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This morning we learned that the number of school inspections has fallen from 491 in 2004-5 to just 137 last year, a drop of more than 70 per cent. Inspections are a vital means of providing parents with the necessary information to make decisions about their children’s schooling. However, last year, fewer than 6 per cent of Scotland’s schools were inspected, meaning that under the Scottish National Party a child can go right through their school career without ever having had their school assessed. If that rate keeps up, it would take 19 years to get round all of Scotland’s schools once. Given that, does the First Minister think that parents are getting the information that they deserve when it comes to looking at local schools?
Let me say two things about that. First, as Ruth Davidson knows, Education Scotland undertakes a wide range of different activities to promote quality assurance and improvement in the quality of the education that is provided by our schools. The number of full inspections that are undertaken varies from year to year. During the period of implementation of curriculum for excellence, a deliberate and, I think, very correct decision was taken to reallocate resources to other improvement activities in order to oversee implementation of curriculum for excellence. During that period, inspectors were deployed to undertake intensive support and challenge activities with both schools and local authorities. It is important to point out that that work was recognised in the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which in relation to CFE implementation said:
“Education Scotland has been a linchpin in providing the guidance resources and quality assurance.”
What Ruth Davidson will also presumably be aware of, because I saw the chief inspector write in The Sunday Times to this effect just a few days ago, is that there will be an increase in inspections over the coming years, complemented by new types of improvement activity, in particular those that make sure that we are using the resource of the new attainment advisers, who are working on the Scottish attainment challenge. That is the first thing that I want to say.
The second thing that I would say, very briefly, is that Ruth Davidson knows my commitment, as set out in the national improvement framework that I published in the first week of January, to vastly expanding and transforming the range of information that is available to parents and to the wider public about performance in our schools. As a result of the national improvement framework, within the next couple of years people will be able to look at and compare pupils’ performance in each school. That is the direction of travel that we are headed in and I think that it is the right one.
It was a straight question but the First Minister did not seem to want to give a straight answer, so I will. No, parents are not getting the information that they deserve; instead, they are being told by the education establishment that it knows best and that everybody else will just have to lump it. One former director of education said in the press this morning that inspections are now
“virtually useless as a source of information for parents.”
The First Minister, today and on previous days, has urged Opposition parties to offer proposals on how to improve a system if they complain about it, so we say that it is time to re-establish an independent inspectorate that is outwith the arms of the Scottish Government, so that parents know that, when their school is measured, that is done by people who are entirely separate from those who set the policy. We want more transparency and information for parents. We want an inspection regime that demands high standards and improvement from coasting schools and, crucially, we want parents to be given regular and up-to-date information. Does the First Minister back that plan?
The inspectorate is independent, and it does demand high standards from schools. Local authorities also have a statutory duty to ensure that the quality of education is what we would expect.
I have already outlined what the inspectorate was focusing on, and the reasons for that, during implementation of curriculum for excellence, as well as the plans to increase the number of inspections over the next few years. However, I actually want to do much more than Ruth Davidson has outlined—I want to give parents and the public direct information about the performance of pupils in our primary schools and lower secondary schools because, at the moment, we do not really have that.
Once the national improvement framework is firmly established, we will see the percentages of pupils in every primary school across our country who are achieving the different required levels of curriculum for excellence. That is a revolution in transparency in Scottish education. For the first time, parents and the public will be able to look at that. They will be able to look at schools that are doing well and those that are doing less well, which will give all of us the information that we need to drive further improvements. Therefore, I am much more ambitious on transparency than Ruth Davidson is.
The First Minister will be aware of the difficulties that are being experienced by Johnston Press. It has identified 21 Scottish titles, ranging from Scotland on Sunday to the Arbroath Herald in my constituency as being “sub-core”, which has raised concerns about the future of those newspapers. Given the journalistic traditions of some of those titles, their importance to local communities and the jobs that are at stake, will the Scottish Government engage with the company and do what it can to ensure that those newspapers have a future?
I thank Graeme Dey for raising an important question and I give him an assurance that we will seek to engage with the company. As with any company where there is the potential for job losses, the arrangements that we can put in place, primarily through PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—will be available should they be required.
I want to make a wider point about the importance to our democracy of free, vibrant and dynamic media. We will all be concerned at the latest announcement, which comes on the back of a recent announcement about job losses in other areas of the media. We all have a duty to ensure that we have a properly resourced media in this country to hold us all to account as well as to contribute to the national debate that we all want.
It was announced this week that by June at least 80 jobs will be lost at FMC Technologies in my Dunfermline constituency. People in the workforce tell me that the real job-loss figure could be substantially higher, as the current figure does not include contract staff. Given that FMC Technologies has lost 2,000 jobs worldwide since January last year, there is real uncertainty about job security. My constituents feel that if they are paid off now or in the future, there will be very little chance of their finding employment in the oil and gas industry. What action will the First Minister take to support my constituents who work at FMC Technologies at this time of low oil prices and high job losses?
We are of course aware of the situation that the member outlines. The Government will engage with the company. As I said in response to Graeme Dey, we make available to the workforce of any company in that situation the resources of PACE so that we do as much as we can to avoid redundancies and to help those who face redundancy. I am sure that the enterprise minister would be happy to meet the member to discuss that particular case in more detail.
The First Minister will be aware of this morning’s announcement of 100 job losses at Marine Harvest, the bulk of which are in the Highlands and Islands and many of which are in my constituency. That is a large number of jobs for small communities to lose. Will the First Minister ensure that all will be done to assist those who may lose their jobs and will she outline what measures the Government will put in place to help with that serious matter?
Obviously, as is the case with the previous two companies that I have spoken about, this will be a particularly anxious time for employees and their families. The Scottish Government is in contact with the company, which has approached Highlands and Islands Enterprise to identify redeployment opportunities, and my officials will shortly meet the company to discuss what can be done to support staff.
We remain fully supportive of the sector, which is a key industry for Scotland in the context of supporting employment, particularly in our remote coastal communities. The industry is currently estimated to generate economic activity worth more than £1.8 billion a year in Scotland, supporting more than 8,000 jobs. It is an extremely important sector and the Government’s response will recognise that.