced higher, which I consider to be one of the best aspects of Scottish education. That will not remain the case if too few pupils are able to access the course that they need and we cannot stretch our brightest pupils to the full.

We have a huge opportunity to get this right, but we need to be much more far-sighted about promoting excellence in its widest sense. If that means a slight delay in the implementation of the curriculum for excellence, so be it. However, we must also ensure that the proposed reforms of the SQA reflect our ambitions.

I move amendment S3M-5809.1, to insert at end:

", and further seeks an assurance from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning that the reform of the exam system accompanying the Curriculum for Excellence will provide sufficient academic rigour and skills-based testing so as to ensure the highest possible standards of attainment in Scottish schools."

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to the open debate. Members will have picked up that we have a little time in hand, but I stress the word "little". Speeches should be no more than four and a half minutes long.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 9:41 am, 25th February 2010

At the weekend, I watched with interest "The Politics Show", because that is what all of us do at the weekend. Glenn Campbell was interviewing Colin Sutherland, head of North Berwick high school and chair of School Leaders Scotland, which is the new incarnation of the Headteachers Association of Scotland. If I recall Mr Sutherland's comments correctly, he said that the Scottish Government had issued all the high-level documents for the curriculum for excellence, that the preparatory work had been done properly and that, as long as the implementation timescale was followed properly, we were, in his words, "good to go".

Mr Sutherland told all of us who had gathered around our tellies for our weekend fix of political news that the Scottish Government had already given teaching staff extra time to prepare for the introduction of the curriculum for excellence—extra in-service days and so on—and that headteachers were grateful for that consideration. He winged a wee warning or two across the bows, saying that we are now trying to peer into the future with the curriculum for excellence, that staff need to know where it is leading, that timelines must be adhered to and that qualifications must be well prepared. However, by and large, he was positive and upbeat about the implementation of the curriculum.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Does the member accept that Mr Sutherland also said that it was highly unfortunate that the implementation of the curriculum for excellence was taking place at a time of great financial pressure and that that was a major worry?

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I was not, but someone obviously was.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I do not believe Margaret Smith—I think that, just like me, she was in front of her telly on Sunday watching "The Politics Show". I understand that Mr Sutherland made the point to which Margaret Smith refers. All of us recognise that financial pressures will affect every issue that comes up in the circle of politics at the moment.

If headteachers are not only content with the implementation programme but positive enough to sound upbeat—just like Margaret Smith—we must be heading in the right direction. As with everything else in these times of tightening fiscal belts, finances are a worry, but Mr Sutherland made clear on the BBC that implementing the curriculum for excellence should not cost money in most subjects and can be done at nearly neutral cost overall; he is very positive. Where there are funding requirements—I assume that the cabinet secretary will correct me if I am wrong—the Scottish Government will ensure that the resources that are needed to implement the curriculum will be made available.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

In my opinion, the curriculum for excellence is a good move for Scottish education. For the first time ever, Scotland will have a unified system from three to 18—a through-school experience to aid pupils' learning. That is a prize for which it is worth competing and undertaking some change.

We must wrangle clarity over the qualifications landscape that will come into being over the next few years; concerns have been expressed about that issue. The introduction of the baccalaureate was a good start, but we must go further by developing it and extending it to cover other subject areas. The baccalaureate is a high-level, high-quality qualification that allows Scottish pupils to benchmark their qualifications against others internationally and to demonstrate their outstanding ability. I have seen some of the pupils who undertook the first course, and they seemed to enjoy it a great deal. I believe that the baccalaureate will be a success. We know what it will entail for all subjects as it is rolled out, but we must clarify what is coming down the line.

We must get the details for national 4 and national 5 tidied up and presented properly, so that teachers who are teaching now know in what direction pupils will head in later years.

I should declare an interest. I have a son in primary 7, who is heading to high school after the summer. As a parent, I have some concerns, but I must say that some of the subjects that he is studying in primary school, some of the things that he is coming home with and some of the things that he is involved in have sparked in him an interest in subjects that perhaps would not have interested him in the past. It is a different style of learning, but he seems to be really enjoying it and it is working for him.

My son has his new manual for secondary school, and North Lanarkshire Council has done a brilliant job in explaining to parents what the curriculum for excellence is, how it will be merged into all the subjects, and how it will work. As a parent, I have some concerns, but the excellent work that I can see going on allays my fears.

We need the details on new awards and assessments of literacy and numeracy to be laid out as soon as possible and the review of higher and advanced higher courses to be completed and solidified in short order. It would seem from Colin Sutherland's upbeat interview that our schools are confident that they can get there and that they are comfortable with the curriculum. If we can address the few minor concerns, it is clear that the curriculum will deliver what we want it to deliver and within the planned timescale.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 9:45 am, 25th February 2010

I am not an expert on the curriculum for excellence, as will fast become obvious, but I am an enthusiast for it, not least from talking to several headteachers in my constituency, one of whom, for example, described the creativity and flexibility that were already being unleashed in her primary school.

I am an enthusiast also because I remember how it all began. I recognise the continuity between what the cabinet secretary is seeking to achieve and the national debate on education that took place eight years ago. I was interested in a comment by Don Ledingham, who is a leading director of education in Scotland. He wrote recently that

"the most remarkable thing about Curriculum for Excellence in 2010 is that it does so closely match our aspirations identified from the 2002 National Debate on Education, informed—as it was—by unions, headteachers, local authorities, parents and academics."

In that debate, people argued for a range of changes, such as reducing overcrowding in the curriculum and making learning more enjoyable, better connecting the various stages of the curriculum from three to 18, and equipping young people with the skills that they will need in tomorrow's workforce. It is important to communicate to parents and the wider population not only that enthusiasm but some of the detail of the curriculum, because people are crying out for that.

It is also important to address the concerns that exist. I raised a concern a few months ago following representations from the Royal Society of Edinburgh—I am sure that the cabinet secretary always takes its views seriously. It may be that some of the issues that it raised have been dealt with, but I will briefly repeat what I said in a debate a few months ago about its concerns, in particular that, without a common understanding of the structure of the curriculum, there is a danger of different agendas developing across Scotland. If the cabinet secretary has time, I would welcome a response to that.

Other concerns are expressed in the Labour amendment, and are about the importance of continuing professional development, clarity about qualifications and, crucially, greater consultation and involvement of parents. I am glad that the cabinet secretary said that, in principle, he accepts those demands.

The biggest problem, however, is the financial environment in which the curriculum for excellence is being introduced, and it is relevant to touch on the issues that have come up in other recent debates. Margaret Smith talked about how the City of Edinburgh Council has minimised the cuts, and I pay tribute to the great campaign waged by parents and teachers in achieving some improvements in that regard. However, it would be wrong of me not to remind members, on behalf of my constituents, that we still face cuts of £2.44 million in devolved school budgets in Edinburgh, of £655,000 in community high schools and of a further £1.355 million through unspecified savings in school budgets that are still to be announced.

It is crucial for the curriculum for excellence in particular that we have an adequate number of teachers—Margaret Smith emphasised that. We must be concerned about the introduction of the curriculum for excellence in an environment in which, as we know, we have lost 2,000 teachers in Scotland in the past two or three years.

That leads to the key theme that I have been advocating in the past few weeks. Particularly with the new spending review coming up and the difficult budgets that we all face, we must decide to prioritise school budgets and find a mechanism to make that possible. As we know, the Scottish Government has no levers to ensure that school budgets are prioritised. While I am enthusiastic for the curriculum for excellence, I think that it needs to be supported by the prioritisation of school budgets in the next three years.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party 9:50 am, 25th February 2010

The curriculum for excellence is designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: to provide excellent education for every single school pupil in Scotland. Members have heard many times, often in education debates and often on a Thursday morning, about the importance of equipping our younger generations with the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed personally and contribute to the wellbeing of our society.

We all want the curriculum for excellence to take root in our schools and deliver its goals of relevant, inspiring and engaging education for every pupil. I welcome the Liberal Democrats' support for the full and effective implementation of the curriculum, and they are right to say that it is important for the implementation process to be given enough time to have maximum effect. That is precisely why the cabinet secretary wrote to every teacher in Scotland at the start of this year to outline the road map for the next stages of implementation. Schools have already been provided with an additional year for implementation, and I know that the Government will always take advice from the curriculum for excellence management board in implementing changes, as the motion suggests. The cabinet secretary's letter also confirmed that teachers will be provided with an additional in-service day focused on the implementation of the curriculum for excellence, on top of the three additional days that have already been held.

In addition, the Scottish Government is providing £4 million towards the recruitment of 100 extra teachers who will provide support for implementation. Those 100 teachers will be employed in classrooms across the country and will free up 100 experienced colleagues to support curriculum for excellence implementation at national and local level.

Of course, it will take time for all the impacts of the curriculum for excellence to come into force. From August, we expect that pupils will be learning under the new curriculum, but it is clear that the first qualifications under the curriculum will not be offered until 2013-14.

The Liberal Democrats' motion mentions literacy and numeracy, and I hope that they will have been reassured by the debate on the report of the literacy commission last month, when the Parliament united to support the development of a literacy action plan in the context of the curriculum for excellence. Literacy is embedded across the curriculum, and every teacher is responsible for literacy because, as the commission recognises, literacy is acquired not just in English classes but in interaction with others and in applying cognition and communication skills in a range of situations and environments.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I am happy to echo the member's comments, but there is a little lack of clarity in knowing what the embedding of literacy will mean in reality. What in the new system will be different from what good teachers are already doing in their subject areas?

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

It is a question of taking forward best practice and ensuring that what is happening now is embedded in the new curriculum. That is why the plan gathered support from parties throughout the chamber.

Delivery of the curriculum for excellence is a key part of the concordat and the national performance framework that was agreed between the Scottish Government and local authorities. I have every confidence that local authorities of every colour take their responsibility to Scotland's education seriously, and I am sure that they will use the resources that they have been provided with to implement the curriculum for excellence. As we all know, it is local authorities that are responsible for hiring teachers, and I am sure that all members will be disappointed if they hear of local authorities that appear not to be taking that responsibility seriously.

There is some suggestion that funds are not in place to ensure the appropriate delivery of the curriculum for excellence. In fact, the Scottish Government has provided increasing resources to local authorities in the face of the most difficult spending round since devolution began. Indeed, returns to the Scottish Government in July 2009 showed that local authority education budgets were set 4.1 per cent higher in this financial year than in 2008-09.

I agree that Scotland should not have to deal with budget cuts imposed on it by the United Kingdom Treasury. In the coming weeks and months, people in Scotland will have important choices to make about the future of education and public services in this country. Will it be teachers or Trident, workbooks or illegal wars, ideas or identification cards? There is at least one party in this chamber, led by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, that does not seem to prioritise education and public services in the way that the Scottish Government does. The people of Scotland will decide what the priorities should be.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour 9:54 am, 25th February 2010

I have a great fondness for Margaret Smith—[ Interruption ]—as does Mike Russell, but I cannot let her get away with eliding the fact that one of the authorities that is making the biggest cuts in education is Liberal Democrat-controlled City of Edinburgh Council. Her words amount to no more than crocodile tears.

Margaret Smith said that, if the curriculum for excellence is to be implemented, it must be resourced properly for the next four years. Let us consider the City of Edinburgh Council, which is led by the Liberal Democrats, in alliance with the Scottish National Party. Like Christina McKelvie, I declare an interest, not as a parent but as a grandparent who has two grandchildren in Edinburgh.

As you know, Presiding Officer, I normally criticise the SNP Government. However, on this occasion, thanks to the generosity of Alistair Darling, the SNP Scottish Government has allocated £810.885 million to the City of Edinburgh Council for the current year, which represents an increase of more than £14 million, or 1.76 per cent. That is enough to enable the council to protect and preserve education. Cuts can be found elsewhere, among top salaries, back-room services and a range of other things.

However, the City of Edinburgh Council has made the wrong decisions. It initially proposed cuts of 2.5 per cent, but, as Malcolm Chisholm said, thanks to a great campaign by parents, teachers and elected representatives, which was led by the Edinburgh parent council network, the proposed cuts were reduced to 1 per cent. That decision was pushed through, particularly by the Liberal Democrats—as members know, in Edinburgh decisions depend on the casting vote of the lord provost. The education convener is a Liberal Democrat; the leader of the council, Jenny Dawe, is a Liberal Democrat—

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I have only four minutes.

The lord provost, George Grubb, who used his casting vote, is a Liberal Democrat. The Liberal Democrats pushed the decision through.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

Thank you for allowing me to cut in. Will you manage to go through your entire speech gliding over and sashaying across the fact that the Labour Government at Westminster has taken us into a recession and kept us in a recession, which means that everything that affects the children and parents of Edinburgh is the result of the trickle-down economics of your Government's recession?

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

It is not the Presiding Officer's Government; it is my Government.

The lady has not listened to what I said. The City of Edinburgh Council has an increase of more than £14 million. It has a 1.76 per cent increase. I will spell it out for Margaret Smith: i-n-c-r-e-a-s-e. Nevertheless, the council has implemented cuts, which means that £40,000 will be cut from the budget of an average high school and £10,000 from an average primary school—and this is only the first year of what we expect will be three or four years of cuts if the Liberal Democrat-SNP administration in Edinburgh has its way.

The council has also closed four primary schools, including Drumbrae primary school, in Margaret Smith's constituency. Liberal Democrat Marilyne MacLaren misrepresented the views of the parents at the education committee—[Interruption.]

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

She did! She misrepresented the views in the consultation at the full council meeting. As a result of the closure of those schools it will be much more difficult to implement the curriculum for excellence. Sometimes the Liberal Democrats ought to recognise that they are not as holy as they would like us to think they are.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 9:59 am, 25th February 2010

We have just witnessed either a stand-up comedy routine or a spelling bee. I say to Lord Foulkes, consider Glasgow City Council and the Labour Party. That should put you firmly in your place.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am sorry to interrupt. There is too much use of the word "you", which should apply only to me.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I apologise, Presiding Officer. I should have said that that should put Lord Foulkes firmly in his place.

I acknowledge the—mostly—constructive tone of the debate, and I hope that the constructive tone of the Liberal Democrat motion, in particular, signals a change in tone in general when we discuss education in the Parliament. In debates in the past, tabloid-style slogans such as "education in crisis" have been bandied about. Such a heated style of debate has done no one any good, including our parents, teachers and students—indeed, it has done them a disservice.

I acknowledge that there is anxiety among teachers about the implementation of the curriculum for excellence. Teachers' concerns must be listened to and addressed. That is what the Scottish Government is doing, and it is what the Liberal Democrats are doing by using their debating time to provide constructive opposition and bring focus to the issue and discuss it further.

Should the curriculum for excellence be implemented this autumn? Perhaps. However, the cabinet secretary said that the date is not set in stone, although it is clear that the looming deadline will focus minds. Minds are being focused in schools and local authorities, and good progress is being made throughout Scotland. It is understandable that some schools and local authorities will be more geared up than others will be. If there is evidence that curriculum for excellence should be delayed, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that implementation might not need to be delayed throughout Scotland and consider a phased introduction? Perhaps not every school in Scotland needs to jump forward at the same time, if the evidence supports a different approach.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Is the member suggesting that even within local authorities some secondary schools might not implement the curriculum for excellence when others are doing so?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Not at all. I am putting forward an idea, and I will be interested to hear what the cabinet secretary says about it.

We must remember that the curriculum for excellence is not a big bang event. If all schools are required to deliver on the curriculum for excellence this autumn, performance and delivery will surely vary, but that will be the case whatever the implementation date. I am sure that schools that do not implement the curriculum for excellence as fully as others do will learn from best practice elsewhere and develop their expertise in future years. I can say with confidence that whether or not implementation of the curriculum for excellence is delayed, teachers will continue to do a good job and teach our children to the best of their abilities. The curriculum for excellence is a framework for doing not just a good job but the best possible job.

No dark clouds will gather over schools if there is no delay. Nor will everything be sunny and rosy should an additional year be allowed for implementation. I remember that concerns were expressed about the implementation of the five-to-14 curriculum and higher still in Scottish schools. I suspect that reasonable concerns can always be expected as we go through a period of change. There is always uncertainty and trepidation at such times. I have heard that some schools never properly implemented the five-to-14 curriculum over the years. They were supposed to do so, and the documents were sitting on their shelves, but for many people it was a subjective opinion whether implementation had taken place.

Should there be delay? Maybe. Should implementation be phased? Perhaps. Let us consider the evidence. I hope that the Parliament agrees that the cabinet secretary should give us more information in a "few months" rather than "by Easter".

We are close to reaching agreement. The curriculum for excellence is too important to get wrong. We will get it right together. I commend the spirit of the debate.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 10:04 am, 25th February 2010

I emphasise the elements of the debate on which there is consensus. The general principles of the curriculum for excellence were set out by the previous Scottish Executive. At the time, there was broad agreement that the proposed changes were positive. There was general agreement that the amount of assessment in our schools was becoming burdensome, without there being clear evidence that it was improving attainment. There were also concerns about literacy levels in schools. The Parliament debated that issue recently.

This may be a first for me, but I agree with a comment that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Michael Russell made during his recent attendance at the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. He rightly pointed out:

"this is not a year zero in Scottish education. The best of current practices will help to ensure the success of the new system."—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 10 February 2010; c 3150.]

I could not agree more. It is certainly the case in Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire Council, which leads the way in developing co-operative learning and is sharing good practice with many local authorities throughout Scotland.

I firmly agree with the central approach of the curriculum for excellence, which is to relate education to the meaningful experiences of children and young people in a way that correlates with various disciplines. However, we must acknowledge that, although many of our primary schools in Scotland are well prepared for the curriculum for excellence, the same cannot be said of our high schools. I welcome Christina McKelvie's recognition of the good work that North Lanarkshire Council is doing in its high schools—she is not often so keen to praise the council—but the reality is that local authorities' state of preparedness in high schools is patchy throughout Scotland. That is why it is important that we have the debate today.

The cabinet secretary was made well aware of the concerns when he gave evidence to the committee recently. Those concerns focus on resources; support for teachers and education staff during the introduction of the curriculum for excellence; and, importantly, the lack of detail on the implementation of national 4 and 5 qualifications.

On the latter point, Ken Macintosh and Margaret Smith asked the cabinet secretary what they considered to be perfectly reasonable questions, such as: when will pupils begin studying for national 4 and 5 qualifications; how will such decisions be taken; how many subjects will pupils be able to study; and how will the timetable conflicts be managed within a system that is as flexible and child centred as the curriculum for excellence is? As has been pointed out, those are the types of questions that the average parent will want to ask. I appreciate that the cabinet secretary might feel that such questions misunderstand the basic premise of the curriculum for excellence, which should be child centred and flexible. However, with the best will in the world, basic issues such as timetabling and discussions with parents and pupils about subject choices will have to be addressed. Those questions must be answered and, ultimately, it is for the cabinet secretary to answer them.

Questions have also been asked about the additional resources that will be made available to councils to ensure that staff are properly prepared to make the shift to the curriculum for excellence. I welcome the cabinet secretary's initial remarks to the committee on that matter, but there is a need for greater detail on the funding mechanism that is to be used. Indeed, the cabinet secretary needs to go further to prove that he is listening to the concerns that teachers are expressing about continuing professional development.

The curriculum for excellence has the potential to deliver a step change in the quality of education that our children and young people enjoy. It is vital that the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary show the leadership that is required if we are to ensure its success.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 10:08 am, 25th February 2010

I commend Margaret Smith and the Liberal Democrats—not words that pass my lips often—

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Or easily. I commend them on bringing the matter to the Parliament for debate in their business time. As many members have noted, it gives us an opportunity to voice concerns that have been raised about the timetable for implementing the curriculum for excellence in the secondary sector. I agree that, as Margaret Smith underlined, getting it right is far more important than getting it right now, and if a longer timescale will achieve that that is far and away the preferable course of action. The Conservatives welcome the fact that the cabinet secretary has said that he will reflect seriously upon that in light of the debate and the representations that many others in the world of education have made to him.

One of the major challenges facing our education system is how to improve the literacy of children and young people. The recent statistics give no cause for comfort or complacency in that respect, and I welcome the cabinet secretary's sober analysis of the survey of achievement, about which he has spoken this morning. I note that Mr Russell told the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee that literacy is at the core of the curriculum for excellence, and he has said:

"For the first time ... all teachers will be responsible for ... literacy".—[Official Report, 3 December 2009; c 21807.]

I am glad to hear that that is the case, but the minister's assertion that it is a first is a total nonsense. His memory of his own school days, which largely coincided with mine, must be failing him. I reflect on the fact that, in many subjects other than English—such as history, geography and even the sciences—we were required to provide answers in essay form, that the grammar, spelling and sentence structure in those essays were expected to be correct and that we were marked down if they were not. In short, those basic literacy skills were regarded not only as essential tools of the job but as an integral part of it. We have now moved to a tick-box, bullet-point system of answering and assessment that does not reinforce those skills across disciplines and subjects. That must change.

Any change such as the adoption and implementation of the curriculum for excellence requires resources in money and staff. That is self-evident—although apparently not to Christina McKelvie, who thinks that it is cost neutral, a view that is somewhat at odds with the Scottish Government's allocation of nearly £18 million for the scheme's implementation.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, I am sorry.

I would have a lot more sympathy for George Foulkes's criticism of Liberal cuts in education in the City of Edinburgh Council had not the Labour Party closed three primary schools in my constituency in its time in office. Perhaps he ought to reflect on that.

It is truly astonishing that, faced with the important challenge of implementing the curriculum for excellence, the SNP Government has been prepared to waste scarce resources in education on providing free meals to children whose parents can well afford to feed them and, furthermore, to pursue a one-size-fits-all policy on class sizes that will at once exclude children from some of the most popular and successful schools in our country and prevent resources from being focused on schools where additional support is necessary. The fact that the cabinet secretary has in part repented on those policies should not disguise the fact that he, not the hapless Ms Hyslop whom he replaced, was their original architect. Experience suggests that all Mr Russell's pronouncements on education should be treated with scepticism and caution, not least his Damascene conversion on the management of schools this week. Let us hope that he makes a better job of the curriculum for excellence.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 10:12 am, 25th February 2010

I, too, congratulate Margaret Smith on bringing the subject to the Parliament for debate. It is particularly appropriate in the context of the evidence-taking session to which Ken Macintosh referred, that is, the last Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee meeting that Mr Russell attended, at which he was, unfortunately, unable to answer a number of basic questions to which parents would reasonably expect there to be answers at this point.

Many members have spoken strongly in support of the principles that underpin the curriculum for excellence. It is important to recognise that there is a strong cross-party consensus in support of its effective delivery. That should be our starting point.

Although it is important that we debate the curriculum's practicalities and recognise that it should not be implemented according to an inappropriate timetable, it is a matter of regret that the division between the Liberal Democrat motion and the SNP amendment appears to be about whether the lifeboats should be launched at Easter or some months later. It is worrying that the concerns have reached the stage at which an Opposition party—the Liberal Democrats—says that we might be at the point of abandoning the implementation of the curriculum for excellence in 2010.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

If I understand the motion correctly, the Liberal Democrats are saying that consideration should be given to whether it is right to go ahead with implementation and the decision on that should be made by Easter, whereas the minister is saying that it might be more appropriate to consider the matter later. That is a worrying development. At this point, the minister should be focusing on steering the ship and ensuring that implementation is completed according to the timetable that has been set. I remind members that the SNP Government has already delayed the implementation process by a year. Legitimate questions are now being asked, and it is important that we get responses to them.

We need to ensure that continuing professional development arrangements, which everybody agrees are vital to progress matters, are in place.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The member is right. Questions about professional development are crucial. Educational principles and professional development are the key to making the curriculum for excellence work. Margaret Smith has lodged a motion on the timescale. She is not asking for curriculum for excellence to be put off; she is asking for it to be introduced properly.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

As I understand it, she is asking for consideration to be given to delaying the timetable for implementation if certain things cannot be put in place. That is the substance of what she is saying.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I appreciate Elizabeth Smith's attempt to speak for me, which was helpful. However, I made it clear that, even if we do not believe that things are quite right with implementation, there is no question of our saying that we should delay the CPD work and the curriculum for excellence implementation work that is being done. Let us be clear that, if we set the timetable in motion, we are talking about national qualification exams in 2013-14. If the implementation of the curriculum for excellence is not going according to plan, we cannot take the chance of setting in train a course of action that will mean that children will sit exams in 2013-14 that they may not be properly assessed and ready for.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

That is a perfectly fair point, but my argument is that the minister's responsibility is to ensure that all the mechanisms are in place to ensure that we can go ahead as planned. Certain steps must be taken in order to do that. There must be CPD arrangements, and we need clarity about the standard that is to be set for qualification exams across the spectrum. We need to ensure that parents are properly involved and informed about what is going on and about what can be expected of young people at the point of implementation. We require much more detail about the assessment regime than is contained in "Building the Curriculum 5: A framework for assessment", which was published at least a month late, in January.

A series of steps must be taken, and it is crucial that the minister focuses his attention on ensuring that everything is put in place, that the management board gathers all the evidence and all the processes, and that we take forward the process. A delay may be inevitable, and that would be serious. It would be another delay in a process that should have been managed more effectively than it has been so far. It is the minister's responsibility to ensure that what I have outlined happens.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 10:18 am, 25th February 2010

I will deal first with the politics of the matter, because I want to return from Des McNulty's speech to the consensual and constructive nature of the debate. Des McNulty's speech has been the least constructive in the debate, with the inevitable exception of the speech by Lord Foulkes. I was entertained by Lord Foulkes's accusing Margaret Smith of weeping crocodile tears. That is quite a compliment from a man who has wept a swampful of crocodile tears in his time.

Des McNulty's speech was interesting. He is prepared to attack me and the SNP Government, no matter what happens. At one stage, he argued that there needs to be time to develop issues and resolve any problems that there may be, but he then said that there should be no decision on considering the evidence and the time. I regard that as playing naked politics with the curriculum for excellence. His approach is wrong, and his speech was unfortunate.

I return to the substance of what we are debating, which is simple. There are two questions. The first is, should we depart from an agreed timetable? The second is, if we are to depart from that timetable—we need to consider the evidence that we need for doing so—when should a decision on that be made? Those are entirely legitimate questions about a complex programme that our predecessors started. Perhaps the programme got off on wrong feet, but we have tried to correct that, and it has been carried through with the advice and assistance of a range of good people.

It is regrettable that it has been implied on a couple of occasions, exclusively by Labour members, that people have been doing nothing. I think that Mr Macintosh used the phrase "muddling through", which was unfortunate. In Balfron high school, for example, where I will be next week, the headteacher is vigorously pursuing the flexibilities that the curriculum for excellence creates. It does no credit to her, her staff, the council or anybody else who supports that approach to use the term "muddling through". Many good people are trying to ensure that the approach is the best possible. Sometimes new Labour makes accusations about failing to answer questions, but the problem is that it does not get the answers that it wants, so it goes on saying that we have failed to answer the questions.

The reality is that the process is different from previous processes. It puts much-needed flexibility into education. In the debates in 2002 and 2003, we all accepted that that was needed. The process is harnessing creativity and, crucially, it depends on the individual professionalism of teachers. We should encourage those things in the process, not seek rigid standardisation, which is what Mr Macintosh in particular asked for.

The key questions have not gone away. They are whether we should depart from the agreed timetable and when a decision should be made on that.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. My time is limited, and I want to conclude.

I am listening to the evidence, but a variety of people and organisations must gather the evidence. I am, of course, listening to the management board, and I am keen to find out the outcome of its deliberations today. I am listening to bodies such as Learning and Teaching Scotland and the SQA, and particularly to secondary teachers and headteachers; I have made a point of talking to as many of them as possible. Until the process has continued and I know the evidence, it would be wrong to make a decision; if I did, that would be done in an arbitrary way. I accept that a decision cannot wait for ever, but an Easter or 4 April timescale would be arbitrary. I simply ask for flexibility to ensure that I have time to listen to the evidence.

In my opening speech, I presented arguments about why a decision might not be necessary and why the implementation should continue as planned. Equally, there are arguments on the other side, some of which are spurious. I am grateful to George Foulkes for confirming that local authority budgets have risen and that local authorities have the opportunity to choose how to spend their money. There is a range of possibilities for them. They face issues such as pay for teachers and the European Court of Justice ruling about leave during periods of absence, which is putting additional pressure on their funding. Local authorities will make decisions on such matters, but one priority that they must have, and they know this, is to ensure that they focus on how the major change in education that we are discussing, which will broaden and deepen education, free our teachers' abilities and introduce great creativity into our schools—it is doing so—is brought about. I am finding additional resources, even in these difficult times, to allow that to happen.

There are increased resources. Karen Whitefield was entirely wrong about that matter. I respect her point of view on North Lanarkshire, but parents are being involved. I launched the parental toolkit in Kinross some weeks ago, and have just seen a tremendous leaflet for parents from a school in Inverness. That leaflet goes even further and tells parents precisely what is happening and engages them.

Good things are happening everywhere in Scotland. I accept the legitimacy of the question that the Liberal Democrats have asked. I need to engage with that question and I am doing so; I simply ask for the opportunity to do so in the light of the evidence.

I draw members' attention to the position that Mr McNulty has taken and put the Labour Party in. That position essentially politicises the issue once more. Parents and schools do not want that, and secondary teachers, who are at the sharp end of the process, really do not want it.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 10:24 am, 25th February 2010

It is Thursday morning once again, and we are having an education debate once again, which is not wrong. I support the motion in the name of my colleague Margaret Smith. It is entirely appropriate that we review the curriculum for excellence situation. We take comfort from the words of the minister in relation to the timeframe. As Margaret Smith rightly said, we do not want to get into dancing on the head of a pin on that issue.

The debate has been largely consensual, aside from the not-unexpected note of discord that was introduced by Lord Foulkes, who displayed his good literacy skills and his selective amnesia on the role of the Labour administration in the City of Edinburgh Council.

The idea of the curriculum for excellence was first mooted in the Parliament, so we are all enthusiastic. To paraphrase Elizabeth Smith, the curriculum offers the opportunity to produce rounded individuals who not only achieve academically, but have a range of skills that all young people need to take forward into their lives. To that extent, the curriculum for excellence is useful. However, although I am enthusiastic for gravity, I do not quite know how it works. That is the position that parents are in with the curriculum for excellence. They lack clarity on the where, what, when and how.

Karen Whitefield usefully highlighted the differences between primary and secondary school. The teaching methodologies in the primary sector mean that teachers are well used to delivering a range of subject matter and, in most cases, moving seamlessly from one subject to another. The subject-discrete teaching methodologies in the secondary sector mean that the new approach is a little harder there. In the schools across the Central Scotland region that I represent, there are clear differences.

One issue that I hope will be addressed as we proceed is that of CPD, which several members have mentioned. David McLetchie referred to the additional moneys that have been put into that. That money might go to local authorities, but I am concerned that, in times of financial constraint, there are few levers to ensure that the CPD time allocations will be devoted to the new curriculum, as Malcolm Chisholm said. There are indications that that is not necessarily happening. The issue is particularly important for the most vulnerable young people, such as those who have special educational needs and those in independent schools such as the New school, Butterstone and Donaldson's. Their teachers must have maximum opportunity to use that CPD time. The financial pressures on local authorities should not impact negatively on the ability to deliver that.

Liberal Democrats were part of the previous Administration and fully supported the role of curriculum for excellence in developing our young people. However, it is clear that we have difficulties and a shortage of clarity on assessment tools. We must ensure that the necessary resources are available for teachers. My understanding is that the national assessment resource is not expected until about September. That overexpects our teaching staff's ability to pull together materials and get their heads round what they are being asked to do. A report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education in November 2009 suggested that teachers, particularly in the secondary sector, have to pick up the pieces and make sense of what is happening through CPD, but that not all professional development time is being allocated to that. The Government must use the guidelines and the other levers that it can bring to bear to ensure that local authorities use CPD time, and the money to which David McLetchie referred, for those purposes. That has to be a priority and something that is discussed.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member is absolutely right to make that point. That is the condition on which the additional resource to support CPD and staff is allocated. I think that everybody understands that it has to go directly to those tasks.

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

I thank the cabinet secretary for that.

I hear disturbing rumours about the number of classroom assistants that are being cut back in our education system. We cannot expect teachers to have access to CPD, to work and understand fully what is expected of them in the curriculum for excellence if at the same time local authorities, because of financial pressures, are withdrawing the additional support that could give teachers the bit of room that they need to get a firm grasp of the new curriculum.

The debate has broadly speaking been consensual, with the exception that I noted. The commitment throughout the Parliament to the curriculum for excellence is clear. However, we must make much clearer to parents and to the pupils who will take the new examinations what will be expected of them and when. As David McLetchie said, we need to deliver it right, and not necessarily right now.