Education

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 13th January 2011.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 13th January 2011

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7692, in the name of Des McNulty, on education. The debate is heavily subscribed, and there is very little time in hand.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Over the past year, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning has tried his best to convince parents, teachers and the wider Scottish public that his Government is delivering on education. His amendment today is a litany of deceit. It is intended to obscure the repeated abandonment or downgrading of policy commitments, the growing pressure on school and local authority budgets, the continuing downward trend in teacher numbers, the burgeoning sense of grievance among recently qualified teachers who are unable to find jobs and, increasingly, a postcode lottery in levels of provision.

Under the Scottish National Party, Scottish education is rudderless. Under the concordat arrangement with local government, ministers have lost control and are unable to deliver key policies. School and early education provision is being compromised and the current and future prospects of our young people are being jeopardised.

Teachers and parents in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, East Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire—indeed, in every part of Scotland—know that our education system is creaking at the seams. However, despite this Government's failures, there is outstanding work and outstanding achievement. Michael Russell is utterly shameless in seeking plaudits for the achievements of others while simultaneously seeking to evade his responsibility for the shortcomings of his Administration.

In her amendment, Elizabeth Smith sets out

"the SNP government's failure to deliver on its education pledges".

In education, the SNP has not just failed on some of them; it has delivered on none of them. On student debt, class sizes, teacher numbers, extra support for early education and school building, this Government has emphatically and undeniably failed. It delayed implementation of the curriculum for excellence under Fiona Hyslop, who was then replaced by Michael Russell 14 months ago, following the publication of statistics that showed a slump in teacher numbers and a corresponding reduction in the proportion of newly qualified teachers who were getting jobs in the profession.

Regrettably, ever since then, the number of teachers has plummeted faster than ever. The percentage of newly qualified teachers who get permanent jobs is at a record low. The cabinet secretary and his officials have belatedly taken steps to bring the curriculum for excellence back on track, but examination arrangements are not yet in place. Getting all teachers—not just those who are in the vanguard—to the state of preparedness and confidence that is required for the reform to be a success remains a huge task. It could have been so much better had the previous cabinet secretary been more focused on implementation and the current cabinet secretary less prone to political gimmickry.

The great fear among teachers out there is that things are about to get worse. Relative to other portfolios, education has been disproportionately hit in the Government's budget. Many other services are facing serious cuts next year as the overall budget declines for the first time. Caught up in the machinations of the concordat, education has suffered repeated cuts every year since 2007. The alarm bells are being sounded loud and clear by teachers organisations such as the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association. Only last week, the EIS said that the consequences of the local government settlement will lead to the decimation of education services the length and breadth of Scotland. We are long past the stage at which it is the desirable extras that are being sacrificed. Next year, schools face staffing levels being cut to the bone, the abandonment of average class sizes in mathematics and English at secondary 1 and S2, supplies budgets being squeezed dry and the paring back of specialist services that support the learning of our most vulnerable youngsters.

Before Christmas, it was revealed that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Scottish Government officials were developing proposals on changes to teachers' conditions. That was done in advance of any discussions with teachers' representatives through the national negotiating mechanism and yet savings from the changes that the Government intends should be imposed were factored into budget considerations as though they had been agreed.

Meanwhile, SNP-run Renfrewshire Council will decide at a meeting today on a proposal to replace qualified teachers for part of the school week with sessional staff who will have been given very limited training. As Judith Gillespie points out in The Herald today, every primary school in Renfrewshire will lose

"a qualified teacher ... for 10% of every week, so that some 30% of children in P1-3" are in "classes of 18"—a political decision that has no support in Renfrewshire. It is not certain whether the proposal is legal. Surely the fact that it would set a very far-reaching precedent gives the cabinet secretary grounds to intervene, preferably in his ministerial capacity. However, given the approach that he adopted in Argyll and Bute, perhaps he will e-mail members of the SNP group to ask them to change their minds.

Under Labour, very substantial progress was made in reducing class sizes and pupil teacher ratios, as there was in new school building and refurbishment and in developing the conceptual framework that led to the curriculum for excellence reform. Similar progress was made in expanding early education entitlements and introducing the education maintenance allowance.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the member acknowledge that it was not just Labour, but the Liberal Democrats, too?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I am very happy to do so. I will make the point again in a moment.

The SNP inherited from the previous Administration a legacy of sustained improvement and trashed it. Had the SNP kept teacher numbers at the level that Labour and the Liberal Democrats achieved in 2007, there would have been huge progress on class sizes—the SNP's key pledge. However, fewer teachers mean higher teacher pupil ratios, increased rather than reduced class sizes and less support for all young people, particularly those who are in greatest need.

When the SNP entered office in 2007, it inherited a programme to replace sub-standard accommodation with new school buildings that outstripped the rest of the United Kingdom. The new schools that have been completed since 2007 are overwhelmingly those that the previous Administration commissioned—the funding and contracts were put in place by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. When the SNP is removed from office in May—and it will be—its legacy will be a hiatus in school building. Two years of the school programme have been lost through delays and flaws in the Scottish Futures Trust. Some authorities in areas where the Government had recently announced new school projects have even more recently been told that the capital allocations that had previously been agreed have been withdrawn and that they can expect a much smaller contribution in the form of revenue funding. Will the cabinet secretary tell the chamber today which authorities are being asked to accept those new funding arrangements, what the funding package is, which schools will be affected and what implications that will have on cost and timetable?

Of course, the weaker his case, the louder the cabinet secretary speaks and the more aggressive his approach. However, on speaking privately and quietly to directors of education the length and breadth of Scotland, one hears that they are genuinely fearful about their ability to maintain even basic, core statutory provision. They are genuinely frustrated with a Government that seeks to micromanage things for which it has no locus of responsibility while failing to tackle the major policy areas in which leadership is genuinely required. Before Christmas, the cabinet secretary took time to write to headteachers across Scotland asking them to ensure that pupils were given additional work to make up for time that had been lost because of adverse weather conditions. Every headteacher would do that as a matter of course—there is no requirement for the cabinet secretary to get involved in such matters. Yet, in areas where the interests of education need to be advanced, whether in securing resources round the Cabinet table or driving forward national policies, the cabinet secretary is posted missing. He is looking after his own responsibilities instead of those of Scottish education.

As all members know, Mike Russell tries to take credit for everything and anything in Scottish education. Judgment of his stewardship will rest on the outcomes of those activities that are most directly the responsibility of the cabinet secretary—those that can be taken forward only by him. The financial allocations in the budget tell us that he has been unsuccessful as an advocate for Scottish education in the Cabinet. As the occupant of the policy driving seat, he has mainly been in reverse gear.

Yesterday, the cabinet secretary gave us an extensive, if incomplete, account of his activities in Argyll and Bute. I am sure that he was strongly advised to insulate himself from the school closure considerations; surely, he would also have been advised to avoid making public pronouncements on the matter. To be blunt, the people who go along to see him do so not because he is a party candidate, but because they know that he is the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. That is the reality of the situation. Everything else that he said was simply window-dressing around that point.

The ministerial code, which covers such matters, makes specific provision for constituency members who have an obligation to their constituents to act on their behalf, but Mr Russell was under no such obligation. Even if he was invited to usurp Mr Mather's role by Mr Mather, surely the correct thing to do would have been to decline. As we have seen, enough fires demand his attention in the education portfolio for him to leave aside tending one in his own backyard.

Labour members recognise that the next few years will not be easy and that difficult choices will have to be made. We will look carefully at the current structures for managing education provision and aim for greater efficiency, but also for improved accountability and more flexibility. We do not share the Conservatives' enthusiasm for free schools, but we are open to giving greater powers to all those who are involved in the management of our schools, not narrowly to headteachers. We want schools and colleges to work together more closely in opening out the potential under the curriculum for excellence to provide curricular content and choices that are more attuned to the needs of all pupils, including those for whom the current way in which schools are organised does not provide sufficient support and encouragement for them to achieve their full potential.

We will not pay lip service, as the current Government does, to the importance of literacy and numeracy; rather, we will make the delivery of literacy and numeracy central objectives for every school and carry that objective into the workplace and the community. I look forward to reading the recommendations in Graham Donaldson's report, which will be published later today, because I believe that building the capacity of teachers is vital if we are to improve attainment and get the best outcomes for pupils.

We will take seriously the evidence most recently provided to the Finance Committee on the importance of early early intervention that focuses on the most vulnerable zero to three-year-olds and their parents. We will face up to the huge challenge in post-school education, where a strong political consensus is needed on the way forward. That could and should have been more easily arrived at through a proper independent review rather than through the stresses and strains of an election process. I have no doubt that the cabinet secretary will provide a rumbustious defence of his custodianship, but facts are chiels that winnae ding. Most people have stopped listening to him, however loud he speaks. The clock is ticking during his final days in office, and this emperor—this panjandrum—has no clothes.

I move,

That the Parliament condemns the reduction in the number of teachers under the SNP by almost 3,000 since 2007 and the sharp rise in the proportion of recently qualified teachers who cannot obtain permanent or even temporary employment; notes that the percentage of newly qualified staff who have obtained full-time permanent posts has fallen to just 16.1%, a record low; expresses concern that pupil/teacher ratios are rising across Scotland and many colleges have insufficient bursary funds to meet demand, and calls on the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning to apologise for getting involved in local authority decisions outwith his regional constituency instead of tackling the impact that fewer teachers, more unemployed recently qualified teachers, higher pupil/teacher ratios and a shortfall in bursary funding will have on education in Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 9:28 am, 13th January 2011

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to the amendment in my name and to set out the Government's excellent record on education. However, before I go any further, I stress my sincere wish that both here today and in moving forward, we can have a positive, civil discourse about Scottish education. That should not be beyond us, given that we have an education system that is based on settled principles enshrined in the curriculum for excellence, on which there is now little, if any, disagreement, despite last year's attempts by all the Opposition parties to create disagreement. That political consensus is long standing, and I believe that it will survive. That marks a significant strength in Scotland in comparison with other countries, and it is incumbent on us all to nurture that broad consensus rather than risk losing it.

We should look forward to a vigorous civil discourse and debate in the run-up to the Scottish election, based on vision and achievement rather than negativity. The debate must be based on two other prerequisites, one of which is the bringing forward of clear policies. I regret that it took Mr McNulty 11 minutes to get to a policy, and that all the policies that he mentioned in the final minute of his speech are already happening. Secondly, the debate must be based on truth. I regret that even the former leader of the Labour Party has difficulty with matters of fact. In his new year message in the Wishaw Press, Mr McConnell said that there is

"growing anger at the Scottish Government's abolition of EMA's".

Education maintenance allowances have not been abolished. I hope that Mr McConnell will withdraw that statement prominently in the Wishaw Press and perhaps even in the chamber.

Let me put the matters that are raised in the motion into a factual light, as opposed to the rather dismal and dim light that Mr McNulty has shone on them. I will start with teacher numbers. I cannot deny that teacher numbers have fallen over recent years, but I regret that. Members are well aware, of course, that teacher recruitment is a matter for local authorities. I have some sympathy for local authorities as far as teacher numbers are concerned and strong sympathy for the young people who have been affected, whom I support. However, to put things bluntly, it is not realistic for anyone to suggest that we or any other Government might aspire to restoring the numbers to the 2007 levels. Employing 3,000 teachers, which is roughly the number that local authorities have shed, would cost in the order of £120 million a year. I challenge those who are so critical of the current position—which none of us wishes to be in—to point to where that funding will come from. Back in 2007, authorities employed record numbers of teachers, and that was a problem in itself. Those numbers were unsustainable in any circumstances, let alone in the financial circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

The motion seems to overlook completely that we have, fortunately, turned the corner as far as teacher employment is concerned. Most people in the profession have welcomed that. There were hints and signs of that happening a few months ago, but they have now grown into compelling evidence. The first sign was in September 2010, when—for the first time for more than two years—fewer teachers claimed jobseekers allowance than in the same month a year before. That was reinforced by the October and November figures, which again showed that there were fewer jobseekers allowance claimants than in the corresponding month of the previous year. Indeed, in November 2010, the figure was lower than the November figures in 2009 and 2008. One swallow does not make a summer, but three consecutive months of fewer JSA claimants certainly amounts to more than just a ray of sunshine.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Talking of rays of sunshine, I give way to Mr McNulty.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Why has West Lothian Council written to people on its supply list to say that they will have to be reinterviewed for that list and that there will be very few jobs in the coming year?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The actions of West Lothian Council and every other council are for them to justify, but I am sure that there are good reasons for what happened. Perhaps those reasons are related to the savage cuts to budgets that have come from the Con-Dem coalition and were presaged by Labour.

The next piece of evidence on teacher employment came with the teacher census, which was published on 1 December. That census showed a further drop in teacher numbers, which was immensely regrettable, but the drop was significantly smaller than the previous year's drop. A week later, the General Teaching Council for Scotland published the results of its post-probation teacher employment survey, which quite clearly demonstrated that the four-year falling trend of post-probation teachers gaining employment has bottomed out and that the four-year rising trend of those not securing employment has peaked. Taken together, I believe that those statistical facts—they are facts—add up to compelling evidence that we have indeed turned the corner. That has been achieved by making tough decisions about student teacher intakes. Having cut intake numbers in 2009 and in 2010, I recently confirmed to the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council that I envisage student numbers staying at that baseline level in 2011.

The teacher census is also helpful in that it supplements the immediate post-probation employment data that the GTCS survey provides. That census allows us to track probationers each year rather than just in the first year after probation. It is heartening to note that 74 per cent of the probationers who finished in the summer of 2009 were teaching in our schools in September 2010, compared with 59 per cent in September 2009.

The motion refers explicitly to rising pupil teacher ratios. Labour is clutching at straws. The pupil teacher ratio in our schools has risen marginally, by 0.1, in the past year, but let us be clear about our success. We have driven down pupil teacher ratios in primary schools since we came into office. Of course, the motion fails to acknowledge the fact that other hugely encouraging data have come out of the pupil census. In particular, it confirmed that local authorities had exceeded the revised target that we agreed with COSLA in the spring of 2010. Opposition parties told me that that target could not be achieved, but it was achieved and exceeded by the local authorities.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Does the cabinet secretary still have the aspiration of every school pupil having two hours of high-quality physical education each week, delivered by specialist PE teachers?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am glad to say that we are making very good progress in that regard, and we are getting much closer to that aim—very much closer than any previous Administration did. I remain confident that that will be achieved in Scotland.

Before moving on from pupil teacher ratios, I make brief reference to our agreement with COSLA in relation to next year's draft budget. It commits us to maintaining the excellent primary 1 to P3 pupil teacher ratios. The agreement is also directly relevant to much of what I have said in the past few minutes about teacher numbers, given its firm undertakings on protecting teacher posts. At a time when school rolls continue to fall—it is important to note that—demand for teachers has, of course, fallen. However, local authorities have agreed that they will provide places for all probationers who require a place under the induction scheme in August 2011, sufficient posts for all those probationers who successfully complete their probation in summer 2011 to apply for, and an overall reduction in the total number of unemployed teachers.

Given the very harsh Westminster budget from the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, cutting too far and too fast, and given the fact that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer said that Labour would make cuts more savage than Thatcher's, the agreement represents a huge achievement for the whole of Scottish education.

I turn to the subject of supporting college students, which is also referred to in the motion. We recognise the pressure on colleges in the current climate, but our funding allocation for this academic year represents a substantial increase in student support. The £84 million that was available was 6 per cent up on the academic year 2009-10. In addition to that record level of funding, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council announced on 21 December that it will make available a further £3.5 million for student support this academic year. EMAs, which have not been abolished, despite what Mr McConnell has said—the Government has maintained them—benefit a number of college students, too.

I do not intend to say anything more about Argyll and Bute—I gave a very full account yesterday—except this. Yesterday, I was very pleased to see a newspaper report from April 2000 about a previous round of school closures in that area. I was pleased to see it because of the consistency of my views, and I am pleased to endorse this remark:

"A school tends to lie at the heart of the community and acts as a magnet. Every time you take one away, you rip out the heart of the community ... One of the great advantages of rural schools is smaller classes and quality teaching. The kids tend to perform very well."

I commend that remark from 11 years ago—from George Lyon, who is now the Liberal election co-ordinator, and who has been supporting 25 school closures in Argyll and Bute.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

The point that we were making yesterday was not that rural schools are not worth defending—they clearly are. It was that the manner by which the cabinet secretary conducted the defence of rural schools was questionable to say the least.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

In my book, the manner of defending rural schools does not include voting to close 25 of them. That is a curious definition of defending rural schools.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

There are 25 of them.

I could give a whole list of the achievements that have been made in education, not necessarily by this Government but by the educational community in Scotland, supported by the Government. Instead, however, I will simply move the amendment in my name.

Mr Rumbles has asked me to read it, so I will read it; I think that I have just enough time.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The amendment states that the Parliament

"recognises the difficulties caused by the previous administration's unsustainable approach to teacher unemployment; urges local authorities to take full advantage of the resources offered to stabilise teacher employment in this year's local authority settlement; further recognises the fact that the teacher claimant count in Scotland is lower than in any other part of the United Kingdom and is now declining year on year; congratulates Scotland's pupils on achieving a record Higher pass rate in 2010; further congratulates teachers, pupils and parents on the recent international attainment results showing that Scotland has turned the corner and halted the years of decline under Labour administrations; welcomes the focus on the critical early years of education with an increase of almost 20% in nursery provision, increased access to General Teaching Council for Scotland-registered teachers in nurseries and record low primary school class sizes giving more one-to-one time for pupils with their teacher; further welcomes the reduction in primary school pupil-teacher ratios"—[Interruption.]

This is proving difficult, Presiding Officer; I probably need another minute and a half but, as you are rightly indicating, I am almost out of time. That proves the salient point of the debate: the SNP Government has brought ideas, energy, enthusiasm and achievement to education. They are all there in the amendment, and I am afraid that anyone who would vote against them does not understand the Parliament, education or Scotland.

I move amendment S3M-7692.3, to leave out from "condemns" to end and insert:

"recognises the difficulties caused by the previous administration's unsustainable approach to teacher unemployment; urges local authorities to take full advantage of the resources offered to stabilise teacher employment in this year's local authority settlement; further recognises the fact that the teacher claimant count in Scotland is lower than in any other part of the United Kingdom and is now declining year on year; congratulates Scotland's pupils on achieving a record Higher pass rate in 2010; further congratulates teachers, pupils and parents on the recent international attainment results showing that Scotland has turned the corner and halted the years of decline under Labour administrations; welcomes the focus on the critical early years of education with an increase of almost 20% in nursery provision, increased access to General Teaching Council for Scotland-registered teachers in nurseries and record low primary school class sizes giving more one-to-one time for pupils with their teacher; further welcomes the reduction in primary school pupil-teacher ratios since the last year of the last Labour administration; applauds the Scottish Government and local authorities' completion of 330 school projects, lifting more than 120,000 pupils out of sub-standard accommodation by the end of this parliamentary session far outstripping the previous administration's plans; further applauds the positive approach to rural schools demonstrated by the SNP government while noting that the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration did not save a single rural school from closure; commends the help given to the hardest-pressed families with the extension of entitlement to free school meals; further commends the range of positive developments delivered by the Scottish Government including 20,000 apprenticeship places, the introduction of the Scottish Baccalaureate, preserving the Educational Maintenance Allowance despite its abolition elsewhere in the UK, persevering with the roll-out of the Curriculum for Excellence despite opposition from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, the promotion of Scottish history and literacy in schools, the reform of the Children's Hearings system, introduction of improved safeguards for vulnerable people through the new Protection of Vulnerable Groups disclosure system, roll-out of kinship care allowances, reduction in school exclusions, improved support for young people through the More Choices, More Chances initiative, record levels of school leavers entering positive destinations such as training despite the recent recession and introduction of the first national literacy action plan; reaffirms Scotland's commitment to free education, established by the abolition of the graduate endowment, and rejects any move to shift the burden of cost of universities onto students' shoulders."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 9:39 am, 13th January 2011

I remind the cabinet secretary that most members in the chamber can read.

It is another year, another Thursday morning and another education debate—a debate that is probably puzzling the voters. Just what, they will rightfully ask, is the main subject to be discussed in this, the first education debate of our election year? I, too, was a bit puzzled, especially when I saw the motion and the other amendments. I sought guidance from the chamber desk on what would or would not be declared competent business this morning. "Education" was the theme, I was told, so let me use the debate to set out why I believe we are right to be critical of the SNP's record in education, but also to set that against some tasters from the Tory education stall for the elections in May. That is what the voters deserve and what they will be expecting us to do.

Education was something for which Scotland was once renowned, across the world. Scotland was the home of the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world, the home of the European enlightenment and the home of intellectual giants such as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and William Robertson; we even boasted of having three universities in the top 100 in the world in 2009. I want educational excellence to be a thing of the future as well as of the past, and I am sure that that is the aspiration of every member, never mind every party, in the Parliament. However, that will not be the case unless we confront the facts—all the facts, not just the ones that the cabinet secretary has read out this morning. That is not to deny or to diminish some of the excellent features of what is happening in our Scottish schools on a daily basis.

Some of the unacceptable facts are as follows. Since 1999, successive Scottish Administrations have doubled input spending on our schools, yet the overall standards of the outputs have not been so good. That important fact has been central to the considerations in the Donaldson report, which will be published today. Two thirds of S2 pupils are struggling with literacy, and 13,000 pupils still leave school each year unable to read or write properly. Only 30 per cent of pupils in S2 are reaching the required standard in maths, despite the figure being 85 per cent in P3. Scottish pupils are now ranked below the global average in maths and science.

Aside from the basic attainment issues there are concerns, as some Labour members have mentioned, about poor discipline in some schools, about a lack of PE and extra-curricular activities, about the availability of some higher and advanced higher courses and about whether headteachers have too little power when it comes to running their own schools. More recently, our world-class universities tell us that the Scottish Government has presented them with a financial situation that is unsustainable beyond the next academic year.

Some people will argue that that is to do with the proficiency of two SNP education secretaries. Just as important have been the unrealistic and uncosted election pledges that they made in 2007, which raised expectations well beyond the ability to deliver them. Those pledges were specific in terms of numbers: 18 or fewer pupils in all primaries 1 to 3, a guarantee of maintaining 53,000 teachers, two hours per week of quality PE, and so on. Those are very rigid national targets, which, notwithstanding the concordat, have provided huge headaches for local authorities—and they were encouraged by the SNP Government to be much more flexible in setting their priorities. That is a real tension within the system, which, I suspect, is behind much of the recent fiasco in Argyll and Bute.

This year, 2011, is an election year, and it is incumbent upon all of us not to dwell on other parties' failings but to say what we, as Opposition parties, would do. Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that Scottish education can be excellent once more, but not if there is the pretence that all is well in the current system and if there is an in- built resistance to change. That attitude is increasingly being encountered in the educational world—by Graham Donaldson, Keir Bloomer, Lindsay Paterson, the EIS and Universities Scotland to name just a few.

That change must embrace the true spirit of devolution, so that decisions are taken, as far as possible, by the people who are most skilled to make them: by teachers and headteachers, who know far better than local authorities what is best for the needs of individual pupils in their schools; and by parents, who want the assurance that every local area will have a good taxpayer-funded school on their doorstep and that they will have more freedom to choose which school best suits their child and more flexibility when it comes to spending nursery care entitlements. There must be the opportunity for groups other than local authorities to set up new schools, more autonomy for our colleges and universities and more assistance, whether through pupil premiums or increased college and university bursaries, for pupils who might not otherwise have access to the best possible education.

Nothing will change if the Government in Scotland continues to be obsessed with a one-size-fits-all policy for local authorities, which stifles parental choice, perpetuates the monopoly of state provision of schools and all too often leads to contentment with academic mediocrity rather than excellence. I look forward to lunch time, when we will be able to see the full detail of Graham Donaldson's recommendations, particularly on how teacher training can play its role in raising standards, especially in relation to literacy and numeracy.

The Parliament's Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee will shortly review the process of school management, just as the cabinet secretary wanted to do when he wrote his seminal book, "Grasping the Thistle", when he hoped that SNP back benchers would move away from the outdated view that SNP councillors know better than headteachers—maybe he meant cabinet secretaries.

Education, whether in the earliest years or at post-graduate level, is at a watershed in Scotland. There is great need for change, and voters realise that. Let us give them a robust debate, which is worthy of the political process.

I move amendment S3M-7692.1, to leave out from "condemns" to end and insert:

"notes the SNP government's failure to deliver on its education pledges; further notes that many of them were unrealistic, uncosted and the wrong priorities for pupils and parents; regrets that the Scottish Government has failed to bring forward any substantive reforms to school management, but recognises the educational benefits of 'free schools' and of giving more decision-making powers and greater financial control to head teachers of all other publicly funded schools."

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 9:46 am, 13th January 2011

I had wondered whether Mr Russell would make a new year's resolution to bring to the Parliament a new, come-clean approach on the state of education in Scotland, good and bad, and to own up to some of the SNP's broken promises and failures on this most important subject. It seems not. This morning we heard from the cabinet secretary another string of excuses and an even longer run of rhetoric than I anticipated.

I thought that after Christmas we would see the end of comedy reruns, until I read the SNP's amendment, which beggars belief. The truth is that the SNP Government cannot be trusted to get education in Scotland right. This is the first week back after the parliamentary recess, and we have already had a ministerial statement on the cabinet secretary's actions over school closures in Argyll. Parents throughout Scotland are left with the undeniable view that in relation to school closures there is one rule for parents in Argyll and another rule for the rest of parents, who care just as deeply about their schools as parents in Argyll do.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I heard someone ask why we are shutting them. The bottom line is that the mess to which the cabinet secretary referred in his statement yesterday is a mess of the SNP's and independents' making. People have had to come in and pick up what happened beforehand, but the mess is not of their making; it is a mess of the SNP administration in Argyll's making.

As budget discussions progress, we will continue to ask why Mr Russell seems content for education to take a bigger-than-average hit in funding cuts. Perhaps instead of bouncing around coffee mornings and house parties in Argyll, Mr Russell should have been sitting down with John Swinney to make the case for more funding for education.

Education has been one of the most disappointing areas of SNP delivery for Scotland since 2007. Class size reduction targets have been all but abandoned, teacher numbers have dropped by nearly 3,000, thousands of unemployed teachers cannot find employment and the development of the curriculum for excellence has given rise to concern among teaching unions, parents and the curriculum for excellence management board. A lack of clarity still hangs over the new national qualifications and what they will mean for the breadth of Scottish education, which we all want to continue and which is worth fighting for.

When he spoke at the Scottish learning festival at the end of September, Mr Russell said that his priority was to protect core front-line services. I do not think that many members disagree with that approach. However, the most recent public sector employment statistics show that the teacher headcount in Scotland has fallen by 3,500 since 2007, with the full-time-equivalent number falling by 2,900.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

No.

It is fundamental to the delivery of quality education that we have the right number of teachers in our schools. I accept that there are positive signs, but there is no place for complacency when the GTCS survey of post-probationer teachers reveals that the number of people who are able to secure full-time, permanent teaching posts is again plummeting and that, on average, six probationers are chasing every position.

The SNP seems to refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for the number of teachers in Scotland, whether we are talking about employed or unemployed teachers. The SNP's stance is strange, given its manifesto pledge to keep teacher numbers at the record high of 53,000 that it inherited from the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. The cabinet secretary said that the previous Administration's position was not sustainable, so why did the SNP promise to sustain it?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Does Margaret Smith agree that teaching during the school week in Scotland should be delivered or supervised by qualified teachers?

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I think that the member's question contains a bear trap for me in relation to the situation in Renfrewshire. I spent time in the Parliament yesterday having a go at the cabinet secretary for interfering in the decisions of locally elected councillors, so I cannot the next day turn round and say that the Renfrewshire Council members who are making those decisions and taking account of everything of which they must take account can be second-guessed by me in the Parliament in Edinburgh. The reality is that in schools we need not just teachers but specialists, who on occasion will bring greater breadth to the quality of teaching than teachers can bring.

A decision of the Administration that we supported was the setting up of the Donaldson review of teacher education in Scotland, the report of which will be published today. No doubt there will be much focus on concerns about the future of the teaching profession, but I have spoken to Graham Donaldson and I know that there are also many good stories to tell. We should not lose sight of that. The issues that are highlighted and the recommendations that emerge from the review will need to be considered carefully by the Government and the Parliament, and by the Government in the next parliamentary session, to ensure that the profession can flourish, that struggling teachers are helped to improve, that a diverse range of people are attracted to and kept in teaching, that concerns about teachers' literacy and numeracy are addressed through better selection processes, and so on.

The previous Administration made a great contribution to the future of the teaching profession in Scotland through the McCrone agreement. We should all be concerned about any rowing back from the achievements that were made. We must ensure that they are not dismantled but are built on, so that we can improve quality and leadership in teaching.

Teachers are the foundation of much of our education system. The SNP's flagship education policy on class sizes depended on teacher numbers, and there has been an equally dismal performance in that regard. I will not go through the litany of the figures again—I have spent many Thursday mornings going through the statistics.

Liberal Democrats are committed to improving Scottish education and to focusing on pupils from the poorest backgrounds and giving them extra support through a pupil premium. We are committed to giving headteachers the power to make decisions that support those pupils in their schools.

Liberal Democrats are committed, too, to supporting Scotland's further and higher education system. We will play our part in the green paper process and in finding the Scottish solution that we all seek. We need a solution that reflects not only where we are but where we have come from. It must reflect the culture of higher education in Scotland and the importance for the future of Scotland and every member of society of ensuring that it is the business of Government, not graduates, to fund further and higher education.

We must remember that we are experiencing a period of change in Scottish education. The curriculum for excellence is one of the biggest challenges of the past decade for teachers and schools. The cabinet secretary talked about his disappointment with Opposition parties in that regard. Let me put aside all the rhetoric and say that one of the things that I find most disappointing in the SNP amendment is the extremely misleading suggestion that Opposition parties have opposed the roll-out of the new curriculum. We have done what we are elected to do. We have questioned and we have expressed concern, as have teaching unions and others. That is our job and that is what we will continue to do, to ensure that Scotland gets the education system that it deserves.

I move amendment S3M-7692.2, to insert at end:

"; notes the inconsistent comments of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in relation to his role in local school closures, and calls on the Scottish Government to clarify the rules governing the involvement of the cabinet secretary in decisions to close local schools."

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 9:53 am, 13th January 2011

Margaret Smith was somewhat inconsistent in some of her arguments. On the one hand she said that it is not for her to intervene in or comment on decisions that specific local authorities make; on the other hand she spent a substantial amount of time castigating the cabinet secretary about class sizes, which are the responsibility of local authorities. She cannot have it both ways.

Margaret Smith was right, however, when she said that I was trying to address an issue that is confronting Renfrewshire Council. The council meets today to decide whether to remove teachers from classrooms for 10 per cent of the school week and replace them with unqualified staff.

Before I go into the detail of that, I will reflect on some of what the cabinet secretary said in his speech. He said that the numbers of teachers in 2007 were unsustainable. However, in the SNP manifesto in 2007, he and his colleagues pledged:

"We will maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls".

Either they are sustainable or the cabinet secretary misled people in the manifesto promise that he made. We really should know whether the SNP knew in 2007 that teacher numbers were unsustainable and whether it had no intention of maintaining them.

The cabinet secretary also said that he was making progress on the target of every pupil having two hours of quality PE each week, delivered by a specialist PE teacher. In Renfrewshire, I presume that we will have those two hours delivered by a quality PE teacher, plus two and a half hours of education delivered by unqualified staff, so there will be four and half hours in which pupils will be removed from mainstream curriculum work. That is a worry for parents as well as teachers.

The cabinet secretary said that he wanted to develop political consensus. One of the agreements that had been reached in Scottish education across political parties with teaching unions and with parents was that Scottish education would be delivered by qualified, trained, skilled and experienced teachers, unlike what had happened in England and Wales for many years, where unqualified staff and teachers not trained in the relevant specialisms often taught children. We set our face against that and said that education would be delivered by teachers.

What is happening in Renfrewshire turns that consensus upside down. The council is diluting the quality of education. For 10 per cent of the school week, education will be delivered by unqualified teachers. It is a disgrace, a dilution of education and, potentially, the thin end of the wedge.

If Margaret Smith and others think that what is happening in one specific authority is nothing to do with them, they should open their eyes. They should listen to the worries of the EIS about what that means for Scottish education because it is the start of a process that says that, for purely financial reasons—as the director of education and the leader of Renfrewshire Council have indicated—we can take teachers out of the classroom and replace them with unqualified staff.

Renfrewshire Council has already shed proportionately more teaching jobs than most authorities in Scotland—nearly 250. It proposes to remove 60 teachers from the classroom and replace them with unqualified staff.

I tell members to listen not to me, any of the Labour members or anyone else in the Labour Party but to parents and teachers. I had an e-mail from a constituent whom I do not know, who says:

"I am writing to express my absolute disgust both as a parent and a teacher at Renfrewshire's decision to create non-teaching jobs to replace qualified teachers."

She is one of the teachers who may lose their job, and she goes on to say:

"to be told ... that my position is on the line again after almost six years is soul destroying, especially when I will be displaced by a non-teaching person.

The fact the proposals are being rushed through so quickly is scandalous ...

We are looking for education, not a baby-sitting service ... It makes a mockery of the level of scrutiny newer teachers have to endure to become qualified teachers ... How do we ensure they—" those non-teaching persons—

"are up to GTC standards ...

The message Renfrewshire is sending out is to save as much money as possible but to hell with our children's education."

It is shocking that parents and teachers are being put in that position.

Des McNulty appealed to Mike Russell to use his influence. The leader of Renfrewshire Council listens to Alex Salmond and Alex Salmond listens to him. I appeal to Alex Salmond to use his influence over the leader of Renfrewshire Council to stop that ill-judged, retrograde step, which threatens the quality of Scottish education. We want qualified, experienced teachers to deliver education, not unqualified staff—or possibly even, as Renfrewshire Council's director of education said, volunteers.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 10:00 am, 13th January 2011

Although many of us have contrasting opinions on education, we must never lose sight of its importance to the people of Scotland. Therefore, the debate is welcome.

Scotland has a proud educational tradition. It is the key that unlocks many doors and the primary reason why our small country has, for centuries, punched far above its weight in so many fields. Scotland was home to the enlightenment and can lay claim to an exhaustive list of mankind's greatest inventions and discoveries. We owe all that to the Scottish belief in quality and universal education. Our greatest natural resource is our people, and our education system is fundamental to ensuring that they can achieve not only for themselves but for their country.

On taking office in 2007, the SNP made a firm commitment to education. Successes can be seen across the education spectrum, from early years and nursery education through to school leavers and students, as well as adults who wish to return to some form of education.

All areas of education are critical and intertwined in a complex way. That is why the SNP has worked to improve educational standards and availability across the board.

In early years education—the most critical years for a child's development—the SNP has worked to make great improvements. Through our concordat with COSLA, local authorities now deliver 475 hours of nursery education per child, which is a substantial increase on the previous figure of 380 hours.

The latest statistics also show that almost 22 per cent of pupils in primary 1 to primary 3 are now in classes of 18 or fewer. That exceeds the agreement that was reached with COSLA in December 2009, when we set a target of 20 per cent. Under our most recent agreement with COSLA, that ratio will be maintained.

In secondary schools, pupils have also reaped the rewards of SNP investment, governance and co-operation with local authorities. The higher pass rate is the highest that it has ever been, with 47.3 per cent of school leavers attaining one award or more in 2008-09 compared with 43.6 per cent in 2007-08.

In 2008, the universities entry body, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, conducted an expert study of the standards of Scottish highers and advanced highers. It found that the value of highers against English A levels had increased, and therefore highers were uprated in comparison with A levels for university entry throughout the UK. That is praise indeed for the Scottish secondary education system, as it comes from an entirely independent education organisation.

The increased level of attainment is good not only for our country but for hard-working pupils. In 2009-10, 87 per cent of school leavers went to positive destinations—that is, work, training and further or higher education. That is the highest level ever recorded and is due to, in no small part, our 16-plus learning choices scheme, which guarantees a suitable offer to all young people at that crucial stage in their lives. The same cannot be said of the situation under the previous Lib-Lab Administration, when we witnessed a year-on-year increase in the number of young people who were, as that Administration put it, not in education, employment or training.

Scotland has an enviable university education system. We are home to some of the most prestigious seats of learning in the world and our young people are guaranteed free education should they wish it. The SNP recognises the importance and status of our higher education establishments and has ploughed unprecedented levels of funding into our seats of learning, in sharp contrast to what is happening south of the border.

Scotland currently spends a higher share of its gross domestic product on university research than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the last UK-wide Government research assessment exercise, which worked on a subject-by-subject basis, all Scottish universities were ranked as producing world-leading research.

The SNP is committed to maintaining and building upon the world-class standards of our universities and to making university education available to all Scots who want it. That is why we abolished the graduate endowment fee and oppose the reintroduction of Labour's tuition fees. Education is a right and should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. That policy will be recognised in years to come as one of the SNP's greatest achievements.

Of course, education is not all text books and academia. We must also remember that an ever-increasing number of our young people are entering practical training programmes and apprenticeships. In 2009-10, we exceeded our target of 20,000 new apprenticeship starts, and maintained it in 2010-11 with the help of European Union funding. That turned around a year-on-year declining trend of starts. Beginning in 2004-05, the number was 21,349. That fell to an unimpressive low of 15,772 in 2007-08—a fall of a quarter—under the previous Labour-Lib Dem Executive.

Last July, we announced the step forward Scotland campaign—a £6.5 million package of support to help the additional young people who expected to leave school and college that summer. It included 800 vocational pathway opportunities for 16 and 17-year-olds and a £1,000 incentive for up to 2,000 employers to offer modern apprenticeships to young people facing specific barriers to securing such an opportunity, including care leavers.

Despite the impact of Labour's recession, the SNP has done what it can to improve Scottish education. However, we still want to achieve many things and would like to have the means to achieve them at our disposal. If we want to maintain and improve our enviable, world-class education system, we must secure the fiscal powers to enable us to do so, and that can best be achieved by independence.

We have heard about what is happening in Renfrewshire; I leave other colleagues to comment on that. However, although Hugh Henry has shed crocodile tears recently about the reduction in teacher numbers, it does not appear that tears were shed between 2004 and 2007 in Glasgow when Labour cut 64 nursery teacher posts and replaced them with nursery nurses. Labour must be consistent if it is as concerned about the issue as it claims to be.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 10:06 am, 13th January 2011

It has to be said that the Labour motion that we are debating merely scratches the surface of the list of failures and broken promises that have been presided over by the SNP Administration in relation to the education of our children and young people. Even within the rather clunky grammatical rules of motion drafting, it would have been just too big a task to compile a readable list of Government failings and put it into today's motion.

However, we had to start somewhere. The SNP came into government on the back of a manifesto promise to maintain teacher numbers and thereby increase teacher pupil ratios. It rightly recognised the success of the previous Labour-Liberal Executive, which had increased teacher numbers from 48,927 in 2000 to 53,416 in 2007, thereby improving the pupil teacher ratio from 15.4 to 13.

To its credit, at that point, the SNP Administration understood the importance of that achievement and the need to consolidate and build on it. It recognised that education is one of the key concerns of the Scottish people and one of the key drivers in the long-term economic regeneration of our country.

When the SNP won the election in 2007, the people of Scotland put their trust in it to deliver on its manifesto promises. Unfortunately, as we know, the reality of the SNP in government differs greatly from its campaign rhetoric. The reality is that, since coming to power in May 2007, the SNP has presided over a substantial reduction in teacher numbers and an associated increase in national teacher pupil ratios.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that, in 2007, Labour councils were responsible for the employment of about 40 per cent of the teachers in Scotland, and that Labour councils are responsible for 60 per cent of the diminution of the number of teachers in Scotland?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

No matter how much Mr McKee tries to blame someone else for the situation, the reality is that in 2007 the SNP promised the people of Scotland that it would maintain teacher numbers. It is simply not good enough now to blame councils for the SNP's failure to give local government sufficient money to pay for those numbers to be maintained in our schools.

This week, Alex Neil sent a calendar to my constituents in Airdrie and Shotts telling us about anniversaries to celebrate. I think that he might have done better to tell us to celebrate the maintaining of teacher numbers; instead, the calendar says that, on 19 April, we all have to celebrate the anniversary of the SNP's consultation on setting the legal limit at 25 for primary 1 classes. What an exciting commitment—a consultation! I am sure that the people of Airdrie and Shotts will be delighted.

We have already heard from my colleague, Hugh Henry—I am sure that we will hear this from Wendy Alexander, too—about the reality of SNP councils' commitment to education, with teachers being replaced by unqualified workers. That is not only a betrayal of the commitment that the SNP gave to the pupils and parents of Scotland but a catastrophe for the ever-increasing number of newly qualified teachers who are unable to find full-time employment.

Those newly qualified teachers entered a bond of trust with the previous Scottish Executive, only to find that trust betrayed by an inept and faltering Scottish Government. They entered teacher training colleges in the expectation that employment opportunities would be waiting for them at the end of their studies. Instead, they find reducing teacher numbers, far fewer jobs and frightening levels of competition for those jobs that remain.

I suppose that we could excuse the Government's failure to keep its promise on teacher numbers and teacher pupil ratios as being a blip or a slip-up in an otherwise unblemished path of educational policy commitments. Unfortunately, as we all know, that is not the case. It is just one in a litany of failures to deliver on promises and improve our education system.

We need only look at the pledge to match Labour's school building programme brick for brick for further evidence. I am not sure whether there was some reference to Lego in the small print of that commitment. What we have seen is a commitment to build a quango, not schools.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Not at the moment.

The ironically titled Scottish Futures Trust has failed to deliver any future for Scotland's school estate and it has completely undermined the trust of the electorate in the SNP's promises. However, it has been successful in consuming £23 million of public money—funding that sustains the most expensive advice agency in Scotland. It is, in effect, the mother of all consultancies.

All of that leaves the Scottish Government pathetically claiming credit for school building projects that were not only commissioned but, in many cases, begun before it came to power. Whereas the Labour-Liberal coalition built more than 320 new schools during its eight years in government, this Government will enter the next election having completely stalled the school building programme, leaving 150,000 pupils in buildings that are not fit for purpose. I remind Mr Hepburn that in my constituency in central Scotland, we built schools in Caldercruix, Chapelhall, Plains, Airdrie and Clarkston. Not one school has been built in Lanarkshire since Mr Hepburn's party came to power.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am afraid that the member will have to conclude very quickly.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

The people of Scotland need a Government that is fit to deal with Scotland's education system.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 10:12 am, 13th January 2011

I thought that the performance of the SNP on education was an excellent choice of subject for debate. It is a brilliant debating subject that gladdens the hearts of SNP members and causes clouds to gather on the horizon for the poor wee downtrodden members to my left—to my left in physical terms only, of course—who wish that they, collectively, had half the ability of any one of the SNP's Cabinet members. Although most of Scotland has welcomed the advances in education under the current and previous education secretaries, Labour MSPs have not been able to find the grace to congratulate the SNP on those advances—nor, indeed, the pupils and staff in our schools who deliver them.

Karen Whitefield need not bother getting to her feet; I will answer her points now. The SNP Government has built more schools—330 of them—than Labour dreamed of in its 2007 manifesto. The SNP has brought class sizes down to their lowest-ever levels, introduced the baccalaureate, abolished university tuition fees, is reforming the exam system and is moving Scotland forward, but all we hear from the Labour benches is a long—very long—high-pitched whining sound.

Labour members complain when ministers and cabinet secretaries do not intervene, but cry foul when a minister or a cabinet secretary intervenes. Their complaints seem to be never ending, but they are always without foundation, logic, reason, or structure. They have complained that Mike Russell took the time to explain the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 to people who are campaigning to save their school. It is not quite clear whether they are objecting to his making sure that the consultation on the schools is carried out properly or to his taking the time to help parents.

The Opposition seems to find it surprising that a busy politician would take the time to meet school campaigners when there are only a few children at the school. That, I suggest, points to the difference between SNP and Opposition members. Whereas their concern is only for votes, our concern is for the people who are affected.

I found it enlightening that Mr Russell made sure that the campaigners knew about the Scottish rural schools network—a fine campaigning organisation that cannot be said to be in the pocket of any political party and which, I am sure, gives him no quarter when the subject of rural schools comes up. It gives no one any quarter in its actions to keep rural schools open.

Labour's call for an inquiry into Mr Russell's actions, this time in the form of a complaint to the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, is not a new tactic. We have had a series of spurious Labour complaints about SNP ministers, each of which has been turfed out. In fact, the two former Presiding Officers who serve as the independent scrutineers of the ministerial code made it clear in January that they are tiring of complaints being made that have no substance.

The point for Labour members is, of course, not to prove any case but to get themselves a newspaper headline. They do not care whether anything wrong has been done; they just want a story. That is cheap and petty politics at its cheapest and most petty, but it is the standard that we have come to expect from Labour members, which is a great shame. They roll in the gutter and call it opposition. Scotland is ill served by people who stand for election but offer no alternatives; people who want to run the country but cannot offer a vision; and people who want to be in office not for what can be done, but for the trappings of office. Any reason to disagree is an ungraceful place for Scottish Labour to be.

SNP ministers are not perfect. SNP cabinet secretaries are capable of making mistakes but they do their best to deliver, to make Scotland a better place in which to live. [Interruption.]

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

They contribute to driving Scotland forward, and that is what the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning does. At a time when everyone else has abandoned the principle—or even the pretence of the principle—of free education, it was the SNP that abolished the graduate endowment. Labour has no idea how to ensure the principle of free education, as Iain Gray proved on "Newsnight Scotland" the other night. When others were giving up on Scottish education and being content just to talk it down, it was the SNP that turned round attainment and got us climbing back up the programme for international student assessment rankings.

After years of declining apprenticeship numbers under the Labour and Lib Dem coalitions, the SNP Government started to grow those numbers. Kenny Gibson cited the numbers earlier, so I will not cite them again, but there have been more apprenticeships under the SNP. Hugh Henry asked about the target of every pupil getting two hours of PE a week. The figure has risen from 5 per cent under Labour to 55 per cent under the SNP—a rise of 1,000 per cent. That is progress indeed—progress that that lot couldnae even imagine. Scottish education is not flourishing yet, but it is getting its first chance in generations to grow and to look towards blooming because the SNP Government has been clearing the weeds of years of Labour misrule. The suffocation is being lifted and there now is a chance for sunlight to reach the shoots.

Scottish education is in good hands now. It is in the hands of a party and a cabinet secretary who actually care about making it better, improving Scotland and moving her forward. We have ambition and hope for Scotland and for Scottish education, which Labour lacks. We look forward to continuous improvement in education, always looking for better attainment performance and improved learning and teaching conditions from nursery to university. Scotland is moving forward with the SNP and Scottish education is moving forward, too. I am absolutely delighted to support the amendment in the name of my colleague.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 10:18 am, 13th January 2011

I am pleased to speak in this debate. The Scottish Conservatives have consistently argued for an education system that sees much more power and decision making passed to schools, parents and teachers and an end to the top-down, centralised, Government-knows-best attitude of the past, which the SNP Government, with its numerous national targets imposed on teachers, is making even worse. A more free, more diverse and more locally responsive system has a great deal of support among parents and an increasing number of education experts and stakeholders at all levels. If we had that type of system, in which local priorities based on local needs were the key, we would perhaps not be in the situation that we are in regarding the cabinet secretary's handling of the Argyll and Bute schools issue. The national targets and policy impositions of his own Government have made the serious challenges that Argyll and Bute councillors and officials face even more difficult.

I will not add a great deal on the specifics of the cabinet secretary's involvement in the Argyll and Bute issue. I thank him for complimenting me, during yesterday's statement, for defending the Argyll schools. I am delighted—and I compliment him—if he is intent on saving the Argyll schools from closure. After all, he is a cabinet secretary and gets far more publicity than a mere MSP and candidate such as me.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Not just at the moment.

Nevertheless, I again refer to his statement in an e-mail that nine of the schools in Argyll and Bute could be closed with minimal difficulty and ask him to name those schools in the interests of openness and of my constituents. To add further to that openness, would he be prepared to publish all his correspondence with the SNP councillors on the issue? He has made it clear in public—including during oral answers in the chamber—that it would be "quite improper" to comment on the proposals or the process. However, we know that, behind the scenes, he was e-mailing the SNP councillors in detail on the matters, not only commenting on them but suggesting alternative closure proposals, so what would be wrong with putting all of that on the record?

The Argyll and Bute schools issue has caused and continues to cause worry to parents and pupils in dozens of rural communities. That should be the focus of the debate, and we should be seeking to achieve the best possible education for our children in all the communities that we represent. That is a particular challenge in Argyll and Bute, given the special needs of such a dispersed rural and island constituency. It should be pointed out that, despite the current position, the proposals to close the 26 primary schools were unveiled to the public on 26 October and were the plans of the SNP/independent-led council. I am glad that the whole process has now been postponed until March. Why is it, though, that Argyll and Bute Council achieved such a dismal settlement in its negotiations with the Scottish Government compared with those of other councils? That obviously affects how much money the council can spend on education.

Although the Scottish Conservatives are aware of the pressure that council budgets are under and the need for efficiencies, we believe that each individual school should be judged on its educational and social merits. We believe in maintaining rural primary schools because of the role that they play in sustaining community life and the attainment levels of those who attend the schools, which is well above average. In looking to the future of rural communities, we must surely look not just at the cost of schools today, but at the appearance of tomorrow and the future for the young people who live in those communities. Education is a key factor in self-improvement. That should be pointed out emphatically to pupils who want to get on in life and emulate some of the Scottish giants on whose shoulders we stand, whom Liz Smith mentioned.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Is the nub of the member's complaint the fact that the SNP Government has not shown any favour towards an SNP-led council in the amount of money that it has distributed for education?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

My point is that the closures were proposed by an SNP-dominated council.

A theme that continually emerges among parents in Argyll is the inaccuracy of the council's closure proposal documents, which were wrong on a wide range of issues from pupil roll projections, which are for only one year, to estimated travel times to other schools and anticipated savings. The same concern has also been voiced by Argyll rural schools network, and I pay tribute to that body for the work that it has done. It is surely a matter of real concern that experts say that the expected financial saving of £24,000 a year on which the proposal to close North Bute primary school was based was incorrectly calculated and that the closure of the school would actually cost the council £50,000 a year due to the loss in grant-aided expenditure for the funding of rural primary schools. Furthermore, what is behind the proposed closure of Barcaldine primary school, which is at 96 per cent capacity, is in the top third of primary schools with the lowest per-pupil cost, is rated as the county's most cost-effective school building and has an A rating for educational suitability? Who on earth would want to close a school like that?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

Well, the cabinet secretary has said it.

I emphasise the importance of rural schools in attracting new families to areas to take up jobs. Landcatch, a fish farming entity in my constituency, which is soon to be taken over by the world-leading Hendrix Genetics, is a major employer in rural mid-Argyll. I support the company in arguing strongly that its local school, Achahoish primary school, is fundamental to attracting and expanding its workforce—something that we all want to see. We must listen to the words of businesses and all the community groups in our constituencies.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour 10:25 am, 13th January 2011

The cabinet secretary will make many statements today—some in the chamber, some outside it—and, no doubt, he will respond to the Donaldson report. However, the most important decision that Scotland's Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning will take today is whether, at the end of this debate, he should lift the phone to the director of education in Renfrewshire and his SNP colleagues and ask them to delay the decision that they plan to take at 1 o'clock to replace 60 qualified primary teachers with 120 part-time, unqualified sessional workers. The plan is that from August, those non-teachers will supervise 10 per cent of the schooling of all children in Renfrewshire primary schools. Whether he makes that call or simply sits on his hands will be a defining moment not only for his tenure as the minister with responsibility for education but for all of Scotland's parents and pupils in the years to come.

The issue that is at stake goes beyond party. All parts of this chamber should unite in calling on the cabinet secretary to make that call and urge delay. Let me explain to the minister why I think that he should make that call. For 40 years—dating back to the time of Willie Ross—every Scottish secretary and education minister, of all stripes, has consistently supported the professionalisation of our classrooms. Children were to be taught by ever more qualified teachers, regulated by the General Teaching Council. For 40 years, every Scottish secretary and education minister has supported that position. None of them has ever turned the clock back. All of them have moved us forward. However, if the minister today says that anything goes when it comes to who is in our classrooms and the amount of time during which our children can be taught by unqualified non-teachers, decades of progress for greater professionalism, higher standards and common capabilities will be reversed. That alone is enough reason for the cabinet secretary to make that call today.

The second reason is the total absence of consultation, locally or nationally, on these retrograde plans. They were published literally less than a week ago, and there has been no consultation. As this debate ends, parents will be starting to gather outside the education board offices, begging—I use that word advisedly—local councillors to pause and think again.

The third reason involves the confusion over the legal entitlement of all children in Scotland to an education. If Renfrewshire goes ahead, 10 per cent of the week will be handed over to unqualified staff. The new recruits are to be paid less than half the going rate for teachers, and there is no obligation for them to be trained.

Today's decision is the thin end of a potentially extremely long wedge. I genuinely believe that no one in this chamber wants to set off a race to the bottom in terms of how few hours in the school week actually need to be taught by a qualified teacher. However, once the dam is broken, anything could go in terms of part-time teachers and classroom assistants. The tragedy is that, as it currently stands, the law has no bottom line in terms of how much of the school week has to be taught by a qualified teacher. That is a frightening loophole in the law that has been exposed by the plans in Renfrewshire. The cabinet secretary should commit today to fixing that loophole and affirm that there will be no de-skilling of schools on his watch.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

The member will be well aware that the 2001 teaching agreement commits teachers to working a 35-hour week, 22.5 hours of which must be teaching time, and that teaching time, according to the regulations that were passed by this Parliament, can be delivered only by qualified teachers.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The issue is that there is no obligation for most of our children's school week to be taught by teachers. In my view, this Parliament should pause over and reflect on that. We should decide, on a national basis, what the bottom line should be. Indeed, when Michael Russell was the—very able—convener of the Education Committee, he would have urged that pause on any individual occupying the position that he currently holds.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thank Ms Alexander for awarding me a promotion, but I have never been the convener of an education committee in this Parliament.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I concede that point. The issue is, will he call Renfrewshire Council today and get it to put its plans on ice, instruct it to talk to parents and teachers and promise to close the loophole that is now allowing a race to the bottom in Scottish classrooms? I make the case to the minister that that decision on how much of a school week is taught by a teacher should be brought back to this place, where it belongs, and be placed on his desk. Will he make that call today or will he say that a free-for-all is fine by him? I appeal to him to make that call by lunchtime.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 10:31 am, 13th January 2011

Dear, oh dear, we are into the election season, are we not? This tired motion and the speeches of the Opposition members bear all the hallmarks of a desperate scrabble for public attention and the desire to harvest votes by any means possible.

I gently say to Wendy Alexander that sermons on how teachers are deployed come fairly poorly from a party whose councils have shed more teachers than any other councils.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

How many hours of our children's school week does the member believe should be taught by a teacher, and does he think that that should be a matter of national regulation?

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I think that decisions regarding education in a local area should be made by the local education authority and the teachers and headteachers in that area. However, I cannot help but notice that Labour councils have been getting rid of teachers left, right and centre, whereas non-Labour councils have been doing their best to keep teacher numbers up.

The personal attack on the cabinet secretary is a clear example of the sporting aphorism that if one cannot win the ball, one should go for the man. What has happened is that the attention of Mr Russell, in his role as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Argyll and Bute, was brought to a situation in which 26 schools in that constituency were proposed for closure by the council—a proposal that upset a great many people living in the area.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I must make some progress.

Candidates are often consulted in that way. However, Mr Russell is also the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, so how should he act?

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

The Opposition parties imply that he should go into some form of purdah and that he should refuse even to discuss—

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I do not know which school Lord Foulkes went to, but it did not teach him to listen to whoever is talking.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

For the record, I can inform Dr McKee that Lord Foulkes went to the Haberdashers' Aske's school.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I thank the cabinet secretary for that clarification.

Photo of Lord George Foulkes Lord George Foulkes Labour

I have been referred to—have the courtesy to let me reply. I want to make two points. First, as well as Haberdashers' I also went to Keith grammar school—I say that just to put the cabinet secretary in his place. Secondly, I was a minister, and I know the propriety of being a minister, and I can say that the cabinet secretary should not have intervened. He should separate his role as a minister from his role as a parliamentary candidate.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

The point that I was making was that, often, Lord Foulkes intervenes from a sedentary position in a way that tends to spoil debates.

If Labour believes that candidates cannot respond to issues that are raised with them before an election, it is not surprising that it lost the last election, just as it will lose the coming one.

It is clear, not only from yesterday's statement by Mr Russell but also from the comments in the press of those who met him during their campaign to save the schools, that not only did Mr Russell say on every occasion that he met protesters that, as a minister, he was unable to take up a position on the specific school closure programme, but that he made it quite clear that he would play no part in any Scottish Government decision regarding the proposed closures. He was, however, able to advise them on their rights and the rights of their communities under the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010—a helpful interpretation of the law of Scotland that could have been given legitimately by any interested person. I challenge anyone—

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Mr Rumbles will make a speech shortly, so he can make his points then.

I challenge anyone to say that that was not a totally honourable way of dealing with the issue. In my opinion, the electors of Argyll and Bute are fortunate to have the opportunity to choose such a person to represent them in the Parliament.

Opposition members should be ashamed of themselves—especially Labour and Lib Dem members, whose Administration between 2003 and 2007 closed a school on every single occasion that a request was submitted for ministerial approval. They are doing themselves a grave disservice by raising this issue and reminding the electorate so close to the coming election of their actions when they were in government.

I turn to the rest of the motion, which is a classic example of the Opposition's focus on process rather than outcome. Yes, we have to cope with the previous Administration's unsustainable approach to teacher employment, although it is fair to point out that the teacher claimant count in Scotland is lower than in any other part of the UK and is still falling. Our teacher unemployment rate is 9.6 per 1,000, which is still too high, but better than the rates of 12.5 per 1,000 in England and 29.7 per 1,000 in Northern Ireland.

Yes, we have to cope with the dual burden of financial pressures that have been caused by Labour maladministration at a UK level and by some unco-operative local authorities, which seem to value fighting the Government more highly than looking after the educational needs of local children. However, members can see from the Government's amendment what has been achieved. Let us congratulate our teachers and pupils and all those who are involved in Scottish education, and let us ignore completely the negativity of the motion that is before us.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 10:37 am, 13th January 2011

Before I focus on the main point of my speech, I must comment on the education secretary's astonishing contribution to the debate. He criticised everyone else in Argyll and Bute except for his own SNP council colleagues, when—let us not forget—it was their proposal to consult on closing up to 26 schools that was the issue in the first place.

Mike Russell himself said in a leaked e-mail sent to his SNP council colleagues—which was obviously leaked by his SNP colleagues—that "eight or nine" Argyll and Bute schools—[Interruption.]

I will repeat that, because Mr Russell is not listening. He said that "eight or nine" Argyll and Bute schools could be closed—those are his words. Yet when repeatedly asked—as he was again by Jamie McGrigor in the chamber today—which eight or nine schools he wants to close, he has consistently refused to identify them. He will still not identify which schools he thinks should close.

That type of behaviour, and that lack of openness and transparency, has completely undermined Mr Russell's role as education secretary. He has no standing whatsoever in the chamber now, because of his unwillingness to be open and transparent. The questions that Des McNulty asked yesterday were very relevant, but Mr Russell dismissed them with a laugh, which does the Parliament a huge discourtesy.

I welcome this debate on the SNP's education policy, as it allows me to focus on one particular aspect of it. I have corresponded with the education secretary on behalf of parents whose children are being educated at Banchory academy in my constituency. I know Banchory academy very well, as I taught there back in 1994 and both my sons went to school there.

There is a real national issue in this regard, although it has been raised locally. The Government amendment highlights the roll-out of the curriculum for excellence and criticises Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative MSPs where they have raised concerns as I have. However, it is the parents who are concerned that schools such as Banchory academy will further limit the number of subjects for which children will be allowed to be examined in S4, so that children will not be able to be examined in eight subjects in one year as they are at present. If that happens, it will dramatically limit the choices that are available for bright students when they come to take highers.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Will the member take an intervention on the point that he is making?

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I will not at the moment.

As a result of all that, I am told that students are already being withdrawn from the state sector and are moving to the private sector, where eight subjects in one year will still be available.

The education secretary has said in correspondence to me that there are case studies on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website that illustrate how five to eight subjects can be taken. I accept that, but it misses the point, in that the practicalities make it extremely unlikely that schools such as Banchory academy will be able to offer that.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I want to know whether the education secretary is sufficiently aware of the implications of what he is presiding over, and I gladly give way to him.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

This is a serious matter, and I am glad that Mr Rumbles has raised it; Margaret Smith also raised it in a letter to me. I simply say that it is quite clear that it is perfectly possible for any school to offer between five and eight subjects—that is obvious from the material.

In order to be helpful, I am happy to meet Mr Rumbles, with Margaret Smith and any other members whom the matter concerns, and to bring along staff from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland to discuss the matter with them. I am also happy to visit the school in Banchory and to talk to parents if necessary, because I believe that there is a misapprehension.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I thank the education secretary for offering to do that—I would warmly welcome him to my constituency and to Banchory academy, and I would like to take him up on that offer. I will write to him on that point.

However, Mr Russell misses the point: he says that five to eight subjects are available, but that is not in one year—Banchory academy has said that it cannot do that.

I would like to know, on a national basis, how many schools the education secretary believes are in the same boat as Banchory academy. How many schools does he think will be able to offer bright students the choice of taking eight subjects in a single year as they have at present? I suspect that once schools have examined the implications in respect of the curriculum for excellence—because they have not looked at it yet—they will see that they do not have a curriculum for excellence but the reverse, and that is a genuine concern.

I am glad that the education secretary has offered to come to Banchory, because that will be helpful to him and to the parents and children at Banchory academy. Once we get this element right, and if we can ensure that the choice is available throughout the country, that will be a real plus for the whole of Scotland. At the moment, it is a real problem, and I am delighted that the education secretary will come with me to Banchory academy to tackle the issue. If we get a result from that, it will be superb.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 10:42 am, 13th January 2011

I welcome the opportunity to participate in today's debate and speak in support of the Labour motion.

As we all know, education offers many advantages and can open many doors. Education and life skills are interlinked, along with employment and productivity. As President Obama said:

"no matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it."

The benefit of a good education is all the more important for those who have to deal with the disadvantage of being born into poverty. That is why the SNP's consistent failures in education policy at all levels—nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary—are so damaging. If we all agree that a good education is a must and that skills are a necessity, why does a study that was published last week by the National Union of Students show that nearly two thirds of colleges did not have sufficient bursaries to cope with demand in 2009-10? The real-terms cut of £1.7 million to college bursaries that was announced in the draft budget will make the situation worse next year. The NUS says that bursary funds for the current year will be £3.5 million less than last year and that demand for bursaries will outstrip supply by £9 million. How can that be an example of a Government that wants Scotland's disadvantaged young people to have the best opportunities and the best chance to succeed in life?

The cabinet secretary recently told the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee during its budget deliberations that he was committed to

"protecting access to education based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay".—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 1 December 2010; c 4403.]

The question remains, is he?

We accept that our colleges and institutions face a huge challenge, but many are trying to adapt by providing demand-led courses, aligning provision with the current and future skills requirements of the economy and updating courses to reflect future needs.

Businesses of all sizes throughout Scotland have told me that what they want are new recruits with work-related skills, in particular the soft skills such as communication and self confidence. In my experience, and as I know from speaking to employers, employees with vocational qualifications are in many cases better developed than recruits with academic qualifications in the vital areas of attitude and enthusiasm, team working, business and customer awareness, and self-management. Teaching work-related skills in schools is vital, but many of the youngsters who move on from school to vocational courses need all the support—financial and educational—that can be brought together.

We accept that today's economic climate is not the most conducive to helping youngsters to find work, but without skills and vocational training many will end up on the scrap heap. We all know that many employers will be hit hard by the recession and they will want to ensure that their workforce is operating at the optimum level. To do that, employees need skills and to obtain skills, training and education. Through improved skill levels should come improved productivity.

Vocational qualifications have a huge impact on all businesses, and our young people need the right training to ensure that Scotland can work its way out of the global recession. How can we do that if the colleges that support our vocational training cannot provide bursaries to enable our poorest students to participate? Cumbernauld College, which has a campus in my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, had a funding shortfall of £100,000 for bursaries last year, but was able to find the money from other areas. This year, that is not going to happen. Students will suffer, travel allowances will be curtailed and additional items will soon disappear.

There is a huge scaling down of what students on vocational courses can receive in support of their learning. There is a reduced and reducing pot, and in many cases the colleges have to spread it too thinly to maintain numbers. It is important to realise that bursary funding lies at the very heart of college provision. As I have said, local further education colleges work with some of society's most vulnerable individuals who are trying to better their lives and those of their families. They need financial and other forms of support to access learning and to maintain their attendance at college.

Another key organisation in preparing future employees for the world of work is Skills Development Scotland, whose budget has been slashed by £21 million—a 10 per cent cut—and which has to find 125 volunteers for redundancy. Mr Russell was annoyed that Labour asked for a statement on that just before the Christmas recess, but although he clearly has difficulty with the concept that it is the role of the Opposition to hold the Government of the day to account, as the person who sought the statement I was pleased to hear the new skills minister, Angela Constance, give an unequivocal guarantee that the reduction in budget and staffing at SDS will have no negative impact on service delivery and that the commitment to provide 34,500 training places of different types will be maintained. I assure Ms Constance that I will be monitoring that commitment closely.

This is not rocket science. A better-skilled workforce is more employable and more productive. We all know that Scotland's skills base has improved considerably in recent decades. Unfortunately, however, that has not yet translated into higher productivity and economic growth. We need to keep growing skills and vocational learning in areas that will encourage economic growth, especially construction, the low-carbon economy, the creative industries, retail and the services sector. The ability to capitalise on that skills base must not be constrained by a lack of individuals with the right skills, and public-private co-operation is essential in delivering the appropriate training opportunities.

That is why Labour is progressing with plans for a Scottish future jobs fund to create 10,000 training places, which we will introduce within 100 days if we are successful in forming a Government after the elections in May. If we are serious about preparing youngsters for the 21st century economy, we have to ensure that all youngsters, regardless of ability and financial backing, get a chance to grab the opportunities.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 10:49 am, 13th January 2011

The motion that Labour has brought to the chamber today characteristically expresses little, save perhaps its on-going internal psychological struggle between SNP loathing on the one hand and self-loathing on the other. I hope that I may therefore be permitted to stray a little from the spirit of Labour's motion and talk instead about another subject, which should be of interest to us all, namely education.

The Government's amendment lists some of the reasons—it is not an exhaustive list—as to why Scotland has positive reasons to be proud of its education system and its educational achievement. Of course there are many things that we can seek to improve, but much work is being done that deserves to be celebrated. Others have already touched on many of those areas—the increase in nursery entitlement, the re-establishment of free tuition at university, the extension of the entitlement to free school meals, the promotion of Scottish literature and history in schools and, perhaps most telling of all, the fact that we have never had a higher proportion of school leavers going into work, education or training.

However, I will focus on one area that means a lot to me: the future of rural schools. I declare an interest in that I went to a primary school in the Borders with a roll that fluctuated between a dozen and two dozen—a school that subsequently closed. [Interruption.] I do not know why George Foulkes laughs—I can assure him that it was not under the current Administration.

The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010—legislation that was brought forward by the current Government—recognises, without in any way minimising the importance of all schools to their communities, that another factor comes into play in rural Scotland. If a rural community loses its school, a question arises as to whether that community can survive as more than a designated retirement zone. The 2010 act is clear in giving ministers the power to call in school closure decisions by local authorities where the Government believes that material factors have not adequately been taken into account during the council's closure process. Crucially, those factors include whether the council has really considered alternatives to closure and whether attention has been given to the economic and social consequences for the affected community.

Yesterday, above all the irrelevant baying and yelling of some members, we heard crucial evidence of that legislation being put to work and a clear sign of the Government's commitment to ensuring that rural schools are given a fair chance. I am pleased to say that the education secretary announced that, as well as calling in a school closure decision in Shetland, he had used his powers under the act to keep four schools in the Western Isles open. With the Parliament's forbearance, I will pay tribute to the campaigns that were run by those four communities.

First, I pay tribute to all those in the west side of Harris who argued so strongly that the local council had no right to close their school without heeding the Herculean efforts that were being made there to ensure a future for their community, which deserves the description "fragile" more than any other place I can think of in Scotland. The decision to keep the school open will serve as a significant boost to all those who are seeking to bring new life to the place following a successful community buyout.

Lionel and Shawbost are two schools in the north and west of Lewis where secondary 1 and 2 pupils are taught locally rather than being sent on the long journey to Stornoway. Despite two successive attempts to close those secondary units in recent years, the communities have won their argument. I have seldom seen a larger or angrier crowd of people in the Western Isles than in Carloway recently, where people were arguing passionately for the role that their school has in ensuring that there is life in the west side of Lewis.

In the Western Isles, like everywhere else, there is a recognition that schools cannot have an eternal guarantee about their future and that some schools will have to close. However, schools deserve a chance. I do not relish falling out with my local council, which I believe exercises sincerely its difficult task as an education authority in difficult times. However, I believe that the minister was right to intervene in the four cases that I have mentioned. I doubt that many people in the west side of either Harris or Lewis would disagree with me on that.

We can justly be proud of Scotland's new legislation on rural schools. We should celebrate many things about our education system. We should celebrate the more than 300 school building projects that have been completed since May 2007, which have lifted about 120,000 pupils out of poor conditions. We should celebrate the new opportunities that the curriculum for excellence brings for both teachers and pupils. Above all, while some members in the chamber fail to realise that the pantomime season is generally over by the old new year, perhaps we should celebrate the fact that Scotland's Government has done something practical to show faith in some of Scotland's most rural schools.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 10:54 am, 13th January 2011

First there were 26, then there were 25. Now there is none, although that is only temporary, and the cabinet secretary believes that eight or nine would be fine. I am, of course, referring to the school closures that Argyll and Bute Council has proposed. Whatever the number, we know that those school closure proposals will re-emerge in the next two months and, given the really tight timetable for consultation and decision making, I make no apology for focusing on Argyll and Bute.

Before I do so, however, I want to deal with the smoke and mirrors that the cabinet secretary is always so keen to conjure for us. The school closure proposals came from the SNP-independent administration in Argyll and Bute Council; indeed, the convener of education overseeing all this was a very well-respected member of the SNP. Although I understand absolutely why Mike Russell might not like me pointing out that fact, it is all absolutely true: the SNP was a key architect in the school closure proposals for Argyll and Bute. Let us have no more pretending that somehow it was not involved. The people of Argyll and Bute deserve honesty from their politicians—and, indeed, their aspiring politicians. Nevertheless, I welcome all converts to the cause and the action that the new Lib Dem-independent administration has taken in removing the proposals from the table for review.

I want to give the chamber a flavour of the Argyll and Bute proposals. A total of 25 school closures were proposed for consultation, including four schools in my area: Kilcreggan, Rosneath, Luss and Parklands, the last of which is a special needs school dealing with children with profound and complex disabilities who would really struggle in mainstream education. There were huge and significant flaws and errors in the process, the first of which related to pupil population projections. Those projections looked only a year ahead and, at the beginning, covered all children from four to 18, even though only primary schools were under consideration. As a result, they needed to be adjusted to cover only primary-age children. Moreover, they missed a huge population increase that will happen at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde at Faslane. Although we know that a significant number of new families will move into that area, those figures have not been properly factored in.

The second error related to capacity calculations. In one school, for example, corridors—corridors, I ask you—were counted as teaching space. This must be a new take on reduced class sizes. Clearly I had not understood that the policy meant that teaching would take place in corridors.

The third error concerned travel routes, which were not accurately timed or properly specified. There was also no idea as to what form of transport would be used. We were asking parents to send children as young as four years old to school in buses that had no seat belts or adult supervision beyond the bus driver. Frankly, I do not think that that is acceptable.

The fourth error related to the financial assumptions, which were woeful. Sometimes I struggle to imitate some of my colleagues in the chamber who are accountants but I—and the families—have worked out that it will cost more to close Luss primary school than it will to keep it open. That is simply absurd.

I will not go through the whole litany of errors, but I think that two in particular stand out. Argyll and Bute Council missed two of the statutory requirements in the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010: first, there was no community impact assessment; and, secondly, there was no consideration of alternative options. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, if any local authority—not just Argyll and Bute, because I recognise his difficulty in that respect—fails to meet the requirements of the act in the way that I have described, ministers will call in the closure proposals for consideration?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am happy to give the member a clear response to that question. In yesterday's statement, I indicated that, although the act works well, some areas require to be strengthened. One such area is the verification of original proposals; under the present act, there is no requirement for inaccurate proposals to be withdrawn. Clearly in this particular case the proposals were inaccurate. In other places, proposals have been withdrawn and reissued. There is a serious case for making a change to the act, and it will require attention.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for that information. Of course, both the Argyll and Scottish rural schools networks, to which my colleague Jamie McGrigor has paid tribute, have been meticulous in exposing the flaws in the proposals. In fact, they have submitted to the Public Petitions Committee a petition suggesting those very areas of improvement that I understand might be considered before Parliament rises.

We know that the proposals will come back and that they might well feature the eight or nine schools that the cabinet secretary believes should close. Whether or not they do, only he knows, unless he is sufficiently brave to publish his list. When those proposals come back, they will need our attention. After all, we need to protect rural schools that are thriving, that are at the centre of their local communities and that matter to the economic vitality of their areas. I suggest that, if the cabinet secretary wants to continue his campaign to be MSP for Argyll and Bute, he lobby John Swinney to give Argyll and Bute Council some helpful flexibility over how it uses its resources. After all, it has the worst local government settlement of the 32 local authorities. If he managed to get additional funding for Argyll and Bute, even I would find it possible to welcome the announcement.

I look forward to future discussions, to the meeting with Angela Constance about Argyll and Bute schools and to the cabinet secretary's lobbying of John Swinney.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party 11:00 am, 13th January 2011

It is in the very nature of Scotland's education system to pursue excellence and to strive always to do better and achieve more and I think that the system seeks to imbue such ideals in our children and young people. No matter their background or means, they should, with a good education, strive to go on and achieve their goals. It might be easier to say so in rhetoric than it is to achieve in every case but, nevertheless, it should always be our aim.

We should never be content with things as they are or be complacent; we should always be willing to examine what is necessary to ensure that the principle of excellence in education is maintained. I believe that that has been central to the SNP Government's vision of and ambition for education in Scotland over the past four years. Karen Whitefield and Des McNulty referred—wrongly—to a litany of failure in education. Instead, we should focus on the litany of achievement under the SNP including the extension of entitlement to free school meals; 20,000 apprenticeship places; the preservation of the education maintenance allowance, despite its abolition elsewhere in the United Kingdom; the promotion of Scottish history and literacy in schools; the reduction in school exclusions; and, of course, the abolition of the graduate endowment. Those are just some of the many achievements in education that have happened under the SNP.

In education, it is crucial to get things right early on. Given that investment in early years pays dividends throughout the educational experience, we can be proud that class sizes are at a record low of 23 in primary schools, with around 22 per cent of P1 to P3 pupils in classes of 18 or fewer. Legislation has delivered a statutory limit of 25 pupils in P1 classes across the country—that, too, is an achievement. Smaller classes mean more contact time between individual pupils and their teachers, providing more interaction, easier discipline and, above all, a greater opportunity to learn.

The Government's amendment also notes the positive impact of the extension of free school meal entitlement on some of Scotland's hardest-pressed families and I welcome its recognition of the principle and practice of extending free nutritious meals to our youngest pupils. That demonstrates the investment in the early years and a confidence that the benefits will be seen in years to come.

Since May 2007, the Scottish Government has worked to lift 120,000 pupils out of poor school conditions. It is a simple fact that more than 300 school building projects have been completed in the same period. Despite the rhetoric that we have heard from the Labour benches, I was interested to read in Labour's 2007 election manifesto:

"We will accelerate the school building programme and re-build 250 more Scottish schools in the next term of the Scottish Parliament."

We have, in fact, delivered 300-plus. During the lifetime of the Parliament, the Scottish Government will have spent an average £700 million a year on school buildings whereas, in the previous eight years of devolution, the average spend per year was £531 million.

Of course, many local authorities are struggling with the legacy of the private finance initiative. In many areas, as much as 5 per cent of the education budget is being used to pay fees and debts to PFI consortia.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Will the member ask the cabinet secretary why he is withdrawing capital allocations from new schools that are on the list and replacing them with revenue support?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I think that Mr McNulty is well capable of asking his own questions.

Members:

Answer the question!

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

Members on the Labour benches might be surprised to find that I am not the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, at whom I believe the question was directed and who I am sure will answer it.

The annual cost of education private finance initiative and public-private partnership schemes in 2008-09 was more than £240 million. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid to PFI consortia, many of which are backed by banks that have enjoyed a bail-out from the previous UK Government. Taxpayers are, in effect, paying twice and, while the bankers grow rich, the local authorities feel the squeeze and funds are being removed that could be put to good and effective use in Scotland's education system.

Local authorities have a key role in ensuring that our education system fulfils our aspirations for it. Many residents of North Lanarkshire were disappointed when the Labour-led council decided to press ahead with the school closure programme last year. Parents, pupils and the wider community were sorry to see the loss of St Francis of Assisi primary school in Cumbernauld and two nurseries in the Abronhill area of the town. I thank the cabinet secretary and the previous Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning for their answers to parliamentary questions last year as I helped campaigners to oppose the closures. Like Alasdair Allan, who paid tribute to the campaigners in his area, I pay tribute to the campaigners in North Lanarkshire. It is a matter of regret that the Labour-led council went ahead with the closures.

Worryingly, the leader of North Lanarkshire Council has suggested that there might be further closures. However, any future proposed closures would be subject to the enhanced scrutiny and protection afforded by the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010—another significant achievement by the Scottish Government in the past four years.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

I, too, regret the closure of two nurseries and a school in the Cumbernauld and Kilsyth constituency. However, does the member acknowledge that North Lanarkshire Council used the principles of the act for its consultation? Even at the end, despite requests from parents and from me, the minister did not intervene on the school closures.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I acknowledge that the council followed the principles of the act. I hope that the member acknowledges that there was nothing in the act that compelled the council to go ahead with the closures. It was the Labour Party that closed those establishments and not the SNP Government.

I was hoping to turn to higher education, but I am running out of time. I welcome the debate and look forward to hearing what the minister has to say at the end of the debate. There have been no positive suggestions from the Labour benches about how to take Scotland's education system forward. Labour members would rather use the issue as a political football.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 11:06 am, 13th January 2011

I make an unusual offer. Given Christina McKelvie's comments with regard to the perfection of others, I am happy to give way to her if she wishes to identify which ministers she believes are less than perfect. She should bear in mind that I have only six minutes.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

All of them. They are all less than perfect. [ Laughter .]

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Ask her what the imperfections are.

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

I have only six minutes.

The Government has a track record on education but, as members have indicated this morning, it is not one of which any Government would be especially proud, let alone a Government—and a party—that claims to stand up for Scotland. Speaker after speaker—the Conservatives, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and Labour members—has highlighted many examples of situations in which resources have been changed, building programmes have been cut and teacher numbers have been reduced, yet, again and again, the Government has sought to place the blame and responsibility anywhere other than where it belongs, which is with this failing Administration.

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

I would like to make a little progress if the member does not mind.

That is to be regretted. While the flowery rhetoric of the cabinet secretary seeks to divert attention from the failures of the Administration, the reality on the ground is far from the rosy picture that he paints in his somewhat extensive amendment to the motion. Slightly more than three and a half years in, we have reached a stage in the life of the Parliament at which others can no longer take the blame.

Although I do not know much of the detail of the school closures in Argyll and Bute, it is clear from the contributions of Jackie Baillie and other members that there is an issue there. However, I was pleased to hear the cabinet secretary mention that, where documents are inaccurate, proposals will in future be called in—I think that that was an issue that Margaret Smith raised.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On an important point of detail, there is no power in the act to call in a decision before it is made. By definition, a document exists before a decision is made. The point that I was making was that the legislation needs to be revisited. I believe that Margaret Smith lodged an amendment to the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill on how the veracity of information could be guaranteed in the process.

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

I thank the cabinet secretary for that clarification.

Leaving aside the inevitability that members' speeches will reflect the fact that we are rapidly approaching the election, I think that Liz Smith made a very considered speech on the role of teachers and the issues on which we should focus. As we approach the election, it is incumbent on all parties in this Parliament, including mine, to tell the public what their proposals are.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I welcome Hugh O'Donnell's commitment to telling the public what his party proposes. Do the Liberal Democrats support the idea of replacing qualified teachers with non-qualified staff in Scottish schools?

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

I am not aware that that is a national policy, although I was interested to see that David Miliband has taken up a post as a non-teacher teaching in a school. That is an interesting reflection of the Labour Party's position on the issue.

David Whitton made a well-considered speech on further and higher education, particularly on the role of our colleges. Having visited a number of colleges, including Cumbernauld College in my home town, I have a great deal of sympathy with many of the points that he raised. I recognise the challenges that those colleges face. I recently visited the dental school at Coatbridge College in Elaine Smith's constituency. It is an excellent facility of which Scotland has every right to be proud. I would recommend to any member who is interested in further education that they have a look at that facility.

However, there are serious issues that we need to address. I am concerned about what I see happening in Lanarkshire on the issues of teachers, school mergers and so on. I am particularly concerned—this reflects my contribution to the debate on the Autism (Scotland) Bill yesterday—when I hear about a merger of Ridgepark and Kittoch schools in South Lanarkshire, which deal with some of the most difficult young people in Scotland. It would appear from the outside to be a merger driven by financial savings. Jackie Baillie mentioned another area of activity on special educational needs—it is clear that such facilities are under pressure. I am not convinced that the Government's contribution and the gun at the head of local authorities are helpful ways of encouraging the most effective use of resources.

On the issue of the colleges, it is my understanding that the cabinet secretary's department recently surveyed colleges on the number of people to whom they could not allocate places. I wonder whether the information that I have been given is accurate. If so, when will the information that was returned by the colleges be put into the public domain?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 11:13 am, 13th January 2011

This has been a rather bad-tempered debate, with more heat than light. With the whiff of an election in the air, perhaps that is to be expected. Things will probably get no better over the coming weeks.

In his opening speech, in what was quite an effective critique of the SNP Government's failures on education, Des McNulty referred to falling teacher numbers, class size targets not being met and the lack of investment in school buildings. In the amendment in her name, and in her speech, Elizabeth Smith identified that the key problem facing the SNP is not so much what it has failed to do, but that it promised so much in advance of the previous election that it has not delivered.

The SNP made unrealistic and uncosted pledges that have come back to haunt it. I know people—many of whom are connected with education, such as teachers and parents—who at the previous Scottish election in 2007 voted SNP for the first time because they wanted smaller class sizes and more teachers to be employed. All those people have been let down and they all tell me that they will not be voting SNP again.

The cabinet secretary's defence, which was articulated as he spoke to an amendment that is almost as long as the list of SNP broken promises, is to say that it is all the fault of the Government at Westminster because of its cuts. However, he neglects to mention that, for the first three years of his Government in this parliamentary session, the budget was not affected by any cuts from Westminster. There was plenty of money and we had record levels of spending compared to those under any previous Scottish Administration, yet still the SNP failed to deliver on its promises on class size reduction and teacher employment. As Mr O'Donnell fairly said, the defence of, "It wisnae me—it's all somebody else's fault," does not hold water. Sooner or later, the Government and the cabinet secretary must start taking responsibility for their actions and failures and stop blaming others.

Many members have raised concerns about teacher employment, which is one of the Government's biggest failings. As somebody who is married to a recently qualified teacher who, like many of her contemporaries, has not been able to find a permanent job since qualifying, I am painfully aware of the issues. The situation is a desperate waste of talent. Many people came from other careers to retrain as teachers because of the promises that were made to them, but they are not being utilised and will potentially be lost to the teaching profession.

Many Labour members raised that subject but, although they were strong on critique, they were light on solutions. I will briefly give three suggestions that might help. First, why do we continue to train so many teachers to add to a pool of unemployment? There has been a reduction in the number of people going through teacher training, but I question whether that has gone far enough. We have to consider that. Secondly, we need much better information in the marketplace on supply of and demand for teachers, and on vacancies. Thirdly, because we support better local decision making, we believe that if headteachers had greater flexibility in their budgets, that might create opportunities for more employment. Those are serious suggestions to the cabinet secretary, which I hope he will take on board.

Overall, the speeches from Labour members were long on criticism and light on alternatives. What will Labour do if it is successful in the election in May and faces the problems that we are discussing? Where will Labour find the money to deal with the problem of teacher unemployment? I hope that Mr Macintosh, in winding up the debate, will shed light on what Labour will actually do after 5 May if it forms the Administration.

Overall, the debate has missed the point. There is a real debate to be had about the future of Scottish education but we have hardly touched on it today. Among the opening speakers, only Elizabeth Smith addressed the issue. In Scotland, we are not as good as some claim we are, and we are failing too many pupils. Even Labour-connected commentators such as John McTernan and John McLaren now accept that Scottish education has a long way to go. We have had a huge injection of additional money in the past decade, but with no commensurate improvement in outcomes. On international comparisons, Scottish education has stagnated.

So we have to change things. Instead of throwing mud at one another, we should be having a debate about how to make changes and what they should be. As Elizabeth Smith said, the Conservative view is that we need to go down the road of greater school autonomy, greater diversity, more parental choice and greater emphasis on basic skills. In relation to that debate, I was disappointed with the cabinet secretary's speech. Consumed with insomnia the other night, I turned to my well-thumbed copy of "Grasping the Thistle", which was co-authored by the cabinet secretary in his younger and more interesting days. In the section on education, I read praise for the private sector delivering public service and for the idea that Swedish-style education vouchers should be made available to all. Indeed, the book suggests that those could be topped up by parents to purchase private schooling. Then there is the classic remark:

"Choice and diversity are the hallmarks of a mature and confident society and this system will encourage the emergence of new types of private provision".

How disappointing it is that, 14 months after taking office, the cabinet secretary has pursued none of those interesting ideas. As we enter the twilight of Mr Russell's career as cabinet secretary, we should reflect on how far he has retreated from his once-bold vision for Scottish education. For that alone, he stands guilty of failing Scotland's parents, pupils and teachers, so I support the amendment in Elizabeth Smith's name.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party 11:20 am, 13th January 2011

The Scottish Government is not short on ambition for all our young people and children, irrespective of their background or start in life. Although we will happily participate in robust political debate—after all, as Mr Russell highlighted, we have a record to be proud of—we will always honestly and pragmatically acknowledge that there is more to do. Our number 1 priority should be to shine a light and showcase and celebrate the success of Scotland's children and our education and learning community.

Before I address some of the issues that members from across the political spectrum have raised, I will take time to reiterate some of the key achievements of which we should all be proud. We have improved the start that we give to our children in the early years through giving significantly more children an entitlement to free school meals and by increasing free nursery entitlement. We are getting many more children into small primary 1, 2 and 3 classes to give them better pupil teacher interaction. We have maintained record low primary class sizes and made regulations to do away with the largest primary 1 classes. We have driven down primary school pupil teacher ratios from 16.2 to 15.8. All in all, on early intervention, those are examples of the Government acting before it is too late.

Mr McNulty, Mr Henry and Ms Alexander spoke at length about the Renfrewshire proposals on using non-teachers to enhance the curriculum. The point that I tried to make earlier to Ms Alexander is that the regulations and the 2001 teacher agreement protect the standard of education in our schools. There is a minimum of 22.5 hours a week of teaching time and teaching can be delivered only by GTCS teachers. That is stated in the regulations. Of course, we should all welcome the opportunity for other people with specialist expertise, whether that is David Miliband, some sporting personality or another appropriately qualified individual, to enhance the curriculum in addition to the core curriculum and the 22.5 hours of teaching.

If there is a genuine issue that members want to discuss pragmatically and sensibly, rather than inflaming concerns and sowing unnecessary doubts in the minds of parents, we in the Government are always happy to hear concerns from members from across the political spectrum about their constituencies.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The minister has helpfully influenced that limit of 10 per cent on the time that can be handed over to non-teachers. I want that issue to be debated publicly. Given that, will the minister simply call for a delay of the decision at 1 o'clock today, which I mentioned earlier and which would for the first time hand over 10 per cent of time to non-teachers? Will she or her colleagues make the call to delay that decision at 1 o'clock today and legally clarify how much of the school week must be taught by teachers?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

I reassure Ms Alexander that the regulations, in combination with the 2001 teacher agreement, are clear about what the minimum standards are—22.5 hours a week. If she and others wish to have a sensible, genuine, proactive and positive dialogue, we will welcome it. At the heart of all our work we want to maximise opportunities for young people. At the heart of our interests is the education and long-term wellbeing of all our young people.

There was much mention in the debate of the two-hour PE target. As many of my colleagues reiterated, 55 per cent of children in primary schools throughout Scotland are getting at least two hours of physical education a week, compared with a rather meagre 5 per cent in 2004-05. The previous Labour-Liberal Administration introduced that target, but I am pleased that this SNP Government is making progress on it, which is a job that we intend to finish. For members' information, 23 per cent of secondary schools are delivering the PE target compared with 7 per cent in 2004.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

If the member does not mind, I want to move on to talk about school buildings, mentioned by Karen Whitefield and others. Despite claims by Opposition parties, no authority, including North Lanarkshire Council, will get less money for schools than has been announced. Unlike the UK Government, this Administration has not and will not cancel any school projects. Of the 330 schools that will be completed by April 2011, 163 have been started since May 2007. I had hoped that members across the spectrum would have celebrated that 120,000 children throughout Scotland have now been lifted out of substandard accommodation. It is a great achievement.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Will the minister confirm that the previously announced capital allocations for Garnock academy and Wick high school will still be handed to the respective authorities?

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

As I said, no authority is getting less money for the schools in its area than has been announced. I thought that many local authorities would have been thankful for the accelerated capital previously announced by this Government.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

No, thank you; I would like to make progress—I am already at seven minutes.

I thought that there would have been more discussion this morning about the curriculum for excellence. The great irony is that, due to the Labour and Liberal parties' delay and stalling in the previous Administration, it is this Administration that has made progress.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Absolutely—I see one of the guilty parties over there on the Labour benches.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Thank you. We should all recognise that the curriculum for excellence is the most radical reform in a generation and that it will equip our children for the future.

I listened with interest to Mr Whitton's comments. I am pleased to hear that he will be shadowing me closely. I look forward to spending much time in his company.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Mr Whitton should recognise that we are maintaining student support at a record high. Last year, student support budgets were increased by 6 per cent. In times of savage cuts, we are protecting students from the worst of them. We would like to do more for all students in the college and higher education sector but, however much as a woman and a nationalist I dislike the fact, I rely on Westminster for my pocket money.

The Labour Party shows great audacity and cheek in raising the funding issue. As I recall, it was the Labour Party that ran away and left us at the mercy of a Tory Government. The Labour Party had an opportunity to form a progressive alliance, but so blinded was it by its dislike—or should I say hatred—of the Scottish National Party, it walked away from its responsibilities. We will get on with the job of governing while it gets on with girning and greeting. There is a phrase, "Vote Labour and you'll get the Tories." This Government has heavily invested time, energy and money in the early years, the curriculum for excellence, reducing class sizes and the school estate and we are leading the world in applying technology to enhance learning, all with a view to preparing children and young people for their transition into adulthood and achieving far more positive destinations than have been the case previously. However, all that early and sustained investment in the early years will be for nothing if access to higher education is not based on the ability to learn, as opposed to the ability to earn. This Government has reinstated unequivocally the principle of free education and we will not cut off opportunities for our young people while they are in their prime. As long as we have breath in our lungs, the democratic intellect—the heart of the Scottish education system—will remain alive and well.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 11:31 am, 13th January 2011

The trouble with being offered a progressive alliance is that the offer has to come from a progressive party. As I have argued before, this Government has demonstrated by its actions that it is not one. I listened to the words of the reactionaries on the SNP benches, which prove my point.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I will try to make some progress, tempting though Mr Fraser's offer is.

This is a worrying time for all those concerned about education in Scotland: parents, pupils and, perhaps most of all, those wrestling with the immediate difficulties—the teachers. It is a period of change with the introduction of a new curriculum and new examinations. It is a period of retrenchment and cutbacks rather than the expansion and investment that we were so accustomed to over the previous decade. Instead of building new schools, we are closing them. Instead of hiring new teachers, we are firing them. Instead of class sizes decreasing, they are increasing.

The outlook is equally worrying for those leaving school. Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament we have raised a whole new generation with the expectation that they will go on to further and higher education. Now they find the door being shut in their faces. The Government reduced the number of places at university last year and thousands of this year's places will not be fully funded. We have held out the promise that no matter what someone's background or the obstacles in their way, education can be the liberator, the way to transform themselves and their future. However, now students are faced with the prospect of ever-higher costs if they wish to go to university or college. We are lumbering students and their families with ever-increasing bills and debt for the supposed privilege of making the most of their abilities.

It is chastening to think how far we have travelled in four short years, from a country that prided itself on its public commitment to education, education, education, to one where teachers are anxious about their job prospects and their future in the profession, where students are demonstrating on the streets and where parent support groups are springing up all over the country to fight cuts, whether in learning support, music tuition, or proposed school closures.

I do not lay all the blame for this worrying situation on the SNP. Certainly, as we deal with this and next year's public finances, the Scottish Government will be subject, as will we all, to circumstances outwith our control: a recession brought on by irresponsible banking and a level of cuts imposed not because they are necessary for the economy, but delivered for ideological reasons by a UK Government opposed to the public sector and which wishes to promote austerity as a virtue. I agreed with Mike Russell when he said that the Con-Dems are cutting too far and too fast. I think that that was the only point on which I agreed with Mr Russell.

The SNP cannot escape its responsibility, which is a theme that my colleague Des McNulty and others, including Murdo Fraser, developed. My abiding memory of this Administration and its commitment to education will be one of false and broken promises. Elizabeth Smith opened her remarks by referring to the most cruel deception that this Government played on voters. She said that the SNP's uncosted election pledges made in 2007 raised expectations only to dash them. I could not agree more. The SNP promised the sun, the moon and the stars, but it has brought us all down to earth.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Like his Labour colleagues, Mr Macintosh has been long on the critique of the SNP Government. Will he tell us what Labour will do if it wins the election?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Mr Fraser will look forward with anticipation to the publication of our manifesto, although I can give him a little taster now with a promise of 1,000 teachers to deliver on literacy and numeracy. From Opposition benches, we have already delivered more progressive policies on literacy than the Government has done in four years.

Promises were made to students on levels of debt that were promptly abandoned. Promises were made to parents on class sizes, new buildings, PE, school meals and more, on which there was little or no delivery. Promises were also made to teachers on jobs, for which every SNP member should hang their head in shame.

When I read the SNP amendment last night, I did not know whether to laugh, to weep or to throw something across the room. If one was to believe the words in the cabinet secretary's name, what a list of glorious achievement it would make. In fact, I thought that it would be unsurpassed as a list of fanciful SNP achievements until my colleague Karen Whitefield alerted us to Mr Neil's calendar of celebratory moments and his plans to mark the anniversary of the SNP's consultation on moves to limit class sizes to 25. Oh, how we all await our invitation to that event.

While SNP members pat themselves on the back, everywhere we go in Scotland today we find teachers looking for jobs, schools struggling for resources, classroom assistants laid off and pupil support diminished—all the marvellous work that we did over 10 years coming undone. Instead of moving to the mainstream, support for the arts and sport increasingly and exasperatingly has been relegated to the periphery. Buildings in need of replacement have been delayed or postponed indefinitely.

In the face of that situation, the SNP has the gall to boast about reducing teacher employment. The amendment actually calls on us, the Parliament, to recognise

"the fact that the teacher claimant count in Scotland is lower than in any other part of the United Kingdom and is now declining year on year".

A Government that has got rid of 3,000 teachers boasts about reducing unemployment. It takes your breath away.

I was not sure whether the claims in the SNP amendment were deliberately designed to obscure the truth or were part of a larger picture of blinkered self-justification—a bit like the character Billy Liar, who makes up so many fanciful stories that he ends up believing them himself. Let me mention another line in the SNP amendment, which refers to

"increased access to General Teaching Council for Scotland-registered teachers in nurseries".

There may indeed be a marginal increase in access to a nursery teacher, but the amendment does not say that there are now fewer nursery teachers under the SNP Government. Maybe, just maybe, a small number of pupils might be seeing a teacher when they did not before, but all of our nursery pupils are getting less of their teacher's time. What an achievement.

The minister's actions in intervening in Argyll and Bute have been raised by members throughout the chamber: Jackie Baillie, Mike Rumbles and Jamie McGrigor. At the very least, his behaviour can be described only as selfish—interested in his own political future rather than his responsibilities to schools threatened with closure across the whole of Scotland. Maybe there was a hint of fantasy in our motion too. After all, to expect an apology from Mr Russell was always a little far fetched. However, it is clear from his remarks yesterday, from his contribution today and from the motion before us this morning that this is a minister who thinks that he can say anything and get away with it.

Scottish education is in the hands of a Government that is simply deluding itself and pretending that everything is all right when everyone around it is worried, anxious and struggling. Even without looking back at the failure to deliver on promises, we can look at the issues facing us today. In Renfrewshire, we have an SNP council poised to replace 60 teachers with non-teaching staff and to give them responsibility for delivering up to 10 per cent of the teaching week. I cannot comprehend why the cabinet secretary is not intervening to prevent what is a national disgrace.

The SNP boasts that it has finally resolved the probationer jobs crisis—but how? Not by maintaining teaching posts, as it promised, but by decimating teacher training and reducing the intake. That is its answer to the teaching crisis. Sacking teachers was not enough; the SNP needed to sack the teachers' trainers too. Of course, the so-called "solution" does not even begin to address the lack of full-time or permanent contracts for our newly qualified teachers.

Perhaps most worrying of all, the local government settlement and the Scottish Government's overall budget calculations seem to be predicated on a negotiation with COSLA in which teachers' pay and conditions have already been sacrificed. There has been no discussion with teachers and no involvement with the unions, but the McCrone agreement has been abandoned to pay for the SNP's shabby little deal.

Both Des McNulty and Margaret Smith highlighted earlier that education has suffered disproportionately. Education is clearly not a priority for the SNP Government, and teachers will now have to pay for its decisions.