Young People (Improving Learning Outcomes)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-01677, in the name of Michael Russell, on improving learning outcomes for all young people in 2012.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

This is the second education debate in two days. I am glad to have strong parliamentary engagement in and scrutiny of education, as that is crucial in building a better and independent Scotland. I congratulate Hugh Henry on his new post as education spokesperson for Labour and welcome his team. I look forward to their contribution to education in the coming months. Hugh Henry’s return to the education brief after four and a half years is a clear example of education being a long-term endeavour. The work in which all colleagues in Scotland’s education system are engaged today builds on the work of their predecessors. In turn, we are delivering the foundations for those who will have the privilege of and responsibility for improvement in future.

I visited Finland in March 2010 and Ontario later that spring. Both of them have world-class education systems that are based on high-quality teaching and a consensus on the purpose of overall education policy. Those are the hallmarks of a world-class system. In Scotland, there has been a remarkable degree of consensus in the Parliament and the Scottish education community on the purposes of education and the way forward for this country. The development of curriculum for excellence is the prime example of that. Despite differences on specific details and the timing of development, that consensus has lasted for four sessions of Parliament and almost 10 years. The Parliament has maintained a shared vision of Scotland’s learning system that is based on the values that are on the mace in the chamber: wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion. That consensus is a considerable achievement and we need to keep it.

I commend the work of tens of thousands of professional and dedicated teachers and hundreds of thousands of hard-working pupils across Scotland. We should all welcome their work and the progress that is being made, because it means that we are continuing to improve the life chances of all children and young people. That is a continuous process—it is never done and things can always be improved.

The subject of the debate, which is improving learning outcomes, is vital. We are all responsible for continuing to ensure that our children experience and benefit from high-quality pre-school and school environments. That is particularly important in supporting children from challenging and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Improving learning outcomes means that all our children enter an education system that supports and nurtures their development and enables them to make sustained progress. I am pleased, for example, that the number of exclusions has reduced by 40 per cent during the Government’s term of office.

Improving learning outcomes also means that learning has breadth, depth and challenge, that knowledge is aligned to the development and application of skills and that our young people leave school ready and able to fulfil their ambitions.

It means improving achievement and qualifications, and our young people should be congratulated on the improvements that we have seen year after year in the breadth and level of qualifications that they have obtained.

It means helping more of our young people to enter education, training or work on leaving school. In such difficult economic times, it is good to see that almost 89 per cent of recent school leavers were going on to positive destinations, and 63 per cent were entering further or higher education. I will say more about the key issue of employability later.

It means having an education system that is recognised and respected around the globe. International evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development confirms that Scotland has a good education system and that, after the drop in performance that we saw between 2000 and 2006, the decline has stopped.

I take this opportunity to confirm to Parliament that around 3,000 of our 15-year-olds will be taking part in the next OECD assessment survey—the programme for international student assessment, or PISA—in early spring this year. I offer my thanks to schools and pupils for agreeing to represent Scotland in such an important international survey, and I wish them well.

Such assessment should not be seen as the sole measure of the success of our system. It provides a useful international comparison when placed alongside other evidence, and it provides compelling evidence that our young people’s performance is improving. It also confirms that we have the skills, ambition and ability to deliver improvement and to go on improving. It proves that the majority of our children and young people can and do experience learning that enables them to fulfil their ambitions. It also confirms, however, that we must continue to work harder to deliver for all our children and young people. The international evidence and our understanding of who has succeeded and is succeeding in Scotland tell us that our challenge is to continue to deliver improved learning and outcomes for all, and that we must do more for those who are not benefiting.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that attainment should not just be judged by a high place in the exam league tables? Schools must also have ambitions for those who have additional support needs and should see that they get the most out of education, particularly in numeracy and literacy, and, where possible, move back into mainstream education. A school that is high in the league tables but has an additional support department as its largest department is not really achieving the most for all its pupils.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I certainly agree with the member that we should look for rich attainment, which is the widest possible attainment. That is not judged simply by examination results or league tables; it relates to the individual child.

In the coming year, we must continue to emphasise an ethos of continued improvement. Raising attainment is central to improving outcomes. Parliament will know that I recently asked five successful head teachers and ex-head teachers to draw on their experience and provide advice on improving attainment in our schools. I also welcome the work that the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland is doing on how to raise attainment and improve life chances, all within the context of curriculum for excellence. Those complementary pieces of work will be valuable in driving and supporting improvement.

In March, I intend to send the key messages on raising attainment that those groups have discerned to all teachers. It will be important that schools use the advice and issues raised by those valuable pieces of work to focus their improvement planning for the coming year and subsequent years.

That type of idea sharing is indicative of an education system that is keen to improve. It is important that experiences and ideas are received into an environment that is characterised by a can-do spirit that recognises that our education system serves the needs of all our children. It is only through a culture of collegiality and capacity building that improvement can and will be made, and we will see improved attainment and outcomes for all our young people. That culture also needs to be ambitious. Our teachers and education leaders must focus on improving attainment and outcomes for all pupils.

The Canadian educator Avis Glaze memorably said “Poverty is not destiny”. All pupils need to be supported. All pupils can attain. All pupils need to be encouraged to aspire to and gain some sort of qualification.

Qualifications are a major focus in considering attainment. New qualifications are being developed to better reflect the balance of knowledge and skills under curriculum for excellence. Those qualifications will simplify the current system and offer increased flexibility with a greater focus on skills and applying learning to real-life situations. That will better prepare learners for progression from the senior phase to a college, university, other learning, or employment opportunity. The development work around the new national qualifications is continuing and is on track for the final arrangements to be published in April this year.

The child is at the heart of education, but there is also the teacher to consider. The crucial importance of the teacher is clearly borne out by research and was recently confirmed in Graham Donaldson’s report. We all know the vital role that teachers play, so it was welcome when Professor Gerry McCormac’s independent review of teacher employment confirmed that the quality of teachers and teaching in Scotland was high and that the continuous improvement of the profession was a key strand in improving outcomes.

It is important that Scottish education gives due consideration to that report’s recommendations. I will provide Parliament with a more detailed statement on the way forward for the McCormac review in the near future. Rightfully, many of its recommendations are the business of the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers. I am pleased that the SNCT is now taking that work forward.

The heart of a great education system is not structures or processes but the ambition, dedication and skills of those who deliver learning day in and day out to the hundreds of thousands of pupils in Scotland. Of course, there is another crucial part of our education system: the contribution that parents make to supporting and enabling improved outcomes for children and young people.

I am pleased that work is under way on developing a national parenting strategy and the early years framework. My colleague Aileen Campbell spoke about the importance of parenting in yesterday’s good and productive debate. I will continue strongly to encourage schools to promote parental involvement in the curriculum for excellence. Improvement in attainment, health, wellbeing and key skills can be and are strongly influenced and supported by positive parental attitudes and good home learning environments.

On the relationship between education and employability, I am committed to ensuring that all our young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills that they need to progress through education into sustained jobs. A successful education is clearly defined by the oft-quoted four capacities of the curriculum for excellence: it should ensure successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Therefore, it is important that our young people have the core, basic skills such as numeracy and literacy; that they develop effective approaches to learning and applying their learning; and that they achieve a range of relevant qualifications.

It is also important that education maximises the opportunities for a young person to access rewarding employment. Although record numbers of young people are entering further and higher education, too many continue to leave school at the earliest possible point without a stable or long-term destination, although the figures for positive destinations have improved year on year under this Government.

I am clear that staying and learning after age 16 is undoubtedly the best way of improving one’s long-term job prospects. The senior phase of curriculum for excellence is vital to achieving that. It is about ensuring that young people are able to access a wide range of learning in a place and at a time that suits them and that they get the support that they need to enable them to participate in the option that is right for them.

Through the Government’s reform of post-16 education, we will continue to build on and improve post-16 progression pathways for our learners. Through the opportunities for all programme, we have given a specific commitment to all our 16 to 19-year-olds who are currently not in a job, learning or training to a place in post-16 education and training. That also means support for those who are at risk of disengaging, support for those who have already done so and a much greater focus in the post-16 education system on meeting the needs of every person.

I have outlined some of the strengths of the Scottish education system as well as where and how improvement must be made. It is not complacent to celebrate our success. Complacency is failing to learn from others, believing that our achievements are good enough or accepting poor outcomes for some of our young people. I will never accept those poor outcomes, and I am sure that no one else in the Parliament will.

We have a broad and shared agreement on how improvement can be enabled. We now have good advice and guidance from last year’s work by Professor Donaldson and Professor McCormac. Further valuable material will come out of the work of the attainment group and ADES. That will be placed directly into the hands of classroom teachers.

Our challenge for 2012 is to enable and support Scottish education so that it builds on its strengths within an environment of continuous improvement, which leads to better outcomes for every child and young person.

I move,

That the Parliament commends Scotland’s tens of thousands of professional and dedicated teachers and hundreds of thousands of hard-working pupils; recognises the importance of the Curriculum for Excellence as the principal vehicle for improving learning and teaching and raising ambition; believes that a high-performing early years and schools system is the single greatest tool in improving the employability and life chances of young people, and commits to support efforts that increase attainment for all young people from nursery through to post-16 education.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for his kind words.

There is no doubt that there is much that we can all agree on. We all accept that education plays a fundamental role in developing a young person’s life chances and opportunities, and we know about the significance of education in building a successful and vibrant society. We all take it as a given that our dedicated, professional and well-trained teachers and nursery staff are the foundation on which we build and, of course, we recognise that the vast majority of Scotland’s pupils and students are a credit to themselves and their families.

It was for those reasons that, during the first eight years of devolution, the Labour-led Administration placed such significance on education being a priority. That is why we invested in improving teachers’ pay and conditions. We did that so that we would have a highly motivated and committed teaching profession. That is also why we invested so heavily in building new schools throughout Scotland and why, in developing the curriculum for excellence, we decided to create a modern learning environment that was suited to the demands of 21st century Scotland.

It is right that the Scottish Government should focus on raising attainment. We owe it to each and every young person to support them to reach their full potential in life. In raising attainment, we enable our young people not only to fulfil their potential, but to contribute to the wellbeing of our society. I fully support the Scottish Government’s aspiration to build on excellence in the early years and fully subscribe to early intervention as a strategy to support and develop individuals and provide a better and more effective use of scarce resources. However, if we truly believe that the early years of a child’s life are critical and if we believe in early intervention when children are vulnerable for whatever reason, we need a comprehensive, integrated and properly funded early years strategy.

The Scottish Government has placed great emphasis on single outcome agreements. What has it done when local authorities have targeted for cuts the very early years services that it has said are vital? The Scottish Government said that access to pre-school education would be increased to 15 hours per week. Will the cabinet secretary tell me exactly which authorities, other than Glasgow City Council and East Renfrewshire Council, have met that target?

The cabinet secretary has quite rightly made great play of the significance of teachers. They should be especially important in the early years, if we truly mean what we say about the early years. The Scottish Government’s commitment to access to a teacher in the early years has led to confused and erratic staffing arrangements. Just what does access mean? How frequent is it? In some authority areas, there are peripatetic teachers who travel around early years establishments like wandering minstrels. They are unable to support staff properly or establish relationships with pupils that could help to identify problems. We have a stated recognition of the importance of the early years and warm words of support, but there is confusion and a failure to support in an effective and consistent manner.

I support the development and implementation of the curriculum for excellence, which has the capacity to transform the way in which education in Scotland is delivered—indeed, it is already in practice in large areas of Scottish education, particularly in the early years and primary schools—but it would be foolish and irresponsible for us to ignore the real concerns that exist in many schools in Scotland. Many teachers feel that they are underprepared. Teachers are already under pressure because of falling teacher numbers, increasing class sizes and budget cuts. Classroom assistants have been cut, and teachers are having to cope with more and more non-professional tasks. Training and continuous professional development are being pared back. To be frank, there has been complacency and a failure to invest properly to make the curriculum for excellence a reality and a success. That needs to be addressed now. The cabinet secretary needs to listen to what classroom teachers are saying.

The problem is most obvious in respect of the new exam system. Many teachers are confused, anxious and worried. They are unable to explain clearly to parents what exactly will happen and whether the exams will be delivered with certainty and to acceptable standards. Parents are rightly becoming fearful about the consequences for their children. This week, I spoke to a parent who is an academic; his wife is a healthcare professional. He told me that they are worried that their 13-year-old son and his friends are being treated as guinea pigs for a change that is unclear to them and to teachers. I have spoken to teachers, and they are bewildered and anxious. They understand the concept, but it is far from clear to them what the process is and how it links to exams and qualifications. More worrying, teachers are unsure about whether the exam system can be delivered on time.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I draw the member’s attention to his last education debate as education minister, during which he said:

“there is a tendency to dwell on the negative and to talk ourselves down. The Scottish National Party’s glass is always half empty, never half full. It moans, it groans, it is full of despair and it never has anything positive to say. It does not sing about our achievements or highlight the positive things that are happening. It looks for failure, it seeks to criticise and it tries at every turn to be negative.

Just for once, the nationalists should try to be a bit more positive, because there is much to celebrate in Scottish education.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2007; c 33542-3.]

The six minutes of Mr Henry’s speech that we have had have entirely fulfilled what has turned out to be a prophecy. I am afraid that it is Labour now that has nothing positive to say and which refuses to celebrate the success of Scottish education.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

If the cabinet secretary had actually listened to my opening remarks, he would have heard me celebrating Scottish education’s positive aspects. Frankly, though, I think that it would be irresponsible of me as an individual MSP, never mind an education spokesperson, to ignore the growing problems in and real concerns about Scottish education. If the cabinet secretary does not address these matters, he will be failing in his duties. We need urgent action to ensure that the new exams will be delivered as promised, with all schools fully ready for implementation. If that cannot be guaranteed, there should be a delay to ensure that no pupil is disadvantaged by confusion and chaos. Any damage to a pupil at this stage could have consequences for the rest of their life. We have seen examples of that in the past and we should not subject another generation of children to it.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No.

Equally, we need to address the increasing lack of subject choice available to senior pupils in schools. That is becoming a problem and it is denying pupils access to proper career choices and university courses. Indeed, the most acute impact is being felt by those in lower-income communities whose life chances are already limited.

Earlier, I outlined why the previous Labour-led administration had invested in teachers. The fact is that teachers are becoming disillusioned and demoralised by falling teacher numbers, increasing class sizes and budget cuts, and the investment in improving teacher morale is being frittered away. The anger that is being expressed relates most frequently to the current situation with supply teachers, which is unsustainable, and no doubt the cabinet secretary has received the same complaints that I have received about supply teachers being employed on the cheap. The attempt to dilute pay in the teaching profession is a throwback to the 1930s.

A recent Times article suggested supply teachers were earning half of what permanent staff were being paid and the Times Educational Supplement Scotland reported on a case of a qualified Scottish teacher who is now having to work as a bus driver in Birmingham.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No.

TESS also reported that 92 per cent of short-term supply requests in West Lothian were not being filled. The situation cannot go on: it is fair neither to pupils who have to face a succession of different faces nor to teachers who worked hard for their qualification and deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. This unfair and unjust pay agreement needs to be scrapped now.

In his motion, the cabinet secretary refers—quite rightly—to “post-16 education”. We all recognise the outstanding contribution being made by Scotland’s colleges, and they will be crucial if we are to avoid the same waste of a generation that we had in the 1980s.

However, although I understand the need to ensure that 16 to 19-year-olds are not abandoned by society, what about the 20 to 24-year-olds? After all, youth unemployment, which is rising, is measured from 18 to 24. We need to address that issue. Moreover, colleges are being hit hard by budget cuts. This is not just about staffing levels and jobs for lecturers, but about colleges’ ability to deliver for a section of our society that otherwise will have no opportunity to develop its skills and potential. We cannot expect colleges to raise attainment if they are being deprived of the means to achieve that aim.

None of us will argue against the desirability of raising attainment for all young people. However, we must also recognise that the positive improvements that have previously been made in Scottish education are being put at real risk, and warm words will not change the reality for pupils, parents or teachers.

I move amendment S4M-01677.3, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:

“notes the concerns being expressed by teachers about the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence and believes that these concerns must be addressed; believes that urgent action is needed to address problems in the availability of supply teachers caused by the changes to pay and conditions; believes that a high-performing early years and schools system is the single greatest tool in improving the employability and life chances of young people; commits to support efforts that increase attainment for all young people from nursery through to post-16 education, and believes that budget cuts to Scotland’s colleges are hindering their ability to raise attainment in post-16 education.”

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I welcome Hugh Henry and his new team. We wonder and wait with interest to see whether their appointment will change the dynamics between the Scottish National Party and Labour in education debates.

We last debated raising attainment on 27 October. I am happy to do so again, because we should never relax our efforts to do everything possible to secure better attainment levels for all our pupils. However, if we are to debate the topic regularly, and particularly if we are to debate it twice in such a short timescale, it is important that we take stock of the progress that has been made on Government commitments. I will therefore consider the commitments that the Scottish Government made just three months ago and where we are with them.

On the early years, progress has generally been pretty good, notwithstanding the concerns that Hugh Henry rightly raised. There is determination in all parties in the Parliament to ensure that we make the greatest impact in that area of policy making, such is the crucial influence of early years development on a person’s life chances. On that point, we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to be more focused with public spending when it comes to care for disadvantaged children.

In the October debate, the Scottish Government made much of the need for a much more effective parenting strategy. The issue was referred to over and over again in yesterday’s excellent debate on looked-after children. There can be no differences across the political spectrum on the essential need for an effective strategy, but can the Scottish Government update the Parliament on what it has done in the intervening three months to set out the key principles of the strategy? How will discussions with relevant stakeholders and the cross-party discussions that were promised take place? Can the Government give us some idea of the timescale? In yesterday’s debate, concern was expressed that despite consensus and good will in so many quarters we must admit to a corporate failure to improve attainment levels for looked-after children. We need to ensure that the same malaise does not affect the parenting strategy.

On preventative spend, the need to ensure the principles of the getting it right for every child agenda and the need for much more effective organisation of local authority departments, we cannot be too critical of Scottish Government policy.

I turn to aspects of the Scottish Government’s contribution to the October debate that caused concern and, in some cases, were rather worrying. Labour is right to express concern about the curriculum for excellence, but we should be specific in our critical analysis of the situation and we should not suggest that there is widespread difficulty in every area, which is not particularly accurate.

Crucial to the success of curriculum for excellence is improving literacy, which deserves just as much attention as the early years and parenting strategies deserve. I was rather taken aback in October when the Scottish Government omitted to say much about literacy, given that it had set so much store by the issue at an earlier stage. The cabinet secretary has given a little more insight into the matter today, but it would be helpful if he told us more about the focus of the group of successful head teachers, which I presume is considering approaches to literacy that have had an impact. We can also learn from some local authorities, which have had better results than others have had.

As I said at the time, I was astonished that in October’s debate the Scottish Government managed just one sentence on the Donaldson, McCormac and Cameron reviews, which the Scottish Government itself set up and which all had as their underlying principles improving schools and raising attainment. We heard a little more this afternoon, but we have not heard enough.

What has been the Scottish Government’s response to Graham Donaldson’s finding that too many teachers are uncomfortable about teaching basic literacy and numeracy and indeed that many teachers might have problems in that respect themselves? What has been the Scottish Government’s response to concerns that academic rigour is being lost in some secondary school subjects and indeed that subjects are being lost, as Hugh Henry said, because teachers do not have enough time to read up on subject areas, given all the burdensome paperwork that they encounter? What has been the Scottish Government’s response to the recommendation in all three reports that we need much greater flexibility in our schools and greater devolution of power to schools and away from local authorities?

Curriculum for excellence might be the greatest change to our schools in a generation, but those reports recommend fundamental changes to our school system, and it seems more than likely that the commission on school reform will say exactly the same thing. The review panels include highly respected professional men and women from different backgrounds, and from different political parties and none, and they all urge the Scottish Parliament to make radical changes to our education system so that it becomes much more responsive to the individual needs of pupils, teachers and parents. One of the most important messages, that of increasing the flexibility of staffing, is exactly the one that the Scottish Government needs to take on board.

Finally, I turn to the crucial issue of colleges and what I see as the most blatant contradiction in any area of the Scottish Government’s education policy. How is it logical to trumpet a flagship policy on 16 to 19-year-olds while making swingeing cuts to college budgets and asking colleges to dig deep into their reserves to make the changes—

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I am afraid that the member is about to finish.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I ask the cabinet secretary, when he sums up, to give us a categorical assurance that he will review his strategy on colleges, particularly in time for the forthcoming budget.

I move amendment S4M-01677.1, to insert at end:

“, and notes with interest the current deliberations of the Commission on School Reform under the chairmanship of Keir Bloomer, which, along with important recommendations contained in the recent Donaldson, McCormac and Cameron reports, confirm that raising attainment levels is also dependent on the delivery of a school system that is much more responsive to the demands of pupils, parents and teachers.”

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

I rise to declare how proud I am of the SNP Government’s work, energy and vision and its commitment to looking at learning across people’s lifespan. The cabinet secretary gave us many examples of the good work and results that are being achieved; I will highlight a few.

In the pre-school years, there has been a 20 per cent increase in free nursery provision. I must say, however, as the member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, that it is regrettable that East Dunbartonshire Council has chosen to put restrictions on parental choice in access to that free nursery provision.

In primary schools, 99 per cent of primary 1 classes are of 25 pupils or fewer, and in secondary schools we find that, since 2007, 358 schools are new or have been refurbished. Those are achievements of which we can be proud. We have made commitments and we have a vision, and we can be proud of that.

The cabinet secretary will not be surprised that I want to talk about my pride in the role of libraries and librarians in the pursuit of lifelong learning. I should make two declarations of interest: I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and I am now the chair of the Scottish Library and Information Council.

Libraries are natural places of learning. They are local, hospitable, trusted and well-used social institutions in the communities that they serve, and 45 per cent of people in Scotland use their public libraries for learning opportunities. We can support school learning not just through public libraries but through school libraries. Scotland is unique in that its secondary schools have qualified school librarians. I love the phrase that the cabinet secretary used; “rich attainment” sums up the contribution that libraries and librarians can make to pupils’ learning experience. We also work in partnership with public libraries, college libraries, university libraries and the National Library of Scotland.

I want to concentrate on libraries’ and librarians’ speciality, which is information literacy. Information literacy is about ensuring that everybody understands how to access information, how to evaluate that information and how to apply that information in a way that brings the results and solutions that a person has set out to achieve. We could say that an information literate person is a super-googler. I use that phrase deliberately because one of the problems that we have nowadays is that people sometimes attempt to devalue the role of libraries and librarians in access to information simply because they think that through the internet we have access to everything there is to know about in the world. I turn back to the fact that it is information literacy that we have to pursue. It is a skill for life and it is a skill that all of us need throughout our lives.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Will Fiona McLeod join me in congratulating the Orkney library and archive on demonstrating the value of social media, not least Twitter and Facebook, in expanding the opportunities for people to engage with the library? People who traditionally did not cross the doors of the library are now engaging positively.

Photo of Fiona McLeod Fiona McLeod Scottish National Party

I am delighted to support Liam McArthur’s intervention. I was also delighted to sign his motion on the topic.

It is interesting that Mr McArthur has used the example of tweeting to bring folk into libraries. When I talk about information literacy, I am doing it in the traditional librarian sense, but information literacy leads us into what is now called digital and media literacy. A few years ago, I sat on the Scottish advisory committee on media literacy of the Office of Communications. The modern digital media are perhaps one reason why folk do not understand that libraries are part of the 21st century. We can use the 21st century media to bring in more folk to the essential learning function that a library can support.

In conclusion, I commend the work of libraries and librarians. I know that I do not have to commend them to the cabinet secretary and that they have his full support, so I commend them to all members across the chamber. I also say again how proud I am of the Scottish National Party Government’s vision and commitment. If nothing else, education is about Scotland’s future—and Scotland’s future is safe in this SNP Government’s hands.

Photo of Kezia Dugdale Kezia Dugdale Labour

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I was taken with Fiona McLeod’s speech—in particular, the points that she made about information literacy and the processes that we use to find information, evaluate it and apply what we know to what we do. There are lessons for the cabinet secretary and—I will be generous—for us all in how we use the information that we learn in debates such as this one.

As I said, I welcome the opportunity to contribute and I intend to focus my efforts on aspiration and the college system. However, I will start by passing comment on the school league tables that came out just before Christmas.

I was shocked to discover that there are three schools in Edinburgh in which not a single child in either 2010 or 2011 achieved more than three highers. I find that to be an utterly shocking statistic. I accept that there are all sorts of caveats around league tables, and I will come on to them in a second, but I cannot tolerate a culture in which the aspiration for our kids reaches different levels and heights in different schools in different towns. That is not what equality of opportunity is about or what we should seek to progress in this chamber.

If our system limits ambition by lowering the ceiling, we cannot blame anybody other than ourselves for kids’ inability to touch that ceiling. The expectations are set by schools, family and society. We need movement away from comments such as, “You’ll always be trouble” by parents or people in schools, towards the teacher who lifts a kid up by believing in them and giving opportunities. As a Parliament and Government, we need constantly to remind ourselves of those key facts.

There are legitimate caveats to use of school league tables. They are a very blunt measure, and they suggest that there are de facto bad schools, when many of the schools that perform badly in the league tables are good schools, often because they lead the way by doing things differently or use alternative and creative approaches in how they deliver the curriculum. Many such schools place greater emphasis on vocational courses and pathways for progression. They also tend to have earlier and stronger links with business. They have people in the classroom who use their capacity to empower kids with pathways into work straight from school that are not necessarily through the education system. That is very important.

We know that the skills needs of our economy are ever changing, but the one consistent fact is that we need skills—we need a highly skilled and highly educated workforce. Our colleges play a pivotal role in delivering that. That is why it is with utter dismay that Labour considers the SNP Government’s £17 million-worth of cuts to further education budgets. As Liz Smith said earlier, that is blatantly illogical, given the Government’s wider aspirations. I worry very much about the decisions that college principals are facing at the moment with regard to the budgets on their desks and the choices that they have to make between cutting places or courses, and about incorporating the needs of the economy with the desires of learners. For example, refitting and mechanical engineering courses are expensive to run and, by cutting those courses, college principals can save a lot of money per head and maintain places on a wider level.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I understand Kezia Dugdale’s concern for college principals. She will therefore welcome the letter that was issued to them yesterday about places. I will quote the response from John Birt, the principal of Angus College. He said:

“It does seem likely now that Angus College, working collaboratively with local and regional partners, will be able to deliver the same number of funded student places as in previous years and this will assist us in meeting the Scottish Government’s commitment to young people.”

Given the positive nature of that response, and the positive nature of the letter that was issued, I am sure that the member’s attitude will move on from where she was to where we are now.

Photo of Kezia Dugdale Kezia Dugdale Labour

I am thrilled to hear that. If the approach bears fruit, we will welcome that and congratulate the Government. My point was that if we choose to cut courses or places that are hugely expensive in order to limit the damage that could be done by the cuts, we might steer away from the needs of our economy and do a disservice to people in the education system.

The Government’s response to the £17 million of cuts was to announce a transition fund worth £15 million to help colleges merge. We in the Labour Party accept the economic challenges that we face, but there are obvious concerns about the impact that the Government’s approach will have in communities. Kids in Craigmillar are understandably concerned about being asked to travel to Sighthill or to Telford College to study, if they do not have the financial mechanisms to deal with the travel costs. However, the changes mean that they might have to make those journeys, as we might have courses only in one part of Edinburgh rather than right across it.

For a wee while before I came to work in this building, I worked for the National Union of Students and I was involved in drafting its policies in the run-up to the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. During that process, we talked about a guaranteed minimum income for students of £7,000, and it was great to see many political parties adopting that as a policy. However, we also expressed a wider concern and made a philosophical request for Governments and political parties to lead a cultural change around parity of esteem. I am still concerned that Scottish culture and society view college places as being secondary to university places and do not view apprenticeships as being as worthy as academic degrees. I would welcome a philosophical retort from the cabinet secretary about how he plans to challenge the culture around the weight that we give to the various qualifications and educational opportunities that we offer Scotland’s young people.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

We do that by ensuring that we lean heavily on the Scottish credit and qualifications framework, so that learning is seen to be a continuous process in which people move forward in a way that is clearly identifiable, and that each part of that pathway is equally justifiable. The SCQF is vital to Scotland. The more we use it, the better we will be.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You are over time, Ms Dugdale. Could you conclude your speech?

Photo of Kezia Dugdale Kezia Dugdale Labour

I am happy to leave it there, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

I begin by wishing everyone a happy new year, as I have not got around to doing so in person yet. I hope that the last of the festive spirit continues in the chamber today.

Before Christmas, the December statistics that Kezia Dugdale referred to were a good Christmas present for Scottish education. The report card was very good; of 54,000 leavers, 89 per cent were going to positive destinations. More are going into higher education, further education and training, and even more are going directly into employment. That percentage is up not only on the previous year but on 2007-08, before we were hit by the storm of London’s recession. The number of pupils staying on for sixth year rose by 45 per cent to 54 per cent.

With regard to qualifications, whatever measurement we choose to use—the number of standard grades or their equivalent achieved at secondary 4 or later; the number of pupils achieving one, three or five highers in secondary 5; or the number of advanced highers and baccalaureates awarded—we can see that the results are going up. There are two things that we can rely on every August—the Edinburgh festival and endless news stories about A-level grade inflation, in which regard no one has ever criticised the quality of Scotland’s qualifications. The motion gets it right in putting pupils and teachers squarely at the centre for recognition of all that—they deserve due congratulation for all their achievements in delivering those progressive moves in the statistics.

However, I would like to mention one challenge that is implicit in the motion’s reference to increasing attainment “for all young people”. In Scotland, we have a democratic tradition that includes the belief that questions of family background should be left behind at the school gate. Our schools are comprehensive and universal; they are never bog standard. That is not unique to Scotland, but for our nation it is a valuable and crucial principle.

However, a great deal happens beyond the school gate. Growing up in a family that is struggling by on a lower income does not make a child a better or worse person, but it presents many more obstacles that the child must overcome. In its investigation into the attainment of looked-after children—the subject of yesterday’s debate, in which I did not get to speak—the Education and Culture Committee has found that not only does being looked after have a great many effects on children and their education, but that simply facing the challenges of poverty does, too.

In this Parliament, we talk a great deal about the decisions that a young person makes at 16, but those decisions emerge from the lifetime of experience that they have already accumulated. The experience of the early years, of school and, alongside it, of the family environment will influence the answers to the question about self-worth and self-belief that is posed to every young person who, at 16, is asked by a careers adviser what they want to do with their life.

It is not just the bottom 20 per cent who face challenges. London’s recession has made life for families up and down the country like running on an ever-quickening treadmill, which involves running harder and harder just to stand still. The lesson that is taught to a young person who sees family members work hard all their lives only to be laid off in the vague and far-off name of something called deficit reduction can be far more powerful than any lesson that is taught in the classroom.

The motion states that

“a high-performing early years and schools system is the single greatest tool in improving the ... life chances of young people”.

I agree. Education broadens horizons, provides empowerment and breaks down barriers, but it is not the only tool, and I worry that in the face of today’s great social problems the position of education might be like that of the person running on the ever-quickening treadmill, as the social problems become more and more challenging. I have concerns, given that we are dealing with an economy and a welfare system that are in the hands of a Government whose priorities are manifestly a world away from the challenges that ordinary families face in their day-to-day lives as they raise their children and send them to school.

However, it is not all bad. To return to where I started, the growth of all those challenges and difficulties just makes the achievements of our education system and our teachers all the more laudable. In these difficult times, they are achieving not just the same, but more. The teachers who work in the most deprived parts of my constituency are nothing short of amazing. For me, there is only one measure in education that matters—the outcomes for young people. Every other measure is a means to that end.

This is a time of great change in schools, as it is in society. Curriculum for excellence corresponds well with the educational principles of other nations that have similar democratic education traditions, and whose higher and more equal attainment we seek to emulate. I cannot help but notice that they have also been able to tackle many of the chronic underlying social factors that make educational attainment so much harder.

Curriculum for excellence emerged from a great consultation and development process that saw the political parties in the Parliament working hand in hand. Great hopes are invested in it; it is not hyperbole to call it the greatest education reform in a generation. This will be a crucial year for it. The details of curriculum for excellence’s implementation are important, but let us not have our eyes drawn away from its grand ambition—which must go further than just education—of making the Scottish education system one that delivers for every child in the country.

Photo of Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

There was a time when education was considered to be the cure for the great ailment of society—poverty. That ill remains with us in too many places, including in my constituency of Midlothian North and Musselburgh, but I believe that it remains true, to this day, that education defeats poverty, so improving learning outcomes for our young people should be one of our highest priorities.

Youth unemployment is a serious by-product of the current recession. In Midlothian, some 20 per cent of under-25s are unemployed. That is not an acceptable outcome, so I welcome the appointment of Angela Constance as Minister for Youth Employment, which will bring to bear a more intense focus on the problem.

Likewise, I fully support the Scottish Government’s emphasis on early intervention linked to preventative spending. That adoption of a long-term view and a policy of investment must have a significant impact on outcomes for our young people.

In the past year, despite the recession, there has been a marginal but important increase in the proportion of school leavers going on to positive initial destinations. The figure has gone up from 87 per cent to 89 per cent.

However, everything that the Scottish Government might seek to achieve would fail if not for the army of dedicated and effective teachers who guide our young people towards positive personal outcomes when they come to leave school. When I visit schools in my constituency, I am always impressed by the quality of what I see, whether it is achievements in sport, visual and performing arts, music or the many other subjects that challenge and develop our young people, in addition to the more traditional academic subjects. Curriculum for excellence has certainly played its part. Professionals to whom I speak seem to be pleased with its flexibility and the outcomes that are made possible through it. I expect even greater outcomes to be achieved as it develops.

Less is said about the environment in which education takes place, but it, too, is vital. Looking at some of the statistics, specifically those that relate to my constituency, I note that there is some evidence that young people in good-quality schools that have a modern, bright and light environment perform better than their counterparts in older and more run-down schools. It is human nature that people respond to their environment.

At this point, I come to an unashamed plug for the Midlothian part of my constituency. The cabinet secretary has said that there will be an announcement shortly on the criteria and timeframe for bidding for some 30 new schools. In Midlothian, Newbattle community high school occupies a rather decrepit 1960s-style building and considerable work and huge expenditure are required to bring it up to a modern standard. It serves two of the most socially deprived communities in Scotland, but it has shown over a period of years that it can raise the learning outcomes of the young people who attend it. Those raised learning outcomes have come from a very low level.

Let me give an example. Scotland-wide, the proportion of students who achieve five qualifications at SCQF level 5 by the end of S4 is 35 per cent. In Midlothian, the figure is 31 per cent, and at Newbattle high school, it is 20 per cent—although that represents a steady 33 per cent improvement between 2008 and 2011 while the wider average figures have remained static. Schools such as that, which are helping themselves and making good progress, are deserving of support. I am impressed by the quality of staff and the huge improvement in outcomes across the board, but more work needs to be done.

I ask the cabinet secretary to consider seriously the application that will be made for Newbattle community high school to be replaced. There is cross-party support for the project on Midlothian Council. Midlothian is up for it and the students at the school deserve a quality and fit-for-purpose learning environment. I will continue to lobby for a new school facility at every opportunity.

In turning again to the more positive trends, I note that 99 per cent of P1 pupils are now in classes of 21 or fewer. In 2006, the average figure was 23.1, but by 2011 it had improved to 20.5. Since 2007, the Scottish Government has provided almost 300,000 training opportunities, and a further 25,000 modern apprenticeships are planned for every year of the current session of Parliament. In the past four years, £110 million has been allocated to improve our social services workforce. We should remember those trends and many more.

What has been achieved so far has resulted in a huge improvement in Scotland’s educational performance. We are above the national average in reading and science, we are at the international average in maths, and overall we are now at the same level as England and Northern Ireland and better than Wales. It is clear that we are moving in the right direction and I commend the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government on the progress that has been made.

Photo of Margaret McCulloch Margaret McCulloch Labour

I welcome the opportunity to speak about education and learning because, as I have said before, subjects around young people, their training and their broader education are very important to me. They were a big part of my professional life before I entered Parliament and I am grateful for the chance to speak about them.

I will focus on education as it relates to employment, but before I do so I will comment on the early years. I remind the Scottish Government of its commitment to preventative spending and early intervention, which I am happy to endorse. A proven and increasing body of evidence strongly suggests that predictors of a child’s education and health outcomes are established in the early years.

I hope that in 2012 the Scottish Government will translate its promises on access to nursery teachers and childcare into action. I also hope that it will look at the transition from nursery education to primary school and support for parents with children aged nought to three.

Parents have a crucial role in their child’s education and that is most apparent in the early years. Reading to very young children, playing with very young children and ensuring that a child’s lifestyle and diet support their development can make a positive difference to their attainment and their life chances in later years.

I now turn my attention to the later years. Figures that have been provided to me by Jobcentre Plus in South Lanarkshire show that there has been a severe increase in the number of jobseekers allowance claimants from 2008 onwards. Eighteen to 24-year olds account for more than 30 per cent of that rising number of claimants but account for only 16 per cent of the local population. Scotland’s struggle with youth unemployment is well documented and the problem is particularly acute in areas that I represent in central Scotland, such as South Lanarkshire.

When the First Minister announced the appointment of a new Minister for Youth Employment, he said:

“No young person should go through school only to become an unemployment statistic at the age of 16. The £30 million announced today will be invested in helping Scotland’s young people into training, work or education”.

I welcome every penny of investment that goes towards ensuring better destinations for young people in the formative years after they leave school. It is no future jobs fund, but it is a start.

The appointment of a Minister for Youth Employment is a welcome step. I impress upon her the need for Government and its agencies to work with schools and employers to help youngsters to access opportunities.

I have spoken to employers who are concerned about the job-ready status of school leavers. It is not necessarily the case that the young people lack qualifications, but often they could benefit from skills-based training and better work experience. Work experience has to be more relevant to the modern workplace. When schools develop placements, they should make much better use of local employers and bodies such as business gateway and Scottish Enterprise.

I feel from my experience in training that too many young people are unprepared for the realities of job seeking. We should ensure that young people who are looking for work know how to perform in an interview. For example, they should know how to present themselves and how to research the vacancy beforehand. It is unfortunate that so many young people, especially those who are hardest to reach, do not learn those lessons until after they have been rejected for a post.

I repeat to the Scottish Government the suggestion from employers and industry leaders that Skills Development Scotland could be more responsive to the changing needs of school leavers and prospective employers in the changing economic environment.

The get ready for work programme for 16 to 19-year-olds is a welcome part of the changing landscape that helps young people, including those who are hard to reach. However, many of those youngsters can be identified and assisted at an early stage, and I ask the Scottish Government to bear that in mind.

I hope that the Scottish Government will be forthcoming with the details of the national training programme in its entirety in 2012. The First Minister announced that Skills Development Scotland has fully contracted for 25,000 modern apprenticeship places for this year, but he has not explained how many of those places he expects will be filled by March or how many of them will go to school leavers aged 16 to 19.

I remind the Scottish Government of its relatively positive response to Scottish Labour’s literacy commission. In that regard, figures that have been published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that 16 per cent of 15-year-olds in Scotland struggle with reading, compared with just 8 per cent in Finland. The Institute of Directors urged action on that issue in its manifesto for last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, pointing again to the importance of early intervention as a way of preventing problems in later life. We know from the experience of West Dunbartonshire Council that it is possible to tackle illiteracy, and I urge the Scottish Government to take that agenda forward in 2012.

The debate has covered a wide range of subjects relating to the entire learner journey, but I hope that the areas that I have drawn attention to will be given the priority that they deserve by the Scottish Government in the year ahead.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

The primary 5 and primary 6 pupils at St Elizabeth’s primary school in Eddlewood in Hamilton in my constituency know something about ambition in learning. They are taught by Christine Emmett, who last year received both the Scottish and the United Kingdom teacher of the year awards. I have seen Christine’s teaching methods and the response that she draws from her pupils at first hand, because the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, Alasdair Allan, and I were lucky enough to visit St Elizabeth’s late last year after Christine won her award. We joined in with a Scots language version of heads, shoulders, knees and toes, singing it as heids, shooders, knaps and taes. It was a very good day.

More than that, we saw how Christine’s emphasis on pastoral care in her teaching—knowing and valuing each child as a whole person with individual strengths and weaknesses—results in a class of happy, confident children who come to school every day to learn and who are eager to achieve. Christine believes that, ultimately, knowing that you are respected and cared for is far more important for a child than being able to do the times tables. However, the fact is that a child who feels secure and cared for is also a child who is getting the kind of start in life that will help them to learn and to get the most out of their education in a way that works best for them so that they can go on to realise their full potential.

Believe me, Christine Emmett is an inspirational teacher who in many ways embodies the hopes and ambitions that we have for Scotland’s education system. We want every school in Scotland to be a place where children are secure in the knowledge that they are respected and cared for and can as a consequence take pleasure in learning and have the confidence and the self-belief to expect and have an educational experience that maximises their individual life chances.

That is our ambition for every child, but it is particularly crucial for children who do not feel adequately respected or cared for at home, whether that is because there is parental neglectful—sorry, parental neglect; I think that I put somebody else’s false teeth in this morning, Presiding Officer—or because their home lives are chaotic and disrupted, or simply because their parents lack the knowledge and ability to impart self-confidence to their child, perhaps because they themselves were never taught that.

For all vulnerable children like those, schools and nurseries are, as the motion says, the “single greatest tool” that we have in the fight to break that cycle and to ensure that no child is condemned to live out some kind of pre-ordained narrative of failure. That is why early intervention and preventative services are such crucial policy themes for the Scottish National Party Government. They are threads that run through every aspect of the Government’s programme, for which education, high-performing schools and improving learning outcomes are absolutely central.

Early intervention is undoubtedly the key to improving outcomes for the children who start off with the fewest chances in life. However, it is also crucial for the children who have problems that are fewer and perhaps less overwhelming on the surface, but which, if they are left unaddressed, can still blight potential in the longer term. Those problems might include mild learning problems, a condition such as Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia or dyspraxia, a physical impairment or simply shyness and lack of confidence.

Teachers who know the child well and as an individual can identify such issues early and work to address them in a way that compensates for areas of weakness while drawing out and building on the strengths that those children have. Indeed, that sounds like a template for successful learning for any child—after all, every human being has unique strengths and weaknesses.

Last week, I had a discussion with some teachers, who told me that having some awareness of the challenges that young people face—not only in learning—is vital. One teacher told me about a young boy in primary 7 who got detention over and over again for lateness. It turned out that he was caring for a mother who had an addiction, and the fact that he got himself and his two younger siblings up in the morning, fed and dressed and to school was a major achievement on its own. That young man needed support, not detention.

Intervening early to identify actual or potential problems and prevent them from holding children back means teaching the whole child. Curriculum for excellence allows teachers to do just that in a way that perhaps was not available to them before.

Christine Emmett says:

Curriculum for Excellence is hard work; to make it work, you have to be on the pulse and you have to be aware of any new initiatives. You have to put a lot of energy into the activities to make them purposeful. You have to take an experience and make it into a learning outcome”, and goodness me, has Christine Emmett got energy. She admits the challenges of curriculum for excellence but, like teachers throughout Scotland, she is meeting them head-on and grasping the opportunities that the new curriculum gives a teacher such as her. Members should listen to the positive words that she uses—such as energy, purpose and determination—and compare them with Labour’s continued negativity about curriculum for excellence, harping on the same old tune for virtually the whole of the previous session of Parliament. Labour has learned nothing from the rejection of its negative politics at the ballot box last year, and it is apparently determined to be forever the glass-half-empty party when it comes to Scottish education. One would have hoped that, after sitting through so many education debates in the previous session, Labour might finally have grasped the concept of constructive opposition, but it is not to be.

I will finish on a positive note. Christine Emmett says:

“Now it’s about actually starting with the child, making use of their community and trying to get them ready for life tomorrow”.

I could not agree more. I commend Christine Emmett and all Scotland’s teachers—and of course the Scottish Government—for taking exactly that direction.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

We education spokespeople are on a roll, fresh from yesterday’s debate on how, as corporate parents, we must raise the unacceptably low attainment levels of far too many looked-after children and young people in Scotland. Today we turn our attention to a broader canvas. Yesterday’s debate was characterised by an unshakeable consensus, which has sadly failed so far to deliver the sort of progress that we all wish for looked-after children in this country.

Today’s exchanges—perhaps predictably—have been a little different in tone. It would be entirely unfair to put that down to the involvement of the cabinet secretary, who was the embodiment of conciliation—that is a new year’s resolution that I hope that he keeps—nor does it suggest any disagreement on my part with what is in Mr Russell’s motion, as I agree with every aspect of it. Again, however, the Parliament is being asked to debate a motion that fails even to acknowledge that concerns exist. Yes, we should celebrate the many successes and strengths of our education system, but to highlight where problems exist is not to talk down our schools, pupils, staff or indeed anyone else who is connected with education in Scotland. It is precisely what is required to ensure that we deliver on the ambition that we all have for our young people.

As I said, I agree entirely with the sentiments that are expressed in the Government’s motion, and I commend staff and pupils in Scotland’s schools for their hard work and dedication. Curriculum for excellence is absolutely the right approach to improving teaching and learning. Investment in early years—including the pre-birth phase—is, while not a silver bullet, the single most important tool for improving the life chances of all our young people, particularly those from more challenging backgrounds. That is a perfectly acceptable prospectus; however, both amendments highlight areas where, in fairness, ministers should have cause to reflect on how they are delivering that vision.

I will start with the early years. As I said yesterday, the evidence supporting the need for an ever-greater focus on the pre-birth and early-years phase is now incontrovertible. Children in Scotland is just one of the organisations that have been highlighting the dramatic impact on cognitive behaviour and learning outcomes of the interventions that are made or not made in that period. Stewart Maxwell yesterday and Liz Smith today rightly pointed to the rock-solid political consensus that exists on that, and I believe that the Government is building on—indeed, accelerating, in some instances—the work that was done by the previous Executive. Nowhere is the notion of preventative spend better illustrated, and that has been the focus of the Finance Committee’s scrutiny of the current budget. During that process, questions have been asked about the early years change fund—an initiative that I fully support—and the extent to which it is all new money. The committee is seeking clarification of a number of issues, including the level of funding that ministers expect to be contributed by local authorities.

As I said in the debate in October, although I support ministers’ intentions in that area and the national parenting strategy, I am concerned that the Government risks funding being spread too thinly across too many initiatives. That could be addressed were ministers to heed the advice of Jeremy Peat and their own economic advisers about, for example, the future of Scottish Water. Without compromising public accountability, around £1.5 billion in savings could be achieved by moving Scottish Water to a public trust. I ask members to think what a proportion of that money could help to achieve in making the progress that we all want in the early years.

I turn to pre-school education, in which there is growing evidence that Scotland is lagging behind England. Whereas all three to four-year-olds in Scotland are entitled to 12.5 hours of free pre-school education a week, the figure in England is 15 hours. With the announcement that that provision is to be extended to 250,000 two-year-olds from deprived backgrounds in England, the Scottish ministers must urgently consider how we can avoid falling behind in that critical phase of a child’s development.

Ministers should also think again about the pupil premium, even if only on a pilot basis. The pupil premium tackles educational disadvantage caused by poverty—disadvantage that starts very young and widens later. By the age of seven, children in poverty are, on average, two years behind their counterparts from better-off backgrounds, and they never catch up. In support of the pupil premium, Douglas Hamilton of Children 1st states:

“to break this cycle of underachievement, children from the poorest homes must be given high-quality additional support”.

Of more general significance for school education is the marked reduction in overall teacher numbers in our schools. The latest statistics published last month were the usual mixed bag, but they showed some worrying trends in relation to increased pupil-teacher ratios, increased average class sizes in P1 to P3, and a significant reduction in the percentage of pupils in classes of 18 or fewer. Those are not figures that the cabinet secretary can brush aside. They are not the fault of previous Administrations or factors beyond his ken or control. They also fly in the face of solemn promises that he has given in this chamber time and again since taking office.

Finally, let me say a word about post-16 education—specifically, the needs of the college sector. During the last budget, Liberal Democrats worked with ministers to secure additional funding for Scottish colleges and students, and I hope that a similar outcome can still be achieved this time round. As Kezia Dugdale and Liz Smith emphasised, it is difficult to square the ambition of improving learning outcomes for all young people with the deep cuts the Government proposes to make to college budgets. Colleges warn of the effects on available places and courses—including those relating to Mr Russell’s guarantee for all 16 to 19-year-olds—in terms of the quality of provision, staffing levels, and so on. Those effects will fall disproportionately on young people from more deprived backgrounds.

There is no dispute about the need and scope for reform of the sector, but the Government has misjudged this issue, and I detect that such misgivings are shared across the chamber. With additional funds available, ministers still have a chance to right this wrong, despite last night’s announcement. At the very least, as John Spencer made clear yesterday, individual colleges need certainty to allow them to plan for the exceptionally challenging period ahead.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I am about to conclude—I am sorry.

I have no difficulty in supporting the vision set out in the Government’s motion. Unamended, however, the motion risks sending out a message of complacency that, while it may be misleading, could erode confidence that Ministers—or, indeed, this Parliament—have the will to do what is necessary to deliver this laudable vision.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I am very grateful to be speaking in this debate. As Mike Russell said, it is the second education debate in the chamber this week. Yesterday, we invited contributions from across the chamber to examine problems of attainment, particularly for looked-after children. As a member of the Education and Culture Committee, I found our investigations on that issue to be challenging and sometimes humbling. It was somewhat frustrating to examine an identified problem on which little progress has been made. Following that process, many of the points that were raised in the debate yesterday highlighted that, if we are to tackle and improve attainment levels, it is imperative to solve problems of social injustice.

My family has strong education connections. I am married to a teacher and my father was a university lecturer, but possibly the greatest influence on me was an uncle who spent his working life as a teacher and headmaster in the Calton in Glasgow. I remember him telling stories of appalling deprivation and post-war poverty that I could only imagine as a child in the 1970s. As Colin Beattie said, it was believed in the post-war period that education was a route out of poverty, and my uncle passionately believed that. Perhaps it is now an even more important route, given that other routes, such as apprenticeships in heavy industry, no longer exist in areas such as Glasgow.

I was therefore dismayed this week when the child poverty statistics that were published by End Child Poverty showed that the Calton remains one of the poorest areas in Scotland, 40-odd years after my uncle’s teaching career ended. We must break the culture of poverty being the determining factor in people’s outcomes in life. That is why I welcome the Government’s early years strategy, which provides an opportunity to tackle some of the most challenging circumstances for children and sets the expectation that health care, social care and education services will come together collaboratively to deliver on care plans and ensure the best start for children, particularly those in challenging circumstances.

One issue that emerged from the committee’s investigation was that, although we have a corporate responsibility for looked-after children, many children are on the verge of being looked after and many live in poverty but are not necessarily in the ken of social services and therefore do not receive their support. Part of the evidence from the centre of excellence for looked-after children in Scotland was that children need to be able to approach a person in their school to get the support that they need. Recommendation 39 of the Donaldson report states:

“All teachers should see themselves as teacher educators and be trained in mentoring.”

Christina McKelvie’s comments about the wonderful work that has been done in Hamilton showed that it is important for children’s development for teachers to support them and to be more than just a person who stands in front of them in a class. The Donaldson report states:

“Mentoring is central to professional development at all stages in a teacher’s career and all teachers should see themselves as mentors not just of students and newly qualified teachers but more generally.”

It goes on to state that young people should expect

“the high quality of personal support to which they are entitled as part of Curriculum for Excellence.”

It is important that we consider those challenges as we move forward. There are many changes and issues for teachers at present, but our education process must move forward.

The SNP Government has demonstrated its commitment to all Scotland’s young people in a programme for government that will transform outcomes for them. Much has been said about the early years framework, the parenting strategy and reading and learning support in family environments, but no one has mentioned the legislation relating to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that the Government seeks to introduce. That will place an obligation on the Government to include the rights of the child in everything that it does and will be a marker to the rest of Scotland that safety, security and equal opportunities for all our children must come to the fore in what we do.

Hugh Henry said that there seems to be a huge issue to do with having peripatetic teachers, particularly in the early years, but his point is in direct contradiction to recommendations in the McCormac report. In the section on “Development of the Profession”, recommendation 9 is for

“greater mobility of all teachers, including headteachers, between schools and more widely within the educational sector as a component of CPD to enhance professional development and improve understanding of issues related to the learner journey.”

We must reach consensus on how to move forward. There is an expectation that that mobility should happen in future.

Liz Smith mentioned swingeing cuts to colleges. All that I can say is that I am glad that I am not south of the border, where her party is in control and where the cuts are much more significant.

I will finish by talking about the principle of free education, which is something that I and the Parliament are passionate about and to which the Scottish National Party has made a huge commitment. If we are truly to break the cycle of poverty and give all our young people an equal advantage, it is important that we continue to support the education maintenance allowance—we have continued to support it—and the right to access free education on the basis of learning and not the ability to pay. They are vital to what our country does.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. During the past few months, I have received more than 1,000 e-mails from students and lecturers across the west of Scotland about cuts to colleges. NUS Scotland has been direct in its “our future, our fight” campaign to stop cuts to the further education sector. My staff and I have been doing our best to reply to every e-mail that has come in. I wonder whether the cabinet secretary could tell the chamber whether he has received such e-mails and whether he has replied to them. I am also interested to know exactly what his response has been and whether he could provide the chamber with a copy of it.

Improving outcomes for all young people is possible only if they are fully equipped, and I am afraid that they are not. Cuts to college budgets, teachers being made redundant, broken promises on class sizes and on delivering access to a fully qualified nursery teacher for every child are just some of the barriers that result from the Government’s failures.

Colleges in Scotland provide services to some of the most disadvantaged and deprived areas in Scotland. During the past few years, the SNP Government’s failure to protect college funding has resulted in mergers, cuts in the number of lecturers and courses, cuts in student services, and a lower number of applicants for further and higher education in Scotland. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I am boring Mr Russell.

Colleges are a means of widening access to education for those who need further vocational skills or who are not ready to take the step up to university.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Is the member saying that no colleges or universities were merged under previous Governments?

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

We are talking about what is happening now.

If Mike Russell wishes Scotland to be a world leader in education, why is he making it more difficult for young people to get to college? Yes, the education is free and I fully support that, but there is no point in having free education if someone cannot get a place on the course of their choice in the area of their choice as a result of the 20 per cent cuts to college funding.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Will the member give way? I have a point of information.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I have to make progress.

It is not only future students who will suffer. Current students have seen student services, such as counselling, withdrawn. Many students who require counselling services have to wait longer to speak to someone about the stresses of college life, money worries, or family-related problems, or to someone who will support them through their course. Students who need such a service often end up dropping out of college at a greater cost to themselves and the education system.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member is presenting a travesty of the situation. One particular point, however, is that at no time has any Government in Scotland guaranteed absolutely that a student will get the place that they want in the location that they want. That has never happened. It did not happen under our predecessors and it cannot happen now. Our guarantee under opportunities for all is the best guarantee that has ever been given. I am sure that the member will pay no attention to that, however, because she wishes to continue with her fantasy about what is happening in colleges.

Photo of Margaret McDougall Margaret McDougall Labour

I am afraid that I am not dreaming; I am talking about reality.

We have seen college attainment figures drop during the past few years and that is no surprise, when students no longer receive the necessary support for the duration of their courses.

The SNP has failed not only college students. School pupils are being let down, and have been since 2007. Teachers in Scotland, as in all countries around the world, play a pivotal role in the future of young people. They are not only educators, but mentors, role models and carers. Why have teacher numbers fallen over the past five years? Why are 80 per cent of post-probationer teachers without full-time employment?

We have talked about improving outcomes for learners. Surely everyone can see that we are even failing newly qualified teachers. The outcome of their learning has been unemployment or work in a non-teaching post, such as stacking shelves in a supermarket.

The Scottish Government must take not only the appropriate action to improve outcomes for learners, but more action to improve chances for children before they enter primary school. To its credit, it has identified the early years as an important area that needs more investment. I fully support it in that but, this week, child poverty statistics showed how much more needs to be done.

I acknowledge that it will take many initiatives to rid Scotland of child poverty. One that relates to early years and learning and can be implemented concerns nursery places. More free nursery places with fully trained teachers and staff are needed for young children in disadvantaged areas. In parts of North Ayrshire, one child in three lives below the poverty line. Two council wards have child poverty rates of more than 30 per cent: Irvine East with 33 per cent and Saltcoats and Stevenson with 35 per cent. That is unacceptable in modern Scotland.

The Parliament must take more action on those issues to improve the life chances of our children.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I welcome the debate. The fact that we have had two education debates in two days is a reflection of the importance that we place on the issue. I am sure that we all agree on the need to improve learning outcomes for all young people in 2012. I am also sure that that commitment will be renewed in 2013, 2014 and every year to come.

Education is vital for the individual. It broadens their horizons, as Marco Biagi said, and improves their life chances. It is also vital for the country as a whole. If we want to attract investment, want to be a positive destination and want things to happen here, we need a well-educated population.

It is important to set today’s debate in a little context: education is safe in the hands of the SNP Administration.

Much has been said about class sizes over the past few years. In 2006, the average size for primary 1 to primary 3 classes was 23.6 children; today, it is 22.5. The average class size for primary 1 in particular has reduced from 23.1 to 20.5 over the same period. That is a new record low.

I was interested to see the Conservative Party claim recently that levels of truancy had risen by more than 50 per cent. Unfortunately, it got its maths completely wrong, as I am sure the cabinet secretary will confirm. In the most recent year for which we have full figures, virtually the same level of overall absence was recorded as in 2006-07. The overall rate of attendance in 2010-11 was 93 per cent; in 2009-10, it was 93 per cent. It is beyond me where the Conservative Party got its figures for a 50 per cent increase in truancy.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I will not respond to Mr FitzPatrick’s sedentary intervention for fear of running into trouble.

In 2010-11, 89.9 per cent of pupils who left school took up a positive destination—higher education, further education, training or employment. That is an increase on the previous year and reflects a growing trend over recent years.

On pupil retention, the UK Government is abolishing EMA, but the Scottish Government is protecting it.

The number of applications for further and higher education has increased.

It is clear that there is much to welcome in Scottish education. We can all think of good, positive examples in our own areas. I look forward to welcoming the cabinet secretary to my constituency next month to see Kildrum and Whitelees primary schools. Our colleague Tom Johnston and I invited him, and he graciously accepted. He will see the good work that is going on in those two excellent primary schools, particularly in Whitelees primary school, which was the first school to receive five outstanding awards under the inspection arrangements. That suggests that many good things are happening in education.

That is not to say, of course, that there are no specific concerns. Marco Biagi was quite right to point to issues relating to the attainment of our poorest youngsters in Scotland. Save the Children sent us a very good briefing, for which I thank it. It was able to demonstrate that there is an educational achievement gap throughout the years, which reflects a trend that has existed for a long time. If we look at the outcomes for pupils from the most deprived areas when they leave school, we see that their attainment level is some 65 per cent below the Scottish average and a huge 137 per cent below that of the richest pupils. That is to say nothing, of course, of the challenges that poverty brings outwith the specific confines of education, which can impact on the educational experience. Christina McKelvie’s anecdote about the young pupil who had to care for his family and the impact that that had on his education was telling. Thankfully, it seems that, in that case, things were sorted in the end.

It was interesting to read in press coverage at the weekend the suggestion—members should forgive me, but I cannot remember which newspaper it was in—that poverty is no excuse for low attainment, as there are examples of good work being done in many deprived communities. I whole-heartedly accept that good work is being done in deprived communities, and I accept that some schools are doing particularly well and that there will always be pupils who come out of those deprived communities and achieve in their education. My mother, who was a teacher in the Gorbals and Drumchapel in her career, and my stepfather, who was a teacher in Possilpark, will testify that that can happen, but there can be no denying that a correlation between poverty and educational outcomes exists. That needs to be focused on, and I know that the Administration is doing that. Margaret McDougall said that the work that is going on in the early years to tackle some of those issues is welcome, and I look forward to hearing what the minister says about that at the end of the debate.

I hoped to speak a little about the curriculum for excellence but, as ever, I do not have enough time. Actually, the Presiding Officer is indicating that I do have time—you are very generous—so I will talk a little bit about it.

I am not an expert on the curriculum for excellence but, from my understanding of it, I think that it is to be hugely welcomed. Members can think back to their own school experiences, as I do. There was much that I enjoyed about my school experience, but I sometimes felt that I did not have too much control over the process. I accept that there will be only so much control that a pupil can ever have over their school experience, but the fact that the curriculum for excellence allows for greater pupil involvement in what they want to get out of their school experience is very positive. The curriculum for excellence is one reason among many why I am confident that the future of Scotland’s education system is safe in the hands of the SNP.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I remind all members that those who have taken part in the debate should be in the chamber.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

I begin by responding to Christina McKelvie’s perception of negativity among Labour members. Most Labour members have acknowledged first and foremost the hard work of teachers throughout the sector in Scotland and of the pupils whom they teach, their parents and the support workers in schools, who are vital to the good work that schools do. As someone whose household is occupied by secondary school teachers, I am loth not to add my commendation to such comments. However, it is important that, when given the opportunity, members of the Opposition should bring to the attention of the cabinet secretary areas of concern and shortcomings that we identify.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member is correct—that is exactly what members should do. However, I hope that Mr Pearson will accept that it is hard to respond to detailed criticisms—although they are always needed—when there is a litany of complaints containing nothing positive at all. That is what we heard from Margaret McDougall and what we largely heard from Hugh Henry. I would be very happy to respond to individual complaints, and to set them right.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

I hear what the cabinet secretary says, but he must acknowledge that, in the few minutes in which an opportunity presents itself to members to make their views heard, there is sometimes enthusiasm to spread their knowledge and share it with him.

There is no doubt that the curriculum for excellence has been haunted this year by financial cuts in the provision of post-16 opportunities in further education. Cuts are also intended for next year. Teacher numbers reduced by 3,657 between 2007 and 2011 and, in 2012, the numbers will reduce by a further 561. Although classroom numbers have been in decline, the reduction in the number of teachers has, proportionally, overtaken that decline.

The Smith group began its work in the knowledge that official Government figures identified that 40 per cent of the lowest-attaining pupils came from the 10 per cent of communities that are the most deprived. The group acknowledged that the curriculum should personalise learning to meet individual aspirations and competencies; should provide mentoring from a trusted adult role model; and should apply appropriate support in the context of the young person’s life—for instance, by providing day care or transport facilities. It will be interesting to hear the extent to which the Government is delivering on those outcomes. Is the Government effectively targeting that 40 per cent group from the 10 per cent most deprived communities? Some of those communities are in the south of Scotland.

An abundance of reports outline the costs to public services that arise as a result of failures—in unemployment, ill health and substance abuse, to name just a few. In effect, those failures emanate from a fall from the education system. The current policy of early intervention is therefore entirely right—not solely because of a moral responsibility to lift people out of poverty and deprivation but because it makes sense in terms of saving public funds.

Cuts in public budgets—whether disguised by freezes in council tax or by budget allocations in a concordat—will in all cases impact on service provision in education. Much effort goes on disguising such figures and, thereafter, much effort from Opposition parties goes on trying to reveal them again. Little time is left in which to hold the Government to account for its decisions. In that context, real questions remain—as raised by the Smith group. Has the Scottish Government ensured that local authority funding for pre-school education is safeguarded in the coming years in real terms? Is the importance of pre-school education strengthened as part of the early years policy? In addition, has the Government taken steps to ensure that education authorities re-examine how the transition by young people from primary to secondary school is handled? In particular, it has to be identified why some young people become unsettled and disengaged by the move.

If the minister’s response is positive to all those questions, why, for instance, have active schools budgets—funds designed to enable pupil participation in sport outwith the school day and often away from the school premises—been cut in many authorities? In at least one, it has been cut from £8 per pupil to £3 per pupil. Why is it impossible, in light of the forthcoming Olympic and Commonwealth games, to enhance the time that is allocated to physical education in secondary schools to the promised two hours a week? Why has the Government allowed a widening range of higher and further education bodies to offer courses leading to a career in physical education, given the downturn in available places for teachers in that sector?

If education is to be relevant, it should fit the needs of its customers—the very young people who would seek physical education as well as other core subject opportunities. A sporting Scot offers balance to the academic life and a promise for a healthy future. I support the amendment in Hugh Henry’s name.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I join other members in welcoming Hugh Henry to his new role on the Labour front bench. I was Hugh’s wing man on the Public Audit Committee for many years and I pay tribute to the robust scrutiny that he brings to his roles. I look forward to him undertaking such scrutiny in his education brief, as he did in his award-winning role in audit—you can buy me that pint you promised me later, Mr Henry.

Given that the debate has been scheduled to take place less than three months after the previous one on the subject, we might have expected the Scottish Government to propose a new initiative or make an announcement. It is a little disappointing that there was nothing particularly new in what the minister had to say. Nevertheless, let us not carp. The debate has given us a useful opportunity to discuss the state of Scottish education and consider where we are going. I agree with the call in the motion to commend the work of teachers throughout Scotland—I would say that, because I am married to a teacher—and hard-working pupils up and down the land.

That does not mean that we should be complacent or that we should not accept that there are problems, as members said. International comparisons show that, although Scotland is doing well in many areas, in recent years we have not been doing as well as many of our competitors are doing. Our results are flatlining in many cases, while others are overtaking us. The PISA tables show that whereas in 2000 only two countries were ahead of us in mathematics, today 12 countries are ahead of us. In science, four countries were ahead of us in 2000; today, the number is seven. In reading, one country was ahead of us in 2000; today, six countries are ahead of us. That is despite our having more than doubled spending on education since 1999. Another appalling statistic is that one in six youngsters who leave primary school is functionally illiterate.

As Liam McArthur fairly pointed out, to highlight legitimate areas of concern is not to talk Scotland down or to be anti-Scottish, as was suggested during this morning’s debate. The cabinet secretary protests a little too much when he objects to Opposition members raising concerns about education. In the first session of the Parliament, when he was a shadow education spokesman, I recall that he was no shrinking violet when it came to pointing out problems with the Administration at that time.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I said at the beginning of the debate that I welcome scrutiny. However, discussions should be based on fact and I object when they lack fact. For example, I have taken two major steps to change the developed programme for curriculum for excellence, in the light of criticism. I would be happy to do so again and I am happy to listen to criticism in the Parliament. However, when we hear a litany of complaints that are not based on fact, it is right that we challenge them. Of course, I know that the member would never make such complaints.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for his clarification. I will highlight more issues of concern and perhaps, when Dr Allan winds up for the Scottish Government, he will respond in the spirit that the cabinet secretary has just demonstrated.

Graeme Pearson and Hugh Henry talked about teacher unemployment. It is all very well to praise the work of teachers, but a serious problem with unemployment, especially of newly qualified teachers, must be addressed. The most recent figures, in December, showed that only 16 per cent of teachers who qualified last summer have full-time, permanent jobs. Many have temporary employment and many are on part-time or supply contracts, but they are seeking full-time, permanent work, which is not currently available. Members of all parties will be aware of the situation from their mailbags. As Mr Pearson said, the number of teachers in Scotland has been falling steadily year on year since 2007 and pupil teacher ratios are creeping up. Teachers do not just want to be told how well they are doing; they want action on those vital issues.

There is good work going on in early years. Liz Smith mentioned the emphasis on parenting. Liam McArthur made a very fair point about childcare—Ruth Davidson made a similar point a few weeks ago—and the need to match what is being done south of the border. Of course, the Government once promised to reduce class sizes to no more than 18 in primary 1 to 3, which is a flagship policy that has not been delivered.

I will be positive in the time remaining. We welcome the fact that the debate has opened up. Our amendment refers to the commission on school reform that has been set up by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. I commend to the cabinet secretary the excellent article in The Scotsman today by Ross Martin and Geoff Mawdsley about the need to learn from other countries. There is a growing view that one size does not fit all—a view acknowledged by no less a person than the cabinet secretary in his famous polemic, “Grasping the Thistle”, which I dip into regularly for entertainment, in which he accepted that choice and diversity were important.

Of course, we already have some diversity. We have Gaelic medium education, which we all support. We have faith schools, which I hope we all support. We have schools developing specialisms. There is no ideological opposition to diversity but, increasingly, there is the view that we should go further. It was not so long ago that the Labour Party proposed skills academies—an idea that seems to have gone off the radar. Perhaps Mr Henry will revive the idea, because it is very timely.

We cannot discuss education without touching on the important issue of college funding, which was mentioned by a number of members, including Liz Smith, Kezia Dugdale and Margaret McDougall. There has been a £70 million cut in colleges’ revenue spend in the current year, with the result that courses are being cut and staff are being made redundant. At a time of economic difficulty and rising unemployment, it is a false economy to cut spending on colleges.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am afraid that I am in my final minute—indeed, I may be over time.

If we want to drive up attainment in post-16 education, which is what the Government tells us it wants to do and what is in its motion, we have to reverse those cuts. If there is one message that should come out of the debate, it should be a message to the Government to reverse its cuts in college funding because the young people of Scotland depend on colleges.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Many issues have been raised in the debate. Liam McArthur and Murdo Fraser were correct when they said that raising concerns does not mean that we are talking down education; it means that we are representing the concerns that have been expressed by parents, pupils and teachers.

Let me burst with positivity first so as not to disappoint Mr Russell—at least for a few brief moments. Fantastic things are going on in Scotland in education. Over the past eight years I have worked with some magnificent people and parents in primary and secondary schools, but they have serious concerns that cannot be wished or blustered away. The commitment to ensure that all 16 to 19-year-olds have a place in education or training is commendable, but there are serious concerns about that agenda, not least because we are witnessing reform in the midst of unprecedented and disproportionately large cuts to the college sector, which were highlighted ably by Liz Smith, Kezia Dugdale and, despite what Mr Russell said, Margaret McDougall.

As Hugh Henry highlighted, the minister’s focus is on 16 to 19-year-olds, but 20 to 24-year-olds have as much need as their younger friends. Youth unemployment, which is rising, is measured by employment among 20 to 24-year-olds. Why are we prioritising only 16 to 19-year-olds when it is clear that there are major problems up to 24 and well beyond?

During a time of unemployment and redundancies, college education often provides a platform for retraining and access to higher education for adults returning to education or looking to change career direction. Will those needy groups be among the casualties of Mr Russell’s cuts?

On students with additional needs, college principals to whom I have spoken have questioned the adequacy of equality impact assessments in considering those protected groups.

We are now in January. Colleges are planning courses and designing their prospectus, yet they still have had no confirmation of the funding levels to be allocated for next year. When will the minister provide that information?

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The Government has not given the colleges their figures, and the minister knows it.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry that the member is not up to speed. The indicative letter went yesterday, and colleges have received it. They now know the envelope that exists. They have also known for some time that there will be further details after the regionalisation decisions are made with them in February. Most college principals described yesterday’s letter as helpful and have been positive about it. The member should reflect that in his comments.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Can the minister tell West Lothian College, which is in my area, exactly what its budget will be for next year? No, he cannot, and he knows that he cannot.

Why did the minister not mention in his speech the thousands of e-mails that members across the chamber have received from members of the NUS and students across Scotland? That is one of the biggest campaigns in this country on any issue, yet in an education debate the minister did not even mention it.

The curriculum for excellence was broadly welcomed when the idea was developed by the previous Labour-led Executive. Liz Smith, Colin Beattie and many other members referred to it in their speeches. However, there are serious concerns and confusion about how it is being taken forward. The Educational Institute of Scotland is clear that the introduction of CFE

“could hardly be less promising” in the current context of mounting pressure on its members, with teaching assistants cut, teaching numbers down, larger class sizes, pay and conditions under attack, and the crisis in supply teaching. Again, I am surprised that the education minister has not mentioned the crisis in supply teaching.

Ronnie Smith said recently:

“The pace of change must be linked to the capacity of the system to cope with it.”

The EIS has been calling for some time for a one-year delay in the implementation of curriculum for excellence and, given the concerns and parental worry and confusion about exams, the Government should consider that.

It is not a revelation to say that good education needs good-quality, well-trained and motivated staff. Christina McKelvie, Graeme Pearson and others mentioned the quality of teaching that they have observed. I am sure that, when the cabinet secretary reflects on the matter, in all honesty, he will accept that the handling of teacher numbers and related matters has been rather poor.

The Scottish Government must make youth unemployment one of its top priorities. I hope that the appointment of a dedicated minister, which Labour called for immediately after the election, will make a difference. Time will tell. The contradiction of wanting to deal with youth unemployment while savaging college budgets defies logic—a number of members mentioned that.

In recent years, we have witnessed the development of many programmes for young people, such as more choices, more chances, targeted pathways to apprenticeships, get ready for work, and many more. It is essential that the money spent on those courses delivers jobs, a future and hope for the young people involved.

How many young people on the courses find themselves shuffled from one course to another, their hopes raised only for nothing to emerge at the other end? In the words of one professional in the skills sector,

“many of these schemes appear to be used as holding corrals for the young unemployed.”

We constantly hear about 25,000 modern apprenticeships being created each year, but how many of those are new employees and how many on targeted pathway courses have gone into full apprenticeships? I am advised that it is very few. Does the minister also accept that, by lowering the qualification for apprenticeships from level 3 to level 2, we have seen an illusory inflation in the figures?

Marco Biagi mentioned careers advisers. We have seen major changes at Skills Development Scotland. A deliberate strategy of moving away from front-line face-to-face careers guidance to a web-based service has thrown up concerns among careers practitioners. Indeed, a recent survey of front-line staff at SDS showed that more than 90 per cent have little faith in the Scottish Government’s approach to careers guidance.

Hugh Henry, Christina McKelvie and others spoke about improving the learning outcomes of young people, and how the process starts from birth. I agree. The best way in which to improve people’s life chances is by providing their families and communities with good homes, a decent income and improved confidence and self-esteem. When the Scottish Government takes actions to deliver those, it will have our full support. However, when it fails, we will hold it to account.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

In winding up the debate, I welcome the members of the Labour front-bench team to their posts.

The ambition of this Government is to support and enable improved learning outcomes for all our young people. I would like to think that that goal is shared across the chamber—it has certainly been evident during the debate. Many children and young people across Scotland have a successful, rewarding and enjoyable education that enables them to enter their adult life ready and able to take full advantage of an increasing range of exciting opportunities. We must celebrate that success. More than that, I acknowledge that we must ensure that, across our education system, the professionals that lead learning are willing and able to develop their own practice to the benefit of all. In that regard, Christina McKelvie, Clare Adamson, Kezia Dugdale and Colin Beattie all rightly emphasised the need to ensure that the particular obstacles to education that face children from backgrounds of poverty and deprivation are at the heart of our thinking as a Parliament and a Government.

There is much success in the system to build on, but we will achieve our ambitions only if we fully embrace a culture of continuous improvement in the quality of teaching and learning and in our expectations for our young people. The improvement of all our schools is possible and is necessary if we are to provide the future for our children and young people that they and Scotland deserve and require.

On that much, we can probably all agree. However, before I say much else, I must turn to Hugh Henry’s speech. Six minutes into that speech, my colleague, Mike Russell, mentioned that he had not heard any positivity. I patiently waited another five minutes, but I have to say that it was a speech that rivalled the famous speeches of I M Jolly, Droopy and Margaret McDougall.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Given that the theme of this debate is education, learning and improvement, if the minister can help me to learn, improve and change, I am more than willing to listen to him. Therefore, so that I may change, can he explain why it is negative to express concerns about the unfairness and injustice of what is happening to supply teachers; why it is negative to explain the worries and fears of parents and teachers in relation to exams; and why it is negative to express the concerns of lecturers and students in colleges across Scotland?

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I was just about to turn to Mr Henry’s comments on some of those issues. Although his comments about the exam system are interesting, I feel that to describe first and second-year pupils in our schools as “guinea pigs” and to raise in the minds of parents the idea that they are the subject of an experiment by the Scottish Government is not only unhelpful but pointing in the direction of an entirely unreasonable request, which is that we indefinitely delay the new exam system and never implement it, regardless of all its benefits.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Could I clarify what the minister accused me of saying?

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

No.

In a much more considered contribution, Margaret McCulloch talked of the needs of young people leaving school. This Government takes seriously the need to invest in employability and has demonstrated that through its £30 million investment in that area, as well as in our guarantee of opportunities for all, with the priority that is being given to 16 to 19-year-olds and the provision of 25,000 apprenticeships a year.

Liam McArthur rightly emphasised the importance of the early years. This Government is committed to funding additional early learning and childcare to the tune of £1.5 million, which will be made available to local authorities from April. I would view Mr McArthur’s comments on college funding in a slightly different light, were it not for the fact that, as others have pointed out, the cuts in funding for colleges in England under a Government of which his party is a part are dramatically deeper than they are in Scotland.

Looking forward to the year ahead, I am confident that we will make significant further progress over the coming 12 months as we begin to reap the benefit of the implementation of the key reports that the Government has commissioned and the work of the past few years.

In April, the General Teaching Council for Scotland will become the first independent teachers regulatory body in the world. That is a major milestone for teaching in Scotland and, in many ways, it reflects the core strengths of trust and integrity that are present in our education system.

A further 67 schools at least are to be delivered under the schools for the future programme, which is certainly proving to be a success, and we will continue to see successful progress with the implementation of the curriculum for excellence.

We have brought a stronger focus on performance and on raising attainment and ambition levels among our young people. The curriculum for excellence is the vehicle that will enable the school journey and the journey beyond to be innovative, ambitious and relevant to and supportive of each child’s talents.

To respond to Mr Fraser’s point about teacher employment, this Government is far from complacent about the situation. However, we must dwell on two facts. First, teacher employment is higher in Scotland than it is in England. Secondly, this year the Government has exceeded by 155 the teacher employment numbers that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the unions and the Government had agreed.

The programme for the coming year will allow schools to focus on the individual learner and to develop skills in the classroom that will be of future benefit to the learner and to the Scottish economy.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

Neither the cabinet secretary nor the minister has said anything about supply teachers. I know from my constituency mailbag that there are serious problems with the lack of availability of supply teachers in Edinburgh, and I am sure that that is the case elsewhere. What will the Government do about that?

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The unions and the Government reached an agreement on that, but it is an issue that we are alive to and one that we will continue to monitor.

The skills that Scotland needs will be greatly furthered by, among other things, the provision of good libraries, on which we heard from Fiona McLeod. She pointed out that libraries must not simply be replaced by Google. With that in mind, one of my colleagues mischievously googled the word “library”. As if to prove Ms McLeod’s point, it came up with a quote from Stephen Sommers’s film “The Mummy”, which includes the line, “I may not be an explorer or a treasure seeker, but I am a librarian and I’m going to kiss you.” That possibly makes the case for libraries over Google.

We will continue to see schools working to provide their pupils with a variety of options to suit the needs of the learner rather than treating pupils in the senior phase as a uniform cohort.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

You have one minute left, minister. I ask members to settle down a bit, as there is a bit too much noise.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The Government will, of course, listen to teachers’ views on the implementation of the curriculum for excellence, but the Parliament must give teachers and the country the confidence that the curriculum for excellence is the right way to proceed. In that context, Liz Smith rightly emphasised the importance of literacy and learning, and Marco Biagi, Jamie Hepburn, Graeme Pearson and others rightly stressed that we must not allow any of our young people to have their chances blighted by poverty.

I think that one of the most telling contributions to the debate was that of Christina McKelvie, who pointed out that whatever actions Governments take and whatever money they put into the education system, ultimately the teaching experience is dependent on good, enthusiastic and confident teachers. I heartily agree with her comments about teacher of the year Christine Emmett, who is a worthy winner of that award and an exemplar for a teaching profession that does a great job for Scotland.