Literacy Action Plan

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:28 pm on 27th October 2010.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 3:28 pm, 27th October 2010

The next item of business is a statement by Mike Russell on the literacy action plan. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, and there should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:34 pm, 27th October 2010

The development of literacy skills is vital to people of all ages in Scotland. We recognise without question that a strong, successful country requires strong and secure literacy skills.

Literacy is key to life chances for learning, employability and full participation in our society. Without literacy skills, health and wellbeing are impaired or negated. Without literacy skills, the chances of offending and repeat offending behaviour are greater. Without literacy skills, it is also more likely that an individual will live in poverty. Most profoundly of all, the likelihood is that the children of the person without literacy skills will also lack those skills. Without literacy skills, people in our society become locked into a cycle of difficulty that leads to impairment in learning.

In January, during our debate on the literacy commission's report and its recommendations on ways to advance literacy across society, I made a commitment to work with the commission to bring forward an action plan for literacy in Scotland. Today, I am fulfilling that commitment and I am launching the Scottish Government's literacy action plan. This is the first time since devolution that a Scottish Administration has laid out a concerted plan of action aimed at improving literacy levels.

The plan sets out our vision to raise standards of literacy for all, from the early years through to adulthood. It is designed to improve the literacy of all who would benefit from support across the continuum of learning. That will require sustained commitment and continuing action at all levels of Government, and support at all points of the education system and through wider public services. There needs to be a particular focus on those with the lowest levels of literacy. The action plan will build on existing good practice and ensure that literacy will have a central and continuing focus in education and related Government policies. I am confident that it will raise standards.

We have worked closely with members of the literacy commission as we have developed the literacy action plan, drawing on their expertise. I thank them for their support and look forward to working with them as we implement its actions.

The plan draws on the recommendations of the literacy commission, which were set out in its report, "A Vision for Scotland". Those recommendations reflect in great part the aims of the Government, and many of the commission's priorities feature in the literacy action plan.

I am sorry that Rhona Brankin is not in the chamber, but I would like to commend her—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry that Rhona Brankin is not in her usual place, but I am glad that she is in the chamber, as I would like to commend her and others in the Labour Party on the establishment of the literacy commission, which has been a valuable innovation.

It is important to note, without being in any way complacent, that the need to improve literacy is not unique to Scotland. It is a persistent problem throughout the United Kingdom and internationally. The literacy skills of the majority of people in Scotland compare well across the world, but poor literacy among a minority is unacceptable.

We know that the majority of children in Scotland develop a good grounding in literacy skills in early primary education. However, a minority do not and, as pupils progress through primary and into secondary, the proportion that achieves expected levels of literacy decreases. That must be addressed.

We know that the overall Scottish adult population has a good level of literacy skills. Although around 25 per cent of the adult population would benefit from improving their literacy skills, only around 3.6 per cent of the adult population have very limited capabilities. Those results are encouraging, but we still have work to do to reduce the numbers of people who have issues with reading and writing.

We also know that literacy skills are linked to socioeconomic status and levels of deprivation, with those from more deprived areas experiencing lower achievement. Our ambition must be to break that link in order to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish.

The evidence suggests that there need to be a number of priorities across learning: breaking the link between poor literacy levels and deprivation; improving the skills of the few who have difficulties with basic literacy, particularly those who are vulnerable; ensuring that young people progress successfully from basic to advanced literacy skills; and raising advanced literacy skills for all.

The literacy action plan sits within the context of existing policy frameworks, and it is important that it does so. The curriculum for excellence is clearly one of the key routes to drive forward improvement, but the broader education system and wider socioeconomic policy are also important. The early years framework, the curriculum for excellence, the getting it right for every child agenda and our adult literacy and numeracy strategy are of central importance as the national policy frameworks through which we will deliver our vision.

What happens to children in their earliest years is key to outcomes, including the improvement of educational attainment in childhood, adolescence and in adult life. There is a strong relationship between early life experiences and how children learn. Positive influences in the early years are important and will improve a child's life chances.

We will ensure that literacy development is a key priority for our youngest children as they take their first steps into learning, helping to stem the problem of poor literacy early on. We will encourage our early years delivery partners, including those in health and social work as well as in education, to develop new and innovative approaches that will lay the foundations for literacy development for our most vulnerable children.

For school-age learners, curriculum for excellence is already under way. It will ensure that young learners develop the basic literacy skills that they will need to thrive in the 21st century and move beyond those to gain the more advanced skills that will help them to reach their full potential.

Curriculum for excellence inevitably has literacy at its core. Literacy is mainstreamed across all subjects and it is the responsibility of all practitioners to work on it with our young people.

The new Scottish qualifications are progressing with the development of new literacy units, which are available to those in our schools and adult learners. The units will help to develop literacy skills and ensure that learners' attainment is recognised.

We must acknowledge that early identification of a child's additional support needs and learning difficulties is important in breaking down barriers to literacy and attainment. We will therefore encourage all local authorities to ensure the early identification of support needs for each child, and encourage all early years practitioners to be aware of and act on the personalised assessment and the learning and support needs information.

I expect that, for each child, any barriers to literacy will be identified early and appropriate support to overcome those barriers will be put in place. Interventions are most effective before a child falls behind, and it is important that we work together to ensure that no child does so.

We know that as learners progress into adulthood some will still need support to develop their literacy skills. Adult learners have different needs, motivations and personal circumstances, and there are critical transition points at which the provision of support is more important. Those include leaving formal education, finding a job, re-entering a community after a period in prison and becoming a parent. To reach the diverse range of adult learners, we will continue to offer a variety of learning opportunities, with flexible delivery methods and learning programmes that are relevant to learners' lives.

The recently published 2009 Scottish survey of adult literacies provides a good basis on which to move towards a refresh of our existing adult literacy and numeracy strategy, which we will launch by the end of the year. We will build on collaboration with our partners and service providers to strengthen our support for adult learners, particularly those in our most deprived communities. We will build awareness of and access to the appropriate services, ensure that our practitioners are well equipped to support learners and continue to monitor and evaluate impact.

The action plan highlights the importance of supporting young people and adults in the justice system to help to improve their future prospects. That will include prioritised screening for offenders who are likely to have profound and particular literacy difficulties.

Beyond the learning environment and community, there are other key influences on literacy. Employers, for example, have a role in developing vocational literacy skills so that employees can improve their chances in their professional and working lives.

The media, and the broadcast media in particular, can have a strong influence on how we use language, and it has a broader impact on literacy. We will engage with the media to discuss their role and responsibility in contributing to our vision.

We want to develop a strong reading culture in Scotland, where reading is a valued activity from the earliest age. Sharing books in a family environment and the love of reading that it creates enriches the family experience immeasurably, is likely to be passed from generation to generation and has a major beneficial impact on individual outcomes. We will continue to work with partners to support measures to develop Scotland as a literate, reading nation and continue to encourage Scottish writing and publishing activities, on which much Scottish reading depends.

At this time of challenging financial circumstances and huge pressure on resources, it is more important than ever for all of us to work together to improve literacy for all, with a determined focus on the most vulnerable. We must use our combined resources productively to ensure that we achieve our vision for literacy in Scotland.

We will facilitate a broad partnership, including with those agencies that are outwith the formal education sector. We need involvement from all services—including health, justice and employment—that can make a positive contribution to our vision.

We will identify the key support relating to literacy that is currently being delivered by agencies and institutions. That will enable us to make the most effective use of resources, target future work more effectively on priorities and encourage interagency working throughout the country. We have worked closely with many partners to develop the plan, and we will continue to do so as delivery of it progresses.

We want to maintain the momentum that was begun by the Literacy Commission and followed up by the launch of our plan. We will establish a standing literacy commission to facilitate and oversee the delivery of the actions that the plan contains, and I give a commitment that we will report to the Parliament on progress over three years.

I commend the first literacy action plan to the Parliament.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow 20 minutes for that.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. Given that the literacy commission reported in January, I would have welcomed the statement more warmly had we not had to wait so long. The cabinet secretary says that it is a statement of ambition, and it is much more that than a plan of action. Although we on this side of the chamber support the establishment of a standing literacy commission, we would have been much more enthusiastic had the cabinet secretary, first, taken forward the literacy commission's core recommendation that there should be zero tolerance of illiteracy in Scotland and, secondly, put in place the resources that are needed to remove the barriers that prevent too many people from learning to read, write or count.

This morning, we heard from the cabinet secretary that teacher numbers are in a continuing downward spiral, for which he gave a sort of grudging apology while blaming the councils. I therefore ask him what discussions he has had with local authorities about making resources available for the development and implementation of local literacy plans, what help he can give with the continuous professional development that is needed to make the changes to which we all aspire, and whether authorities are in a position to protect existing learning support provision as well as to add to it in order to meet the needs that have been identified by the literacy commission and in the document that was published today.

Through you, Presiding Officer, I also ask the cabinet secretary when any of that will start. Try as I might, I cannot find a timetable or a financial commitment in either the plan or the statement. To use a phrase that was coined by a US presidential candidate, where is the beef?

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I call Elizabeth Smith, to be followed—[ Interruption .] Sorry. I call the cabinet secretary.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thought that I should reply, Presiding Officer, although I accept that the question was scarcely worthy of it.

I regret the tone that Mr McNulty has taken, although I suppose it is typical, and I am used to it after 11 months in my post. The Administration has worked hard with the literacy commission, and the people whom Labour chose to lead it, to develop a plan. We are already implementing parts of it because, as I said at the beginning, it focuses the work and attention of a range of agencies on the priority that literacy has become.

There is no downward spiral of anything in Scottish education. What we have is a commitment to take forward the key issue of literacy as a priority, as I said when I responded to the literacy commission, but to do so across Government, across agencies and within the curriculum. We already have a number of actions that are bringing those together and focusing on the curriculum for excellence. It is all in the document, which has been welcomed by those who work in the sector.

I am sorry that Mr McNulty thinks that the production of Scotland's first-ever literacy action plan is simply an excuse for him to tediously repeat his political prejudices. I do not think that it will be seen like that by those who are keen on improving Scotland's literacy and I deeply regret that he takes that attitude. I had believed that he might behave differently on this occasion, but then I suppose I would never be disappointed by the low level of Mr McNulty's ambitions.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of both his statement and the literacy action plan. I welcome the majority of the contents, particularly the commitment that he has made to the synthetic phonics method of teaching, which has unquestionably raised standards in three local authorities in Scotland and which I believe can go a long way towards improving the disappointing statistics for reading literacy. Attainment in primary 3 is generally pretty good at 75 per cent, but I am afraid that it falls to only 40 per cent by secondary 2.

I have two questions. First, what specific plans does the Government have to improve teacher training in teaching literacy skills, which is urgently requested by several primary head teachers writing in the current edition of The Times Educational Supplement? Secondly, will the cabinet secretary spell out the specific detail of what page 9 of the document states will be a better assessment process of literacy standards among primary school pupils?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thank Elizabeth Smith for those important questions, which serve to highlight where the issue is going.

With regard to specific plans for teaching training, I have discussed the issue with Graham Donaldson on one occasion. Indeed, I indicated to the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee that I have continued a dialogue with Mr Donaldson throughout his review of initial teacher education. Some interesting information is emerging that although primary teachers in particular might be confident in teaching and pedagogy, they lack confidence in specific skills, which might well include certain aspects of literacy. The issue will feature in Mr Donaldson's review and I expect that we will be able to take it forward.

As for assessment, I have a particularly strong interest in ensuring that early interventions take place. Where literacy problems arise as a result of learning difficulty, which is the case in many, though not all circumstances, we should be in a position to assess that difficulty as early as possible and assist children in setting things right. I think that that is one of the key tools that we can use. Indeed, some local authorities are already doing so, and I encourage other local authorities to do the same. I find it profoundly wrong that in one or two places in Scotland it is still possible for a young person with a learning disability to fail to have it diagnosed throughout their entire schooling. Anyone who has heard Sir Jackie Stewart talking about his school experiences will know that that has happened in the past and that the earliest intervention that we can possibly make in identifying learning difficulties and disabilities and helping young people with them will pay profound dividends.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I welcome the literacy action plan and the establishment of a standing literacy commission to oversee its delivery. I support, in particular, the cabinet secretary's comments on early intervention and the need to focus on our poorest children.

On early identification, which I think is absolutely crucial, how will the cabinet secretary guarantee that any barriers to literacy are identified early and how will such work be taken forward? Secondly, what is the Scottish Government doing to identify what works and what does not work in improving literacy to ensure that best practice can be shared across Scotland? Finally, given that local authorities will be expected to develop local literacy strategies to reflect need in their own areas, will those strategies be subject to any central monitoring or evaluation to ensure that they are improving standards and are contributing to the sharing of best practice across authorities?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The standing commission will play a strong role in sharing good practice and I look forward to its work. In its new incarnation within the newly merged organisation, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education will also play a strong role in ensuring that literacy and numeracy, which now form a core element of the curriculum, are observed. The fact that literacy and numeracy are no longer being put to one side or seen as a specialist matter, but actually form part of the curriculum, is actually a very important innovation in Scotland, and we should not forget that.

As the plan indicates, I am keen to take that a step further and ensure that the practice of early identification grows. A number of local authorities are carrying out that work and I am happy to provide information on those that we know about; after all, some hide their light under a bushel while others do not. We will also want the standing commission to encourage the practice to spread elsewhere and I am very happy for the chamber to debate the issue and examine other means of ensuring that it happens. It is crucial to what we are trying to achieve.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that this is Scotland's first literacy action plan? Does he agree that it shows that the Scottish National Party takes action where it sees need; that it is shameful that Scotland had to wait until the SNP was in power before any action was taken on literacy; and that it is rank opportunism for a party that was in power for 10 years to start whining about it only after the Scottish people consigned them to opposition?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I tend to agree with the member, but I am trying to be generous. I hope that, as the questioning continues, Mr McNulty will be seen to be an aberration in this matter. However, I will not say anything more about that, because I hope that we will have a positive response to what has been my positive gratitude to Rhona Brankin and the Labour Party for the establishment of the literacy commission. I responded warmly to the commission. I met it on the day that it published its report. We had a debate on the commission in the chamber. I took the issue forward, the commission has been involved in developing the plans, and I have paid tribute to it. I see an opportunity for us to work together to get things right, and I hope that we can do so.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I, too, welcome the action plan and the establishment of the standing commission.

The cabinet secretary will know that the most recent evidence from the 2009 survey of achievement indicates that 20 per cent of pupils in primary 7 did not reach their expected reading level and a third of primary 7 pupils did not reach their expected writing level. I have had the opportunity to look at the plan and to see the proposals relating to continuous professional development, the assessment of literacy skills and reports to parents. Will the cabinet secretary expand on what will change in P1 to P7 to address those figures?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Wendy Alexander raises an important issue. We know that there are unacceptable dips in performance at various stages of the educational journey. One of the many purposes of the curriculum for excellence was to show that they had been smoothed out and high standards had been maintained. We need to ensure that work is done on assessing and following up literacy levels from the earliest stages in primary schools. It is not enough, as has happened until now, to shine a spotlight on primary 6 or 7; rather, we need to check literacy levels and, if there are shortfalls, ensure that we make them up. We need earlier assessment in primary 1 or primary 2. If that is coupled with the assessment of learning difficulties, we will get a good, personalised picture of the individual child in the very early years of primary school and will then be able to follow that child through personalised learning. To ensure that high levels are maintained, they can be checked later on in primary school and again at the crucial stage after the transition from primary to secondary school. It is a matter of the combination of the curriculum for excellence and the methodology, and ensuring that education is personalised and literacy is integrated as a core activity in all education. We hope that that will be picked up.

The member will know that there tend to be rises after dips, which is interesting. Transition seems to create inconsistencies as well as other difficulties, and emphasising better transition will certainly work out well. It is rather interesting that one tends to find that transition difficulties are not nearly as great in schools with a single campus and a flow-through. There are issues to do with change.

Wendy Alexander asked questions that it is correct to ask. A lot of work is being done and will continue to be done to address those questions.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I warmly welcome the cabinet secretary's statement.

The literacy commission has highlighted the decline in Scottish performance in international tests of literacy in the programme for international student assessment and progress in international reading literacy study tests between 2000 and 2006, when Labour and the Lib Dems were in power. Does the cabinet secretary have any insights into what went wrong in that period that might have led to such a decline? What has the Scottish Government taken from that period as examples of what to do and what not to do to meet best practice?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is an interesting question. I know that Kenny Gibson is tempting me to be partisan, but I do not want to be and I will not be.

It seems to me that, from 1999 to 2003, the Parliament decided that there was a problem with Scottish education in general. Those who remember the national debate on education, in which Wendy Alexander was deeply involved, and the Education, Culture and Sport Committee's inquiry into the purposes of education will know that broadly similar conclusions were reached in that debate and by the committee. It was concluded that there was over-examination and over-inspection in Scottish education, that it was too shallow and that not enough connections were being made. Therefore, it was agreed that Scottish education needed to change. That change started in 2004-05 with the introduction of the curriculum for excellence, and the change is working its way through. However, education is like the proverbial tanker—it takes a while to turn round—so I do not think that we will see the effect of the change in improving education in Scotland for some time. That is not to say that standards of education in Scotland are low, but they could be higher. I think that the curriculum for excellence will make the difference.

All successful education systems throughout the world have two characteristics in common. One is that they rely on the highest quality of teaching and the second is that they have a consistency of policy and a consensus about policy that is not short term. If we stick with curriculum for excellence and do not succumb to the temptation of being partisan about it, and if we can get it operating well, which we are trying to do, we will achieve long-term benefits. I appeal to the Parliament to accept that advice.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

I, too, welcome the Government's literacy action plan. There is little in it with which I disagree. I also welcome the establishment of a standing literacy commission. However, I am still concerned that the references to assessment are too woolly. I am sure that the cabinet secretary knows that the key feature of successful literacy plans such as that in West Dunbartonshire Council and those in several other councils has been the regular use of diagnostic assessment using standardised testing. There are references in the plan to functional literacy, but the report of the literacy commission is underpinned by a commitment to ensuring that, as a minimum, all youngsters become functionally literate. How, specifically, will functional literacy be tested?

If we wait until primary 1, there is a danger that that will be too late for some children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. Will the cabinet secretary give a commitment to consider screening children in nursery school for communication and pre-literacy skills, which several local authorities do and which is another key feature of successful literacy plans?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member raises two important issues. On pre-school screening, there are arguments for screening early, but also arguments against. One of the arguments against is that some learning disorders and difficulties do not develop and are not identifiable until later on. I am by no means ruling out that suggestion, as it is an interesting development. I would like to continue to debate it with the standing literacy commission to consider whether it is possible.

Curriculum for excellence provides the framework for assessment. Having literacy at the core of curriculum for excellence means that there will be personalised assessment of what has been achieved, of capability and of how to proceed. That is a rigorous process, but I am happy to meet the member to discuss further how we should do that. I want to ensure that the member's connection with the literacy commission is renewed with the standing commission, so that she can continue to make her points. I know that she has a commitment to the issue.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

I want to get in all members who have a question, so I ask for succinct questions and answers.

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

In his statement, the cabinet secretary referred to CPD, which is an important element of the overall plan. What consideration have he and the other partners that will be involved in implementing the plan given to teacher training? Teachers who are not specific English teachers are responsible for addressing literacy, but they might not feel confident about that. Has the cabinet secretary spoken to Graham Donaldson about the review of teacher training that is taking place? What steps are being taken to ensure that Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority are tied into that? I have had a look at some of the materials on the LTS website, and it seems to me that it would perhaps stretch those who are not English teachers by profession to follow what is expected of them.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I said to Elizabeth Smith that I have spoken to Graham Donaldson about precisely that matter, but I just confirm that I have spoken to him about the confidence of people who undergo teacher training in their teaching skills—the pedagogy—and about their lack of confidence in specific subject skills, even in primary. We are concerned about that, and I am sure that Graham Donaldson will take that forward.

On the other issues that the member raises, I am absolutely certain that, with the standing literacy commission, we can consider the matters and make progress on them productively. The standing literacy commission will focus the work of a range of organisations. LTS, the SQA and HMIE have been key players in developing the plan and they will be key delivery agents. I expect them to show the strongest commitment to getting it right.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

One key step in addressing literacy in secondary schools has been the introduction of the Scottish Government's new foundational national literacy qualification. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on progress on the qualification and say how he sees it fitting into the overall literacy strategy?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I decided early on in my tenure that the existing plan needed to be refined. We have tried to make sure that it fits in with the examination system in the fourth year and that there are specific freestanding units. That is going well and I am happy to let the member consider the advice on the qualification that I am currently receiving from the management board.