We are debating education on the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, after 12 years of Scottish National Party Government and four years on from the First Minister’s speech saying that education policy is number 1. Why do teachers, parents and young people see little evidence that education is the Government’s main reason for being in office? The perpetual siren of independence has not been switched off and now, because—irony of ironies—school pupils went on strike, we are in the midst of a climate change crisis. If the Government wants to demonstrate that what happens in schools, college workshops and university lecture halls really is its main priority, it should start by leading an annual debate on Scottish education here, in the nation’s Parliament, which is the voice of the Scottish people.
Parliament has listened to 23 education statements since 2016, but we have had no substantial debate on Scottish education. The Government has had debates on mainstreaming and on the growing of long grass, which is better known by some as educational governance. Once a year, the education secretary should set out the Government’s educational approach and future plans and, crucially, the funding to make those happen.
I do not argue that only money matters in schools, but, as all members know, an ability to deliver for young people and their future depends on adequate resources in every classroom and lecture hall across Scotland. The Government’s school spending direction is clear. The introduction of the attainment fund circumvents school spending decisions by local government. In effect, the Government is saying that it does not trust councils to tackle attainment, otherwise why have the attainment fund? There is now direct funding from central Government based on mechanisms that we know do not reflect poverty and deprivation in many parts of Scotland. Far from there being a historic concordat with Scotland’s councils, local government now believes that there is a we-know-best approach in Edinburgh.
To know best is, of course, to have the evidence. The Government wants to attack the educational attainment gap and to close it, which is an admirable objective. What evidence on literacy and numeracy did the First Minister cite in her Wester Hailes education speech to justify those new funding routes and the reintroduction of Michael Forsyth’s school testing programme? She cited at some length the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, but what did the Government then do? It abolished that survey, which many found to be somewhat extraordinary.
The Government now concedes that there will be a five-year data gap before comparable evidence on what is happening in Scottish education is available. How we can say that we want to close a gap that we cannot measure with data that we do not have is somewhat beyond me. Some cynics believe that having no comparable education data until after the Scottish elections suits Government rather well, but I am no cynic. Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee recommends, on a cross-party basis, the reintroduction of an expanded Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. Perhaps the Government will listen to that sensible suggestion.
The jury is out on the attainment fund, given that 43,193 primary school pupils are today being taught in classes of 31 or more, which is 12,000 more children than in 2012. If we want to know about the reality of ever-larger class sizes, we need only ask any primary teacher. The SNP used to have a commitment to reduce primary school class sizes, and it was absolutely right about that, so it is unfortunate that that sensible approach has been abandoned.
The jury is also out on the attainment fund, given that there are 1,000 fewer English and mathematics teachers in Scotland’s schools than there were in 2008 and 400 fewer specialist additional support needs teachers than there were four years ago, and given that, for the first time that I can remember, Shetland cannot recruit a primary school teacher. Every part of Scotland faces similar financial pressures.
The Government’s other main financial initiative is the pupil equity fund, but 40 per cent was unspent in the previous financial year and 1,000 teachers are now on one-year contracts using the pupil equity fund. There is no money for school curriculum specialists, community and youth work staff and the administrative staff who used to do their level best to reduce the bureaucracy that teachers still face. How is that approach, which has been forced on schools and councils by central Government, a long-term and sustained commitment to education? How is it a partnership with all those who have responsibility for improving standards and giving young people the best chance for their future?
I will continue to argue for curriculum for excellence. It is the right approach and a long-term change in how Scotland’s schools operate. However, change is needed in defining what parents and pupils expect from curriculum for excellence. On that, this Government, which has been in power for 12 years, has not succeeded. Why else would the general secretary of Scotland’s biggest teaching union tell members of this Parliament that the senior phase in our schools does not have clarity of purpose?
No wonder parents question why policy is to restrict the educational choice of their daughters and sons. Why does East Renfrewshire Council, as it explained to members this morning, deliver eight subject choices, which it thinks is in the best interests of its pupils, when that does not happen elsewhere?
Parents wonder why their young people are being taught to different exams, through the increasingly prevalent practice of teaching highers and advanced highers in one classroom.
Parents wonder why the number of pupils who are sitting higher computing science in 2018 is lower than it was in the previous year, when the economic needs of the country in that regard are so manifest.
Parents wonder why the number of young people who take music, art and a modern language all the way through school is falling. In a world in which we are about to be plucked out of the European Union and will need more of our people to speak a foreign language, as negotiations overseas affect more parts and industries of Scotland than ever before, is it not right that modern language teaching should be going forwards, not backwards?
Most parents are none the wiser as to why their five-year-old boys and girls are being tested in primary 1. Why are P1s being tested? Because the Government has changed its tune on reintroducing school testing, having been resolutely opposed to testing before 2016. No parents were asked about P1 testing. Indeed, no one was asked about the testing regime—it was imposed by central Government.
Working mums and dads know how important childcare from 8 am to 6 pm is. The Government is rightly investing in early learning expansion, but investment simply must go hand in hand with wraparound care. As a mum put it to me last week, she would rather keep the current hours at nursery school and her pre and post-work childcare in the private sector than take advantage of expanded childcare at school that does not cover her working day. The policy needs to be joined up. Private sector childcare services are closing across Scotland. We need the sector to flourish, not collapse.
All those questions are reasons why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is much cited by Government, called for a mid-term review of curriculum for excellence. It did not suggest that curriculum for excellence be ripped up or changed for the sake of change; it called for a review to address what is working and what is not working—a hard-nosed educational assessment of where Scottish education is.
The Parliament endorsed that sensible approach, and I hope that the Government will today set out a plan to make it happen. It would be welcome if the Government started to accept and implement the Parliament’s view when a democratic verdict has been reached.
The former United States President, Woodrow Wilson, once observed that for a legislature, vigilant oversight is just as important as legislation. Although a legislative sword of Damocles still hangs over local councils, I do not think that this Government is going to take an education bill through this parliamentary session. Oversight of Government policy is therefore about what ministers do and say, and—crucially—about what they spend.
I ask the Parliament to approve of a Government that wants to make education its single most important purpose, with such a purpose going hand in hand with the resources—the money in schools, colleges and universities—to make it a reality. The Government’s facts do not support that position.
That the Parliament believes that there is no more important investment than in the education of Scotland’s young people; recalls that the First Minister said that education would be her administration’s number one priority, but believes that this has not been reflected in its focus, policies, staff conditions, recruitment and retention, or the means of measurement of Scottish education.
Let me begin by setting out the areas on which I agree with Tavish Scott. I agree that education is the central purpose of this Government. It is the purpose on which our policy programme is anchored in this parliamentary session, with our determination to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
I also agree with Tavish Scott on the importance of curriculum for excellence and I welcome constructive discussion about how we enhance curriculum for excellence and ensure that it is the right curricular choice. I recently attended the international summit of the teaching profession, in Finland, with the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, and we were both struck by the admiration that was expressed internationally for the reforms that we undertook in Scotland—long before I became education secretary—to implement curriculum for excellence as a curriculum that is relevant to and valid for the needs of young people in the 21st century, as it should be.
I welcome the suggestion about an annual debate on education. The Government might well have such a debate, to ensure that there is the opportunity to reflect on broader trends in performance in education and on some of the challenges that we face.
Where I part company with Mr Scott is on some of his questions about funding for education. Across early learning, school education, college and further education provision and university funding, we find rising expenditure under this Government.
I ask Mr Gray to forgive me.
We also see funding being targeted directly to individual schools through pupil equity funding. I hear the criticisms that Mr Scott has levelled at pupil equity funding. I saw a fantastic example of it this morning at Hermitage Park primary school in Edinburgh. Pupil equity funding is unleashing in our schools creativity and innovation that is enhancing the education of young people in Scotland.
PEF reaches 95 per cent of schools in Scotland. I appreciate that there are challenges around the distribution mechanism, and my officials are engaged with local authorities to find another way of ensuring that we spread that funding and support even further.
I was surprised to see that, in Mr Scott’s motion, which refers to
“staff conditions, recruitment and retention”, he made no reference whatsoever to the pay deal that we have negotiated with Scotland’s teaching professional associations that resulted in a 13 per cent increase for all teachers as a minimum over a three-year period. There is not a single mention of it.
One of the challenges that we have faced with the recruitment and retention of teachers has been that ministers, including me as the finance minister, have had to apply public sector pay constraints. Why did we have to apply those public sector pay constraints? We had to apply them because of the austerity that was created by the Liberal and Conservative Government after 2010. If we are going to have a complete debate about this, let us have a complete debate about it.
We have been able to make progress on teacher numbers. We now have the highest number of teachers in our classrooms since 2010. However, one of the issues that troubles our teachers is the provision for additional support needs in our schools. I welcome the interest in that subject from the Education and Skills Committee, and I am writing to the convener to set out the Government’s response to the committee’s work.
Part of that response is that the Government is preparing to undertake a review of co-ordinated support plans. I know that Ross Greer has raised that in the committee and I do not doubt that he will cover it during today’s debate. We will consider how to strengthen the guidance and other support that is available to education authorities on co-ordinated support plans, and we will develop that work in partnership with stakeholders to ensure that, in every respect, we are meeting the needs of every pupil in our country.
One of the most important things that we have to focus on is what is achieved by our learners, and this relates directly to the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry, which is under way. Our learners are achieving more in Scottish education. They are going on to better destinations than they have ever gone on to before, with more than 94 per cent of young people going to a positive destination within three months of leaving school. That is the outcome—
If Johann Lamont will forgive me, I will give way to her during my closing remarks.
Those positive destinations are at a record level because of the appropriateness and the value of the curricular approach that is being taken to support young people in Scottish education. I welcome the progress that is being made. At the heart of the Government’s agenda is an unrelenting focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap through the pursuit of excellence and equity for all. That is what founds the Government’s education policy and the consistent direction that we are taking to deliver for education in Scotland.
We aim to do that by empowering the teaching profession and encouraging teachers to operate with a sense of professional agency, supported by professional development. All the mechanisms to allow that to happen are being put in place in Scottish education.
I look forward to a debate that focuses on what we can achieve to transform the lives of young people in Scotland through the power of education.
I move amendment S5M-17280.2, to leave out from “, but believes” to end and insert:
“; welcomes the recent agreement reached by professional associations, local government and the Scottish Government to provide an increase in teacher pay; believes that improved pay is an important element in the attractiveness of the teaching profession, as part of a wider strategy to address recruitment and retention problems; further believes that teachers’ professionalism should be supported through improved career-long professional learning, clear professional ownership of their own curricular role and a shared leadership role within a collegiate approach to Scotland’s schools; recognises the challenge represented by the increasing need for additional support, and agrees that the Scottish Government will review the use of coordinated support plans to ensure that young people with the most significant additional needs are receiving the support that they require.”
It is worth going back to what the First Minister said, when she started in office, about education being a priority.
Key interventions were mentioned in her first-person piece in the
Daily Record in May 2015 and in a speech, to which
Daily Record piece was where the First Minister said:
“I have a sacred responsibility ... to make sure every young person in our land gets the same chance I had”.
She also said there that
“making sure the Scottish education system becomes, genuinely, one of the best in the world will be a driving and defining priority of my Government.”
In her speech at the WHEC, she told us that she wanted to close the attainment gap completely. We are therefore entitled to ask, four years later, how that is going.
, the First Minister made much of the fact that fewer young people were leaving school with no qualifications at all. However, four years on, that trend has reversed and now more young people leave school with nothing at all. The numbers are small, but they matter just as much as the numbers of those who get five highers. I know that the Government will say that the young people move on to positive destinations, but as long as those include exploitative zero-hours work, that is not an acceptable answer.
Meanwhile, the evidence shows that the curriculum in our schools is narrowing, with some subjects in danger of disappearing altogether. I do not know whether the First Minister studied French, German or art in S4; she might have, but today’s pupils are very much in danger of not having the same opportunities that she had. As for those who go on to highers, yes, more of them are achieving five highers, but teachers and educationalists tell us that most of that progress came before the new national exams were introduced and that choices are now narrowing at higher level too, pass rates are falling and there is a significant decline, to which Mr Scott referred, in the numbers of those gaining highers in critical subjects like modern languages or science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.
Back in 2015, the First Minister promised to invest in teacher numbers, announced funding to close the attainment gap and said that she was going to track progress with new standardised tests. However, four years later, there are still 3,000 fewer teachers than we had 12 years ago. Mr Scott is right that the increase that we have seen of around 1,000 teachers has been funded through attainment money and that most of those jobs are temporary contracts.
As for the standardised tests, what a shambles those have been. The education secretary tells us that they are not meant to provide national data at all, while teachers tell us that they provide no useful information to them. Meanwhile, the Government has abolished the measures of attainment that we had, which means that educationalists now tell us that we have no way of measuring attainment in core skills such as literacy and numeracy. After four years, therefore, the Government has left us with no way to judge it on its sacred responsibility, has failed to restore teacher numbers and is presiding over a narrowing of the curriculum that is seeing the number of young people with no qualifications on the rise.
Our amendment points to the core problem, which has not been addressed: since 2010-11, spending per primary pupil has fallen by £427 and in secondary it has fallen by £265 per pupil. We must be clear that our teachers are doing a great job and that our pupils do us proud. However, they do that in the face of less money, fewer teachers, bigger classes and multilevel teaching; in the context of unwanted and unnecessary reforms; and, above all, in the face of cuts to core budgets. The additional funding that was designed to close the attainment gap now has to be used to fill funding gaps instead of narrowing the attainment gap.
Our schools are certainly not failing, but that is despite and not because of this Government’s education policy, which certainly is failing.
I move amendment S5M-17280.1, after “retention,” to insert:
“and budget decisions, especially with regard to the funding of local government,”.
The 2015 OECD report that examined Scottish schools said some very interesting things, and it is in that context that I will address Tavish Scott’s motion, which the Scottish Conservatives will support. The report made plain just why investment in education is important, why Scotland has so much potential and strength in its underlying ethos—that is, why there are so many good things in Scottish education—but also why, as yet, we are not able to fully harness that potential.
I do not doubt for a minute the very genuine desire across this chamber—that, of course, includes the cabinet secretary—to deliver the highest standards for our young people, but it seems abundantly clear that several key things are getting in the way of the SNP’s approach to fulfilling that promise.
The OECD report acknowledges that, when educational reform is introduced, things cannot be expected to turn around overnight, hence why it would not have been sensible to evaluate CFE in the first few years of implementation. However, the report goes on to say that the mid-term evaluation of CFE is crucial and the OECD worries that Scotland is not sufficiently data rich—for exactly the reasons that Iain Gray set out—when it comes to the measurement of progress. Of course, that makes it all the more surprising that the Scottish Government wanted to remove Scotland from other helpful international data. We cannot go on hoping that things will turn around when we know that there are fundamental flaws with accuracy of measurement.
It is surely urgent to comprehensively review CFE—not its principles, but its structures. If that does not happen soon, its whole raison d’être will be called into question and, as Tavish Scott rightly said, nobody wants that.
The OECD makes the point strongly that
“A priority area for evaluation is to follow closely how CfE is being implemented on the ground”.
I think that it is very fair to say that the inquires led by the Education and Skills Committee on attainment and subject choice have thrown up considerable concern from the ground about the implementation of CFE.
I will give two examples. First, in the debate about P1 testing, considerable concern was expressed about whether the purpose of that testing was clear and whether it was formative or summative. The cabinet secretary seemed to muddy the waters on the issue when he gave evidence to the committee on 20 February. It is that lack of clarity and unwillingness to respect some of Parliament’s concerns that led to further confusion over the P1 tests.
Secondly, on subject choice, the real problem that has been flagged up is the complete disconnect between the broad general education and the senior phase. It seems that each has been designed by a different agency, which has resulted in a lack of accountability. To some extent, I think that schools and local authorities have become confused about their roles. The cabinet secretary said in the previous debate on subject choice that there is a tension between CFE allowing schools autonomy and the adherence to national standards. I think that he has a point, but they are not and should not be incompatible when it comes to the curriculum.
Liz Smith alights on a point that I simply find difficult to comprehend about the Conservative’s stance. The Conservatives have long argued—I respect their point of view—for there to be diversity and choice in the decisions that are made at school level. However, she seems to be proffering the argument that there should be more central direction to that than there has been up until now. Will she clarify where the Conservatives are on that issue?
Yes, I absolutely will, cabinet secretary. That is the same question that you asked in the previous debate, which I answered. I fundamentally believe in a core curriculum that includes what we traditionally see as the core subjects, and we should build the flexibility that CFE is designed to have around those core subjects. I think that many schools have come to agree on that approach. That is the whole debate about the column structure. There is no reason why we cannot have that core curriculum and the flexibility that is required for the new subjects and skills that have been developed. I do not see that those things are incompatible and I think that many schools do not see that either.
Scotland is renowned for the breadth of its curriculum. In the past, youngsters had to study English, maths and one subject in each of the disciplines of science, social science and modern languages. At the moment, we seem to be squeezing some of the ability to choose subjects.
That is the concern. As Tavish Scott rightly said at the Education and Skills Committee this morning, we have not had an answer about how that squeeze benefits young people, because the experience is completely different in different local authorities. I will conclude on that point: the central problem with the curriculum for excellence is the disconnect between broad general education and the senior phase.
Like colleagues, I am grateful to Tavish Scott for bringing a debate on education before Parliament this afternoon.
It is a continuing frustration for many of us that education is rarely something that we discuss on Government time, which means that Opposition parties must use our sparse opportunities to bring up one of the most important public policy issues in Scotland.
It is important not least because education is one of the many areas where the shameful levels of inequality in our society are on display. We all believe that every young person should be given the same opportunities to succeed, but we know that that is not the case in this country. Pupils from wealthier areas are more likely to succeed, both by academic measures and in wider life outcomes, than their counterparts from more deprived communities.
Many of the underlying reasons for that lie outwith our schools and at the feet of the United Kingdom Government. Child poverty is growing again, largely because of a cruel UK welfare system that is designed to punish rather than support. However, the Scottish Government is not powerless. It has the capacity to do something genuinely transformative.
As the Greens set out last year in our paper “Level the Playing Field: Education for All”, policies such as topping up child benefit by £5 per week or extending free bus travel to young people will have a huge impact on their educational outcomes. We know that from experience elsewhere.
The Government wasted the first half of this parliamentary session on an education governance bill that was destined to go nowhere. Now that that has been indefinitely shelved, there is time to do something much more meaningful.
In Scotland today, there are about 3,000 fewer teachers than there were in 2007. The challenges of recruitment and retention are disproportionately felt by schools in our most deprived communities and, in large part, are driven by issues of pay and workload. I marched with the EIS in Glasgow when it brought close to 30,000 people on to the streets for its fair pay campaign. The Greens welcome the agreement that was reached between unions, councils and the Scottish Government.
However, pay and recruitment are not the only issues. Time and again, we are told of the huge issues that face young people with additional support needs and those who are trying to provide that support. The number of pupils with identified additional support needs has risen to one in four, while the number of ASN teachers and support staff has fallen by hundreds. Now the staff census is merging additional support needs and classroom assistants into one generalised category, which makes it near impossible to get an accurate picture of the number of specialist staff who support children with additional needs.
Children with those needs have statutory rights but, for young people, their parents and carers and for schools and local authorities, the framework can be difficult to navigate. Our Education and Skills Committee has taken evidence on local councils not fully understanding what is required of them or what options are available to them.
Co-ordinated support plans are critical and they are where much of the confusion lies. The plans set out clearly what support pupils with particularly profound needs should receive. Crucially, as the only statutory plan, they are backed by recourse to the Additional Support Needs Tribunal for Scotland. We are not short of testimonials from young people and parents who have gone through experiences that are nothing short of traumatic but who, for the lack of a CSP, have had little opportunity for recourse. Although the number of pupils identified with an additional need has increased to almost 200,000, the number of CSPs has dropped to just under 2,000.
That means that only
1 per cent of young people with identified additional needs have a co-ordinated support plan.
Anecdotally, it seems that, when councils do understand CSPs, they are reluctant to use them, given the resource implications. Although the anecdotal evidence is substantial, we need quite urgently to get a picture of what is going on. We have called for that in the Parliament on a number of occasions, so we welcome the Government’s commitment to review the use of CSPs. We expect the review to establish why the number of plans has fallen at the same time as the number of young people with diagnosed additional needs has grown markedly. We expect the Government to immediately follow the review with action to rectify the problem.
Addressing CSPs alone will not fix every problem in the education system, but it is the right thing to do and we have asked for it, so the Greens will vote for the amendment. It is a step forward for the rights of some of our most vulnerable young people and I am glad that the debate has given us the opportunity to take that step. I hope that the Scottish Government will recognise the need and the demand for it to go much further.
Four years ago, like Liz Smith, I was a member of this Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee. Since then, the committee has gained in skills what, in remit at least, it appears to have lost in culture. However, what remains unchanged is the controversy and confusion that surrounds the SNP Government’s national standardised assessments.
Given their origins in the Education (Scotland) Act 2016, I do not find that at all surprising. Bounced by the First Minister’s announcement that education was to be her number 1 priority and that the attainment gap would be closed “completely”, the then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Angela Constance, had to come up with a cunning plan.
In response, a national improvement framework was put on a statutory footing, paving the way for the reintroduction of national standardised tests. That was news to gladden the heart of Michael Forsyth, perhaps, but certainly not what teachers, parents and other stakeholders had been insisting to the Education and Skills Committee was required to address gaps in attainment.
To make matters worse, the committee was given no detail about the framework or the tests. It was a classic pig in a poke, and the story kept changing. Faced with compelling evidence that teachers already had a wealth of information on which to base assessments and tailor learning for pupils, SNP ministers claimed that it was no good because it was not standardised. When it was suggested that national standardisation would inevitably lead to league tables, ministers retorted that data would not be available at school or local authority level, begging the question: what is the point?
No one disputes the importance of tackling attainment, but, as Children in Scotland observed at the time,
“the educational inequalities that stem from socio-economic disadvantage are complex and multifaceted”.
Children in Scotland accused ministers of reducing
“a complex set of issues ... to an easily identifiable slogan with the hope that these issues will be amenable to equally short-term solutions”.
Such a damning conclusion echoed earlier criticism from Keir Bloomer, who labelled the Government’s approach
“pious thinking masquerading as policy making”—[
Official Report, Education and Culture Committee
, 9 June 2015; c 20.]
Roll forward four years and, as I say, the confusion surrounding—and at the heart of—the SNP Government’s approach to national standardised testing appears only to have deepened. Parliament has, of course, voted to halt the testing of P1 pupils. Despite that, Mr Swinney has simply ignored the will of Parliament, and 11,500 P1 tests have taken place in schools across Scotland in this academic year.
As for the justification for the tests, the story keeps changing and history keeps being rewritten. In their desperation to retrofit a case for national standardised testing, ministers have even gone so far as to shamefully misrepresent the views of international educational experts. It was claimed that Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at University College London, and Professor Popham of the University of California, Los Angeles, were supporters of regimes like the SNP’s testing proposals. Professor Wiliam called that a “perverse misrepresentation” of his work, while Professor Popham insisted that it was “flat-out incorrect”. In attempting a clumsy apology, the First Minister made matters worse by questioning Professor Wiliam's understanding of formative assessment.
After all the ducking and diving, where has that left us? As Iain Gray observed—rightly, in my view—certainly no nearer to closing gaps in attainment, far less closing them completely. As
The Times Educational Supplement concluded earlier this year,
“Scotland does not have a standardised testing regime, it just has a badly named national literacy and numeracy test that is costing millions.”
Whatever the tests now are, they do not command the confidence of teachers, parents, children or academic experts, and they should be dropped. I support the motion.
I was going to start by saying that, perhaps for the first time in his life, Tavish Scott is right. However, I found his speech rather depressing. Nonetheless, his motion states that
“there is no more important investment than in the education of Scotland’s young people”.
They are the future of this country—on that point, he is right—and, unless we have an education system that ensures that they all have the same opportunities to succeed in life, irrespective of which party is in Government, we will all have failed them.
Today’s motion questions the Government’s focus, mentioning its
“policies, staff conditions, recruitment and retention, or the means of measurement of Scottish education.”
I do not want to be the pupil who blames the question, but a bit more focus and a full debate might have allowed us to make more progress today.
I am sure that, as the cabinet secretary said, we all welcome the recently agreed teachers’ pay settlement. The enhanced pay deal means that an unpromoted teacher will now earn more than £41,000 a year. The deal means that we avoided industrial action and that our children’s education did not suffer, and it also secured a commitment to tackle workload, to support teacher professional development and to enhance leadership.
On the subject of workload, I recall that, when the original pay deal was rejected, I was in a pub with two of my good friends and former teaching colleagues, both of whom had voted to accept that deal. Neither is an SNP voter. What can I say? I attract such people. However, both were of the view that the difficulty with the deal was not just the money that was on the table; their growing concern was about their workload in relation to children with additional support needs. For that reason, I very much welcome the fact that the Government’s amendment contains a commitment to review the use of co-ordinated support plans. We know that additional support needs are increasing and that that is partly because we now have a system that is better equipped to identify them.
I will in a second.
Although all teachers should have a baseline understanding of ASN from either their postgraduate or BEd qualifications, all young people should be receiving the support that they need, and their parents or carers should not have to challenge education authorities to ensure that that happens.
I will take Mr Mundell’s intervention now.
Will Ms Gilruth clarify when the issue of additional support needs was suddenly bumped up the Government’s agenda? Why has it taken until today for it to recognise that there is a problem?
I do not accept Oliver Mundell’s point. The Education and Skills Committee has already carried out an inquiry into the issue, so I am not sure why he thinks that it has not been on the Government’s agenda.
I turn to teacher retention. On previous occasions in the chamber, I have highlighted my own frustrations about the lack of power that I had, as a faculty head, to appoint staff because I had to take someone on as “surplus”. Even when a permanent appointment could be made, I was not able to interview candidates. That is why teacher empowerment is so important.
In Scotland, we are now moving from a top-down system—from the local authority level—to a collegiate one that focuses on teacher agency. That is exactly what the Education and Skills Committee heard in the evidence that was given at its meeting this morning. Part of that shift will be supported by regional improvement collaboratives, but the rest must come from the profession. Opportunities for continuing professional development will be vital in that respect, and local authorities must also play their part. For example, in 2011, I undertook a qualification through the University of Dundee to obtain credits in history and so become qualified to teach two subjects. My then employer, the City of Edinburgh Council, part-funded that qualification as an investment in me as an aspiring faculty head, and that meant that I was retained, because my opportunities to develop were not curtailed.
On the other hand, we also need to look at the practicalities of timetabling CPD opportunities. I well recall that, at about this time eight years ago, at the same time as I had lead responsibility for organising our school’s annual S3 trip to London, I was knee deep in marking for Scottish Qualifications Authority exams and had to complete a history assignment. Creating opportunities that allow staff to flourish, particularly in secondary teaching, depends largely on timetabling those opportunities appropriately. As my fellow secondary teachers will know, teaching staff have always regarded the month of May as an excellent time in the school calendar. Pupils are on study leave, so May means that staff have a chance to catch up and plan for the year ahead—that they have time.
We must also discuss progression pathways for teachers. Last week, the Education and Skills Committee heard evidence about the faculty structure narrowing promotional opportunities for classroom teachers. Although pay is undoubtedly important, if we want to retain talent, we must give folk somewhere to go. We have pupil pathways, so what about having pathways for teachers?
Time is short, so I will conclude by quoting Professor Andy Hargreaves, who, earlier this year, told the Education and Skills Committee about the importance of stability of government when committing to deliver educational reform. He said:
“Singapore does not have a democracy as we would understand it and so has complete stability of government ... we can get such stability through cross-party agreement and consensus that education is above political infighting—that is pretty much what there is in Finland. In that respect, I urge you not to be like Singapore but perhaps to be a little more like Finland.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 30 January 2019; c 16.]
Perhaps today’s debate is an opportunity to do just that and to put the pedagogy above the politics. We can but hope.
Here we are again. We are only two weeks into the month of May, and this is the second debate on education to have been led by Opposition parties in those 14 days.
I want to be very clear to the Scottish Government on one point. Scottish Conservatives’ position on this issue is not about political opportunism, as the SNP is fond of saying; parties across the chamber are genuinely and seriously concerned about the current state of Scottish education.
Stakeholders from all walks of life, as well as members of the Scottish Parliament, have highlighted the various ways in which our education system is deteriorating. Some examples of that are Scotland’s performance in the international programme for international student assessment—PISA—results continually declining under the SNP; teacher numbers having fallen by more than 3,100 since 2007-08; public opinion ratings of Scotland’s schools being at record low levels;·and the narrowing of subject choices for children entering S4.
Last week, the Education and Skills Committee heard from Larry Flanagan, the head of the largest teaching union in Scotland, who talked of an “explosion” in multilevel teaching since the introduction of curriculum for excellence. The combined class method of teaching is not ideal and has had a negative effect on everyone. One thing that could have begun to turn things around was the SNP’s flagship education bill, but that was scrapped just before the recess last summer.
Well, the Government may have scrapped the bill, but it has not scrapped the problems. The Education and Skills Committee has recently heard evidence from several stakeholders on the reduction in subject choice. In last week’s session, Francisco Valdera-Gil, from the Scottish Council of Deans of Education, pointed out that the reduction in subject choice is having knock-on effects on modern languages. He said:
“In 2011 and 2012, there were 28,000 students doing standard grade French and we have 6,000 or 7,000 now.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,
8 May 2019; c 25.]
No. I am sorry. I have only four minutes.
That is approximately a 75 per cent drop, which is incredible. However, when faced with those facts, the SNP reverts to denial tactics.
I am sorry—could you please be quiet, Ms Gilruth? I am not taking interjections from you.
We have heard the First Minister refuse to answer questions on subject choice from across the benches and instead point to statistics on higher attainment. Of course, we welcome improvements in attainment, but to say that reduced choice, fewer teachers, the death of some subjects at school and a fall against international standards is somehow okay because current pupils are getting more highers is to completely miss the point.
If, as the First Minister likes to say, the evidence from our education system does not bear out the analysis that we have brought to the chamber, why are teachers, classroom assistants, parents and education experts from far and wide saying that there is a problem with our current education system? I am not an educationist, a professor, a teacher or, indeed, an ex-teacher, but when Marjorie Kerr, the president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers, says that S1 to S3 was heavily planned for in the new curriculum but S4 to S6 were a rushed afterthought, we must accept that we need change.
Scotland’s education system is no longer world class. We are letting Scottish children down. We need to come together, face facts and get on with fixing the problems.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. Anybody who knows me knows that, at my very core, I want to build consensus. I want people to agree with one another, but I say to Jenny Gilruth that she cannot, on the one hand, ask for cross-party consensus and the building of agreement while, on the other, impugning the motives of those who look at the evidence and express concerns. When people look at the evidence and see that something needs to be done, it is unacceptable for others to say, “You’re only saying that because—”.
I agree with Jenny Gilruth that Tavish Scott’s speech was depressing. It identified the challenges that we face in the education system and the First Minister’s failure so far to live up to her ambition, but saying that it was depressing is not an attack on Tavish Scott. His speech was a call for us to recognise the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us.
I say to John Swinney that I recognise the constraints that have been placed on his budget by decisions that have been made elsewhere to follow austerity. However, no matter the size of his budget, he has a responsibility for the choices that he makes within it. I simply do not understand why the Government has disproportionately prioritised cuts to local government when it is one of the key drivers for addressing inequality, disadvantage and poverty in our communities.
In the short time that I have, I will highlight multilevel teaching in the senior phase, which is an issue that teachers have flagged up to me directly and one that we have heard evidence on. As has been said, Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland told our committee that there has been an “explosion in multilevel classes”. That is obviously a concern. Far from being a rare response to exceptional circumstances, multilevel teaching, which may involve national 4, national 5, higher and advanced higher teaching in one class, may now be the norm. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is acceptable? Does he agree with Education Scotland that it is not an issue, or does he recognise that there is a serious issue here that is about ensuring that all our young people are getting the best possible learning opportunities? Does he agree that common sense tells us that it is much more challenging for staff to teach and for students to learn in those multilevel classes?
Has the cabinet secretary even considered the impact of being in a multilevel class on young people with additional support needs? I particularly want to emphasise the danger of multilevel teaching, which, far from assisting in closing the attainment gap, may be compounding the inequality that is experienced by young people who are already disadvantaged.
Does the member recognise that multilevel teaching happened previously under standard grade, when foundation, general and credit pupils were in the same class, and under the previous higher structure, when intermediate 2, higher and advanced higher pupils could be in the same class? It is not new.
I am asking whether the approach is moving from being something that happened from time to time to something that is timetabled and is the norm. The EIS said that there has been an
“explosion in multilevel teaching”, and people are telling us that it is causing more difficulty now than it did in the past.
I ask the Scottish Government to recognise that we are potentially making things more difficult for young people who are already disadvantaged. What quality impact assessment has been done on the acceptance of multilevel teaching by Education Scotland and the decisions at local level to allow its increased use? Has the cabinet secretary looked at the profile of the subjects in which there is more multilevel teaching and at the schools where it is happening? Has he looked at whether there is a connection between multilevel teaching and schools in more deprived areas? My fear is that there is less capacity in our most disadvantaged schools to deliver a range of subjects and more likelihood that young people have to travel away from school to access subjects, and that the reality of multilevel teaching will be disproportionately felt in poorer communities, which are the very areas that need more support, not less.
I seek an assurance from the cabinet secretary that he takes this matter seriously and that he will at least look at the potential benefits of directing resources to schools that would benefit from a different teacher allocation model—one that would reduce the use of multilevel teaching in disadvantaged areas, rather than increase it.
This is the 20th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament and, in examining our education system, I will highlight what progress has been made over those years.
A good starting point is the Scottish Executive report “Schools for the 21st century: the national debate on education in Scotland”, which was published in 2002 and began the introduction of curriculum for excellence. Back then, 49,500 teachers taught 753,000 pupils in 3,000 schools, so the teacher pupil ratio was 15.2. Today, with 64,000 fewer pupils than in 1999-2000, the teacher pupil ratio has improved to 13.6. We can compare that to the ratio in the rest of the UK, where it is 17.9 in England and 19.5 in Wales. Scotland has the smallest class sizes in the UK.
In 1999, most young people left school in S4 and only 22 per cent of S5 pupils gained three or more highers. Today the majority of young people stay on to fifth and sixth year, resulting in 45 per cent of pupils gaining three or more highers.
Back in 2007, when this Government came to power, only 61 per cent of school buildings were rated good or satisfactory. Today that number is 87 per cent, with 847 schools built or substantially refurbished since 2007-08. In comparison, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects, only 5 per cent of 60,000 school buildings surveyed in England were in top condition, performing as intended and operating efficiently. The report also highlighted separate figures that suggested that almost a quarter of councils in England rated the condition of school buildings in their areas as extremely poor or very poor. Not only are our schools in better condition, we have more of them per 100,000 pupils than anywhere else in the UK; there are 361 schools per 100,000 pupils in Scotland compared with 324 per 100,000 in Wales and only 262 per 100,000 in England.
Teachers’ pay in Scotland is substantially higher for classroom teachers than it is anywhere else in the UK—by as much as £5,000 when teachers reach the top of their scale. That has resulted in 500 more teachers in our schools last year, which continues the trend of there being more teachers every year since 2014, and the highest number of primary school teachers since 1980.
Compared with 20 years ago, we have better pupil teacher ratios, better schools and more of them, and a larger number of pupils leaving school with higher qualifications, giving them the opportunity to study at university. Record numbers of Scots are attending university, with 37,000 studying for a degree at our higher education institutions, including more from our deprived communities.
There is one issue that does not get enough exposure regarding education—or, should I say, the lack of it—in previous years. In 2006-07, under the last Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive, the number of pupils in Scottish schools who had either been temporarily excluded or been removed from the register was 45,000—that is 45,000 young people who missed out on educational opportunities. To put it in context, 64 out of every 1,000 pupils were excluded from education. Today, that number is down to 27 out of every 1,000. That is still too many, but it is much better than the position south of the border, where 382,000 pupils—50 in every 1,000—were given a temporary exclusion from school.
I will leave the final point to Councillor Stephen McCabe of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who wrote to the Education and Skills Committee this month in response to our inquiry into subject choices. He said:
“It is our view that the way in which local authorities and our schools currently deliver the curriculum represents the most effective way to achieve equity and excellence in Scottish education.”
In 1972, I think, the poet Alexander Scott wrote a sequence of epigrams called “Scotched” in which he described the Scottish version of various things. My favourite is “Scotch Equality”, but it includes a swear word, so I am not going to read it out. Another one is called “Scotch Education”, which simply reads:
“I telt ye
I telt ye.”
There is no way that that describes the pedagogy in our schools nowadays. It is much more sophisticated and better than that now. However, I think that that epigram rather well describes the approach of the Government to education in recent years. It tells us what it is going to do; it tells us that it is working; and it tells us that everything is fine. It imposes its reforms in the face of opposition from pretty much everyone. That was the case with tests, the regional collaborative and the new exams, which were all brought in against the wishes of local authorities, teachers and parents. The Scottish Government often takes the same approach with respect to the Parliament, whose views it has ignored on issues such as primary 1 testing. Tavish Scott is right that that is one of the problems that we have had in recent years.
I accept that, in its amendment, the Government shows a little humility on the issue of additional support needs. Although we welcome that humility, we will not be able to support the Government’s amendment, as it pre-empts ours—I am sure that the cabinet secretary will understand. In any case, it comes late in the day. The figures on additional support needs are remarkable. They show that 81,000 more pupils have been identified as having additional support needs and that there are, as Mr Greer said, around 400 fewer specialist teachers in place. This afternoon, the First Minister has written to the Education and Skills Committee in response to our letter about additional support needs. As far as I can see, what the cabinet secretary is promising as an additional resource is an online resource that has been produced by Education Scotland. That is not a serious response to the concerns that we heard.
On the issue of co-ordinated support plans, yes, we need to see more of them, but we have to understand that they provide legal rights that must then be respected and not disregarded in the way that, for example, legal rights around waiting times in the national health service have been.
We absolutely welcome the teachers’ pay deal, but it is a little rich for Mr Swinney to pose as the teachers’ friend given that the pay deal was dragged out of him by two years of national campaigning, several mass rallies and the threat of strike action. Ross Greer is absolutely right that, although the pay rise is welcome, workload issues remain to be addressed.
Earlier, I talked a bit about the First Minister’s speech at Wester Hailes education centre. WHEC is a school that I know well. I did a teaching practice there back in the late 1970s and, for four years from 1999, I represented it as the MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands. It is a tremendous school: imaginative, innovative and absolutely at the centre of the community that it serves. It has made enormous progress on the attainment and achievement of its pupils, and the First Minister was quite right to choose to make a keynote, showcase speech there.
The irony is that, only a couple of years after the First Minister made that speech, the SNP-led City of Edinburgh Council planned to close WHEC down and rationalise it by merging it with another school. Only a big campaign by local parents in the community managed to stop that idea, which was very nearly a telling illustration of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of an underfunded education system under this Government.
I thank Tavish Scott for affording us another opportunity to talk about the Government’s so-called number 1 priority. As other members have said, it is just a shame that—once again—the debate is taking place in Opposition time.
However, we will not, regardless of how consensual its alternative proposed text is, support the SNP Government’s attempt to airbrush out of the motion the challenges that we face. Like Iain Gray, I am pleased that the cabinet secretary recognises the importance of co-ordinated support plans and the significant system-wide shortcomings in delivery of support for pupils who have with additional needs. However, I will perhaps be less charitable in my characterisation, because I do not understand why that could not have been included as an addition to the motion. It is a shame that such an important issue is, in effect, being used as a fig leaf to spare the cabinet secretary’s blushes and to fend off another defeat for the SNP in the chamber.
The Government will not recognise in full the failings in the system. It has been in charge of education in this country for more than a decade, while the system that is most important for many families and our children is, at best, stagnating and is possibly—according to many experts and many people who care passionately about education—getting worse. I cannot see how a Government that ignores those voices and the many concerns that are expressed, and which continues to bury its head in the sand, can possibly build consensus or turn things around.
The Government issuing restatements of what it should have been doing anyway does not cut it for me, and it does not cut it for parents. Of course, our saying that means that we will be seen as blaming hardworking teachers, speaking in depressing terms and talking our young people down. Of course, the Government’s failure to listen and act has absolutely no part to play in the matter: it is there only to take credit when things are going well.
Many members, representing constituencies and regions the length and breadth of Scotland, have expressed their concerns. Some chose to talk about Scotland, while others, even after 20 years of devolution, continued to talk about decisions that are being taken in Westminster. I am sure that people who are listening at home to proceedings will see through that.
It would be remiss of me not to highlight the situation in my local authority, which is jointly run by the SNP. Does the cabinet secretary think that it is acceptable for the administration there to be cutting teacher numbers in the region and enforcing a higher pupil to teacher ratio for composite classes? What does he have to say to parents who now face the prospect of their children being taught in a small rural school, with up to 25 pupils aged from four to 12 in the same classroom? Why, when he claims to be giving more money to education, does he think that the council is claiming that the change is financially necessary? I am deeply concerned that those significant cuts will put the safety of individual teachers and pupils at risk, make the task of recruiting new teachers to work in smaller schools even more difficult, and lead, in effect, to the closure of small rural schools by stealth, over time.
That seems to be worse to me because it contradicts the Scottish Government’s own policies and guidelines. It is yet another sign that our system is now under such strain that equity and excellence appear to come second to financial constraints and bureaucracy. Where is the empowerment for headteachers who not only lose out on pupil equity funding—I have raised that point for two years—but now see that existing staff are being removed from their schools by the local authority, without adequate consultation? I would be really grateful to hear what the cabinet secretary has to say about that.
I am very proud that that is the focus of the education system that I have responsibility for leading and stewarding. The core focus of any education system must be on tackling inequality where it exists in our society, and ensuring that every young person is able to fulfil their potential.
That is why my predecessors from a number of political parties, including mine, undertook the reforms that led to the creation of curriculum for excellence. CFE relies, of course, on two critical foundations: the broad general education phase and the senior phase of education. I want to take a few moments to talk about the breadth of the curriculum, because that has underpinned the inquiry that the Education and Skills Committee has been undertaking, and a number of members have commented on it.
I do not believe that the broad general education phase narrows the educational opportunities of young people. I totally reject that point of view, because the BGE phase is designed to give young people the opportunity to experience eight curricular areas with breadth and depth of learning that are greater than they were in the broad general education phase when I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s. The debate about narrowing the curriculum ignores that fundamental element of the reforms.
We will, of course, look at all such issues in further detail. However, that question brings me on to the senior phase. There are curricular models that essentially offer young people in individual schools and local authorities the much-criticised six-choice option in S4 which, over a three-year period, gives them 18 options to access senior phase qualifications. That is more options than I had when I was at school, and I took the maximum number of subjects that were available to me.
The senior phase should be looked at as a three-year experience, not as a one-year experience in S4.
I entirely take the point that the cabinet secretary has just made about the three-year senior phase, but is not that one of the aspects that could be carefully considered in the OECD review? Parliament considered that last week. In fairness, I point out that the Government accepted that as part of Iain Gray’s motion a fortnight or so ago. Could that be addressed in the mid-term review of curriculum for excellence?
That is one of the issues that could be looked at.
That takes us on to the debate about the degree to which there should be autonomy and empowerment at local level to decide on curricular choices, and the degree to which there should be prescription from the centre. That debate has rippled its way through this debate. Parliament knows where I stand on that: I want maximum curricular choice at local level, and I will defend and assert that.
No—if Mr Mundell will forgive me, I will not.
That is a central part of the education reforms that I am taking forward. Counter to what Iain Gray said, I say that the reforms are not opposed by everybody. We are, for example, now implementing the education reform agenda relating to empowerment of schools that I agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. That implementation agenda is under way, with publication of the headteachers charter, the review of financial mechanisms, and the extension of curricular choice and the staffing choices for schools at local level. All of that agenda is proceeding.
I do not have much time to sum up the debate, but let me say this in conclusion: I am very keen to engage in a reasoned debate about the substance and opportunities of education. I engage with the education system every single day, and I hear about and see lots of strong examples of innovation and creativity at local level. We are investing in education though the teachers’ pay deal, which I talked about in my earlier remarks; through pupil equity funding, which is making a huge difference at local level; through the Scottish attainment challenge; and through increasing resources for local authorities.
We will continue to make that investment, in line with the Government’s policy focus on education, in pursuit of our aim to deliver excellence and equity for all our pupils, and to ensure that young people go on to the best possible destinations as a result of experiencing the world-class education that they can get in Scotland.
Members will be aware that this is mental health week, so I will draw attention to a couple of important statistics that demonstrate how the matter impacts on our education system, and which will perhaps give us a window into the world of teachers.
Half of all teachers have had a mental health problem that has been caused or exacerbated by pressure at work. Secondly, 44 per cent of teachers have had to see a doctor as a result of their mental health problem. To me, that shows the significant pressure that teachers are under. We need teachers to excel in order to get our education system back up to being the best. Our futures are in their hands, and we owe them much better than that.
We need to devise a system that supports our school teachers, rather than one that causes all that pressure.
I associate myself with Willie Rennie’s comments about the importance of supporting and protecting the mental health of teachers, which is why our pay deal includes workload reductions.
However, does he accept that some judgments that are made at local authority level in relation to subject choices are about protecting the mental health of pupils, who previously faced a significant amount of stress by undertaking a higher number of qualifications than they currently undertake?
Of course, we need to trust schools and teachers to look after the mental health of their pupils. That is essential, which is why we support the efforts that schools are making to support pupils’ mental health.
However, the Government is making the situation worse. We should look at the range of policies that the Government has devised to try to drive up the quality of education in Scotland, after the First Minister made her speech four years ago—as members will be aware—about that being her “sacred duty”. She should be judged on that “sacred duty”. As Iain Gray quite rightly pointed out, many of the policies that have been devised since then are unnecessary and unwanted.
Liam McArthur set out the arguments against national testing very well. He talked about its confused purpose and the fact that many teachers already had a scheme for assessing their pupils’ performance. The new tests do not add anything to the sum of knowledge that teachers had. The Government’s original intention was that national testing should be done so that it could compare, but then it said, “Of course, we will not compare, because that could lead to league tables.” What is the purpose of standardised national tests if we cannot compare? The tests have a confused purpose. Since the vote in Parliament in September last year, the Government has carried on regardless, and has flouted the will of this institution by allowing 11,500 tests to take place in schools.
There was support across Parliament for curriculum for excellence, but the Government’s bungled implementation of the policy has undermined it. Curriculum for excellence was supposed to provide teachers with the freedom to use the skills and talents that they gain over the years. However, it now results in increased bureaucracy, which has hindered the opportunity for teachers to do the best for their pupils. The introduction of regional collaboratives has added an extra layer of bureaucracy to our education system, which has resulted in confusion about accountability.
I am curious about John Swinney’s endless praise of the pupil equity fund. He opposed it for five years while we asked him to implement it. In fact, one of his party’s members, Willie Coffey, said that it would be dangerous and ridiculous to implement the policy. Now John Swinney praises it. Bungled implementation of the policy resulted in an underspend in the fund in 2017-18. It is so poorly designed that it is plugging the gaps in the funding of schools.
Nursery education is incredibly close to my heart. It is very important—it is the way to try to improve the life chances of young people. Look at the warnings from Audit Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council saying that the nursery policy is now at risk. In the meantime, Maree Todd—who is smiling at me right now—said that all the news is encouraging.
There has been 18 per cent under-recruitment from the planned figure. We have a massive reduction in the number of childminders, and nurseries are closing. Those are not good foundations for rolling out the policy. The Government has undermined the education system in this country. It is about time that it recognised that and did its job properly.