Education Reforms

– in the Scottish Parliament on 25th June 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney that provides an update on Scotland’s education reforms. The Deputy First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, the relentless focus of this Government is to deliver an education system in Scotland that raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential.

During my statement to Parliament on 26 June last year, I set out our landmark agreement with Scotland’s local councils, which provided a clear and shared agenda for the empowerment of schools, instead of introducing legislation. At that time, I undertook to return to Parliament with my assessment of whether sufficient progress on our shared ambition had been made to satisfy me that the non-legislative route was the right one. Therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to provide Parliament with an update on the progress around school empowerment and our related programme of education reform. My statement this afternoon is accompanied by a publication that provides additional detail on work in this area.

International evidence demonstrates that successful education systems are those in which decisions about the education of our children are made as close to them as possible. That is why we are committed to empowering schools to empower headteachers, teachers, parents, pupils and the wider school community to make the key decisions that affect the educational outcomes for children and young people. With our partners in local government, professional associations and other stakeholders, we are taking steps to

“put teachers, parents and communities in the driving seat”.

Together, we are building a school and teacher-led education system.

A crucial element of this Government’s agenda has been recognition of the importance of excellent school leadership and, in turn, the empowering of headteachers to more effectively lead our schools. Published in February, the headteachers charter aims to ensure that schools have wide-ranging decision-making powers over what matters—learning, teaching and the curriculum, their resources, staffing and budgets—and that they make those decisions by involving their whole school community. That delivers on the policy intention that was originally part of the draft Education (Scotland) Bill. The charter supports a culture of empowerment that enables all professionals to contribute to the agenda of improvement.

The charter, in combination with linked school leaders guidance, is now being used by schools and—crucially—has been co-produced. I am grateful for the shared work that led to the production of the charter, and I am particularly pleased at the pace with which it has been delivered. I am also pleased to be able to report that, today, we have published updated devolved school management guidelines. The new guidance, too, has been developed in partnership with local government, to improve on existing advice and—crucially—to reflect the expectations and opportunities of an empowered school system, including the headteachers charter.

The Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding have empowered schools by allowing them to design solutions and take decisions that are specific to their school community. It is important that we now capitalise on that and deliver broader budgetary decision making to our schools.

I have committed to providing high-quality support for school leaders, many of whom are beginning to operate in an increasingly empowered environment. With that in mind, I am pleased that, last month, Education Scotland expanded the support that it provides for headteachers and will now provide a range of professional learning opportunities that are specifically focused on school empowerment. That, in combination with our investment in the Columba 1400 headteacher leadership academies, with the Hunter Foundation, will provide school leaders with the skills and confidence to flourish and deliver improved outcomes for the communities that they serve.

We are deepening the support that is available to schools, through regional improvement collaboratives. Through enhanced engagement and support across local government, which is supported by additional Scottish Government funding of around £5 million this school year and focused support from Education Scotland, the regional improvement collaboratives have significantly enhanced their capacity to support collaborative working across the system and deliver region-wide approaches to improving outcomes for our children and young people. That is evidenced by the delivery of the September 2018 regional improvement plans, increased engagement with and support of the teachers networks across each region, and focused regional interventions on attainment, curriculum development, leadership development and quality improvement.

An interim review of the establishment of the regional improvement collaboratives, which was published in February, recognised the significant early progress that has been made in establishing local governance, leadership and buy-in across each regional improvement collaborative area. We will commission a further review later this year, again in partnership with local government, to assess development and impact.

We are committed to ensuring that pupils and parents are provided with the opportunity to influence decisions that relate to their school. That is more important than ever in an increasingly empowered school system. In July 2018, we developed a comprehensive plan, in conjunction with local government, to improve parental involvement and engagement: “‘Learning together’: Scotland’s national action plan on parental involvement, parental engagement, family learning and learning at home 2018-2021”. The plan demonstrates our long-term commitment to putting parents at the heart of their children’s learning and reflects the importance that we place on parental engagement in a range of Scottish Government education policies and initiatives.

Learners in our schools rightly expect their voices to be heard and valued. The headteachers charter places a central expectation on headteachers—and, through that, to the wider empowered system—to support and encourage children and young people to participate in decisions about their own learning and the life of the learning community. In April 2018, in advance of the school empowerment reforms, Education Scotland published practical guidance to schools. We will continue to promote that guidance and support to schools, so that they can better support learner participation.

It is important that the work to take forward the joint agreement is placed in the context of wider education reforms. In particular, I was pleased to note last month’s publication of the report of the independent panel on career pathways for teachers. It is an exciting report, which will generate new and ambitious career pathways for teachers and increase the attractiveness of the profession. I expect the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers to put in place the conditions for new pathways by August 2021.

It is also important that we recognise and support a wider range of practitioners who work with our children and young people. We decided against the creation of a broader education workforce council, but we are working with local authorities to enhance the support that is offered to a wide range of education practitioners, including college lecturers, instrumental music instructors, school librarians and home-school link workers.

It is vital that we understand the impact of our endeavours in empowering Scottish schools. We need to know where change is having a positive effect and where greater focus might be required. The early evidence that is available provides me with cautious optimism that the types of empowered practice that I expect to see are now becoming more common.

Education Scotland has previously published thematic inspections on readiness for empowerment and on curriculum leadership, and it has today published the findings of a further inspection on parent and pupil participation. While making it clear that we are only part of the way through this journey, the reports indicate that local authorities are taking positive steps to embrace the principles of empowerment as set out in the joint agreement and that the education system is committed to collaboration and co-production.

The readiness for empowerment review, which was published in December 2018, noted that

“almost all local authorities are committed to developing an empowered education system with the aim of improving outcomes for learners, reducing inequalities and closing the attainment gap.”

It is important that we all take responsibility for the change process, and I am pleased that three local authorities are trialling a self-evaluation framework. I am also pleased that an overarching evaluation strategy is being developed that will bring together all available evidence on empowerment in our schools, which will help us to monitor progress.

Equally important is the assurance that I have received jointly from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, as chair of the joint agreement steering group, that partners remain firmly engaged in and committed to the work. That has highlighted to me and to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that real progress has been made and that the practice of empowerment and school-based decision making is becoming increasingly evident in our schools.

The chief inspector has stressed to me the importance and the value of the collaborative approach that we are taking with local government and other partners in the delivery of the reforms. She believes that progress has been made sooner than would have been the case through legislation and reassures me of the continued commitment of all partners to work together in supporting the delivery of an empowered system that improves outcomes for children and young people. That includes a clear objective of promoting and building on the work that has been done to date, developing further guidance and engaging with the wider system—with schools, teachers and others who are involved in children’s learning.

Although I am heartened by those positive messages, I am under no illusion that we remain at a relatively early stage in our efforts to change the culture of school education in Scotland. The joint agreement and the recently agreed teachers’ pay deal provide us with the stability that is required for real and long-term system change to take place, but we must maintain our collective focus and ensure that meaningful improvements are delivered.

When I last addressed members on the issue, in June 2018, I made it clear that, if sufficient progress had not been made in the forthcoming 12 months, I would return to Parliament and introduce an education bill. This afternoon, I have set out my view that progress is being made in a genuinely collaborative spirit and that a culture that is based around empowerment is starting to take root in our schools. It is clear to me that we would not have come so far in such a short period if we had relied on introducing an education bill. I am also assured that the Government’s long-term vision of a school-led education system is shared by our partners in local government. The chief inspector has further endorsed and recommended to me the continuation of our partnership approach.

Given all of that, I am able to confirm that the Scottish Government will not introduce an education bill as a means of driving school empowerment. Instead, we will continue to work in partnership with local government, teacher representatives and the wider education sector, and we will collectively ensure that schools are supported to take the key decisions that are relevant to them. I am optimistic that our collaborative approach, through which we share a view of empowerment and collectively take responsibility for change, will result in improved outcomes for Scotland’s children and young people.

Achieving excellence and equity for all of our children and young people is the core purpose of this Government, and these reforms are central to that work. Given the importance of this agenda, I would be pleased to return to Parliament in a year’s time once again to provide an update on this vital work.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on his statement. As usual, we have about 20 minutes.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement.

On the programme for government, the First Minister told us in 2017 that

“A new Education Bill will deliver the biggest and the most radical change to how our schools are run”.—[

Official Report,

5 September 2017, c 13.]

Exactly a year ago, however, the cabinet secretary decided to scrap the bill, and defended the U-turn by telling us that without legislation faster progress would be made in improving school standards. Now he is telling us that he has “cautious optimism” that standards are improving and that the improvement has been possible because of the absence of an education bill.

You could not make it up—there are no hard facts whatsoever to prove his contention. Indeed, it will not have escaped the cabinet secretary’s notice that the Education and Skills Committee recently reported that

“The lack of baseline data means no meaningful conclusions on upward or downward trends can be reached, at a time of reform within Scottish education.”

What evidence has the cabinet secretary found, that nobody else has found, that proves that standards are improving across the board? Does he really believe that the evidence supports his view when he says that

“we would not have come so far” if an education bill had been introduced? Does he believe that, when a local authority takes a blanket decision to move all its schools to a six-column subject choice structure for pupils in S4, headteachers enjoy the greater autonomy that was promised by the Scottish Government?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That question covered quite a lot of topics, Presiding Officer, so you will forgive me as I try to address them.

In my statement to Parliament, I have recorded that I believe that faster progress has been delivered because of the collaborative route, as opposed to a legislative route, that we have taken. I cite the following evidence. First, if we had been involved in a legislative process we would not have been able to focus partners on delivery of some of the specific components of an education bill.

The headteachers charter is now available. It has been delivered and implemented in Scottish education. If we had waited for a bill, the headteachers charter would have been available only once we had enacted the provision. That is the first piece of evidence.

The second piece of evidence is the information that has been provided to me by the chief inspector of education on the assessment that she and Education Scotland have been doing through thematic inspection of how the approach that we are setting out has been applied by all partners, and through her chairing of the steering group, which is implementing the agenda. I cite that as evidence that faster progress is being delivered.

Liz Smith moved on to talk about baseline data on performance in the education system. I know that there are issues to be rehearsed in terms of the information that we publish routinely as part of the national improvement framework, in which we set out, year on year, the progress that has been made by young people in our education system, with greater detail than was ever the case in the past. Information is published on primary 1, primary 4, primary 7, and S3 levels: no such comprehensive detail was published in the past.

The data that we are all familiar with demonstrates that attainment is improving in our education system, and that the attainment gap has been closing. That data has previously been well rehearsed in Parliament.

Finally, I will move on to subject choice. Curriculum control will, under the headteachers charter, which is a relatively recent publication, be vested in individual schools. We are encouraging collaboration among schools in our education system. For some schools, collaborating with each other over the availability of subject choice, so that a broader subject choice can be made available than would be the case if everything was contained in an individual school, is required. There will be a role for local authorities in that collaboration. I know, as is authenticated in the information that I have had from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, that local authorities are genuinely committed to that process. We should welcome that as evidence of the creation of an empowered education system.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I understand that there were a lot of questions, so that was a long answer. I also appreciate that front-bench members should get the chance to ask their questions. However, after them, we will have to have crisp questions and answers, because 12 members want to ask questions, and Tavish Scott is already in a tizzy.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I also thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

We have known for a year what the statement would say. Everyone knows that the education bill was dropped because no one would have supported it, and everyone knew that Mr Swinney would be back in Parliament claiming great progress, so that he could finally put his flagship legislation out of its misery.

However, the reforms still do not address the real issues in our schools—squeezed budgets, teacher shortages, a narrowing curriculum, a lack of rigorous data on literacy and numeracy, standardised tests that parents do not want and which teachers do not rate, an explosion in multilevel teaching, and a crisis in support for pupils who have additional support needs.

Having spent a year developing and delivering an empowered schools diagram, will the cabinet secretary now turn his attention to those real problems that are faced daily by real teachers, pupils and parents in real schools?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I spend all my time focused on the real issues that face Scottish education, which is why I follow the international evidence that says that a successful education system is one in which decisions are taken as close as possible to young people. That is the culture and approach that we are trying to create through the empowered schools reforms.

I will offer a few observations on the various points that Mr Gray raised. Local authority budgets for education have risen four years in a row, with the most recent available data showing a substantial increase in real terms. Teacher numbers are at their highest since 2010, and we have the largest number of primary teachers since 1980.

I know that the Education and Skills Committee has been looking at subject choice: I think that there is a much broader choice available to young people in Scottish education than there was when I was at school.

On Scottish national standardised assessments, we commissioned an independent review to examine the issues. That review has reported and has demonstrated the value of standardised assessments.

Mr Gray knows that I am actively working to strengthen and improve the support that is available to meet the needs of young people with additional support needs. I will continue to focus on that in the period ahead.

I hope that that reassures Mr Gray that the Government and local authority partners are doing everything that is humanly possible to address all the key issues that concern him.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There are 13 questioners and 10 minutes. You are being told.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The intention behind devolving powers to schools is to empower headteachers as education leaders, but it is not clear what accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure effective oversight and scrutiny of headteachers, who now have enhanced powers over budgets and staffing. When power was with the local authority, we had democratically elected councillors to scrutinise. What mechanisms are in place, through the headteachers charter and the devolved school management guidelines, to ensure effective oversight?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Headteachers are senior employees of local authorities and will remain so under the reforms, which means that there is a direct line of accountability in relation to employment issues.

However, headteachers have much broader accountability—to pupils, to parents, to communities and to staff in terms of how schools fulfil the needs of young people. An empowered school must have a conversation with its community to ensure that the needs of all learners are being met.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Is not the reality for parents and teachers unspent pupil equity fund money, unfilled headteacher vacancies and more bureaucracy in classrooms through yet more guidance? If the education secretary wants to work with teachers, as he has said to Parliament today, why does he not listen to primary 1 teachers and drop national testing of four-year-old and five-year-old boys and girls?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I listened to the independent review that I commissioned on that question, which found that there was significant value in primary 1 standardised assessments in terms of their contributing to informing the judgment of teachers. I trust teachers’ judgment, but I also listen to teachers who make the plea for moderation in the education system so that they can understand the levels and standards that they are trying to achieve for young people. Standardised assessments help to inform that judgment.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary has previously said—I quote—that

“the best decisions about children’s education are taken by people who know them best—their teachers, headteachers and parents, as well as young people”

Can the cabinet secretary outline how his decision to fast-track implementation of his reforms has helped to achieve those “best decisions”?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The quotation that Clare Adamson read out reflects my reading of the international evidence, which argues for more and more decisions to be taken in the classroom by individual empowered classroom teachers. At the heart of the reform agenda, and at the heart of the pay and workload deal that we have arrived at with professional associations and local authority partners, is the creation of a sense of teacher autonomy and agency, such that teachers can confidently make judgments about the educational journey of young people. The agenda that I have set out today supports and enhances that.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

In his statement this time last year, the Deputy First Minister spoke of consensus building being at the heart of his approach following the shelving of the education bill. Given that we were open to working in consensus to pass the bill and given the many defeats on education that the Government has faced in this Parliament in the past year, does the Deputy First Minister now see that reforms should be implemented in the right way, which is through the democratic process of this Parliament?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The reform is being managed through the democratic process of this Parliament, and it is being managed in collaboration with our local authority partners, who have statutory responsibility for the delivery of education.

Parliament often encourages me to work collaboratively with other people. That is precisely what I have done on this agenda, and we have made faster progress as a consequence.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the reduction in subject-specific principal teacher roles coupled with a movement to faculty heads in recent years, particularly in our secondaries. Will he provide more detail on what alternative routes for promotion might be available for teachers so that we can make sure that we keep talent in our classrooms?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I encourage members to look at the report that has been produced by the working group on career pathways, led by Moyra Boland of the University of Glasgow. It is a very refreshing read that covers the creation of new pathways in subject specialism, pedagogical specialism and disciplines within the education system, such as additional support needs. The review undertook work on my behalf to create alternative routes to administrative leadership within the education system, so that we could entrench outstanding classroom practice within our classrooms and celebrate it, and that is what the review has generated.

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

Provision of services for those with additional support needs is fragmented across local authorities and, similarly, we know that local authorities use a variety of models for provision of the home link service. What steps will the cabinet secretary take to ensure that home link staff are fully resourced and supported?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Home link staff play a valuable role in our education system. I see increasing numbers of schools opting to use pupil equity funding to establish much greater proficiency and effectiveness in home school link workers, and as a consequence of those efforts, pupil attendance, participation and attainment are improving.

The Government works actively with our local authority partners on the resourcing of all aspects of the education system. As I indicated, we see strong and effective practice emerging out of pupil equity funding, which is strengthening the areas of activity in which Mary Fee is interested.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary expand on how his reforms will help to raise standards and close the poverty-related attainment gap?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

One of the very clear outcomes of the implementation of the Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding has been an ever-sharper focus within the education system on the young people who face barriers to fulfilling their potential as a consequence of their background and poverty. That focus has always been in our education system, but PEF and the Scottish attainment challenge have intensified it. As a consequence, we are now seeing real improvements in the performance of young people and the closing of the attainment gap. Data will be published to demonstrate the pattern that that takes in the years to come.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

The Scottish Government statistics for 2017-18 show that the gap between the most and least affluent people going to university has increased in the last year, and the official statistics from last year’s exam results show that the attainment gap between school pupils from the poorest and richest areas has also increased. Can the cabinet secretary say whether he thinks that the back-door reforms have been successful in that regard?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On the measures that we have published, the attainment gap is clearly closing and has closed over time. On the point about access to university education, the proportion of young people who are going to university from the most deprived areas in Scotland is at a record high. I do not understand the data that Mr Halcro Johnston is marshalling to undermine the outstanding achievements and performance that are a consequence of our focus on widening access in higher education.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

How has the Scottish Government ensured that the voices of parents and pupils have been heard throughout the reform process, and will continue to be heard, given the benefit that that collaborative approach is having on schools in my constituency, such as St Anthony’s in Johnstone?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The National Parent Forum of Scotland is a key partner in all our reform activity. We listen closely to the content of its thinking on all aspects of the education reform journey, and we will continue to do so as we strengthen parent and pupil voices in education.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The one hard figure in the statement is the £5 million for regional improvement collaboratives. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that will be recurring funding? How many net new roles has that created within the education system, and can he elaborate and give a specific example of the interventions that the regional collaboratives have been implementing over the last year?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is more than one question.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I cannot give Mr Johnson the head count number on new roles created through the funding for regional improvement collaboratives, but I will happily write to him about that. Concrete examples of what the collaboratives are doing include running improvements in literacy and numeracy programmes with tried and tested evidence-based practice to inform and strengthen professional development; delivering moderation support across regional boundaries to make sure that teachers across the broad general education phase have a better understanding of standards; and they are putting in place exchanges of learning on the measures that close the attainment gap fastest in areas of deprivation, to ensure that the learning can be shared across the board. Our regional improvement collaboratives are taking forward a real collaborative spirit and sharing good educational practice across the system.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

I welcome the Scottish Government’s on-going commitment to empowering teachers and its securing of a landmark deal on teachers’ pay, but can the cabinet secretary expand on the support that will be provided to help to reduce teachers’ unnecessary work load?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

A short expansion, cabinet secretary.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The whole concept of teacher agency is about empowering our teachers to have the professional confidence to make judgements about all aspects of the curriculum and, crucially, their workload. I have just come from a meeting of the Scottish Education Council, at which all players in Scottish education committed to further joint work on reducing unnecessary teacher bureaucracy, to enable teachers to focus on the things that we all want them to focus on: the learning and teaching of young people in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the questions. I apologise to James Dornan and Neil Findlay, who were additional questioners; I did not quite manage to reach you.