I welcome the opportunity to lead this debate on education. I regard it as a great honour to be the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. I very much look forward to the coming five years, in which I will be working with my colleagues Angela Constance and Alasdair Allan, who I am sure will make a strong and distinguished contribution to this portfolio and to education right across Scotland.
Today I will outline the Government’s vision for how we intend to build on the many successes that are already in place, to further improve outcomes for children and young people, to tackle the problems that still affect education and to overcome current challenges. All that work must be taken forward in partnership, both in the chamber and across Scotland.
I want to say a word about Des McNulty and Margaret Smith. Previously, I, too, lost my seat after holding a position on the front bench, and I know how difficult that can be. Both those members contributed strongly to the education debates in this chamber, and over the years Margaret Smith and I worked very closely together. We will miss their contributions in this chamber and I wish them well.
I look forward to constructive debate and discussion, a collective understanding of the challenges that we face and a collective approach to solving them.
I am absolutely committed to improving the life chances of Scotland’s children and young people. The Government’s vision is to achieve that through improving attainment for all and raising and realising ambition for all. That vision is aspirational and challenging, but it is achievable. I stress that I will make changes to our education system only if I am convinced that it will improve outcomes for individual learners.
We all know that a greater focus on early years is required. Angela Constance, as Minister for Children and Young People, is working with me and will work with others throughout the chamber to create a fairer start for all. We will continue to implement the getting it right for every child agenda, which will ensure that resources deliver for all, including the most vulnerable children. Our most vulnerable children will see a greater focus on early intervention to achieve stability and improved outcomes.
There are hard-edged economic benefits to early intervention. Early and effective intervention can significantly reduce costs to the state, both in the short term and the long term, and it can deliver better results for the individuals involved. We set out clearly in our manifesto our commitment to supporting children in their earliest years, and we have talked about the need for a fundamental shift in philosophy and approach—a shift away from intervening only when a crisis happens towards prevention.
Of course, there are some long-term challenges, the biggest of which is to improve life chances for looked-after children. We know that every Administration has said that that is a priority, every Administration has said that it will tackle the issue and every Administration has tried—I pay tribute to them for that—yet I am back here again saying that it is a priority for this Administration. We must break that cycle.
It is not just a matter of statistics and targets; it is about life chances for those who have least. We have to have the courage to take long-term action. We will set out a package of measures to take that forward. One of the elements will be to build on our investments in early years by investing in a change fund, part of which will deliver a new generation of family centres, as Susan Deacon recommended in her report earlier this year.
We plan to introduce legislation on early years early on in this parliamentary session to ensure that investment in early years is not an optional extra. We also intend to go further, to explore legislative options to ensure that getting it right for every child is firmly embedded in the whole of the public sector. We will consult stakeholders over the summer to define where the legislation can have the most impact and support the most positive developments that are happening. We are very open to views. Because we recognise the importance of the home environment, an early priority will be the development of a national parenting strategy that encourages agencies to work together to support parents.
Early years investment supports children’s readiness for the next stage of education: learning in school. Last week, Bill Maxwell, the interim chief executive of education Scotland and senior chief inspector of education for Scotland, advised Scotland’s directors of education that
“The challenge we have in schools is not that our schools are failing. The greater challenge lies in the large group of schools which are too willing to accept that their current performance is ‘good enough.’ The key to success lies in lifting aspirations and the performance of many schools that are in effect ‘coasting’ and capable of so much more than they are achieving.”
I agree with his analysis. I will add another perspective, which some members have heard many times before: my belief is that the reality of Scottish education is that we have hundreds of thousands of good pupils, taught by tens of thousands of good teachers in thousands of good schools, but we can constantly improve the attainment of every child. We can do that by narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest achieving and by improving the attainment of our highest-achieving children. For example, in Ontario, a literacy and numeracy strategy that seeks to empower and inspire pupils and teachers has seen high school graduation rates increase from 68 to 79 per cent. The inspirational Avis Glaze, who I was lucky enough to meet in Ontario a couple of years ago, and who is one of the key figures in the Ontario strategy, says:
“It is about building capacity. Staying as a poor, low performing school is not an option. We are interested in improvement, rather than where schools are at any given time.”
I am also interested in improvement for every child. Working with Dr Alasdair Allan, the Minister for Learning and Skills, I want to support schools—all schools—to be excellent and to enable every child to reach their full potential and realise their ambitions.
All that will build on the platform of curriculum for excellence, which is the vehicle that Scotland has chosen to underpin the learning journey and beyond. Curriculum for excellence encourages schools to be innovative, ambitious, relevant and supportive of each child’s talents. It recognises the uniqueness of every child and tailors the education experience to every child. This Parliament has been united in its support for curriculum for excellence, and I want it to remain united in its commitment to the delivery of curriculum for excellence.
I can confirm that work continues apace—on time and on target—on the development of the new national qualifications. They will be delivered in the way that was promised.
We are working hard to ensure that teachers have as much information as they need as we move forward. The new agency, education Scotland, will of course have a key support role for teachers and schools from 1 July onwards.
Within the context of curriculum for excellence, we need to make some changes to broad general education. We will deliver our literacy action plan through the literacy commission. I pay tribute to the work that the Labour Party, and Rhona Brankin in particular, did to bring that issue forward.
We will have a renewed emphasis on the importance of language learning.
As promised, we will bring together Scottish studies, including the Gaelic language, the Scots language and Scottish history and culture, to help our young people to understand Scotland and its place in the world. We will build on glow, the world’s first national school intranet. We are in the process of procuring the next generation of glow, but we are listening to users about what it should do and how it should do it.
We will also continue to support Gaelic education. In Edinburgh, demand for places is rising all the time, which has meant that the Gaelic unit has outgrown its current premises at Tollcross primary, which Alasdair Allan, Angela Constance and I visited just two weeks ago. I am therefore delighted that, last week, I confirmed to the City of Edinburgh Council that the Scottish Government will provide capital funding towards the costs of renovating the disused primary school in Bonnington. I hope that the council will make a decision on that later this month.
Curriculum for excellence is the bright hope for Scottish education, but the brightest hope comes from our teachers, particularly the young ones who are coming out of teacher training. We must always ensure that their talents and enthusiasms are not dulled through frustration and unemployment. I have spoken several times to the Parliament about my concerns and worries on that issue, which has been the most difficult problem that I have faced in the past 18 months.
I have taken steps, through the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers, to ensure that the number of teachers who are being trained is brought into balance with the number of posts that are available. I expect the numbers to be in alignment next year. I very much regret the distress that the difficulties have caused. It is local authorities that employ teachers, but I have taken action to ensure that we do not have that waste of potential. I believe that the root cause was oversupply, but it is a matter that takes a long time to turn round.
I will support and develop our teachers. We cannot have significant progress in education unless we work in consultation with the teaching profession. I want to build greater leadership capacity and always to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Following on from the Donaldson review, I will continue to drive forward the ambitious changes to support our teachers in training and to deliver new levels of attainment. That is why we have established a review of teacher terms and conditions led by Professor Gerry McCormac. I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of Professor McCormac’s work. It is a review and it takes evidence, and I will not comment on that evidence. I look to Professor McCormac and his able team to draw conclusions. I will comment on those when I know them.
Education is about creating and sustaining enthusiasm in individuals. The structures that surround education are a means to create success, not an end in themselves. The Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee in the previous session of the Parliament looked at the governance of schools. It did not reach a definitive conclusion, but it set out questions that need to be addressed. I want us collectively to consider those questions, in the Parliament and with our partners, the chief among whom on the matter is the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
The partnership approach has led to a sea change on rural education. The legislation that we passed on that was good, but it was not good enough, and it has not worked as well as it should. We are making progress on the issue in partnership. I will soon announce the details of the commission on rural education, which will be a partnership exercise with COSLA and others.
Moving on from schools, one of the greatest issues is the 14 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds who leave school and who are not in employment, training or education. The issue for that age group has existed for too long, although the figures are always being considered and we always try to do as much as we can. It is a matter of life chances. We have to prevent talent going to waste. We have to get it right in the early years and in schools; we have to support the child, the pupil and the student; and we have to balance the needs of the labour market with the individual need.
For young people who leave school and do not go on to further or higher education, we must constantly review the avenues that are open to them and where they lead. Skills development should start in school. A young person’s strengths and ambitions should be nurtured and developed to provide clear direction in their journey into well-paid and sustainable work. A young person’s decision to go to college or to undertake training, voluntary work or a modern apprenticeship will be made easier if the skills have been developed and the benefits and outcomes are clearer.
We have demonstrated our commitment through the funding of 25,000 modern apprenticeship opportunities for 2011-12, which is the highest-ever number of modern apprenticeships. We have also continued schemes such as the education maintenance allowance and we are committed to do more to help young Scots to find the right training and employment.
I will ask Skills Development Scotland to write to the member with the exact details, but I am aware that we need to provide the bulk of the opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds, although there is a need to provide opportunities for others. We keep that under constant review.
I turn to colleges and universities. Further and higher education has played a key role in our economic success. Parents, pupils, students and businesses in Scotland have for some time been safe in the knowledge that higher education will remain free and based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. I make that absolute commitment. In a rapidly changing world, our universities and colleges continue to innovate. As part of that, I believe that the learning journey that begins in the classroom must continue to be flexible beyond school.
The provision in our colleges and universities needs to be delivered in a more coherent fashion and with much greater collaboration than at present. The institutions must be governed in ways that will help them to cope with the challenges of the future. I started that journey with our green paper, and later this year I will set out a wider package of reforms for the whole of post-16 education. However, on the specific subject of university governance, I can announce that I have asked Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University, to chair a small five-member panel that will undertake a review of the current governance of higher education. That will include unions and students, as well as a chair of court. The panel will publish its remit before the summer recess and will invite views on the subject over the summer. It will present us with its conclusions at the end of the year and we will base our plans on its proposals.
I have provided an idea of the ambition that the Government holds for Scottish education. In the Government’s first four years, we started to address the challenges and we had some success, but there is much more to do. For example, I remain committed to bearing down on class sizes in the early years of primary, although progress on that will not be as fast as I would like.
If education were fully devolved and we were fully independent, we would be able to focus the sort of resources on education that currently we can only dream about. However, we can do much and we will do it. We will not agree all the time, but my task—and our joint task—is to ensure that we focus on the attainment of all our young people and that we always attempt to enhance their life chances. If we do that, it will mean success not only for individuals, but for Scotland as a whole.
Although we are six weeks in from the election, this is the first education debate of the new session, so I begin as the cabinet secretary did, in the spirit of acceptance, by congratulating Mr Russell on his re-election. I also welcome and extend my best wishes to his new front-bench team and to all our new colleagues in the Scottish National Party, the Labour Party and across the chamber. There are familiar faces, too—I am delighted to see Liz Smith back and I welcome Liam McArthur to the education team. It is a matter of regret for me to stand here without my colleagues Des McNulty and Karen Whitefield. I thank them for the substantial contribution that they made to the education debate in the past decade. Similarly, I thank Margaret Smith. Finally, and before I reach Oscar speech proportions, I pay tribute to Adam Ingram, who has not lost his seat but has simply moved. He was never anything other than thoughtful and considerate as a minister.
The Labour Party might be in opposition, but we still have a vision for Scottish education and for a system in which everyone has the chance—in fact, repeated chances—to make the most of their abilities. We have a vision of a society and a country that thrive on the collective achievements and accomplishments of an educated population. During the election, much was made of the similarities between the manifesto commitments of the Labour Party, the SNP and the Lib Dems. On student fees, the new curriculum, early years and more, there is no doubt that many of us in the Parliament share common ground. I make it clear from the outset that where there is broad policy agreement, we will have no hesitation in saying so. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks on early years and his intention to make looked-after children a priority. We will certainly support him in achieving that objective.
There are challenges. We know that our schools are successful and equitable, but they do not compensate for or overcome social or economic disadvantage. That is at least one reason why Labour introduced the curriculum for excellence and why the SNP has continued in that direction. We believe that our colleges and universities offer opportunities to us all as individuals, and that our culture and economy are communally enriched by higher levels of education. That is why Labour will stand by our commitment to oppose tuition fees.
I stressed the broad consensus that exists in the Parliament, but I worry about the delivery of the plans. I worry that, in some areas of education, our progress might be halted. For example, the most pressing and topical issue must be that of teacher employment, or rather unemployment, because the figures that were released from the General Teaching Council for Scotland yesterday are a matter of deep concern. In the past four years, the number of newly qualified teachers who are unable to find employment has more than doubled and the number who are in work with a permanent contract has more than halved. In other words, we have an issue of unemployment and of underemployment among the most recent recruits to the teaching profession.
Labour has proposed the immediate recruitment of 1,000 new teachers, which would not only halt that decline but reverse it. If the cabinet secretary is unwilling to follow our lead, we need to know how the Scottish Government will implement its own election commitment to give probationers a job. Will it be funded? Will the promise extend only to this year’s probationers? If so, what about those teachers who have been scrabbling around for four years trying to make do and survive on supply work? I trust that we are not simply going to overlook them and move on to the next generation.
Of course, the issue is not just a matter of concern for our teachers: it has a direct impact on how pupils learn in the classroom. Class sizes are all over the place, particularly in early primary school. We have a ridiculous target that 20 per cent of classes should be of fewer than 18 pupils in primary 1 to primary 3, while we simultaneously introduced a legal maximum of 25 in primary 1. Pupils are going from classes of 20 or so in one year to 33 the next, and there are composite classes and classes of 40 or more taught by multiple teachers.
During the past few weeks, I have been inundated with letters and e-mails from parents who are alarmed at what their children may expect when they return after the summer break. We must consider the matter rationally, rather than applying a policy that seems to be the result of financial deals that have been negotiated behind closed doors.
The issue of probationary employment has arisen at the same time that the minister has established the McCormac review into teachers’ terms and conditions. In England and Wales, strike action from teachers is imminent, and it is fair to say that discontent is simmering in our staffrooms too.
As the member knows, the strike action is to do with pensions. I very much support the unions’ view on the pensions issue—I see no need for the changes—and I think that the teaching unions in Scotland are aware of that.
I recognise that the teaching unions in England are predominantly concerned with the pensions issue. I was making the point that teachers have accepted a two-year pay freeze and are very concerned and alarmed at some of the talk that is going around about their pay and terms and conditions. We need from the cabinet secretary a clear statement of intent on teacher numbers, on terms and conditions and on his plans for teacher employment.
A second pressing issue that faces the cabinet secretary is the implementation of curriculum for excellence. The first cohort of pupils is coming to the end of secondary 1, and yet, extraordinarily, they still do not know the nature or even the number of exams that they will sit in three years’ time. There remains broad political and professional support for the principles of curriculum for excellence, but it is now a matter of urgency for parents and pupils to know what the reforms will mean in practice.
Local authorities are cutting back on the continuous professional development budget at a time when secondary teachers in particular are crying out for more support. The question that has puzzled many teachers, and which has been raised on numerous occasions in this Parliament, is that if there are to be five broad courses in third and fourth year, does that mean that most pupils will sit only five exams? There are significant implications for pupils and for subject disciplines if the point at which the curriculum narrows moves from fifth year to fourth year. It will certainly have implications for the choice of sciences and modern languages.
It is also of concern that at this point there seems to be little in the way of evaluation or formal monitoring of the success of the curricular reforms. In fact, the very body that we rely on in Scotland, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, has already had to give up its school inspections to implement the new curriculum. The merger of HMlE and Learning and Teaching Scotland highlights the question of distinct roles for an implementation body and an inspection body.
Higher and further education is the third area of immediate concern. At present, the number of fully funded places is falling rather than increasing, and higher education institutions throughout Scotland are cutting not just staff, but whole departments. There is a general concern that those decisions are motivated more by the availability of research funding streams and postgraduate funding or by the attractions of wealthy foreign students, than by more disinterested academic or strategic considerations. The First Minister has intervened to praise some strategic moves such as those at the University of Strathclyde, while condemning others such as those at the University of Glasgow. Will the cabinet secretary expand on what he feels the Government’s role should be in helping to shape those policy choices?
Colleges, too, are having to deal with even greater cuts to their budgets, and all that comes at a time when Scotland needs to improve the skills of its workforce. If Scotland is to thrive, the solution surely lies in educating greater numbers of graduates.
Excepting the Conservatives, there is political solidarity in Scotland on the issue of tuition fees. It is now up to the minister to bring forward his proposals to ensure that our universities do not fall behind those south of the border, and to tell us when and at what level he intends to set the fees for English students. Some of the proposed funding streams that the minister has mentioned have failed to quell anxiety. The plans for charging European Union students, for example, seem to form part of the minister’s calculations but have yet to get off the starting block. Perhaps the minister would care to clarify that point.
There is room for agreement on the issue of improving governance, and I welcome the minister’s announcement of a review. Universities may be multimillion-pound institutions, but they are not businesses, and their academic independence and integrity need to be bolstered.
There is not enough time this morning for me to cover every area, but I will briefly touch on two issues. First, on rural schools, the minister did not fully address my question about why urban schools are not included in his moratorium on school closures. Urban schools are being closed, as are rural schools, on the arguable premise that reducing capacity saves money that can be better spent on other schools. That is not an educational benefit but a financial argument, and if it does not work in a rural context I do not understand how it can work in an urban context.
Finally, I will raise an issue that does not require significant resources but can be addressed even at this time of financial constraint: the importance of tackling bullying. It is unfortunately the case that bullying is endemic in our schools and in our society. It does not have to be that way, but it requires a lead from the cabinet secretary. A very good start would be to implement Labour’s policy to monitor, record and publish every incident of bullying in schools and how it was dealt with. If we are not aware of the extent of the problem, we cannot do anything about it. I would welcome hearing the minister’s thoughts on how he intends to tackle the issue.
I have tried to address the serious issues that face our schools, but I do so with a sense of anticipation about what we can achieve. Education is the one service that the state can provide that lifts aspirations, provides fulfilment and allows people to secure prosperity. Our task is to ensure that Scottish education thrives.
I congratulate Mike Russell and his team on their re-election, and Mr Macintosh and Mr McArthur on their new posts. I pay tribute to those who are no longer in this Parliament: their contributions to the debate on education certainly made us think, even if we—or I—did not always agree with them, which made for a very healthy debate.
I think that we all appreciated the hustings that we took part in during the election period, because they also often made us think. Some interesting issues were raised, as well as a lot of concerns, which events this week have emphasised. Councils are clashing with the SNP over school closures, and the Educational Institute of Scotland is organising a ballot on whether it will go ahead with a boycott of curriculum for excellence, which would be most unfortunate. EIS and the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association are not happy about COSLA’s submission, which they view as a bit of an attack on the professionalism and autonomy of teachers. There are grumblings about the SNP’s refusal to acknowledge the size of the universities funding gap, and—perhaps most worrying of all—there is the headline that we have seen about teacher numbers.
These are troubled times, and there is a host of concerns that would, if they were allowed to continue, threaten all that is good in Scottish education. As the cabinet secretary said, there is much that is good in education in Scotland, and that needs to be celebrated.
Those problems in education are not all the fault of the cabinet secretary, which he will be pleased to hear, but they increasingly reflect some of the SNP’s wrong-headed policies. There is an increasing perception in some quarters that the cabinet secretary is trying to spin a line that is a little different from reality. We have had a persistent and—in my view and that of many people in higher education—quite extraordinary refusal to accept the full extent of the funding gap in higher education.
We have heard an insistence from the cabinet secretary that plenty of money is available for local authorities to carry out the restructuring of all their schools programmes, and an insistence that the teacher recruitment statistics are perhaps not all that accurate. Perhaps they are not 100 per cent accurate, but they reflect a very worrying situation, and we must measure up to that.
I am well aware that there have been some rather inflammatory comments in the world of education recently, which does not help. However, there is nonetheless a strong message out there that people in education feel very strongly about things at present, and we must respond to that.
I will try to draw together some of the strands of criticism of the Scottish Government from the many different quarters of education—early years professionals, teachers in our schools, classroom assistants, people who are working as specialists in physical education, drama and art, and college and university principals and lecturers—because there is a common theme, which reflects what I think is wrong with the statist approach in its truest sense.
The concordat was meant to herald a new era of co-operation between central and local government, together with an understanding that the absence of the straitjacket of ring fencing would mean that councils had much more freedom to decide things for themselves—a concept that the SNP often stresses. In reality, the concordat has proved to be much more of a straitjacket: it has forced local authorities to accept rigid targets set by central Government. Not only have those targets proved to be undeliverable, they have proved to be different from the priorities within local government. There are plenty of examples of that—I will not go through them all—but the policy on class sizes may be the one that has been most affected. The cabinet secretary is now admitting that the policy will take much longer to achieve than expected. Without class size targets, councils would have been better able to choose their own priorities—and perhaps would have put more money into teaching jobs. We will need to consider such issues carefully, because the teaching market needs to be more flexible. I think that the cabinet secretary is probably moving a little in that direction.
It also looks as if the Scottish Government will adopt more of a statist approach with colleges and universities—we need only ask people in the colleges about the comments on collective bargaining that have been made or ask people in the universities who fear an attack on the autonomy of the university structure. Of course we want accountability, but we certainly do not want to remove autonomy, which is one of the inherent principles of our university system.
I strongly support the Donaldson review, and I hope that I will support the coming report of the McCormac review. Jointly, those reviews offer the best way forward for providing greater flexibility and for enhancing the professionalism of Scotland’s teachers. Both reviews were tasked with making important and challenging changes—to raise attainment levels and to motivate teachers, give them the resources that they require and assure them that they are a highly valued part of Scottish society. The teaching unions are keen to stress that our teachers, by and large, are first class. Parliament, too, must send that message about all the things that teachers do.
We must maintain the strong academic tradition of both higher and further education. The debate over finances has been well rehearsed, and Parliament is well versed in the views of the Conservatives. However, I ask the cabinet secretary not to use the excuse of the funding issue to attack the autonomy of the colleges and universities, or to attack the way in which they choose to organise themselves. That would be very dangerous, and such an approach could make it difficult for people in both sectors to realise their international ambitions. We need to be very careful about that.
The funding crisis must be resolved—no two ways about it. The cabinet secretary has put his eggs in one basket, saying that the state will provide. However, he must give the Parliament confidence that, if the state is to pick up the tab, there will be no cuts in student numbers, in courses or in any aspect of our university system, and that he will not become overreliant on the fees of people who come in from outside Scotland. The cabinet secretary stresses the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. He must keep that firmly in mind.
The election was only six weeks ago—although I am sure that, for some people, it already seems like a long time ago. I thank the people of West Scotland for voting for the SNP in such large numbers on 5 May and for helping to re-elect me to Parliament for the third time. It is an honour and a privilege to serve as MSP for West Scotland, and I will do my utmost to ensure that I represent my region and its people to the best of my ability.
In approaching today’s debate, the biggest problem was that, because there are so many important issues needing discussed, it was difficult to know what to concentrate on. Like others, I will be able to touch on only a limited number today.
Let me start by highlighting some of the positives from the past four years. Some 130,000 pupils have been lifted out of crumbling school buildings, and 330 schools have been built or refurbished. Although that is an excellent record of achievement, there is still more to do. I am therefore especially pleased with the Government’s pledge to halve the number of pupils in crumbling schools during this parliamentary session. We now have the lowest-ever average primary class size, and a new legal limit of 25 has been set for primary 1.
Free higher education has been restored by ruling out up-front fees and abolishing Labour’s back-door fees. Twenty thousand modern apprenticeships are being delivered, which is a major increase on 2007, and there is a promise of 25,000 for each year in this coming session. Funding for college bursaries has reached a record £89 million, supporting some 42,000 students. That is a proud record, although I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that it is merely a start on the work that has still to be done.
Those are only some of the achievements of the past four years but, in what are difficult times for the sector, it is worth remembering that progress has been made in a number of areas.
I turn to some of the challenges ahead, because it is clear that we are not short of critical issues to tackle. In 2001, the McCrone agreement led to stability in the school sector, but after 10 years it is right that we review the position in light of the prevailing circumstances. I will be interested to discover what emerges from the McCormac review. One of the major recent changes has been the introduction of curriculum for excellence, and one of the big questions for the review is whether the current arrangements are suited to the new reality.
I should have begun by declaring an interest: my daughter is just coming to the end of her first year of secondary school, which means that she is in the first group of pupils whose future will be partially decided and shaped by curriculum for excellence. In my experience, many parents across the country remain anxious about what the change means for their children. They want to be reassured that a coherent system is in place to support their children through their secondary schooling, and that curriculum for excellence will adequately prepare young people for what comes after school—whether that is employment, education or training.
Curriculum for excellence was a policy inherited from the previous Labour-Lib Dem Administration, but I know that the cabinet secretary will want to ensure that the system works in the best interests of our young people. If I may speak for a moment not as an MSP but as a parent, I would have to say that the cabinet secretary still has some way to go in allaying the concerns of parents about the new system. I would therefore be grateful if, in the summing up today, I could hear what plans are in place to maximise the information that parents get about curriculum for excellence as their children enter second year and have to decide what subjects to take on to examination. I was pleased to hear about the information that will be coming to teachers, but I would like to hear about what information will be going to parents. Many parents need to be reassured about their children’s future.
I am aware of the excellent work that is going on across the sector to implement curriculum for excellence, but we need to ensure that parents are kept fully informed of the facts and are confident in the progress being made. People in the sector are working hard, but parents are crucial to the future success of the system.
I turn to the issue of school closures. The subject remains at the top of the agenda nationally and in local communities across the country, and I make no apology for making a direct plea to the cabinet secretary about the proposal by East Renfrewshire Council to close Robslee primary school. The cabinet secretary will have on his desk at the moment requests from parents, pupils, members of the local community and local politicians, including myself, asking him to call in this decision. The proposal from the council is based on a flawed consultation, is without logic, and fails to provide any evidence about the crucial question of educational benefit—a subject that Mr Macintosh raised earlier. Many parents believe that councillors and officials had clearly made up their minds before the consultation was even launched, and that the council’s response to the consultation submissions ignored the weight of evidence against closure. The council’s arguments reached a new low when it argued that closure was a good idea because bigger class sizes were beneficial for pupils.
Much of the council’s argument is about cost savings. The cabinet secretary said:
“the act makes it clear that educational benefit must be the basis for closure decisions. Closures that are driven by finance alone are not permitted, yet councils still buttress their closure decisions with financial rhetoric.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2011; c 539.]
That is exactly what is happening in East Renfrewshire, and I therefore urge the cabinet secretary to call in the proposal to close Robslee.
To echo what has been said by some other members both last week and again this morning, I say that if there are problems with the current legislation—and there are—and if the legislation is failing to work as intended, which is what I believe that the cabinet secretary has said, surely the Government can appreciate why many people involved in trying to save Robslee cannot understand why the announced moratorium applies only to rural schools. If there are problems with the act, it would seem likely that those problems also apply to schools such as Robslee. Therefore, on behalf of my constituents, and particularly on behalf of the pupils of Robslee primary, I ask the cabinet secretary, when he sums up, to explain more fully why a school such as Robslee primary is excluded from the moratorium.
I have been unable to cover all the issues today, and I have concentrated on a particular local issue, but I look forward to debates with members from across the chamber over the next five years. I especially look forward to debates with colleagues on the Education and Culture Committee.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to make my first speech in this session during a Government business debate. I welcome Mike Russell and congratulate him, Angela Constance and Alasdair Allan on their re-election. I also congratulate Alasdair Allan on his appointment to the front bench. I look forward to working constructively with the three of them over the next five years.
My first speech in 2007 was in a debate on the same issues that we will discuss today. I want to focus on skills, apprenticeships and vocational training opportunities. Although we live in a very different world because of some of the things that have happened over the past three or four years, the challenge that we faced in 2007—ideally, to equip Scotland with the skills that we need to be a global player and to ensure that our people are able to participate in their local economies in an effective manner—is still there. It is still a big challenge for the Scottish Government and for us as parliamentarians to ensure that people are able to do that.
Mid Scotland and Fife, the area that I have been lucky to represent since 2007, has two fantastic colleges that are right at the forefront of ensuring that our people are equipped with the skills that they need to build new aircraft carriers and the new Forth crossing, and to take advantage of the offshore wind renewables that, hopefully, will come on stream shortly. As well as helping people who are leaving school into the workplace, Adam Smith College and Carnegie College are helping to give people who are already in work the new skills that they may need to participate in industries that are changing and in the new industries that are on the horizon for us.
I turn to the issue of how employers engage with the skills landscape. I suggest that the skills landscape is rather cluttered—I use the word advisedly—and that the matter should be in the Government’s in-tray. We should look at how we can make it easier for individuals to develop their skills and for employers to engage in apprenticeship training. From my experience during the previous session as co-convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on skills, I know that both employers and those who are engaged in learning—learning providers and agencies around the learning agenda—are concerned about their ability to engage and the fact that the landscape is rather cluttered. To maximise the involvement of employers more generally, that issue needs to be addressed.
There is a role for Skills Development Scotland, but there is also a role for the sector skills councils. They are uniquely placed, because they engage with employers and all sides of industry—including trade unions. The sector skills councils need to be involved to ensure that there is a balanced approach and that the money that they and employers want to spend and invest in skills training is spent in a way that will make a difference to the businesses in the sectors that they represent. That is a big challenge for the incoming Government. I hope that Labour members can play a constructive part by making suggestions about how we may improve things for those who want to make a difference.
When I intervened during his speech, Mike Russell mentioned the importance of getting people who are already in work new skills, through adult apprenticeships. I whole-heartedly agree. I will return to why that is important and why it is important that we focus on 16 to 19-year-olds. However, in debates such as this, the Parliament and the Government must send the message that investment in training is not a cost but a key business need—something that will make a difference to businesses.
We need to make such investment easier for many smaller businesses. One of the big challenges that they face, given the scale of small businesses in this country, is that they do not have the human resources or training support to take full advantage of the 25,000 apprenticeships that the Government is bringing forward or other opportunities that are available through the further and higher education sector. We must look at ways in which we as politicians can support them to do that. I suggest to the Government that it considers a host employer initiative, which would enable larger employers to work with smaller businesses to share training capacity, to ensure that smaller businesses, too, can benefit from the apprenticeship opportunities that are there and which, hopefully, will remain available for the foreseeable future.
I want to comment on the issue of apprenticeship numbers. Mike Russell was asked how many modern apprenticeships this year would be for the 16 to 19 age group. Apprenticeships have become shorthand for how we deal with youth unemployment. Of the 21,516 apprenticeships in 2010-11, 12,827 were for 16 to 19-year-olds; the remaining 10,000 or so were for adults. I agree that that is the right approach, but we must ensure that there is a balance. When we talk about apprenticeship numbers, most people automatically think about school leavers, which is completely understandable. However, if the bulk of the 25,000 apprenticeships are to be available to school leavers, we must ensure that that happens and that employers are able to take advantage of the opportunity.
I have quite a lot to say, but I have about 17 seconds on my hands. I end by making the point that we need a refreshed skills strategy. I would welcome more constructive dialogue with the Government on apprenticeship numbers and look forward to working with the front-bench team over the next five years.
I am honoured to have been elected by the people of Edinburgh Pentlands and look forward to representing every one of them to the best of my ability over the next five years, whether they live in Stenhouse or Swanston, the Calders or Colinton. I wish my predecessor Mr David McLetchie well in his new role as a Lothians list MSP.
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate on education and lifelong learning—not just because my constituency has two of Scotland’s universities and a further education college, but because education has played an important part in my family for more than 30 years. I was the first member of my family to go on to higher education, back in the 1970s. I was followed by my mother, who obtained her degree when she was in her 40s. Now my two sons have graduated from the universities in my constituency. My elder son graduated from Heriot-Watt University in 2008, whereas my younger son graduated from Napier University only yesterday. That would not have been possible, especially in the 1970s, without free education.
The previous SNP Government restored the principle of free education, with the removal of the £2,300 graduate endowment fee that the Labour-Liberal coalition had introduced in 2001. The SNP Government has maintained the education maintenance allowance scheme while it is being withdrawn from the rest of the United Kingdom and has increased the number of bursaries that are available to students from poorer backgrounds. Education should always be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
Scotland’s people are our greatest asset. A well-educated population is essential if we wish to build the Scottish economy. So how do our young people compare with those in other countries? The most recent published programme of international student assessments took place in 2009 and examined the performance of 15-year-olds from 65 countries. Scotland performed better than the rest of the UK in maths, science and reading. Not only that, but we achieved 16th place in science, ahead of Poland, Belgium and the United States; 18th place in reading, ahead of Sweden, Germany and Denmark; and 21st place in maths, ahead of Norway, France and Austria. The SNP Government has halted the slow decline in educational standards that took place over many years under previous Labour-Liberal Governments. The introduction of the curriculum for excellence in our primary and secondary schools will improve our educational standards.
More school leavers go on to further and higher education in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, with the number of students increasing to more than 287,000 in 2009-10. As a result, 37 per cent of our country’s working population has a postgraduate qualification, a degree, a higher national diploma or the equivalent. That is markedly better than the UK average.
The high educational attainment of our people would not be possible if it were not for the world-class universities that we have in Scotland. We have the highest concentration of universities in Europe undertaking world-leading research, the majority of which is rated as internationally excellent.
Scottish universities are known throughout the world for their expertise in life sciences, medical research, biotechnology and so on. Scottish universities were responsible for world-changing discoveries such as the magnetic resonance imaging—MRI—scanner and keyhole surgery. As a result, Scotland attracted £384 million in research contracts from outwith Scotland in 2009-10.
We have a well-educated population and world-class educational institutions. In order to continue to grow our economy, however, we need to encourage more businesses to invest in research and development. About 97 per cent of Scottish companies employ fewer than 200 people, with many of those companies having potential for growth, especially in the export market, if only they were able to develop their products.
Scottish Enterprise announced recently that it had invested £20 million in 179 separate research and development projects in 2010-11, which in turn encouraged companies to invest a further £54 million in the various projects concerned. In the long term, that investment will provide more skilled employment, and Scotland’s 43 colleges of further and higher education will deliver the skills and training that are necessary at craft and technical level to fulfil the new opportunities. The number of full-time students at our colleges increased by 9 per cent in 2009-10, with nearly a third of the students coming from Scotland’s most deprived postcode areas.
However, our whole education system is under threat from public service cuts imposed by successive UK Governments in London. The Scottish budget was already cut by £500 million last year by the Labour Government; this year, the Tory-Liberal coalition has cut our budget again by £1.3 billion. The most recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland” statement highlighted that Scotland was in surplus. If we are to achieve our aims of increasing sustainable growth and wealth creation, we require the full fiscal powers that are available to every other country. Scotland needs independence.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this morning’s debate. The future of our higher education institutions is of considerable importance to my constituents throughout the south of Scotland. One of our flagship higher education institutions in the south-west is the Crichton campus in Dumfries. I wish to use the debate as an opportunity to highlight the very special significance of the Crichton campus for the future prosperity of the entire region.
In 2007, the newly elected SNP Government fulfilled its pledge to save the Crichton by providing additional funding. Since then, and with the support of the SNP Government, the Crichton has evolved as a dynamic and innovative model of academic collaboration, which has been to the benefit of its students and the economy of the south-west of Scotland as a whole. I congratulate everyone involved in making the Crichton campus a success. The further development of the Crichton campus should be a priority not only for the academic partners involved but for all those who, like me, want the wider regional economy of the south-west to grow and prosper.
It is incontrovertibly the case, I believe, that the presence of higher education and university facilities such as the Crichton can and does play a decisive role in raising the rate of economic growth and improving economic opportunities across an entire region. As the principal higher education cluster in the south of Scotland, the Crichton campus is a crucial resource for equipping the young people of the area with the skills that they need to find employment. The overall regional contribution that is made by the Crichton campus extends well beyond its immediate role as an educator. Equally significant is the contribution that it makes across the south as an emerging centre of excellence for research and innovation activities. It is widely recognised that virtually all successful regional economies have at their centre a cluster of knowledge-intensive activities based around and driven by successful higher educational institutions.
I want the Crichton campus to continue to develop as the regional knowledge-intensive cluster in the south of Scotland, and to act as a magnet attracting more inward investment to the region. The Crichton academic partnership is well placed to realise that potential, given the right vision and commitment.
The landscape of research funding for our universities is changing. There is a growing awareness that basic research needs to be augmented by actions that improve the dissemination of research results across industry and encourage firms, particularly small to medium-sized enterprises, to innovate in new technologies—and to enhance their competitiveness by so doing.
Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in the EU research funding that is targeted at the university sector. I fully expect the next EU research framework programme, FP8, to assign substantial funding to actions that target later stages in the innovation chain than the fundamental science-based research for which many of our older universities have global reputations. It is in that broad area of research and innovation activity that the Crichton has considerable potential to contribute to the local and regional economies of the south of Scotland.
I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning on the considerable work that he has done to ensure that Scotland’s interests in the development of the EU eighth framework programme are being fully represented to the European Commission very early in the Brussels policy process.
I encourage all the partners at the Crichton campus, along with the local authorities, Scottish Enterprise, the Federation of Small Businesses and the wider SME population, to develop a range of activities focused on the dissemination of research and innovation in partnership with local firms, and not only in the subject areas that are already represented on the campus; they should also develop new subject specialisms and new partnerships, which will be of benefit to the entire economy of the south of Scotland. I will be only too pleased to support those partners in that endeavour, and I urge them to consider EU research and development programmes as a possible source of funding.
The University of Glasgow is currently reviewing the continued provision of the liberal arts degree in particular, and the related provision of liberal arts courses in general, at the Crichton campus. Axing the successful liberal arts degree programme could significantly reduce the educational choices that are available to students wishing to attend the Crichton at a time when demand is rising. It could also remove one of the few degree programmes in Scotland that is truly interdisciplinary in approach and content and which, as a result, provides students with a range of transferable skills that they can take to the labour market.
I have already written to the cabinet secretary setting out the concerns of my constituents, and I copied the letter to Professor Muscatelli. I hope that the university court will take those concerns on board when it meets on 22 June.
I can give some reassurance to the member. I spoke to Professor Muscatelli only yesterday about the issue. Professor Muscatelli has indicated that there will continue to be access to liberal arts provision at the Crichton, although in a different way; he is very much focused on ensuring that that provision continues, and that the Crichton grows and flourishes in the way that the member indicates.
I thank the cabinet secretary for his assurances—the Crichton should provide for liberal arts courses, particularly at postgraduate research level.
Universities are central to national and local economic development. The Crichton is central to boosting the growth, improving the employment opportunities, and increasing the resilience of the economy of the south-west of Scotland. Since 2007, the SNP Government has demonstrated its support for the Crichton.
I have a positive vision for the Crichton and I pledge my support to the staff, students and each of the institutions that are represented on the campus as they develop their strategies and seek out new sources of funding that will assist them in developing the research and innovation programmes that will contribute to the growth of the campus itself and contribute considerably to the wider economy of the south of Scotland.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, for the privilege of presenting my maiden speech today. Prior to addressing the chosen subject of education and lifelong learning, I will thank a few others. I thank my colleagues, both members and staff in the Parliament, for their warm reception and support to me, as a newly elected MSP. I congratulate all my colleagues in the chamber who have delivered their maiden speeches; they have set the bar really high—thanks for that, there is no pressure now. To those who are still to undertake theirs, I say good luck.
I thank the constituents of Glasgow for their faith in electing me as a representative, and I pledge to them my proactive participation at the highest level in representing their needs, issues and aspirations.
I thank my predecessor members of the Scottish Parliament who built the foundation of representation in Glasgow: Frank McAveety, Charlie Gordon, Pauline McNeill and Bill Butler. I pay tribute to their sterling efforts as Glasgow constituency candidates of great integrity and conviction.
Last but by no means least, I thank my family and friends for their uncompromising love, support and faith—and a special thank you to the chair of my local Labour Party branch and the Glasgow city party, Mr Tommy O’Connor, my great friend and mentor.
As a newly elected MSP I intend to work with a passion to pursue social justice. Glasgow is and has a history of being a city enriched by the politics and principles of fairness, with a strong sense of community. As a Glaswegian I am proud to serve the city, as I share that passion for socially enriched, sustainable and inclusive communities.
Prior to my becoming an elected member, my academic training and practice were as a community education worker, in the realms of social work. The job encompasses the privileges of responding to the diverse and complex needs of communities in the most disadvantaged areas in the west of Scotland and responding to the challenges of active citizenship, to enable and empower young people to articulate their voices. It is about the development of structures that enable communities to be central in local decision-making processes. It is about building community capacity, enhancing the local social economy and enabling communities to be self-determining and self-directing, with services provided for and by communities—something that is imperative given the prevalence of ideas about the big society and the transfer of public services. It is about the design, development and delivery of community-based adult learning, including literacy and numeracy programmes. The aforementioned work afforded me the honour of engaging with numerous dedicated volunteers and community groups, while turning social policy into action.
Education and lifelong learning is therefore a passion of mine. I am passionate about the right of every individual to pursue their potential through education. I urge members to subscribe to an idea of education that is not merely for school-age pupils but is for a nation of ageless learners, and to acknowledge the trajectory from early years and through mainstream education to adult and continuing education, as rites of passage. Education and lifelong learning are key to economic development, employment imperatives, entrepreneurialism, active citizenship and personal, social and community development.
The current disharmony and revolt on education in rural Scotland and in our Scottish universities is manifesting itself in students’ and parents’ engagement in demonstrations and rallies, which have been indicative of people’s passion for local, accessible schooling, the retention of university departments, the maintenance of student numbers and the preservation of jobs.
It is therefore incumbent on the Scottish Government to re-engage with COSLA on a Scotland-wide strategy for schools and to ensure that departments of, for example, sociology, art, music, geography and community education are retained. Community education departments train students who will be deployed in the most disadvantaged communities in Scotland, nurturing lifelong learning and building capacity so that services can be run for and by communities.
Widening access should be a key priority during this parliamentary session. We need an education system that is open to everyone on the basis of ability, not income or background. I urge the Scottish Government to commit to a nation of ageless learners, whether people’s reasons for learning are to do with academic excellence, employment, personal or social development or entrepreneurialism—or indeed are intrinsic—because strong, empowered citizens make for effective Governments.
The cabinet secretary started by talking about the current challenges and the need to work in partnership. He was absolutely correct. There are certainly challenges in further and higher education. There are particular challenges at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde, in my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin. I will concentrate on the situations at those universities. The cabinet secretary is aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the institutions and I thank him for the work that he has done and is doing on the matter. He has met me on numerous occasions and he has met students and staff. I think that we are moving on and things are happening, but I hope that we can push on and that the cabinet secretary can update me on what is happening.
I sincerely welcome today’s announcement, which came as a real surprise, of a wider package of reforms in higher education—in particular, the very welcome setting up of a panel to review governance in universities. The issue has been at the forefront of all my discussions with university students, staff and principals at Glasgow, Strathclyde and elsewhere. I ask the cabinet secretary whether the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council will be involved in the review. I know that I have sprung that question on him, but I think that the funding council has a great role to play in the courses that the higher education sector offers and I would like to know where it fits into the review.
On the situation at the University of Glasgow, I have met staff, students and the principal and I think that we are making some progress. However, there is still great concern about courses in Slavonic languages. The university court will sit on 22 June, when it will make a decision. I know that it is not in my remit or within my power to demand that courses not be axed, but I make a plea to the court to listen to all the concerns that have been expressed, not just by me but by staff and students, and to consider sincerely any changes that it is thinking of making in relation to Slavonic languages. As Scotland pushes ahead in the world with an international outlook, and given that we are one of the worst countries in the world for learning languages, it seems to be perverse that the university is talking about cutting a course that is held in high esteem. The only other such course is in London. I cannot make this plea to the cabinet secretary, but if members of the university court are listening I urge them to give serious consideration to all the issues that have been raised and not to axe the courses about which concern has been expressed.
Members have mentioned the University of Strathclyde. I have met all concerned parties—staff, students and the principal—on numerous occasions. I felt completely educated last week, because I had a meeting at the University of Glasgow on the Monday and at the University of Strathclyde on the Tuesday. As is the case with Glasgow, I think that things are moving on at Strathclyde and that partnership is developing. I sincerely hope that we move in the right direction. However, there remain concerns about proposals to cut courses; geography and sociology were mentioned, and the faculty of humanities and social sciences is under threat, as is the community education department, which reaches out to the more deprived areas of Glasgow and beyond. We really need to look at that.
Maybe I am putting the cabinet secretary on the spot, but I wonder whether he can give us an update on what is happening at Strathclyde. As I said, I have spoken to everyone involved and we are moving in the right direction, but it would give comfort to people who are taking or applying to take courses to know what is happening.
An area that has not been covered in the debate is the situation to do with visas for overseas students, which has a direct effect on funding for our universities—I think that Liz Smith mentioned that. The UK Border Agency’s actions are having a detrimental effect on the ability of overseas students to come to our universities.
As I represent Glasgow Kelvin, which contains more universities and colleges than any other constituency in Scotland, I ask the cabinet secretary whether he has had any talks about the matter with the UK Border Agency or the relevant UK ministers. The principals have told me on many occasions that they are suffering because of the position of the UK Border Agency and Westminster, which means that some foreign students cannot get visas to study here.
I hope that the cabinet secretary can respond to the questions that I have raised when he sums up.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate because there is no doubt in my mind that this policy area is the most important of all the policy areas that Parliament has been discussing since the election. Without an education system that is properly suited to the needs of our people and our country, other policies areas are, frankly, of little consequence. Education is the foundation stone of our society, and we Scots are justifiably proud of our tradition in that area.
However, it is also an area that faces many great and important challenges, particularly in today’s difficult times, as many speakers this morning have noted. I want to focus on one particular challenge, in which I have a considerable constituency interest as the member for Galloway and West Dumfries: the proposal by the University of Glasgow—which seems to be getting a bit of a rough time this morning—to terminate the teaching of liberal arts courses at the Crichton campus in Dumfries, whose potential was ably highlighted by Aileen McLeod earlier. I agreed with every word of her excellent speech.
The proposal to terminate liberal arts courses will be considered by the court of the university next Wednesday, and there is every indication that it will be accepted. If it is, that will be a decision that the university will come to regret, because it is widely accepted that liberal arts provide the central ethos of that unique university campus. I suspect that Professor Muscatelli’s remarks to the minister reflect the fact that Glasgow university maintains that the ethos of liberal arts will remain, through the interdisciplinary nature of other courses. However, I cannot help but agree with the staff and students when they point out that the physical absence of liberal arts students will, in itself, hugely affect the atmosphere and ethos of the campus.
The staff’s hastily constructed—I will deal with the reason for that haste shortly—response to the consultation says that, no matter what courses remain, the effect of removing the liberal arts students will be that
“the student experience will likely be very different and quite probably diminished.”
When that point was raised at a consultation meeting, the chair of the panel acknowledged that that was a risk that would have to be taken. That is quite an admission, because it suggests that the risk of the Crichton campus losing its distinctive liberal arts ethos is somehow worth taking, even though many who are far better qualified than I am fear that losing that distinctiveness could cost the campus its future.
An e-mail from Professor Muscatelli, sent on 8 June, states:
“the consultation is about how we ensure that our academic offerings in Dumfries meet the needs of the local community.”
That suggests that the liberal arts courses are perceived as not meeting those needs. However, as one who has, like the cabinet secretary, applauded the growth and success of initiatives such as the spring fling—the Dumfries and Galloway arts festival—over the past decade, I could not disagree more strongly. Indeed, I contend that those courses play to the strengths of Dumfries and Galloway in terms of what the area has to offer today. I believe that it would be dreadfully short-sighted to phase those courses out.
I agree with a great deal of the member’s speech, but I want to make two quick points. First, he and I have worked hard to support the Crichton campus. I did so in a previous incarnation in this Parliament and I continue to be committed to the campus and believe that the liberal arts element is important to it. Secondly, I am not an emissary for the principal of the University of Glasgow, but I believe his assurance that liberal arts courses will continue to be offered, and that there is no threat to the university’s presence. Those are important reassurances.
I share the cabinet secretary’s delight in those reassurances, but I am still concerned about the moves that might be made with regard to liberal arts courses.
The cabinet secretary might recall that in 2007 the Crichton Development Company commissioned a report from Cogent Strategies International in response to the University of Glasgow’s plan to withdraw undergraduate courses from the campus. That report stated:
“By far the greatest economic impact of the Crichton campus will be achieved” by increasing
“the number of young people recruited to courses and graduating, which entails broadening, deepening and lengthening the educational offering.”
I contend that, without the liberal arts courses, the educational offering will be the polar opposite of broader, deeper and longer and has every chance of being narrower, shallower and shorter. That can have only a hugely negative impact on a region that already has the highest outmigration of 16 to 20-year-olds on mainland Scotland.
I do not believe that it is the role of Government to dictate what universities offer. However, I believe that Government has a role to play in ensuring that decisions of such severity and impact are arrived at only following lengthy and meaningful consultation. There is, however, every indication that this particular consultation was anything but lengthy and meaningful and that it has, in fact, allowed too little time for considered reflection. Staff received the report on 4 May, giving them only 14 days to prepare and submit a considered response to a proposal that cast doubt on some of their futures.
Further, the university has made great play of the fact that MSPs and MPs were invited to take part in the consultation. I am sorry, but I did not notice my invitation. That is, perhaps, excusable given that—as I discovered just yesterday—my invitation was issued on the first Wednesday of the short campaign for last month’s elections when, I believe, I was not even recognised as being an MSP. That cannot be right, and I do not believe that the university thinks that it is right. There are myriad reasons for calling into question the consultation process but—sadly for me, but perhaps fortunately for other members—time does not allow me to list them all. However, one thing seems to be certain: this was a consultation that definitely had a predetermined outcome. I believe that that casts doubt on the university’s long-term commitment, but I accept the cabinet secretary’s words in that regard.
I hope that the Government can reassure me that representations have been made, and I urge the cabinet secretary to suggest as strongly as possible that the decision be postponed by the university court until a genuinely full and open consultation has been held.
I am honoured to be here to serve the people of the Highlands and Islands. I am conscious that, when other members have risen to speak for the first time in this session or to deliver a maiden speech, they have paid tribute to the members who were here before them and wished them well in their future careers. However, I am pleased to say that, in the Highlands and Islands, none has been so displaced. I therefore acknowledge the work of the regional MSP, Peter Peacock, and two constituency MSPs, John Farquhar Munro and Jamie Stone, all of whom have retired. All that we in the Highlands and Islands have done is a kind of gentle reshuffling of the deckchairs, and three new SNP MSPs have moved in where others were before.
I enjoyed listening to the cabinet secretary’s speech on the educational aspects of taking Scotland forward, but I would like to concentrate on what I consider to be education beyond school—the extracurricular activities, or education beyond that which Government and Parliament have direct control over, although we have some influence in other ways.
Everyone who has spoken has mentioned the economy. In these straitened times, we understand that it is most important that every consideration of expenditure must be about a balanced budget and ways of exerting more pressure to ensure the continuing economic development and growth of our traditional and embryonic industries. However, I suggest that we need to measure our success by more than our gross domestic product. One of the enlightened actions of the Government in the previous session was the creation of the national performance framework, which means that we consider more than economic growth in everything that we do. Properly developed, the framework will be a measuring stick for how we develop socially, for our quality of life and for our wellbeing. It will show more and more whether we are moving further from or nearer to being a more equitable society which, in turn, will bring more prosperity, as is evidenced by other nations.
Education is more than what happens in our schools. Recent events have exercised our thinking about sectarianism, but there are a few other boils to lance. Racism, bigotry and homophobia are all contemporary ills that combine to make Scotland a weaker and less equitable nation. Although legislation is a starter for 10, I hope that the Parliament will oversee a culture change in all those ills.
I feel that very strongly that, in a country that was so proud of its world-class and first-class education system, children leaving primary school with poor ability in reading and writing must become a thing of the past. Our education system is only as good as its weakest link—not its strongest.
Every parent wants their child to succeed in life—in a more equitable society it is possible to believe that that will happen. Getting it right for every child is an essential driver of that ambition.
The debate about how we achieve a better Scotland must flow furth of these walls. We do not have all the good ideas—as the First Minister said in his opening speech on the first day of the parliamentary session—which means that we want to share ideas with other members of Parliament. However, we must look beyond Parliament and the 129 people who are elected here. The people of Scotland, our philosophers and thinkers, academics and intellectuals, and the voice of civic Scotland must become involved in the quest for a better Scotland. Parliament and the Government cannot do it without them, nor should we try.
Part of our right to education is our right to know our own country—east and west, north and south, mainland and island. Too often our heroes are recognised abroad before they become familiar names here. For too long, discovering Scotland has not been a part of formal education, nor is it still. When Alasdair Gray wrote “Lanark”, which is now considered to be one of the finest books written in the 20th century, it was translated into several different languages before it was heralded and recognised in Scotland. Everyone now knows who Charles Rennie Mackintosh was and could probably identify two or three of his buildings in Glasgow, but what of today’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh? How will we know who he or she is?
The people who give our country her identity are the writers, artists, playwrights, poets, singers and philosophers. They reflect our society all the time. They are the eyes, nose and ears—the observers and critics. Earlier this week, a play entitled “Roadkill” won a critics’ award for theatre in Scotland. It is a contemporary play about a contemporary subject—sex trafficking. It packed a fair punch and Ankur Productions, which is a black and ethnic minority company, won the best production award, while Mercy Ojelade took the best female actress award. The country must be proud of those people, but we must also know who they are because they in turn become an inspiration to every primary school child who has the chance to meet, hear and understand them.
Scotland is changing. In the Highlands and Islands of not too long ago, education was the route out—get on and get out.
That was true of Scotland as a whole for generation after generation. We declared our people to be our greatest asset and export. That is not now true for the Highlands and Islands nor for Scotland. The change is now measurable. Inward migration is growing, as is the birth rate. The rural schools closure moratorium is to be welcomed and will give reassurance to many parents in rural Scotland. The University of the Highlands and Islands was a long time coming, but it is now a reality.
Further, higher and postgraduate studies are all available across our region. The curriculum for excellence will take Scotland forward. A national performance framework will evidence improvements in the things that matter, and extending the debate to civic Scotland will take Scotland forward, too.
We in Parliament can all agree that education is our greatest tool for improving social mobility. Education can be the silver bullet that fulfils our aspirations and lifts the next generation up. Scots have long realised that and we have a proud history when it comes to education. From being the first country to provide universal schooling, to modern days when we have an education system that continues to punch above its weight on the world stage, Scotland has put education at the forefront of our national priorities and we have a proud record to show for it.
However, there a danger that that proud legacy could be at risk. Whether it is intentional or not, education seems to be bearing the brunt of the cuts in public sector spending. Those cuts are beginning to bite across Scotland at all levels of Scottish education—no sector is safe. For example, Renfrewshire has seen cuts in teacher and classroom assistant numbers, schools have been closed and there have even been moves to cut teaching hours. I am not here to assign blame, but the responsibility for improving the situation lies with the Government. If something is not done, I fear that the cutbacks will not only affect children who are already at school, but could leave an indelible mark on the future of Scottish educational attainment. I do not need to remind the cabinet secretary of the outcry in Renfrewshire after the local council proposed cuts in teaching hours and up to 60 teaching posts in local primary schools. At a rally in Paisley town hall, 1,300 parents, teachers and pupils stood together to say no to those cuts and to defend the children’s education. I was proud to work with the EIS and the Renfrewshire parent council forum to reverse that proposal, and I urge the cabinet secretary to consult fully with and to listen to parents in Renfrewshire and throughout Scotland when the Government proposes any further changes to our education system.
The cutbacks are not confined just to primary and secondary schools. The Government must ensure that we do not allow cuts in education to become cuts in life chances. We have all seen the reactions of students north and south of the border to cuts in colleges and universities. Staff, students and the general public have shown that they believe that there is a better way.
I appreciate that there are stark differences between the approaches of the Scottish Government and the UK Government to university education. The UK Government at Westminster is pursuing a relentless agenda of swingeing cuts to all areas of public spending, with the further and higher education sectors being early targets. In England, university budgets have been slashed by almost £450 million and student numbers are predicted to fall by more than 6,000. The UK Government believes that introducing huge tuition fee hikes will replace the funding that it has cut, but the reality is that students who have the right qualifications will be priced out of education. With many English institutions setting tuition fees at the maximum of £9,000, a funding gap between Scottish and English universities will become more apparent in the coming years. Both major parties in Parliament committed to the principle of free education during the recent election. I fully agree that tuition fees are not the answer and I am glad that the overwhelming majority of us in Parliament agree on that.
I never supported tuition fees before entering Parliament and that is my position now.
I welcome the review of university governance that the cabinet secretary has announced. However, a question remains about how we plug the funding gap without putting a price tag on education. Universities Scotland has said that it believes that the funding gap could rise to £202 million annually by 2014-15, although it has acknowledged that that is not a definitive figure. My concern is that it believes that the figure will end up being much larger. The Scottish Government estimates that figure to be significantly lower. I understand that the SNP manifesto put the figure at £93 million.
The figures to which the member refers are contained in the joint report by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government that gives a range of figures. The figures that we are dealing with were agreed with the Opposition during the process and the Labour Party also committed itself to closing the funding gap. Does the member still agree with that or does he now agree with the former Labour education spokesperson, who said that that policy is wrong?
It is important that we invest in education. When the minister intervened, I was just about to say that the to-ing and fro-ing on the size of the funding gap could be a distraction from the search for a solution to the problem in the short and the long term. We must tackle that head on.
We know that funding problems are not years away—they are being felt by the University of Glasgow, the University of Strathclyde and other universities across Scotland right now. Many of my constituents attend the University of Strathclyde and I guarantee that their immediate concern is not the size of any funding gap; they are concerned about their courses being shut down and their lecturers being sacked. Courses in music, education, geography and sociology departments are being cut—not in 2014-15, but now.
The Government needs to rise to the challenge that it faces. It has promised to ensure the continued provision of Scottish education at every level.
I will do so.
We will work with the Government as it does that, because Scotland’s students are counting on all of us. The decisions that the cabinet secretary makes today will have repercussions for tomorrow. Our proud record is at risk, so let us find a Scottish solution that proves that there really is a better way.
When I made my first speech in the green energy debate two weeks ago, there was some criticism that the motion was too broad. I see that, today, we have gone one step further and dispensed with a motion entirely. Two weeks ago, I said that we should try to govern in poetry as well as prose, but looking at what I have prepared, I worry that it may be more a case of governing by Excel spreadsheet.
When we hold such a broad discussion, it is important to come back to first principles. To quote a not-very-great man:
“Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”
We in Scotland are extremely fortunate that, in accordance with the first principle that school is for the child and what they can achieve, our attainment is high; 85 per cent of pupils go on to positive destinations. Let us celebrate that, given the current economic difficulties. There are no concerns about standards hanging over our qualifications. We see in the media reports of grade inflation, but they should carry the warning, “Not for viewers in Scotland.” In the last term, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service uprated Scottish school-leaving qualifications against A-levels because it was felt that the grade inflation in England had closed the gap between school-leaving qualifications in England and Scotland.
However, we should not rest on our laurels. The 2009 programme for international student assessment that was carried out by the OECD, which my colleague Gordon MacDonald mentioned, is possibly the largest piece of comparative research on education across the world. It did not look only at how well students were attaining; it also gathered considerable data about their educational experiences, and it drew conclusions from that. It is the most extensive piece of research of its kind ever done, and although some of its recommendations about what is seen to improve learning and attainment may be uncomfortable for us, they are worthy of consideration. We should definitely come back to the PISA report.
Here in Scotland, we also have the 17 excellence groups, which looked deeply into the teaching of each subject in the curriculum, with a view to informing curriculum for excellence. That was sterling work, which should have been done long before our most recent Administration, because it goes to the heart of how we boost teaching and the outcomes for children that result from it.
Following a recent discussion—I might even use the word, “chat”—
One way not to boost teaching is by attacking teachers’ terms and conditions. What would the member say to my former teaching colleagues and the fantastic young newly elected—I am sorry; newly qualified teachers who cannot get jobs? Some of them cannot get on supply lists, while those who have been lucky enough to get on supply lists have been told that they must take a cut in salary for the first five days of any contract. Is it any wonder that they are threatening strike action?
Would the member like to have a discussion with the Labour-led Convention of Scottish Local Authorities or go back to the results of the GTCS survey about teacher employment that began in 2004-05 under Labour, which showed year-on-year declines in teacher employment then?
The education experience is not restricted to school; attainment is very much rolled up with the home experience. Children spend 30 to 35 hours a week in school, but they spend 130 hours elsewhere. Yesterday, I met Save the Children, which pointed to evidence that two thirds of low-income families report difficulties in meeting the financial costs of schooling. I do not think that we can separate the issues of inequality and poverty from education. There are two bottom 10 per cents: there is the bottom 10 per cent by income and the bottom 10 per cent by attainment, and perhaps we look too closely at one without looking at how the two interact.
The issue of the attainment gap sent me scurrying off to the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s attainment data sets, which reveal an interesting situation: for every decile one goes up, the average pupil gains two grades at standard grade. However, socioeconomics explain an extremely small proportion of the variance in results in the OECD research—only 14 per cent. What is the difference? I think that we square the circle by realising that the OECD research measures aptitude, whereas the SQA statistics measure outcomes and qualifications. Perhaps the Government and the Education and Culture Committee need to look at why pupils who are not that different in aptitude are not achieving the same qualifications. Let us work together on that, because it is something that the parties in the Parliament agree more than they disagree on. We were sent here to find solutions, so let us keep working together on the crucial issue of the attainment of young people in our schools.
I congratulate Gordon MacDonald, Anne McTaggart and Jean Urquhart on their maiden speeches, although I take issue with Jean Urquhart’s suggestion that the election process in the Highlands and Islands was a gentle one. I thank Mike Russell, Liz Smith and Ken Macintosh for their generous comments—which were welcome—about my former colleague Margaret Smith, whose contribution on education policy was significant. Her presence in our group and in the Parliament will be missed. I also congratulate the new and not-so-new members of the ministerial team, with whom I commit to work constructively as they take forward their agenda.
If we are to restore excellence in our education system, to provide the skills that our economy needs and to secure the wider benefits that education delivers, the Parliament will require to scrutinise rigorously Government proposals and its performance across the board. That is borne out by the experience of the past four years. All but the Government’s most obsequious loyalist would concede that it was in the area of education that the SNP’s minority Administration encountered many of its more serious difficulties. Indeed, I recall Mr Russell admitting to losing sleep over teacher numbers and teacher employment; I note that there was no such admission of insomnia this week in his response to the latest figures, which showed that a paltry one in five probationer teachers had secured reliable full-time employment.
That is most reassuring, if not for the cabinet secretary’s sleep patterns.
There is no doubt that the Government has suffered from having overpromised in the past, whether on student debt, which it promised to dump, on class-size reductions or on teacher numbers, which have dropped by 3,000. Looking ahead, further bold promises have been made, in the full knowledge of the budget constraints that exist and with all the powers at ministers’ disposal. Time will tell whether those promises have sown the seeds for future problems.
In the limited time that is available to me, I want to touch on some of the areas that will be of key importance over the next five years. It is not surprising that, as Marco Biagi said, there are areas on which there is significant agreement. I particularly welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments on looked-after children. The Government has committed itself to a futures fund to invest in early intervention measures—that commitment mirrors a similar one that was made by the Liberal Democrats. All the evidence shows that we achieve the greatest value from the investment that we make in the earliest stages of a child’s life, and even prior to birth. That does not come cheap, and it certainly does not provide a guarantee—such guarantees do not exist—but it is probably the closest that we will get to a guarantee of securing the best possible outcomes for every child later in life.
At the other end of the spectrum, like the Government we believe that the objectives of enhancing the quality and international competitiveness of our universities while improving access can be secured without the need to go down the tuition fees route, but there is a live debate over the level of funding that that will require. That debate has real and tangible consequences, as we see from the almost weekly news of cuts to staffing and courses at many universities. It would be helpful if the cabinet secretary were able to set out more detail on how he plans to safeguard the quality and breadth of teaching and research while making progress on widening access.
It would also be helpful to get some idea of where the Government sees reform of the higher education sector going, including the structure of courses, the interrelationship with schools and colleges, and links with business and the wider community.
We were happy to work with the Government during the last budget process to secure an expansion in the number of college places and protection of bursary support. However, anyone who attended the Scotland’s Colleges briefing last night knows that the sector has an obvious capacity to deliver so much more, not least in helping deliver the skills that will enable Scotland to emerge with strength and confidence from the current difficult economic circumstances.
On schools, like Liz Smith I welcome both the Donaldson review and the establishment of the McCormac review. The reviews cover sensitive issues, of course, so any recommendations will need to be taken forward with care and proper consultation. It will not serve anyone’s interests—least of all those of current and future pupils—if we help to hasten a return to the low morale and divisive industrial relations that gave rise to McCrone in the first place.
Mr Russell is right to point to the political unity around the curriculum for excellence reforms. The aims and values are the right ones and we support the roll-out from primary to secondary. However, as Stewart Maxwell alluded to, legitimate concerns have been raised about the way that that is happening.
I was particularly struck by some of the comments made by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, including concern about the
“lack of attention to knowledge ... the inadequacies in the way assessment has been addressed” and the
“insufficient ... resources that are being made available to support this innovation”.
Those and other issues need to be addressed in the interests of a process that we all support.
There are many areas of agreement but, as I said, the Government has come unstuck in the past in matching its promises to delivery. During the election campaign, Mike Russell promised that
“young teachers coming through will be guaranteed not just probation but a job.”
The figures released this week are not encouraging. Nevertheless, I hope that there will be a commitment to that pledge and that what constitutes a job will not be redefined.
It would also be helpful to know Mr Russell’s views on the relationship between national and local government in respect of education. At the beginning of this session of Parliament, there are signs that the cabinet secretary is all too happy to micromanage Scotland’s schools from his office in Edinburgh. We want to see more powers for headteachers so that they can plan the development of their school, play to their strengths and meet the needs of their community. I hope that consensus may yet emerge on that issue, too.
For now, I welcome the debate and repeat my willingness to work with the Government in seeking to achieve what I truly believe are our shared ambitions for restoring the excellence in Scotland’s education system.
Given that time is quite tight, I will do my best to be brief and concise.
I congratulate Total on its awards event at Our Dynamic Earth yesterday. It was a great privilege to be there and it was a terrific example of what our young people do. Primary school children from all over Scotland brought forward, with great enthusiasm, exciting and innovative projects on renewables, recycling and animal welfare. I pay tribute to a school from my own constituency that was represented at the event and was highly commended for its project. I congratulate Echt primary school—I should add that the people at Total and those presenting found it very difficult to say “Echt”.
I will not repeat what has already been said, but I will raise a few points. My colleague Stewart Maxwell raised parents’ concerns about the curriculum for excellence and I look forward to hearing the cabinet secretary’s response.
Mr Macintosh raised concerns about bullying in schools. The getting it right for every child approach is robust and the infrastructure is in place to try to ensure that children have a route to bring forward any concerns that they have about bullying. Physical bullying is very obvious, but the psychological bullying that sometimes takes place in schools is the most difficult, the most hurtful and the most harmful form of bullying. I am sure that every member of this Parliament agrees that we have to do everything that we can to ensure that it ceases. We have to pay tribute to guidance teachers in our schools who recognise it.
I look forward to engaging with our ministers to look at other ways of trying to ensure that our young people have a route to raise their concerns, so that, if they are being bullied and cannot turn to their guidance teachers or their peer groups, some advocacy and so on can be provided for them.
It will come as no surprise to the cabinet secretary that I am going to mention rural schools. I congratulate him on calling in the proposed closure of Clatt and Logie Coldstone schools in my constituency of Aberdeenshire West, but I hope that he can give me some assurance that a decision on the outcome will be taken in the very near future. We are coming towards the end of the school term and the children, parents, teachers and communities require a decision on what the outcome will be, so that they can plan for next term. Perhaps Aberdeenshire Council will look at the example of Argyll and Bute Council and shelve its closure proposals. That might prevent the cabinet secretary from having to make a decision.
I have concerns about children who have additional learning needs. Having had additional support myself through the education system, I sometimes fear that some educational needs are not being met on a needs-led basis and that provision is often driven by financial constraints. I endorse and support integrated education, but occasionally some children with multiple or complex needs may require special education, which may be in a special school within their community or in a residential school. I hope that the Government continues to look at that issue and at the needs of children with very complex and very specialist needs.
The Scottish Government’s policy of no compulsory redundancies in further education has recently raised some serious questions in the sector. I stress that no one on the Labour benches wants to see compulsory redundancies. However, I put it to the cabinet secretary that further education colleges are struggling to make savings of more than 10 per cent and that in many colleges compulsory redundancies remain on the table. I also put it to the cabinet secretary that he cannot expect—I do not think that he ever did—colleges to be able to make savings of more than 10 per cent without any redundancies.
The whole line about no compulsory redundancies in the further education sector is a public relations exercise by the Government, leaving college principals and boards to clean up the mess.
In real terms, Dundee College has experienced a budget cut of 10.4 per cent, which is the equivalent of £1 million of savings, or 100 lecturers’ posts at the college. I ask the cabinet secretary how a college can go about achieving cuts of £1 million without cutting the staff jobs. How can a college manage voluntary redundancies to that extent without seriously damaging its operation and effectiveness? How can it maintain the number of student places, which is one of the Government’s conditions in relation to the budget reductions? What if every member of staff teaching the most popular course in an oversubscribed department applies for voluntary redundancy? These are headline policies with no planning for or afterthought given to the outcome.
Why attack colleges during a time of economic hardship? Are they not where young people learn skills for the job market? Do they not provide crucial vocational courses that train people for the workplace and provide the extra qualification that people need to get the job that they want? Is that not the most foolish place to make cuts to such an extent during a recession?
Nearly half of all college students are over 25 years of age. They have gone back into education and training seriously, after giving good consideration to their future, and they stick at it: the drop-out rate for colleges in Scotland is far below that of our universities.
Dundee College has seen applications rise by 50 per cent on last year, and has received 16,500 applicants for 5,000 places. Much of that increase has to be attributable to the economy—the lack of available jobs and opportunities—but those 16,500 people in Dundee are serious about training for work. They have made the conscious decision to go back to college, to study and train and to give themselves a leg-up into the job market, but the Scottish Government has cut that critical training by no less than £1 million in Dundee alone.
The cabinet secretary will be interested to know that the hairdressing course is oversubscribed tenfold in Dundee. There are more than 1,000 applicants for 128 places. I understand that he has been known to scoff at hairdressing courses, but let me tell the Government that there is always work for hairdressers. A haircut is one of the little luxuries that are not greatly affected by the economic downturn, and we rarely hear of hairdressers going bust. They are skilled businesspeople, and they are entrepreneurs. They can travel with their trade, they can work flexibly, they can work from home, and they can work around childcare commitments. They can go into industry, fashion, television and film. The number of applicants in Dundee speaks for itself. People who apply to college have a closer eye on the job market than we might presume, and they know where the money is and where the jobs are.
A constituent—a young man—whom I spoke to during the election campaign had received a letter that morning to say that his music course at Dundee College had been cut and that he was not to return to college in August to complete it. He is a friend of Dundee band The View, whose members studied on Dundee College’s music course before going on to great commercial success. At this juncture, I should advise the chamber that I have not been wearing the same dress for four days now—indeed, it was clean on this morning. For the uninitiated on the front benches, that was a reference to one of The View’s hit singles.
Dundee College has rationalised its cuts in music because there was good provision in Perth. It has made the best of a bad job by considering employability in relation to course subjects, other local provision and application numbers. Indeed, provision has been commendably planned—but the approach was necessitated only by this Government’s lack of foresight.
I have heard from members on the nationalist benches the pledge that, if we were fully devolved, there would be a lot more money for education. I ask the cabinet secretary to present the figures for education under an independent Scotland so that the public can see for themselves what would be entailed.
Marco Biagi said that we cannot separate educational attainment from poverty, and I agree with him. Labour never has done that, which is why I ask the Government not to let down the further education sector, as we know that it gives many people the second chance that they deserve.
I think that we have heard from Jenny Marra a new option in the mix of available constitutional options: full devolution. Some of us call that independence, but perhaps that is a matter for another day.
I join others in congratulating the members who have made their maiden speeches today. It is clear that we have some great new talent in the Parliament. I also welcome the Government front-bench team, which has been temporarily depleted from three to two. In particular, I welcome my friend Alasdair Allan to his new role after his elevation to Government.
Ken Macintosh started by referring to the fact that this is the first education debate of the new term. The approach is different from that taken in the previous session, in which it seemed that there was an education debate every week. I am sure that the new pace will be welcomed by the front-bench education teams across the parties.
On Tuesday this week, I was pleased to go to Abronhill high school’s student awards ceremony. It was clear from the ceremony that there is a great breadth of talent at the school. I reflected that there was no comparable event at my school—it was only afterwards that I thought that there might have been an awards ceremony but that I was never invited. I will not linger on that thought for too long.
At the ceremony, I enjoyed the contribution of the school’s headteacher Brian Paterson. He referred to education as a battle for civilisation. That is more than just grand rhetoric; it refers back to the first principles at the heart of our civic society, which Marco Biagi talked about. The values of secular tolerance, education and understanding are vital in securing those principles. In what was a very good maiden speech, Gordon MacDonald pointed out the strong record of performance in education in Scotland, so it is clear that we are winning the battle for civilisation.
On that basis, today’s education debate is important. We have seen a clear record of achievement from the SNP in government. We have seen strong investment in the higher education sector: £1.1 billion for the next academic year. That investment will lead to a strong higher education sector, and it has been welcomed not just by the sector but by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, which said:
“The skills of our graduates and the quality of our research are key components of our international reputation as an economy and a nation. Our universities ... are an international and social strength for Scotland, creating the skills required for future economic growth.”
The investment in higher education is more than worth it and is highly valued across the board.
At school level, we have heard a lot about teacher unemployment. We know that there is an issue, but we should reflect on the fact that teacher unemployment in Scotland is lower than it is anywhere else in the UK. That is an objective fact. We have heard clearly that the issue causes Mike Russell some distress, and I know that he will be working hard to secure improvements.
We have also seen class sizes at the lowest ever level in Scotland. That achievement will be maintained and built on in primaries 1 to 3, in agreement with COSLA.
I welcome the education secretary’s action on rural school closures. We have seen a firm and clear commitment to try to reflect the concerns of parents of children in rural schools. Although they were not rural establishments, we have lost schools and nurseries in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth in recent years, and I know the distress that a school closure causes a local community and the impact on the wider community. I therefore congratulate the Scottish Government on its action in relation to rural schools. There is an issue in urban Scotland, too—I see that the cabinet secretary agrees—and I am sure that the Government will maintain vigilance on any changes to schools in urban Scotland.
Poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing education and society more generally. The cabinet secretary talked about the advantages that education can provide for the most disadvantaged in our society. He is right, but we have to reflect on the depth of the challenge. Some members have referred to Scotland’s good record of attainment, and it is right that they did so, but it is not a uniformly good record.
Marco Biagi spoke well about the differentials in attainment, and in a good briefing Save the Children refers to an educational achievement gap:
“There is a stark disparity between the educational outcomes of children growing up in poverty compared to their better off peers ... By three years old”— that is, by the earliest years—
“children from deprived backgrounds are already 9 months behind the average development and ‘school readiness’ ... In S4, there is a huge 85 per cent difference in attainment between the poorest and best off pupils.”
That manifests itself in a vicious cycle of poverty.
Some 22 per cent of school leavers from the most deprived areas in Scotland move into unemployment, compared with 6 per cent from the least deprived areas. That then affects the life chances of the children of those people, all of which results in the vicious cycle of poverty. I was therefore very glad to hear about the new generation of family centres that the cabinet secretary referred to in his opening speech. I hope that Cumbernauld and Kilsyth will benefit—I am sure that I will discuss that with him further. Those centres could be a key component in breaking the cycle of poverty.
I had hoped to go on in some detail about the tertiary education sector but, as ever in these debates, I am running out of time. I will just let the cabinet secretary know—I do not know whether he knows yet—that I have written to him to invite him to Cumbernauld College. It is an excellent institution. It is small compared with the rest of the sector, but it has a strong record of achievement and is important to the town and the area. I hope that the cabinet secretary will be able to join me in visiting the college, and I look forward to seeing the Scottish Government’s continued good work in education.
Today’s debate has been largely useful, with some good and pertinent speeches from all sides. Aileen McLeod and Alex Fergusson rightly made many good points about the Crichton campus in Dumfries, and I stress the importance of the UHI to the Highlands and Islands. I thank organisations such as Universities Scotland, Scotland’s Colleges and the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils Scotland, which have provided us with useful briefings in advance of the debate.
I stress the importance of physical education in schools, particularly competitive sports. What is the point of races or games that nobody wins? That is hardly an inspiration for the Olympics. It is important that we build young people’s confidence and develop in them vital transferable skills, such as team working, that are important in later life.
I listened to the admirable Stewart Maxwell’s list of SNP achievements. Like him, I declare an interest, in that my daughter is studying primary teaching at the University of Aberdeen. I hope that, when she leaves, she will be one of the lucky 20 per cent who are able to get a job.
I am sure that the member would not want to mislead the chamber. It is not a question of a lucky 20 per cent getting jobs. A number of students get full-time permanent jobs; many students get temporary full-time jobs; and, over a period of time, most people will secure a permanent job. I want more students to get permanent jobs quickly, including Jamie McGrigor’s daughter.
Only one in five newly qualified teachers gets a job at the moment.
The SNP’s record from its first term in government is poor because it never delivered the two hours a week of PE that was promised in its 2007 manifesto. We look forward to the present cabinet secretary doing better and repeat our consistent call for more local authority schools’ sports grounds to be opened after school hours and at weekends so that they can be used by enthusiastic youngsters who want to play and practice what they have learned.
I turn to the issue of rural school closures, specifically in Argyll and Bute. I welcomed the council’s pragmatic decision on Tuesday to halt its current consultation in the light of what the cabinet secretary announced to the Parliament last week. The entire Argyll and Bute rural schools closure issue has been an unfortunate saga that has affected many communities. I congratulate the small schools for literally keeping their banners flying throughout. The cabinet secretary does not like to be reminded of this, but the fact stands that it was the then SNP and independent-led council that started it all off with its proposals to close 26 schools.
Numerous concerns have emerged as the proposals have gone forward, albeit with a reduced number of 11 schools facing closure in the most recent list. Those concerns have been varied, covering issues from the accuracy of the information that has been used by the council in closure consultation documents and how it has arrived at future roll projections, to how the council has gone about consulting individual parents, pupils and staff. Those genuine concerns are more than legitimate enough to justify the cabinet secretary’s decision to call for a moratorium while key issues are addressed. Nevertheless, like Liz Smith, I question why that will take a whole year.
One message that has been sent loud and clear concerns the vital role that rural primary schools play in sustaining rural communities. Businesses, including those in the aquaculture and renewables sectors, have made the point to me that their ability to attract high-quality workers to remote areas is dependent on education provision being locally available and accessible. The purpose of the Government should be to revive rural communities, and good local schools are a way of doing that.
Before I leave the subject of rural schools, I highlight the efforts of the school community at Craignish primary school at Ardfern in Argyll, who are this year celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary. Under the excellent leadership of head teacher Anne Wilson, Craignish is an outstanding example of the kind of primary school that we want to flourish in our rural areas. The school is one of the reasons why the community of Ardfern is one of the strongest and most genuinely independent in Argyll and Bute.
I am pleased that the cabinet secretary spoke of his support for Gaelic education. Regrettably, however, it was reported last week in McCaig’s column in The Oban Times that a female student was unable to sit highers in Gaelic and music at Oban high school and would have to go to a school in Glasgow if she wanted to study those subjects. Yet Oban regularly hosts the Mod and the Highlands are full of ethnic musical talent. If, as the cabinet secretary says, there is plenty of money for education, why is there not enough to widen Oban high school’s higher curriculum to include subjects that are truly relevant to the area? I am sure that the cabinet secretary is sincere in his wish for improvement, but seeing will be believing.
I echo the sentiments of my friend Liz Smith about the worrying statistic that only a fifth of newly qualified teachers are able to find jobs, and the concerns about the SNP’s refusal to acknowledge the true size of the universities’ funding gap. The cabinet secretary has a very full inbox with many and varied challenges ahead, and the Scottish Conservatives are prepared to work positively with the Government in the best interests of Scotland’s pupils, parents and teachers. We will, however, vigorously oppose any moves to centralise issues. We look forward to working with the cabinet secretary.
I am pleased to close for Labour in this wide-ranging and thoughtful debate. I congratulate Gordon MacDonald, Anne McTaggart and Jean Urquhart on their confident maiden speeches. I echo many of Jean Urquhart’s comments on Scotland’s culture. Members may know that today is Bloomsday, which is an important day in Ireland’s literary calendar. We could do more in the Scottish education system to recognise and celebrate Scottish literature and culture.
I congratulate Angela Constance on her new role and Alasdair Allan on his appointment to the ministerial team—I wish them both well. I welcome Liam McArthur to the education debate and look forward to his contributions. I am pleased to be on the Education and Culture Committee, along with several members who have spoken in the debate. I keep hearing that last session’s Education, Culture and Lifelong Learning Committee had a bit of a reputation and I hope that this session’s committee strengthens that reputation for holding the Government to account. In a majority Parliament, it is important that the committee is fair, constructive and not wary of being critical when it believes that the Government would benefit from some advice.
The Scottish Government faces big challenges in its education and lifelong learning portfolio and, in talking about them, I will try to reflect this morning’s debate. I do not think that the cabinet secretary could miss the pressing issue that several members have raised regarding further and higher education, highlighting the pressure that they face in their constituencies. Alex Fergusson, Aileen McLeod, Sandra White, Neil Bibby and Jenny Marra all focused on the issue. University funding remains a challenge for the Government and there is a broad consensus in the Parliament on the way forward in Scotland. We have an opportunity to take a different approach in Scotland and we will work with the Government to achieve that, but we need some detail on issues such as the fees for students from the rest of the UK and the service charges for EU students.
The Labour Party stands by its manifesto and is signed up to the National Union of Students pledges for no tuition fees and no graduate contributions in education. We are prepared to work with the Government over the next five years to ensure that those pledges are delivered on. We fully recognise the serious challenges to doing that, but we are prepared to be constructive.
I am also keen to work with the Government on student support issues and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss Labour’s college maintenance allowance proposal, which builds on the successful EMA scheme. Last session there was an annual furore over bursary pots running dry, to which the Government would respond. I am sure that the new minister would appreciate a more planned approach to the bursary system, as would I and thousands of Scottish students.
The employment of probationary teachers continues to be a challenge. We can all produce statistics to justify our positions, but the fact remains that there has been a decrease in the number of those with permanent full-time or part-time employment contracts and an increase in the number of those who are on supply or temporary contracts. In the short term, the Government is committed to providing teaching posts for all probationers this summer. We need to know how that can be delivered and, in the long term, we need clarity on workforce supply.
Ken Macintosh focused on the implementation of curriculum for excellence. The Government needs to recognise that there is still a level of uncertainty about that, which must be addressed, as Stewart Maxwell acknowledged. The EIS has confirmed that it will hold a ballot in November on boycotting some development work on the new curriculum, which is very concerning news. That decision is driven by worries that the changes are being brought in too quickly, increasing workload and damaging pupils’ learning. The Government needs to respond to those concerns.
Last session, Labour drove the literacy commission. We welcomed working with the Government on that and the work that led to the literacy action plan. In our manifesto, we proposed
“up to 1000 teachers, to drive up standards in literacy and numeracy across Scotland”.
That is a concrete proposal for moving the agenda forward. The Scottish Government shares the goal of eradicating illiteracy and innumeracy, and I welcome Jean Urquhart’s comments on that. We all appreciate the huge disadvantages that accompany an individual who fell through the cracks at school and never gained those basic skills. We all want real progress in this session of Parliament.
That brings me to my final point. Devolution has brought many significant changes to Scotland. The Parliament has been radical at times but has always, regardless of party affiliation, been about effecting positive change for Scotland. Nonetheless, we can all be frustrated that the pace of change is too slow for those who, I argue, need it the most. We all acknowledge that many children in Scotland achieve exceptionally well, but we know that the country’s educational attainment gap remains stark, a point that Marco Biagi highlighted well.
Children who grow up in poverty do significantly worse at school than others do. The lack of positive educational outcomes closes off opportunities and ingrains poverty in some families. The situation is further complicated for many looked-after children. Labour will closely examine the educational outcomes report that is due at the end of the month, but we will see from today’s report by Buttle UK the extent of children living with kinship carers and the level of poverty that they experience.
A number of members mentioned the Save the Children report. As Save the Children highlighted, an educational gap opens even before children reach school and widens in the following years. By the time children reach school leaving age, there is a huge, 85 per cent gap in attainment between the poorest and the better-off among them. Those figures are unacceptable. They were unacceptable under previous Governments and they are unacceptable under this one.
I welcome the emphasis that the cabinet secretary placed on early years in his opening speech and I welcome Angela Constance to that responsibility, which will be increasingly important in this session.
There must be greater investment in early years—additional support for pupils as well as greater family and parental investment and engagement. I look forward to the Government’s legislation on that but, if it places new duties on authorities, it must ensure that financial support accompanies those new responsibilities. It can be difficult to make the transformational change that we all want without the necessary resources.
Liz Smith made some pertinent points on the operation of the concordat. We must all recognise that there is a real danger that, if authorities are to concentrate resources on statutory delivery in early years, resources will then be cut from non-statutory delivery. Members will have local examples of third sector organisations that are under extreme financial pressure now, but those organisations often deliver vital support to vulnerable children and their families, as Anne McTaggart made clear when she talked about community engagement and community education. It is also important that they deliver services in a way that some families find much easier to engage with than dealing with authority. That matter was highlighted in the recent report “Growing up in Scotland: Parental service use and informal networks in the early years”.
There are many positives to recognise and celebrate in Scotland’s education, from the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife, which nurtures young minds, to the most advanced research that our world-class universities deliver and share with the rest of the world. Our job as a Parliament is to provide the right circumstances for everyone—regardless of their postcode or surname—to make their way in the world successfully, with confidence and hope.
There is nothing more important than ensuring that our children and young people get the right and the best start in life. Therefore, it is a privilege to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor, Adam Ingram.
This morning, I also have the great opportunity to get the last word in at the first education debate in the new parliamentary session. However, this discourse is much more than a debate on education: it is a debate about how we as a nation improve the short-term, medium-term and long-term prospects—the life chances, if you like—of all Scotland’s young people.
The Government’s challenge and promise are to translate words into actions. The challenge for the Parliament is to show leadership on what we will and will not tolerate for our children, our young people and their families in 21st century Scotland.
A number of maidens spoke, the first of whom was Gordon MacDonald. I know him well. He always tells it how it is, and I was struck by his speech on how free education had transformed his and his family’s prospects.
I was also struck by Anne McTaggart’s speech. I am sure that she will bring her skills as a former community education worker to the Parliament and I note her interest in widening access.
Jean Urquhart, our other maiden, spoke about education being more than what happens in schools. That is oh so true.
A variety of members from all parties sought answers or reassurance on a number of specific points. I will do my best to attend to those, but first I give Dennis Robertson my personal commitment to ensuring that the legislation on additional support for learning is fully implemented. He should also expect a decision on the schools in his constituency that he mentioned to be made next week.
John Park has always made an impassioned plea for the skills agenda. We agree with him that the focus has to be on 16 to 19-year-olds in the crucial transition from school to the world of work. However, I also reassure him that the Government has also asked Skills Development Scotland how we can target a proportion of modern apprenticeships on that age group.
If I had to answer all Sandra White’s questions, I would be here all day. I am assured that the cabinet secretary will write to her at length. However, on the most important issue that she raised, I say to members that the Government will continue to press the United Kingdom Government on the visa issue.
I welcome Stewart Maxwell to his new role as convener of the Education and Culture Committee. By way of a backhanded compliment to him, I reassure Claire Baker that I have no doubts that he will give the Government the appropriate amount of challenge.
I reassure Mr Maxwell that we have been working hard with the national parent forum on producing a range of material on the curriculum for excellence. Much of that should be available in schools and the cabinet secretary recently wrote to parents with children who are undergoing that other difficult transition from primary 7 to secondary school.
Mr Macintosh should know better than that because he, along with other then Opposition spokespersons, attended a meeting about it last year. There is no limit on the number of exams or courses in which students in the senior phase can participate. It is a matter for schools, parents and the children. If children want to do more than five courses, we will do our best to ensure that they can achieve that aspiration.
Let me get on to Mr Bibby’s reference to the inevitable cuts across the public sector as a result of the Con-Dem policies south of the border. I say to him that this Scottish Government has protected student numbers; this Government has retained the education maintenance allowance; and this Government has led the debate on retaining free higher education in Scotland.
I wish to make progress, Mr Macintosh.
I will temper the debate about the funding gap. The Parliament might be interested to note that the University of Glasgow apparently has a surplus of £18 million.
I was struck by the tone—until now—of the front-bench speakers. When I heard Mr Macintosh’s opening speech, I thought that he had returned to the Parliament with positivity and a spring in his step, following his decisive win in Eastwood, which was against the national trend and against all the odds. I look forward to continuing to work with him.
Elizabeth Smith always makes thoughtful and measured contributions. The one point of hers with which I take issue is that we cannot have both autonomy in the higher and further education sectors and a guarantee on the types and numbers of courses. The Government has put its money where its mouth is by guaranteeing student numbers.
We cannot let the debate end without focusing on teachers and teacher numbers. For the first time, the SNCT has safeguarded teacher numbers. Enough places are available for every probationary teacher to apply for. I assure members that the Government put in £15 million extra to help with the negotiations between local authorities and the teaching unions, £11 million of which was used to secure an agreement to limit changes to terms and conditions.
The Scottish Government promised that the money would be made available for every newly qualified teacher—for every probationer—and some more, to eat into teacher unemployment. Mr McGrigor might be reassured to know that jobseekers allowance figures show that teacher unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 6.8 per cent in the past eight months—it stands at 4.2 per 1,000, which is the lowest rate in the UK. In England, the rate is 15.8 per cent.
Not just now—I am summing up; I apologise to whoever that was. I am keen to say something about the early years before 11.40.
It is clear that we have a collective commitment to and consensus about the value and importance of investing in the early years and having a philosophical shift towards early intervention and prevention. I look forward to the Parliament’s support and challenge when the education ministerial team presents early years legislation. I am patently conscious that people have only one childhood. That places an imperative on the Government and the Parliament to improve the prospects of all our children.
We have mentioned poverty throughout the debate and I was struck by the work of Frank Field on that. In his report, he says that what matters most is
“a healthy pregnancy; good maternal mental health; secure bonding with the child”, parental education, good parenting, good old-fashioned love,
“responsiveness of parents along with clear boundaries” and opportunities for the child to learn and to develop their cognitive, language, social and emotional skills. All those issues are highlighted in the early years framework, which is our platform for tackling poverty and low educational attainment. I look forward to returning to the chamber in due course—hopefully soon—with our plans to improve the prospects of all Scotland’s children.