Multilevel teaching has long been part of Scottish education, and teachers are well skilled to take account of the different needs of their pupils. We want to ensure that teachers are empowered to decide what is right in their individual settings. There will be varying levels of prior attainment in any class and we have yet to see any firm evidence of educational disadvantage due to multilevel teaching.
I am aware that the issue of multilevel teaching has come up in the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry into subject choice. I will, of course, consider the committee’s conclusions on the range of issues that it has been exploring when it reports in due course.
At least 26 schools in the north-east are running combined classes in which three or more qualifications are taught, including two out of the 11 schools in Scotland that are running classes in which four or more qualifications are taught. Further, in September, at the start of the school year, north-east schools were 140 teachers short.
Will the cabinet secretary commit to giving the north-east a fair deal and north-east kids the best possible education?
I am certainly devoted to ensuring that children in the north-east of Scotland and the whole of the rest of Scotland get a first-class education. Mr Chapman will know that there are some specific challenges in recruiting teachers in the north-east. Similar challenges face other public services, for all of the reasons that he will be familiar with.
I am pleased to say that we have a rising number of teachers in Scotland, with teacher numbers at their highest level since 2010. I am determined to ensure that we have in place the necessary resources and approaches. That is why I have made investment to support the delivery of the e-school venture, which is designed to deliver flexible approaches to learning in order to meet the needs of young people in circumstances in which staff are not available. I am glad to see that a number of mainland local authorities are using the e-Sgoil model, which is a great development by Western Isles Council and is actively supported by the Scottish Government.
Teachers who gave evidence to the Education and Skills Committee noted that multilevel teaching is becoming commonplace. Every school that was represented in the evidence sessions had instances of it, and some teachers commented that teaching successfully in such circumstances is almost impossible.
If the cabinet secretary is right that multilevel teaching poses no disadvantage, those teachers must be wrong. Why are they?
Let us look at all the evidence that the Education and Skills Committee has taken. It has taken evidence from individuals such as Dr Alan Britton, from the University of Glasgow, who told the committee on 24 April that, when he was teaching in Scottish secondary schools in the 1990s, he was involved in multilevel teaching. The approach has been a feature of Scottish education for some time.
I look to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to consider the quality and effectiveness of teaching. I do not see identified in inspection reports particular problems or challenges that come with multilevel teaching. Obviously, we will continue to consider inspection evidence on the question, but we have to acknowledge that the approach has been a characteristic of Scottish education for many years, and I do not think that the evidence has been marshalled to show that it is disadvantaging pupils, particularly as attainment is rising in Scottish schools.