Curriculum for Excellence (Review)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21263, in the name of John Swinney, on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of curriculum for excellence.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I welcome the opportunity to debate the approach to the review of curriculum for excellence that has been commissioned from the OECD and to give members the opportunity to set out their views on the issues that are relevant to the conduct of the review; the OECD will be able to reflect on those views.

Before I talk in detail about that, although we touched on some education issues in the statement on Covid-19—from what I have heard, I think that we might be returning to the matter tomorrow; perhaps I have been misinformed today—I want to set out some additional issues on Covid-19 that are relevant to educational perspectives.

First, we recognise the importance of ensuring that schools, early learning and childcare settings, and further and higher education institutions have clear guidance to help them to deal with the impacts of Covid-19 on their learners and on their staff. That advice is available from Health Protection Scotland and will be updated continually to ensure that yesterday’s events are fully reflected in the advice for every given circumstance to support delivery of education in our communities.

As I indicated in my responses to Jamie Greene and Bruce Crawford a few moments ago, school closures are actively under discussion and consideration. We are involved in those discussions, which are taking place today, and I will engage on that later this afternoon.

To inform our decision making, we are monitoring the situation on the ground with the active participation of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and local authorities around the country. Local authorities are having to make a number of practical decisions about pupil and staff absences, and about school estates being cleaned when a case of coronavirus is detected.

There is also the question of resilience and business continuity. We are working closely with our local authority partners in the Scottish resilience partnership to ensure that contingency measures are in place to deal with all aspects of coronavirus and the potential impacts of localised school closures. We are fortunate in that we were able to reach agreement with the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers about variations in arrangements for employment of teachers to ensure that we have adequate flexibility to deal with what will be a changing position at local level.

Local authorities have been asked how best to manage the impact of any school closures on key workers and low income families, including in respect of free school meals, which is a significant issue for many of the young people in our society for whom school represents a place where they can rely on high-quality nutrition being available to them. Those are some of the practical issues with which we are wrestling.

As I indicated in my response to Graham Simpson, the national qualifications timetable and exam diet remain on track, although I have asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority to consider contingency arrangements. A national qualifications contingency planning group now exists to draw together the Government, the SQA and related stakeholders. The group met today and will provide me with further advice in that respect.

As I said, I am happy to keep members updated on all aspects relating to Covid-19, and I do not for a moment suggest that what I just said will not need to be updated in short order. I hope that members will appreciate that we are dealing with a fast moving and challenging situation.

I turn to the OECD review. I listened carefully to the conclusions of the Education and Skills Committee inquiry and to the parliamentary request for us to undertake a review of broad general education and the senior phase. In coming to the conclusion to commission the review, I have taken into account the representations that were made by members of Opposition parties and the output of the committee’s deliberations. Today’s debate is an opportunity for members, having had sight of the remit of the review, which was published on 26 February, to place on the record issues that they believe that the OECD inquiry should consider. Obviously, the coronavirus effect will have an impact on the timetable for the review that will be undertaken.

As we embark on what I hope will be a positive and constructive debate, I hope that we focus on the central question: what do we want the curriculum for excellence to achieve for young people in Scotland over the next 10 years? To ensure that the debate is as broad and inclusive as possible, we must ensure that everybody who has a contribution to make to the discussion is able to make it. I am particularly keen to ensure that members of the teaching profession have the opportunity to make their contribution based on their experience without any constraint from their employment relationship with local authorities.

I hope that teachers have something to say about their experience, because they have lived experience of delivering curriculum for excellence, and I want to make sure that curriculum for excellence represents the aspirations, hopes and driving direction of our teaching profession. Fundamentally, our education system will be enhanced if the review hears a strong voice from the teaching profession.

First, as we embark on the exercise, it is important to reflect on the foundations of curriculum for excellence. Scotland’s curriculum emerged from a national debate about education that started about 20 years ago. It engaged the education committees of Parliament, Parliament, and many stakeholders. The curriculum was designed to be anchored in the four values that are engraved on the Parliament mace that sits in front of the Presiding Officer’s chair—the values that we aspire to as a country. We wanted to ensure that the values of wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity were reflected in every single one of our schools around the country. There is a really powerful sentiment in having the values that are epitomised by the symbol of our democracy reflected in all our schools.

Secondly, Scotland’s curriculum was designed to ensure that we create young people who have command of the four capacities—as confident individuals, responsible citizens, successful learners and effective contributors. Although we do not have an empirical measure for the four capacities, I see them increasingly in the young people of Scotland. I particularly see confidence in young people much more easily than I see it in my generation. The aspiration of curriculum for excellence to ensure that young people can acquire those capacities and then go on to deploy them is an essential element of the purpose of our curriculum.

Thirdly, in the updated narrative on the curriculum, which was published last September, we reaffirmed our determination that Scotland’s curriculum will help our children and young people to gain the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century. To me, that encapsulates the sense of hope and purpose that should lie at the heart of our curriculum. We want to make sure that every young person, whichever pathway they choose as a consequence of their school education, has been equipped with the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century, which we all recognise to be a changing environment that will place many demands on young people and their ability to adapt to prevailing circumstances.

As I discuss the matter with stakeholders and listen to parliamentary debates, I sense that the fundamental core of curriculum for excellence still commands broad political support. As we consider some of the tactical and operational aspects of the review of the curriculum, I hope that we have a positive discussion about how the aspirations of curriculum for excellence can be most effectively deployed for young people around the country. The remit of the review is designed to give the OECD the opportunity to consider such questions across a number of themes.

The themes that we have identified in the review are “curriculum design”,

“considering how the curriculum is being designed locally and used flexibly to meet the needs of all learners”, and

“how well the curriculum design principles are being used to support learning and achievement, including collaboration with colleges and other partners.”

That approach will allow the OECD to explore the concerns that have been raised by the Parliament about numbers of subjects, as part of a broader look at how the curriculum is being used to meet the needs of all learners.

There will be an important debate to be had about the second question of the review, which concerns the debate about local flexibility against increased prescription. That discussion is never going to be absolute. However, if we decide that there is an argument for more prescription than is currently within the system, then let us have that open discussion about what is involved.

For my part, I place on record my belief that the young people of Scotland will be better served by greater flexibility being available to meet local needs, as envisaged by curriculum for excellence, so that educators can listen carefully to the aspirations of young people and put in place the educational approaches that will enable them to be successful. I accept that there is a debate to be had about whether there should be more prescription or more flexibility, but I am keen to make sure that we have an open discussion about the question, and that the advantages that I believe are evident in local flexibility are clearly understood as part of the review.

The third area is about the depth and breadth of learning in the senior phase, which relates directly to the balance between a broad general education and the transition to the senior phase. What was envisaged in curriculum for excellence was a three-year broad general secondary education that created the platform for greater specialisation in the senior phase.

I listen carefully to the thoughts and the points that are put forward. I recognise that the transition from the broad general education to the senior phase is a significant issue, which came through clearly in the Education and Skills Committee review.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, within the OECD review’s remit, flexibility will be a point of debate in relation to the broad general education and the senior phase? There are issues about where that flexibility is more important and the debate might be about whether there should be more statutory recommendations for the senior phase.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The question of flexibility runs through secondary education in its entirety. I am listening carefully to educators, who say to me that they increasingly configure their educational approaches to meet the aspirations of learners. To me, that is the demonstration of flexibility.

I readily understand that there is an alternative point of view, which says that every young person should be doing a prescribed amount of learning. The boundaries of my definition of that prescription are around literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, but I accept that others will think that prescription should stretch further than that.

Those are some of the issues that we will have to tease out. I simply express my view, which is informed by a lot of dialogue and discussion about the system. I appreciate that there are people who take a different view. I know that Liz Smith has a long track record of having a view of the need for—I think I set it out correctly—a greater degree of prescription. That is what we will have to discuss as part of the review.

We also have to make sure that we are meeting the needs of all learners. The Government will commission some work on data collection from Scottish schools, on the number of subjects that are offered in the senior phase, with a view to understanding any correlation with social deprivation. That will enable us to understand whether any inadvertent pattern is emerging of young people in areas of deprivation having less educational opportunity. I happen to take the view that they have much more opportunity through creating good pathways, but we will do the work to assess that issue.

That also relates directly to the notion of whether everything in our educational system needs to be judged by national qualifications, or whether vocational and other awards should be considered as part of the outcomes that have been achieved by young people. I recognise those as very significant advantages and attributes for young people in our educational system.

I know that the Scottish Green Party submitted an amendment on questions of homework that was not selected. I confirm that there is every opportunity for the review to look at those particular questions.

I stand here as an education secretary who has confidence in Scotland’s curriculum, is confident that the right judgments were made 20 years ago and that we were designing an approach that would enable young people to gain the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century. However, I am not standing here as an education secretary who is saying that everything is perfect and that nothing needs to be done to improve the situation. I hope that, as part of the review, we can have an open and constructive discussion about how that can best be advanced. The Government will listen very carefully to the views of members today. I am sure that those who are undertaking the review will do likewise, and that we can have a broad and engaged discussion about how we can make Scotland’s curriculum work for every one of the children and young people in Scotland today.

I move,

That the Parliament confirms its support for the establishment of an independently-led review of curriculum for excellence; notes the publication of the remit for the OECD-led review; further notes that the remit covers curriculum design, the depth and breadth of learning in the Senior Phase, local flexibility versus increased prescription, the transition from the Broad General Education into the Senior Phase, vocational and academic learning and awards, and roles and responsibilities in relation to the curriculum; recognises that this remit has been informed by the work of the Education and Skills Committee, including its report, Subject choices in schools; agrees that this review must form part of a wider drive to tackle key weaknesses in aspects of Scotland’s school education and the qualifications structure, and further agrees that benefits that can be derived from all participants in the education system working together as part of a shared national endeavour to ensure Scotland’s curriculum helps support Scotland’s young people achieving the best possible outcomes.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The Government’s motion is duly moved, and I note at the outset that it will be duly supported.

We find ourselves debating education in extremely unusual circumstances and against the backdrop of what are undoubtedly very difficult times for the industry, teachers, parents and pupils themselves. I also know that these are personally very difficult times for many of us, including those of us in the chamber—even the Deputy First Minister himself. Conservative members would like to pass our very best thoughts and regards to him personally.

However, when it comes to a frank and honest debate about curriculum for excellence, let us also be clear that we are having today’s debate because of sustained pressure from Conservative members and many others in the chamber. Whether on primary 1 testing, international rankings, the attainment gap, subject choice, the exam diet, prescription versus flexibility, or multilevel teaching, Parliament has been consistent in holding the Government to account. It has used its Opposition time to bring such matters to the fore and to the eyes of the public—and rightly so.

The debate is very welcome, but it is very overdue. I will approach the subject constructively, as will all members who have an interest. Nonetheless, there might be areas where—as uncomfortable as it feels in the current climate—we will disagree.

On several occasions, Parliament has expressed discomfort about the direction of travel of curriculum for excellence. The OECD review that we are talking about today is only one step in restoring full confidence and faith in that curriculum. That is the key, because restoring faith—the faith of teachers, of parents and of those who sit in the classrooms—should be at the heart of this. Sometimes, perception is as important as the statistics and figures that we politicians often bandy around. Outcomes are important, but so, too, are the anecdotes of those to whom this matters so much.

Neither should the review be seen as a stand-alone solution to any perceived weaknesses in the system. It should not be an opportunity to kick issues into the long grass or to hide behind the protective cloak of an independent review and the timetable—which might now be extended—that comes with it. I am clear that, if there are issues that can be addressed now, there is a duty on us and on the education secretary to address them.

Fundamentally, one has to ask why we are having a review at all. Triggers have led to where we are. We have had debates in Parliament, and the Education and Skills Committee has done a lot of work. Whether in relation to the attainment gap, subject choice or declining results in certain highers, there are—no matter how you look at it—not blips or variations, but trends. They must be looked at, and we must analyse the gap in outcomes between the richest and the poorest in society. We should be looking at why schools are turning to multilevel teaching despite widespread disapproval of it within the system itself. Those are questions that we must get to the bottom of.

Why is this important? Well, a teacher whom I met at an event last week—probably one of the last such events that we will have for a while—said to me over a glass of wine that he had a class of 30 students and no teaching assistants, and that he was trying to teach more with less. He has a number of students with very difficult additional support needs, which take up a lot of his time, and an ever-expanding list of non-core subjects to pack into an already packed curriculum. He said this, which he gave me permission to quote:

“If I am being asked to teach things outside of my subject competence and remit, how can I guarantee parents that I am also teaching the basics?”

This debate is important because we must get the basics right, too. That is why the review needs an inclusive approach. I want to hear from teachers and others in education what they think. What are their lived experiences of what has changed? Has it changed for the better or not?

When we spoke previously about a review of this nature, the cabinet secretary said that

“a review of the broad general education, at this stage in implementing the previous review of it, is not necessarily a priority.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2020; c 81.]

What has changed since then? Why is a general review of the broad general education possible now if we are still implementing previous recommendations of a previous review of it? The OECD warnings about that go as far back as 2015, when its report said:

“Judgements must be informed by trustworthy evidence of student progress and learning ... It is important to have a coherent and carefully designed framework in order to maximise the quality of the information” and minimise consequences

“such as reducing rather than promoting teachers’ assessment capacities.”

It is right, therefore, that the OECD has its place in this discussion, but that should not be against the backdrop of stopping any good work that was already happening before this review was announced.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

My view, which is on the record, is that I would not have been having a review of the broad general education at this stage, because we are still implementing the 2015 conclusions. I have respected the view of Parliament in enabling it to happen. One reason why I did not think that the timing was appropriate is that many of the reforms that we have introduced, particularly on assessment, moderation and benchmarking, all of which were called for by the OECD, have not found all their effects in our education system. We are having the review, but I put on the record, for completeness, where it has come from.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for clarifying that point. I know that there was disagreement at the time—I sat in the debate and heard the arguments. Parliament has collectively decided that the issues are important, because they are all interlinked, and I will come on to why a broad approach is necessary.

When curriculum for excellence was originally suggested, it enjoyed cross-party support, and that is recognised. The major reason for that was the way in which it was sold to parents and the teaching profession. Its focus on mapping a child’s learning journey from nursery right through to the end of secondary school seemed to be sensible—to an extent, it still does. To look at learning holistically and not solely through the prism of results has a place. However, if those results paint a picture of change or trends, they are warning signs. Some things are easier to measure than others, but some things must be measured.

I was surprised that the original proposals sought to review only the senior phase, but Parliament decided otherwise. During that debate, Conservative members argued vociferously for an expansion of the remit, which was resisted for the reasons that have been mentioned. Because we are seeing weaknesses in some areas of the senior phase, the problem can be found to be rooted much earlier in the curricular cycle, which is why the inclusion of the BGE is a must.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that, to ensure that we have the workforce of the future, we need graduates with the right science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills in the vital roles that we need for a modern economy, whatever economy that will be tomorrow—and tomorrow can seem far away sometimes, these days. I welcome the debates that we have had on that subject, such as on funding, but unless we get the basics right in engaging people with numeracy, science, literacy and technology at an early stage and, crucially, in the BGE phase, we will not be able to provide the workforce that we need for the 21st century.

For many learners, S3 is the vital transition into parts of the senior phase and the culmination of a learner’s academic journey in the BGE. Those years are formative: core skills must be attained and students can assess their options. At that point, they are making key decisions about subject choices that will play a vital role in their future careers, especially when they choose their options for further and higher education or apprenticeships. We cannot isolate any perceived decline in results at higher level as just a senior phase issue. It is right that the entire CFE is broadly reviewed.

I want to be clear from the outset that the Scottish Conservatives support the principles of curriculum for excellence; our concerns lie with its delivery and some of the outcomes that we have seen. We need only look at the evidence to understand that there may be systemic problems.

The breadth of subject choice is reducing. We know that because Reform Scotland told us last year that the majority of Scottish schools were offering just six subjects at S4, which is far from the eight or even nine that we enjoyed when we were at school.

Many classes are increasing in size—that is what teachers tell us. That might be why, when there are teacher shortages, we see increased multilevel teaching, which has a detrimental effect on the learning environment.

Higher examination pass rates have dropped for a number of years and in a number of subjects, including, crucially, in history, English and psychology. We know that the figures are true. The latest international programme for international student assessment rankings found that maths and science levels had dropped to record lows, and in some areas there is a widening attainment gap. The Education and Skills Committee has consistently raised concerns about the governance structures and lack of clarity within Education Scotland and the impact of those on the curriculum, which the OECD acknowledged when it set its remit.

There has always been broad backing for curriculum for excellence, but it is clear to everyone in the chamber and in the education sector that, despite the hard work of teachers and educators across Scotland, we have a system that does not fully deliver what it says on the tin.

It is easy to dismiss such things as “cyclical”, but it is incumbent on all members to remember that any weaknesses in our education system will be felt for generations to come. That is why it is important that we get it right.

There should not be a need for the review, but we asked for one and we asked for its remit to be as comprehensive as it could be. That is how it shall be and that is welcome.

The Conservatives will support the Scottish Government—especially in the current climate—in delivering curriculum for excellence and improving outcomes for Scotland’s young people. We will do that where we can, because we want the review to succeed. I hope that the tone of my comments illustrates that. However, ministers must recognise that it cannot be business as usual in the meantime. My predecessor, Liz Smith, waited some years for a Government debate such as this. Patience will not be so forthcoming in the future.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

It is almost two and a half years since the Government chose to lead a debate on schools in the chamber, so to say that it is welcome is a bit of an understatement.

What is not welcome is the context. It is happening in circumstances none of us could have foreseen even a few weeks ago, never mind two years ago. The immediate questions about our schools loom large and they are about for how long we can, or should, keep them open at all. As the Deputy First Minister rightly did, we should take a moment to understand what a difficult decision that is and to acknowledge that the Government is following expert advice, which at the moment is that schools should remain open.

We should take the chance to thank teachers and other staff who are doing that while trying to manage the entirely understandable concerns and even fears of parents, children and colleagues. I see that the Educational Institute for Scotland has written to the Deputy First Minister to ask whether he will, in the interests of transparency, publish the scientific advice on which the decisions have been based. I hope that he will consider doing so.

In spite of the overwhelming urgency of the pandemic impact, our topic remains relevant, because it is about the medium to long-term future of secondary school education rather than the most immediate challenges.

Scottish education has a narrative spanning many decades, and the review, as outlined in the Government motion, is a significant milestone in that narrative.

Since the revolution of comprehensive education more than 50 years ago, changes to our schools, pedagogy and qualifications have been evolutionary. The most effective changes have built on the best of what we have rather than tearing it all up. That was true of five to 14, awards for all and indeed, curriculum for excellence, which, of course, has its own story, as the cabinet secretary has said. It began and grew from a very genuine and wide national conversation in which all sectors of Scottish society participated and that is exactly why its core values and principles were accepted across the political spectrum, as the cabinet secretary often reminds us, and why they still are. I gently say to Jamie Greene that it is about a lot more than how the principles of curriculum for excellence were sold; it is about the principles themselves, which were, and I hope still are, accepted across the political spectrum.

The implementation of CFE has proved difficult. There are now some serious consequences; some unforeseen and some perhaps unwise. First, the implementation of CFE happened in another time of crisis following the financial crash. Budgets were squeezed, teacher numbers fell and class sizes increased. We can argue about which Government’s fault that was and to what degree, but the fact is that it was the worst possible context for curricular change.

Looking back, we see that elements of CFE emerged very late and not really from the consensus—most importantly, the three-plus-three structure, with three years of broad general education. Finally, during the implementation of CFE, there were changes to the exam structure, which, as Larry Flanagan of the EIS told the Education and Skills Committee, were never a necessary consequence of CFE and which seem to have proved a poor and difficult fit.

The review has to be broad enough to examine all those issues and it must engage parents, teachers, educationists and politicians to ensure that its findings carry the same broad support as the founding principles of CFE.

The review has its own story and narrative, too. Jamie Greene was quite right about that, because the Government long denied the need for a review at all, before it conceded to an examination of the senior phase. It took significant pressure from the Parliament to see that the examination was extended to cover secondary 1 to 3 and the transition from broad general education to the senior phase. It took even more pressure to ensure that the review would cover qualifications and attainment as well. However, we have arrived at the remit for a review and a Government motion that commits to all those points and to very broad engagement. At times, it might have been an uncomfortable process, but we have arrived at the right place, which is why the Labour Party has not sought to amend what is, to my mind, a perfectly commendable Government motion, and we will support it.

It is, of course, critical that, having accepted the need for the review—not necessarily, as he said, of his own volition—and having conceded the breadth of the review, the education secretary now makes a virtue of it and does everything to ensure that there is deep consideration of where we are. Much of what he said in his opening remarks was quite positive in that sense.

In a wholly different context, there is, of course, a debate about what constitutes a generation. In Scottish education, 15 years is pretty much a curricular generation. Lots of us think of CFE as new, but it has been in place as long as many curricular changes. I am not sure that five to 14 lasted as long as 15 years, for all the impact that it had. There is an argument that there is a need for a review just by dint of time, but the need was signalled, as Jamie Greene alluded to, by a series of warnings—canaries in the coal mine, as it were. The measure of the review’s effectiveness will be the degree to which it examines those issues and recommends how we should respond.

Those issues are, first, the narrowing of the curriculum—senior phase pupils being able to choose fewer subjects to study to SQA exam level. A further consequence of that has been the impact on specific subjects such as modern languages, in which participation has dropped. The three-plus-three model is related to that, as it has squeezed curricular choice on entering at least the senior phase. There is little evidence that the idea that the three-year senior phase would allow for more exams to be attempted over several years has worked.

Then there is what teachers themselves described to the committee as systematic and routine teaching of pupils at two, three or even four different exam levels in the same class. National and higher exams are in no way designed to be taught like that. It is true that, in the past, standard grades, for example, were produced in order to be delivered in that way, but that is not true of our current exam system, and the committee could find no evidence that multilevel teaching, as it has come to be called, was happening for any educational reason. None of the witnesses could give an educational reason for pursuing that method. All the evidence is that it is driven by teacher shortages, curricular structure and, in some cases, the convenience of senior management, because it made it easier to timetable subjects.

None of those things necessarily flows from the principles of curriculum for excellence, but they all risk compromising or even undermining those principles. It is critical then that the review addresses them, fully and frankly, and that we then respond, to ensure that the next chapter that we write in the story of Scottish education is the tale of success that I sincerely believe we all want to see.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

To say that it feels surreal to be standing here having this debate would be an understatement. The business of Parliament is about to change quite radically and for a number of months, but for now we are here, and the review whose remit we will agree today will have consequences for our schools and young people for many years to come.

Despite the circumstances, I am grateful to finally have the opportunity to discuss a Government motion on education. It has been a while. Relying on Opposition time to debate the Government’s defining mission just has not been good enough. It was June 2018 when the Government announced that its proposed education governance bill would not be going ahead. That feels like a long time ago. Shelving it may not have been what the Government wanted, but that decision was certainly welcomed by teachers and their unions, parents, education experts and Opposition parties. The Government was told that governance reform is not what is needed. Instead, teachers highlighted workload and bureaucracy as creating barriers to learning.

Before turning to the education system itself, I want to make a wider point about the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least privileged backgrounds. That gap might manifest in the classroom and in course results, but it does not begin there. Poverty is not created in schools, and an attainment gap that is rooted in poverty and inequality will not be closed only through measures that we take in the education system. As child poverty once again increases because of decisions knowingly taken by the United Kingdom Government, we should be clear that that situation is not naturally occurring or inevitable. The UK is the fifth-richest nation on the planet—nothing is inevitable about one in four children here living in poverty, nor is it inevitable that poverty is more highly concentrated among single-parent families, communities of colour and households in which someone has a disability.

Cuts to welfare support and a regime of sanctions that is designed to punish rather than help people on low incomes make life so much harder, and their impact on children and young people leads straight to the classroom. Pupils struggle to learn when they are hungry, when they cannot afford to go on the same school trips as their wealthier peers and when they get excluded because their uniforms are not up to standard. Good work is being done in schools to tackle and mitigate that, including the expansion of free school meals—as has just been announced in West Dunbartonshire—and income-maximisation projects. However—and this is one of the key lessons that I took from the Education and Skills Committee’s visit to Finland—if we are to really achieve excellence and equity in our education system, it must exist in a society that is far more equitable in the first place than ours currently is. Otherwise, instead of reducing teachers’ workload to improve the quality of teaching and learning, yet more responsibility will be heaped on overworked staff to solve problems that are simply outwith their control.

Turning back to the education system, I note that, according to evidence that was recently taken during the Education and Skills Committee inquiry, there appear to be issues of both subject choice and subject availability that correlate with the level of deprivation in a school community. Put simply, it looks like senior phase pupils in deprived communities, for example, will have fewer highers to choose between than their counterparts in our least deprived communities will. I take the cabinet secretary’s point about a wider range of subjects and qualification opportunities overall but, if we look at highers specifically, that is what the limited data seems to show us. The number of subjects that an S4 pupil can take in one sitting also seems to correlate with the level of deprivation.

Before coming to any judgment about the strengths and weaknesses of the system, we first need to confirm exactly what is happening, which is why I was glad to come to an agreement with the education secretary whereby the Government has committed to conduct a data collection and review exercise, in tandem with the OECD review, to look at the issue of senior phase subject availability and its relationship to social deprivation.

The data that we have been working from until now has been blunt and imperfect, and has largely been the result of freedom of information trawling by journalists. A quality-assured collection exercise conducted by the Government will be very useful—though of course it must be only the start of that piece of work. What we do with that data, particularly if an iniquity is identified, is what matters. The impact of community deprivation is felt in other areas of provision as well—for example, the committee’s recent STEM inquiry received evidence of schools in deprived areas struggling to access science fairs or to get STEM role models in to give demonstrations.

To take an example beyond deprivation but relevant to the remit of the review and to the debate, there are issues with the design of the national 5 qualification that need to be looked at. As I have raised during previous Opposition debates, the requirement of 160 hours for national 5s is not compatible with the number of hours that are available in the year. By the standard definition of 160 teaching hours in a year, it is simply impossible to timetable. Given that, there is a lack of clarity as to what 160 hours means here: is it purely teaching hours, or does it include an expectation of a number of hours of independent revision or homework? Does the 160 hours start in third year? Would that not call into question the change away from the two-plus-two-plus-two model to the three-year senior phase that Iain Gray mentioned?

There are also issues with the way in which teachers are moderated under the curriculum for excellence. CFE was meant to empower teachers to be responsive to the needs of their pupils, to have the freedom to teach and not be locked into prescriptive requirements. Instead, there is evidence that teachers are being closely monitored through CFE experiences and outcomes, benchmarks, standardised assessments, self-evaluation and inspection indicators. All those combine to create a substantial bureaucracy. We need to consider how workload and teacher moderation impacts on learning under the curriculum for excellence, and whether the principles and aims of CFE are still being met.

Part of the workload issue is the role of homework. There is now a significant amount of evidence that suggests that a lot of homework is not beneficial to learning. That is particularly the case at primary level, but the evidence points to a similar problem at secondary level when the volume of homework is high and the quality is low—when it is handed out almost as ritual, particularly due to the expectations of some parents, carers and teachers that, because they had to do it, so must their children. When it is handed out not as reinforcement but to cover areas of learning for which there is not enough timetabled class time, it acts as a sticking plaster for structural problems, such as those that I have just raised about national 5s.

Most important of all for this review, teachers must be able to speak freely and openly about the issues that they face. Their input cannot be mediated or filtered through their employers. They must not fear repercussions for identifying the issues that they face in their roles; only then can the review really identify the problems in Scottish education. I am grateful to have received the cabinet secretary’s assurances in that regard. The Scottish Greens are therefore content to approve the remit of the review. We look forward to working with the Government and colleagues across Parliament to consider its outputs and what improvements are to be made as a result.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

The debate is very welcome. As others have noted, a debate on education in the Government’s own time is long overdue. There is much to be proud of in Scottish education, but it has been clear for some time that parts of the system are struggling.

As the coming weeks present unparalleled challenges to our society as a whole, teachers will no doubt go above and beyond the call of duty once again. In many ways, that is a habit that they are already very much accustomed to, because teachers’ workloads have been stretched for a long time. There has been a failure to provide the structure, time and support that they need to do their jobs and to thrive. Concerns about the trajectory of the system are no reflection on the work and efforts of teachers, pupils and parents.

However, Scotland’s recent feedback from international rankings has thrown the situation into sharp focus. The PISA results made clear what many teachers have long suspected—that something is going wrong in Scottish education. That is why my party voted for the review. It provides an opportunity to take a step back and properly reflect on what can be done to reverse those downward trajectories. The original inspiration for the review was the Education and Skills Committee’s investigation into the narrowing of subject choices. I am deeply concerned about the evidence that suggests that that may have a particular impact on rural areas. Since then, there have been more reports showing a divergence between what is happening in urban Scotland and what is happening in rural Scotland. Indeed, Scottish Liberal Democrats’ research found that in some places, students were making round trips of up to 40 miles for subjects as basic as physics.

Beyond narrowing subject choices, there is plenty more that could be of interest to the OECD. There has been continuing confusion about the responsibilities of Education Scotland. Abolishing the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy when the results declined and replacing it with new national testing has made it harder to see what is really going on. When it comes to the standardised assessments, the OECD’s recommendations might have been misinterpreted. As a result, thousands of primary 1s are about to take those tests again, regardless of whether they are compatible with play-based learning, for a purpose that is not clear.

There is also the decimation of our additional support needs and support staff workforce. In the past 10 years, the number of additional support needs teachers has been reduced, while the number of pupils who require ASN support has increased markedly—31 per cent of pupils are now identified as having an additional support need.

There is growing evidence that the workforce is straining under immense pressure. A survey that was commissioned by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that six out of 10 full-time teachers worked more than eight hours above their contractual working hours each week. Another survey found that 76 per cent of respondents reported that they felt stressed “frequently” or “all of the time” in their jobs. There are many things that concern Opposition members.

That said, I accept that the review will not be a magic bullet for Scottish education. There is a limit to what can practically be considered—that was the case even without the inevitable complications that the next few months will bring as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic—but there is a need to reflect on the fundamental design of the curriculum. The breadth of concern demonstrates the need for a reliable system of accountability and reflection. There needs to be continuous evaluation in Scotland and a circle of constructive feedback—I emphasise the word “constructive”—that strengthens the learning system for our young people. At the moment, that does not seem possible, because of a fundamental conflict of interests within Education Scotland. As it sets policy and carries out inspections, it is tasked with marking its own homework. As evidence of deterioration accumulates, that must be called into question.

In my letter to the cabinet secretary, I asked whether representatives from the OECD would be allowed to engage directly with Opposition spokespeople. More important, those on the front line must be allowed to have their voices heard. Teachers need to be heard, and they need to be seen to be heard. Direct, unfiltered evidence from practitioners needs to be given a platform, and the review presents an opportunity for that. The full breadth of curriculum for excellence experiences and concerns must be heard.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I thank the Government for holding this important debate, and I associate myself with the cabinet secretary’s comments about the importance—in the very worrying period that we find ourselves in—of our schools and their role as places of safety for young people where they can be sure of support, warm food and a nurturing environment.

If we learn any lessons from the Covid-19 crisis, we should learn that we must re-evaluate who the key workers in our society are—they are the ones whom we rely on to look after our children and our elderly, and those who provide food, stock our shops and work in warehouses, all of whom are likely to be working in the most precarious conditions in the gig economy. Once we have got through the current crisis, I hope that we can re-evaluate and look at our society through that lens.

I welcome the review and agree with what the Government’s motion says. It is extremely important that the review forms

“part of a wider drive to tackle key weaknesses in aspects of Scotland’s school education and the qualifications structure”.

I also agree with the Government’s view that benefits

“can be derived from all participants in the education system working together as part of a shared national endeavour to ensure Scotland’s curriculum helps support Scotland’s young people achieving the best possible outcomes.”

I have heard that that is of most concern to members across the chamber who have taken part in the debate so far, and I welcome the consensual approach to using that as a springboard to improving outcomes.

I thank the many members who have mentioned the committee’s work. To put my convener’s hat on, it is obvious that that work has been welcomed across the chamber and by the Government. I thank members and the Government for recognising the important work that we have undertaken.

The committee has written to the OECD to offer any expertise that we might be able to give to the process. We are willing to take part in the process should the OECD think that that is an appropriate way forward. I look forward to seeing the review progress over the coming months, albeit that it might be stalled because of the current global crisis.

It is really important that we examine the scope of the review in respect of its consideration of the broad general education part of the curriculum, which has changed from older days. Jamie Greene talked about having enjoyed the choice of eight or nine subjects in third year. I think that I am considerably older than him, and the situation was the same for me. However, Scottish education has changed. I left school in fifth year, as most pupils did—when I went through the system, a pupil who stayed on for sixth year was an exception. We have to recognise that society has changed and that keeping as many of our young people in the education system until sixth year is the expectation now. That means that we have had to adapt to what was happening. Previously, we always heard about the two-term dash to highers, and it was really important that the senior phase was fulfilling for people right the way through from fourth year to sixth year to allow them to get the best results.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Does Clare Adamson think that increased subject choice or decreased subject choice improves outcomes when it comes to opportunities for careers? From my point of view, the more subjects that are available to a person and that they have access to, the more chance they have to choose what is right for them.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

It is really wrong to look at the curriculum in terms of what happens in a single year. It has to be about the outcome for the person at the end of sixth year and the opportunities that they have throughout the senior phase. They may well have studied eight or nine subjects by the time that they have left sixth year, but they may not have done that in one year. That is the really important part of what we are trying to do.

We also have to recognise the success of the developing the young workforce programme and that many pupils choose not to have an SQA subject choice, but might do a foundation apprenticeship, go to college, choose a voluntary subject, such as a Duke of Edinburgh award, or do something else that is all about building the capacity and skills of our young people but does not appear as a single subject choice in a single year.

The committee’s report made some observations about our needing more data. I thank Ross Greer for bringing that issue to the table. We did not identify that there was inequality just because there were fewer subject choices in areas of deprivation. We did not have the data to show that one way or the other, and that was one of the reasons why we asked the Government to consider a review of the final stage.

We quite often hear that there is a crisis and that we are letting down a generation. In January this year, Liz Smith talked about access to university education in The Sunday Times. She said:

“The current system is discriminatory (with) many well-qualified domiciled Scots squeezed out.”

I understand her concerns about that particular issue, but at a time when we have more Scotland-domiciled students at university than ever before, we have many highly qualified young people competing for those places. To me, that does not fit a narrative of failing a generation.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I am afraid that I am out of time. I am sorry.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

All right. I thought that you were going to take an intervention.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

Education is the most important universal right that we have embedded in our society, because it provides social mobility. If we get education right, we know that it has a positive impact on health, poverty and our economy. It should be our number 1 priority, because it is the area that underpins everything else, and a good education, once imparted, is ours for life.

The cabinet secretary’s motion today is carefully crafted to enable all sides of the chamber to support it. What it does not do is acknowledge that the Scottish National Party resisted undertaking the review at every turn. At no stage has the cabinet secretary agreed, or even acknowledged, that curriculum for excellence is in danger of becoming—and I have heard some say that it already is—an oxymoron.

As a parent, I have had children in the Scottish education system for 30 years, and I continue to do so. I have witnessed the weaknesses in the system growing. However, the issue is not parental perception; the discussion that we are going to have is about evidence—that is what the review needs to look at.

Some of the evidence that was heard when the curriculum was first being developed and implemented was that it promised a more holistic approach to education that built up pupils’ soft skills, as well as their academic skills. It promised that teachers would have more flexibility in how they approached teaching and would be able to create a programme for learning that could dispense with potentially outmoded practices.

Those promises were warmly received by education experts and teachers alike, and they were heralded by politicians and industry leaders as a new way of ensuring that Scotland produces world-leading workers and citizens. Despite my own concerns about the introduction of curriculum for excellence, it would be disingenuous to suggest that it was not seen as a positive proposal for Scottish education. The 2004 curriculum review group report, which gave the curriculum its name, enjoyed support from all five main political parties.

However, as the years have rolled on, concerns about implementation and impact have tarnished the policy. Jamie Greene’s point about restoring trust is, I believe, quite right. One need look only at subject choice to see changes that parents are not happy about. Prior to the abolition of standard grades in 2013 and the introduction of the national 4 and 5 qualifications, it was normal for schools to require pupils to sit eight subjects. Twenty years ago, 93 per cent of schools in Scotland allowed eight subjects at secondary 4 level, and three quarters of young people exercised that choice and actually sat eight subjects.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

As someone who became a computer scientist and was interested only in science, I did eight subjects. I had to do two languages—French and German—at my school. That was not a choice that I would have made had I had an option to do something that was more interesting to me or relevant to where I wanted to go.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

Yes, but if I let my daughter choose, she would probably do only two subjects. This is about ensuring that people have a broad education.

I find it worrying that only 10 per cent of local authority schools offer eight subjects, while, in contrast, almost the entire independent sector still allows eight subjects. That is driving parents to consider private education—even when they probably cannot afford it—simply to give the choice that the state system no longer affords. In fact, we have to go back to the 1970s to find a time when such a low proportion of young people had access to a broad curriculum.

Curriculum for excellence sought to change the way we taught our children by providing a multidisciplinary approach to learning: it would provide an education that would develop skills and critical thinking. In themselves, those were positive ambitions and not without merit.

However, my long-held concern—as a parent and as a professional who worked with children in education, particularly school refusers—is that curriculum for excellence is not knowledge based. In fact, if one reads through the whole curriculum for excellence, very little mention is made of knowledge. We need to understand that the development of skills and the manipulation of information to facilitate higher thinking requires that a core knowledge base is embedded in the long-term memory.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am listening with interest to Michelle Ballantyne’s speech. She needs to be reminded that the core narrative of curriculum for excellence says:

“Scotland’s curriculum ... helps our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st Century”.

I acknowledge the importance of knowledge being part of the curriculum and of young people’s experience. Does Michelle Ballantyne accept the point that that is built into the concept of curriculum for excellence?

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

I accept that the word is built into the descriptor at the front edge. However, going through each section, one sees no provision for ensuring that children have a foundation of knowledge embedded in their long-term memory that allows them to manipulate data, information and understanding. That is why we are seeing some decline in performance. If we do not address that—if we do not consider it as an issue—we will miss the fundamentals that are causing a decline in our education.

I am going to have to move on quite fast now.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—you took some interventions, so I will let you make up your time.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

One of the problems that we need to consider, and which is critical to the review, is that the Scottish Government’s withdrawal from all but one of the international education comparator studies and the scrapping of the valuable—or what I consider valuable—Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, mean that the evidence on how our systems and schools are performing is based on annual school reports, which are based on teacher judgment. Although I have absolute respect for our teachers, I believe that that inevitably introduces the bias that humans are naturally inclined to.

For the OECD review to have any potency, it must be able to explore in detail the relationship between CFE and education performance. I am concerned that the OECD will struggle to do that, and to accurately chart that relationship while it is wandering in what was described by Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, as a “data desert”.

The Scottish Government needs to seriously consider—I hope that the review will point to this—the quality and quantity of its education data gathering, to ensure that any future challenges that arise in education can be identified by bodies such as the OECD and then acted on quickly by the Government. The Government should not have allowed us to drift to the stage that we have got to.

For the review to be meaningful, it must be independent and draw evidence from across educational thinking and experience. It must allow freedom of speech for all contributors, whatever their position on curriculum for excellence, so that we can explore it thoroughly. The role of Education Scotland, which has responsibility for both curriculum development and inspection, needs and warrants review.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is where you must conclude. I have given you extra time.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. Like many others, I confess that I am rather distracted by other issues, despite the fact that, over a long period of time, I have expressed concern about what is happening in the education system. However, we are in unchartered waters.

Before I make my main contribution, I want to reflect on what I see as the role of schools—not only their education role, but their social role. They are a community hub and can be a place for sharing information, wise counsel and helping people avoid panic; crucially, for some children and young people, they can be a place of sanctuary, nourishment, security, routine and care.

I would not like to be in the position of the cabinet secretary, who has to decide what should be done about our schools. Although the instinct is to say that we should close our schools, we would lose a huge amount of important caring that goes on in our communities through them. I am sure that, whatever decision is made, it will be made with that awareness in mind.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I place on record my appreciation of Johann Lamont’s understanding of the dilemmas that she has highlighted. As she has characterised, these are the dilemmas that we are wrestling with because of the centrality that school represents in the stability of some young people’s lives in our society. I am grateful to her for her acknowledgement of that.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Many families will be able to make decisions, but we know that, for some of our young people, school is an anchor in their lives, and we give that up at our peril. If schools have to close, I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be thinking about how we can replicate such support, without which some young people will face immense difficulties.

In relation to the review, I will raise a number of issues that, I trust, any examination of curriculum for excellence will include. The approach of curriculum for excellence secured cross-party support, but many of the subsequent developments were not foreseen, were not consulted on and do not have cross-party support or, indeed, support within communities, families and the profession. Such support is in danger of being lost, which is why the review is so important.

Aspiration is easy to sign up for, but we need to be vigilant about delivery. One of my concerns is the decision not to have an external exam at the end of S4 for many students who are doing national 4. It is astonishing that, during my time on the Education and Skills Committee, we were not able to establish who had made that decision, never mind whether it was a good one. In my teaching career—back in the day—I saw the direct benefits for many young people of what was called certification for all. Schools had to provide courses, which were tested externally, that met the needs of all our young people. The system valued all our young people and treated them all with respect. It is concerning that some young people might now leave school without any qualifications whatsoever, and that we might be going back to the world of certificate and non-certificate classes, which abandoned many young people when, with a bit of support, they could have achieved a great deal more.

Year-on-year cuts to local authorities’ budgets have had an impact on the effectiveness of our schools. I am sure that the review will look at that issue, too. There has been a reduction in the number of support staff, personal assistants, educational psychologists, behavioural support workers, group workers, school nurses and home link workers, and there has been a decrease in, if not the ending of, learning support. In the past, all those people have played a critical role in supporting young people, and they are a critical means of bridging the gulf in opportunity that exists for far too many young people in our education system, whether it is because of their family circumstances, because they are disabled, because they are autistic or because they face other barriers that create daily challenges.

It is ironic that, while such support has stopped or is disappearing for some of the most disadvantaged young people, the use of private tutors is increasing for those who can afford it to maximise young people’s achievements. I urge any examination of the decisions relating to the implementation of curriculum for excellence to be underpinned by a rigorous equalities impact assessment. Such decisions should be tested because, far from confronting inequality, they are in danger of reinforcing inequality and disadvantage.

There is a fear that decisions on multilevel courses are driven by personnel management issues and timetabling difficulties that are not about education. I contend that young people who are doing a subject for the first time in fourth year have a level of maturity and ability that is very different from that of a youngster who is taking an advanced higher course. I could not have taught both those courses in a class, although I did manage to teach general and foundation certificates. The gulf is immense, and the age gap between the pupils is significant and should be acknowledged. Such classes being convenient for the timetable is not an educational reason for them to be taught.

I am also concerned about subject choice. There is an issue relating to core subjects that we need to discuss, and we need to hear more from people with expertise about that. Some theoretical freedom of choice actually results in a lot of young people having very limited choices, not just in relation to numbers. A pupil might have only six subjects, but I contend that there is a difficulty in relation to the choices within those subjects if we do not have a sense of what the core subjects in our curriculum might be.

It is essential that the review examines how decisions about external examinations, subject choice and multilevel teaching have a direct impact on those who are already disadvantaged in the system and thus reinforce the evident gap in attainment instead of challenging it.

Multilevel teaching will be more prevalent in schools where fewer young people take a full group of highers or advanced highers. If plenty of young people are doing highers, they will not be in multilevel classes. As a consequence, those who are already achieving, or who are fully supported, are learning in a less disruptive set of circumstances.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can you wind up, please?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour


There are key issues to do with subject choice, multilevel teaching and so on. I welcome the review. It must be acknowledged that those who are highlighting the problems are not the problem. The review is an opportunity for the cabinet secretary to listen to those who have expertise in the field, whether they are teachers or others working in schools and supporting young people. Those people need to be at the heart of the review.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

It is really important that the education system in any country be open to review. That applies to our system, although it has probably been reviewed and scrutinised more than most.

As has been said, curriculum for excellence was started by the Lib-Lab Executive, with the support of the whole Parliament, and it fell largely to the SNP Government to implement it from 2007 onwards.

Of course, any new system must be implemented gradually. Implementation at primary school level was smooth and was welcomed. Children were looking forward to continuing curriculum of excellence in secondary school, and most did so smoothly. Teachers who did not feel confident about their implementation of it were given extra assistance from national bodies.

Our young people were not to be taught to the test but were, through their individual learning, to be taught to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

The OECD review, “Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective on Scottish education”, which was published in 2015 said:

“There is a great deal to be positive about in such a review: learners are enthusiastic and motivated, teachers are engaged and professional, and system leaders are highly committed. There has been intensive activity to create suites of support materials and a drive to address excessive bureaucracy. There have been extensive professional learning events organised throughout Scotland. CfE has been anchored in consensus and a wider set of parallel reforms. These include teacher education, extensive work on qualifications and vocational educational and training, and the establishment of a National Parents Forum and a new Leadership College.”

The report’s conclusions and recommendations said:

“In the next phase of the CfE journey, Scotland has the opportunity to lead the world in developing an innovative national assessment, evaluation and improvement framework that is consistent with what is known about promoting student, professional, school and system learning. The current system has a strong formative emphasis for the players at each of these levels and other stakeholders through the development of carefully constructed processes of assessment, evaluation and appraisal. These processes are informed by research about how to promote positive outcomes for learners, their teachers and their leaders.”

The report went on to say:

“The challenge now is to construct systems and processes to develop this more robust evidential platform on which to base judgements about the health of the system at all levels while retaining the strong developmental and improvement emphasis. This is not an easy task because the potential for narrowing and distorting the curriculum and undermining the professional judgements of teachers is real. Scotland, however, has demonstrated innovative ways to use benchmarked information to inform development in upper secondary schooling through its Insight tool. Education Scotland, together with the complementary expertise of others within the system, now has the opportunity to develop similarly innovative processes for the years of the Broad General Education in ways that support the continued development of CfE.”

I presume that that is what the new review will drill into.

However, much has changed and developed in the education system since curriculum for excellence’s inception. The increase in nursery education hours has had, and will continue to have, an effect on our children, and building on play-based learning will no doubt have a great effect. I am sure that all members who go into nursery and primary schools know how inquisitive and engaged pupils of that age are.

However, there is no doubt that most concerns have been about the senior phase, and if the results of the new study and report can help with that, that will be welcomed. Having recently visited one of the larger secondary schools in my constituency, I know that staff are concerned that much of the criticism is totally unfounded—it is not landing with parents and is serving only to undermine the confidence of staff, who all want to do their best for their pupils.

Members who took part in Jamie Halcro Johnston’s debate last week on Scottish apprenticeship week will know that I recounted my learning experience of the positive value of foundation apprenticeships. Not only are they giving pupils work experience in a wide variety of settings, especially in areas of the economy in which we are always likely to need workers, but they are attracting higher passes at a high level. I learned at first hand that foundation apprenticeships are helping to close the attainment gap by widening access.

I watched pupils who are doing a healthcare foundation apprenticeship in Aberdeen royal infirmary and heard from one grateful parent—a general practitioner—whose daughter had been on the way to disengaging from school but had started an apprenticeship programme and loves it, and who now sees the value not only of her apprenticeship but of her other subjects. The parent said that all pupils should have to do foundation apprenticeships.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I must ask you to conclude there, please.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

There is no doubt that more work needs to be done to help our poorer-performing schools, and I hope that the review will show that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry—I did a bit of drama there to show what “conclude” means.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I welcome the Scottish Government’s having brought the debate to the chamber today. Along with other Opposition parties, we have for a considerable period been pressing for an education debate in Government time.

Education is one of Parliament’s primary functions and—in more normal times, at least—the Government states that it is its foremost priority. However, despite the importance that is attached to it, and despite the efforts of staff and teachers, it has become increasingly clear that there have been falling standards in many areas of schooling. I know that many teachers will be concerned about the coronavirus outbreak and the impact that potential absences and resulting organisational issues might have on their work and their personal circumstances. I am sure that ministers will be looking to allay their fears as much as possible. Ministers will have difficult decisions to make, but will have the support of Conservative members as they make those decisions.

The debate feels a little uncomfortable because of that, but it is also reassuring because, as we look to the future after the current crisis, the review of curriculum for excellence can, if properly handled, be an important step in restoring Scotland’s reputation in education. However, we should keep it in mind that a curriculum can only ever be as good as the system that supports it.

There is a focus on the implementation of the curriculum, but there remains the wider question of whether some of the policy assumptions behind CFE remain appropriate. We should be able to consider the curriculum at a distance from other areas of school performance. There is also a broader question of capacity in our schools. We have fewer teachers, and concerns continue to be raised regularly about teacher workload and staffing. Those issues inevitably impact on how the curriculum is delivered, but they are distinct from it. However, they add pressure to how the curriculum is received. There are questions, for example, about multilevel teaching, which no one, I am sure, suggests is inherently desirable.

Similarly, our qualifications framework being altered in tandem with major curriculum reform has significant implications, so it is welcome that the Scottish Government’s motion recognises that

“this review must form part of a wider drive to tackle key weaknesses in aspects of Scotland’s school education and the qualifications structure”.

Too often in the chamber, legitimate concerns have been batted away. Too often, particular narratives have been pressed until they bear little relation to parents’, teachers’ and pupils’ experiences.

However, we should be heartened that, across the parties in chamber, there has been willingness to listen on education. Although we may differ on ideas, there is a willingness to work together in the common interests of pupils. We saw that with the initial development of curriculum for excellence many years ago, so should the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills wish to drive forward constructive change, he will find that members of other parties are willing to listen. With that in mind, and as Parliament has previously recognised, it is important that the review take account of the broad general education phase, the senior phase, and the transition between the two. It must be an honest and thorough assessment of where we stand.

As the Government’s motion seems to recognise, the issue goes beyond the remit of the OECD review. In responding to the review, ministers and other parties can address some of the wider concerns around secondary education. Simply adjusting the curriculum and its delivery in isolation will not make the marked improvement that is required. Such an assessment will require honesty about shortcomings.

For example, on attainment, I have heard repeated in the chamber the assertion that exam results are not the only thing that we should look for in pupils. That is true: a young person’s educational journey is a wider process of personal development. However, whenever a variation of that phrase is uttered, the motive always seems to be to justify a fall in attainment. Perhaps we should reflect that attainment does matter, and that it is at the core of why our schools exist. Results will determine the future career prospects of young people, as well as where their later educational journey will go.

There seems finally to be some acceptance that the trends in results are more than just annual fluctuations. When the quality of our education system drives down results, it reduces opportunity and fails our young people by passing over their abilities and hampering their aspirations. Equally, when we restrict opportunity, as we have heard in discussions about subject choice, we narrow the horizons of young people early in their lives. STEM subjects can create a generation that is ready to take on the jobs of the future, and modern languages can open up entirely new worlds to a person. Falling attainment cannot be a legacy that any party should wish to leave behind.

There is also the question of how fundamentals are taught. We now have one recognised international comparator for pupil attainment—the PISA figures—and the results continue to cause concern. Whatever comes out of the OECD review, a real focus from the Scottish Government on literacy and numeracy will be important.

As a new member of the Education and Skills Committee, I have not contributed to the work that it has done in that area over the past year. That work has driven forward examination of curriculum for excellence in a useful and constructive way. However, there has been a tendency for the Scottish Government to claim that all is well with our schools, when that is patently not true. We have to wonder whether the review would be taking place, if not for external pressure.

The value of the review will be in the ability of ministers to take on board its eventual recommendations and their willingness to change, to demonstrate flexibility and to accept seriously that there are legitimate issues to contend with, as we go forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must conclude there.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

This has been a good debate that has been important in highlighting precisely why we need the review. Although I acknowledge the comments that colleagues have made about the challenges that our schools, local authorities, teachers and young people will face over the next few months, we need to find the space to ensure that the review is successful.

While listening to the debate, we must not lose sight of the wider issue of local government, as it is local government that provides our children’s education, runs our schools, and pays our teachers. Education is the Government’s top priority, yet the underfunding of local government is pushing tough decisions on to our schools and councils. We could see that in this year’s budget. There were really good policy proposals, such as the expansion of funded early learning and childcare, work on teachers’ pensions and additional support for learning, but the fact that local government will be collectively underfunded by more than £200 million will add pressure, and that should concern us. One of the issues that was recorded by the Education and Skills Committee that we need to think about is teacher shortages in certain areas, and how they impact the situation on the ground.

In addition to the review, it is critical to think about investment as the basis for success. That is vital, because quality education has long been known as a leveller. As a key tool in tackling inequality, we have traditionally been hugely proud of education in Scotland, but we are not seeing delivery on the ground.

Clare Adamson talked about additional skills being important to giving school students extra value when they leave school. Let us look at some of the tough choices that local authorities are now making in areas such as staff numbers and having to charge for music tuition. Those things are critical to the quality of the education that our school students get. My own council is having to make the tough choice of having to take more than £17 million out of the education revenue budget, to pay for new schools and to invest in and refurbish the school estate. That is vital.

In education, our population will grow by more than 26 per cent over the next two decades. We have to make the investment to ensure that whatever recommendations the review comes up with can be implemented properly. At the moment, attainment levels at higher have fallen for the fourth year in a row. Pupils are not enrolling in qualifications. Professor Jim Scott has calculated that almost a million qualifications have been lost since the new national exams were introduced. That is not good enough. We need to make sure that schools do not struggle to keep teachers or provide a broad range of subjects. We need to do better. The attainment gap is accidental but it is failing students across Scotland.

Colleagues have talked about subject choices. Students who get to study eight or nine subjects at national 4 and 5 are able to do so, not because of academic ability, but because of where they go to school. Pupils in independent schools are more likely to study eight or nine subjects. For those in the state sector, a postcode lottery decides what they can study. Students who leave school straight after their nat 4s and 5s could be doing so with fewer qualifications, which means that they will face an immediate disadvantage in the jobs market. That is not acceptable, and it needs to change.

We need the resourcing crisis in our classrooms to be addressed urgently so that we can tackle teacher recruitment and workloads at the same time as the review is being done.

The Education and Skills Committee has raised important concerns that need to be addressed about the overall responsibility for curriculum structure and subject availability. Interestingly, it also agreed that there is continued confusion about the responsibilities of Education Scotland, and that that body is failing to provide adequate support for the continuing implementation of curriculum for excellence.

Key issues need to be fixed in our schools and we need to see them being addressed urgently. The OECD review is timely. Professor Jim Scott has stated:

“we will be in danger of creating a generation of people who have not had a good experience in education.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 24 April 2019; c 17.]

That is a generation of young people who will have been failed by SNP mismanagement and underfunding. That is not good enough

The review needs to be successful. It needs to be conducted, it needs to get input from our Education and Skills Committee, and it needs to be open and transparent, and to engage parents and young people who have been through the system. It is crucial, and it is important that we are discussing it today, but it has to be a success.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Amid some of the recent coverage of curriculum for excellence, it would be easy to forget that there is, or there certainly should be, cross-party consensus about CFE and about the achievements of Scotland’s schools, teachers and young people. All parties have had a hand, one way or another, in the development of Scotland’s modern classrooms, and all have reasons to be proud of their success—particularly, possibly, the Scottish Government.

We are all entitled to seek to improve things in Scotland’s schools; indeed we have an obligation to do so, and the Government’s review recognises that fact. However, politicians who cast wider and more fundamental doubts on curriculum for excellence have a duty to say whether they have a preferable spare curriculum to hand. Indeed, they should recognise that, in some ways, curriculum for excellence, despite its name, does not lay claim to being a curriculum in the most traditional sense of the word. Unlike his apocryphal French counterpart, Scotland’s education minister has never been able to look at his watch and know that third year pupils across the country are all doing double maths. The Scottish Government has never sought that degree of uniformity.

Instead, the curriculum for excellence gives schools the freedom and flexibility to design a curriculum that best meets the needs of their learners, with decisions about curriculum design, learner pathways, and presentation for qualifications taken by schools and, of course, by young people themselves. Headteachers already have to take account of the national framework for Scotland’s curriculum along with the needs of their own school and community, as agreed between schools and local councils.

We should look at the OECD review as a way of improving something that is good, rather than as a means of rehearsing familiar political grievances. Young people, schools, and local authorities will be at the heart of the review, and I am sure that the OECD will listen to their feedback on that and other areas before producing its report. As the Education and Skills Committee and others have indicated, including members in the chamber today, that will mean looking at several questions in depth, one of which is the balance between skills and knowledge.

In that argument, I come down firmly on the side that says that knowing stuff is far more likely to be a consolation than not knowing it, and that the joy that is to be derived from learning something is in inverse proportion to its potential or likely usefulness. However, there is a balance to be struck, and I hope that the review will help us to do just that.

The review will look at curriculum design, the depth and breadth of learning in the senior phase, local flexibility versus the questions about prescription that some members have raised or alluded to today, and the transition from the broad general education to the senior phase.

I welcome the fact that the review is looking at subject choice again, because I believe that we have to start with a recognition of what is working. More young people are coming out of more schools with more qualifications than ever before, and more young people are staying on in sixth year, with all the opportunities that that brings. The measure of all that is what qualifications people leave school with, not which subjects they study in any one specific year.

Nonetheless, there are legitimate questions to be asked about what is happening to specific subjects, particularly languages, and whether there is a way of ensuring that the number of pupils who are taking them does not continue to decline, as it certainly has in recent years. If languages are not being taken in fourth year, we have to make sure that they are being taken at some other stage in the school career. I am sure that the review will also take views on the decisions that many schools are making about multilevel classes.

Neither Parliament nor the review should flinch from any of those difficult questions. We should have a debate that is grounded in an understanding of what actually goes on inside Scotland’s state schools. Such an understanding has not always been evident from some political commentators or from the sometimes nostalgic view of education that has been uttered from some quarters that seems to spring from a much rosier recollection of the 1980s than I have.

Improving education is the defining mission of the Scottish Government, and that commitment is being backed by significant investment. We know that closing the attainment gap will take time, but what we are doing is having a real and measurable effect. That is why headteachers back the Scottish Government’s plans.

Last year, a record 95 per cent of school leavers were in a positive destination, such as study, work, or training, about three months after leaving school. I am proud to say that my local authority was at the top of that particular set of statistics. The OECD review gives us a chance to build on all the work that is going on in Scotland’s schools, and it deserves a serious response from us politicians. I hope that that has been reflected in Parliament today.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I remind Parliament that I have a daughter who is a secondary school teacher.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. As the Deputy Presiding Officer knows, my specific remit and passion lie in improving the health of our nation, especially given Scotland’s poor health report card—which, considering the situation in which we currently find ourselves, is all too stark. I strongly believe that education and health are intrinsically linked. I have said here many times that education is the solution for health and welfare.

It is entirely right that the aims of curriculum for excellence are supported across the chamber. Excellence and equity are principles that we should all want for our children, and holistic learning is a key element of curriculum for excellence. My colleagues and members from across the chamber have spoken about academic achievement and a relative decline in some of its aspects. That is a fundamental measurement of the success—or otherwise—of the policy. After all, to a great extent, the qualifications that are achieved at school will dictate potential pathways for a pupil’s career.

However, that is not the only measurement by which we should judge our education system. I believe that wellbeing—both physical and mental—should sit in the education brief, not just in the health portfolio. To achieve equity and excellence—those twin pillars of curriculum for excellence—access to opportunity is a prerequisite. Taking part in activities that enable social inclusion helps the development of interpersonal skills, confidence and resilience, and those skills are fundamental to the long-term chances of our children. With regard to access to sport, connectivity, art, music and drama—I am back on that hobby-horse again—my concern is that opportunities to take part in the activities that I took for granted in my school days have been steadily eroded for years and, in fact, decades, going all the way back to the teachers’ strike of the mid-1980s and even before that.

The introduction of curriculum for excellence was an opportunity to tackle the issue, but the feedback from teachers is that timetabling and an increase in paperwork have seen a continuing decline in opportunities to participate. Furthermore, extracurricular activity is not universally available—again, an increase in paperwork has been cited by teachers.

I also highlight the lack of access to the school estate after hours for third sector groups as a major issue. I was pleased to hear Johann Lamont speak about the importance of a school as a social hub, which is a key element that must be grasped. That is especially highlighted in the current climate, but a school should always be a social hub outwith the traditional educational element.

The fact that music tuition in schools is no longer free in 26 of 32 local authorities, along with the decline in opportunities to play sport and to participate in art and drama in school, has reduced opportunities to excel, which does not speak to equity. That is important, because being physically active has a positive impact on physical and mental health. If our young people are physically active at a young age, it is more likely that they will be physically active when they are older and throughout their lives. Social inclusion helps them to develop skills such as confidence and resilience; positive traits such as application and being rewarded for effort; and the important skill of self-discipline. Those skills are important to achieving in the classroom.

Opportunities to participate in those activities while at school form the cornerstone of tackling not only the attainment gap but preventable health issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, poor mental health, obesity, type 2 diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, musculoskeletal conditions, and so on. I believe that that approach is entirely consistent with the objectives of curriculum for excellence. In fact, I will go further and say that we cannot fully realise the potential of curriculum for excellence without including music, art, drama and sport as being integral to every pupil’s life, as those activities can have such a positive influence on a young person’s life.

I can cite dozens of people I have met whose chance meeting with a teacher who encouraged and nurtured an interest shaped their life—and the same happened in my life. Primary 1 sport at Symington primary school is where I discovered that I could run a bit faster than most. I was supported throughout my school life by teachers and I was encouraged to represent the school, ending up at the British schools championships. Every sportsman and sportswoman, actor and actress, musician and artist can tell us a similar story: those skills follow us through life.

The fact that that path has led me here might not be a persuasive argument for the cabinet secretary, but I hope that he accepts the principle of the debate. I will give one more example. I was visiting a prison recently and bumped into a prisoner who was taking part in art. His work was phenomenal; it was art of the highest quality. I asked him why it had taken being in prison for him to learn how to do that, and he said, “Because I didn’t have the opportunity before.” He was in prison for eight years. The big question is: would he have spent eight years in prison, at a cost of £34,000 a year, if he had had that skill at school? We must free up teachers’ time to allow them to teach, so that they can deliver all that they are trained to do and all that they want to do.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

If we do, we may find that that stubborn attainment gap begins to close.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

Ross Greer described the debate as “a bit surreal”. He was referring to the background of Covid-19, but there have been some slightly odd aspects to the debate. One of those is that we have not spent any of the debate exchanging statistics with each other in order, in our case, to convince people that there is a problem and, in the cabinet secretary’s case, to—

Oh he has his statistics there. They are coming. Right. Good-oh. If there is anybody in the world who watches our education debates, that will be a great relief to them.

I am making light of an important point. One of the recommendations of the previous OECD review was that the Government should increase the data available in the school system. The education secretary took that recommendation seriously and often says that we now have more data available than ever before. That claim is based largely on the gathering of achievement of curriculum for excellence level—ACEL—results and on the introduction of the national literacy and numeracy tests. All of those replaced the Scottish schools literacy and numeracy survey, which was statistically rigorous and provided a run of data going back some years.

The truth is that neither the Scottish national standardised assessment nor ACEL has established a reputation for rigour among educationists. The First Minister often claims that they are better than the survey was because they are universal and not a survey, so they test everyone. That is nonsense, as ministers have conceded that the SNSA is not a normative assessment that can be added up. The results do not tell us with any certainty how the system is doing. To be honest, even if they did, we would still have problems in judging the success of our schools, not just of individual pupils.

The Government has developed a

“basket of measures of attainment”, which is apparently another response to the OECD requirement to make more data available. What that actually means is that we cannot agree on how attainment is to be judged or even on whether the Government’s top priority of closing the attainment gap is being progressed.

The education secretary likes to cite the percentage of pupils who are achieving at least one higher or national 5 exam, but one higher or national 5 does not open many doors. The figures for the number of pupils who are achieving three or even five exam passes at any level are arguably much more useful, but they are less favourable to the Government and so are left in the basket while the measure of at least one national 5 pass or above is brought out.

Similarly, we are also often told that we should judge success on pupil outcomes and on what they leave school with. Yet, this year, exam results for school leavers show a decline in the number of pupils achieving even one qualification or more at level five or above. They show the attainment gap widening, not closing. Where it does close, it is closing because high attainers are doing worse quicker. None of that suits the Government’s narrative, so it moves away from school leaver outcomes and chooses to focus on one year’s exam diet rather than on leavers.

We must reach some agreement on how we judge the performance not of individual pupils but of the system and of education policy. If the OECD would advise on that, that would be helpful.

I will spend some time on an issue that the education secretary brought up and that we have not returned to. Another argument that we have had over some months has been about whether the curriculum is narrowing and whether subject choice is reducing or growing. Part of the confusion is that the education secretary often argues that the range of courses from which pupils can choose has increased. That is true, not least because of the increase in the number of vocational courses that are available—Mr Swinney mentioned that. Maureen Watt spoke about foundation apprenticeships and other vocational options, which are a very good thing but need examination, and that is also part of the problem of judging success in the system.

If we are to judge the performance of the system not just on highers and nationals, we will have to find a way of recognising attainment in those vocational courses that gains acceptance and that is clearly equivalent to traditional exams not just through being at the same Scottish credit and qualifications framework level but through its acceptance by FE, HE, employers and parents. We have not yet reached that stage, and that is part of the issue.

That would involve a big change in attitudes that have persisted for decades. Johann Lamont noted that the Education and Skills Committee has heard evidence that schools that serve deprived communities are more likely to offer more of those courses to more pupils than schools in better-off parts of Scotland, which, it would appear, sometimes focus on offering seven or eight of the traditional exams instead by subverting the three-plus-three model. Johann Lamont is right in saying that that two-track approach is not acceptable, and I was pleased to hear that the Deputy First Minister is going to commission work to find out more about that.

The review needs to cover a lot of issues. It is an extremely important move by the Government, and it is very welcome. I look forward to seeing the outcome of the work in a year or two—I hope that it will not be delayed.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will pick up on several points that have been raised in the debate but before I do so, it is important to set the context of the debate. I note Johann Lamont’s excellent and important point that schools are about more than just education; they are about the social cohesion of our society.

When the OECD produced its very important and comprehensive report on school education in Scotland in 2015 it prioritised some key recommendations. It was clear, as Maureen Watt indicated, that the principles behind the curriculum for excellence were the right ones, that the twin ambitions of excellence and equity should underpin all aspects of education policy—as they certainly should—and it had many good things to say about the approach to holistic learning. Incidentally, that is one of the reasons why the Conservative Party is very keen that the BGE is included in the review, because the holistic approach to education is very important. There were some good things and we should acknowledge that, because it is important that we see the review in that context. That is clearly the reason why all parties in the chamber agreed with the minister at the time, Peter Peacock, that in its basic principles, the curriculum for excellence was the right approach for the 21st century.

However, the 2015 report warned that there were significant challenges, which were to do with not so much the principles of CFE but its delivery. It highlighted that there was absolute—and in some cases, relative—decline in some aspects of attainment. Mathematics was its primary focus at the time. Five years on, sadly, mathematics is still an issue in our schools. It also looked at the concerns about what we have to do to evaluate the curriculum for excellence. Iain Gray just made some very strong points on that.

There is a data issue. The cabinet secretary has said several times—and I think that he said this in answer to my colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston at education questions last week—that schools now have more data than ever before. That may be true in some cases, but there are a lot of issues about how we interpret that data. Beatrice Wishart and Iain Gray made the point that we still debate how to interpret the information, particularly when it comes to the testing: what its purpose is and how we measure it. As Iain Gray rightly pointed out, we will not be able to say how well we are progressing if we do not sort out those critical questions.

That said, there is no doubt that the curriculum for excellence was designed to build on the widely acknowledged strengths of Scottish education—we should never forget what those are—and to ensure that schools can build not only on a different society but on a change of culture. The cabinet secretary has said several times, on education issues, that we need a change of culture. I agree—I think that we need a different approach—but, as I have said in a number of debates, let that never be an excuse for saying that we cannot address some of the current problems in Scottish education. We have to do both. We have to ensure that we are working within that new culture while addressing a lot of the problems. We have to acknowledge that those problems exist.

The cabinet secretary often cites the increase in the number of new qualifications that are available—a point raised by Clare Adamson and Alasdair Allan. That is true, but it brings us back to the debate about what it means to have a core curriculum. I am glad that the cabinet secretary accepts that there is a debate to be had about what the core curriculum actually means—to parents, to pupils and to teachers. It is time that we had that debate about what should be in the core curriculum. Brian Whittle made some good points about some of the extra dimensions within the core curriculum. It is not just about having a lot of new qualifications, although those are welcome. In the context of the OECD recommendations, the debate about the core curriculum, which is an important part of many people’s education, and is what employers are looking for, is crucial.

The issue of attainment in different core subjects is a matter of concern. Alasdair Allan has said consistently at committee, and again today, that we have issues about decline in certain subjects, such as languages and STEM. We have to look at whether there is a progression issue here, which is another reason why we should have an holistic approach to the BGE and the senior phase. It really matters what subjects pupils are able to do at what levels. If some subjects are progressive, it is difficult for pupils to come back to them later in their school career. That is part and parcel of the issues that the OECD should be looking at.

The subject choice section of the overview is perhaps one of the most critical issues that we have to examine. It is clear from evidence given to the Education and Skills Committee over a long period that there are fundamental concerns about subject choice. Regardless of whether that affects people from better-off backgrounds—Sarah Boyack made that point—it is true, in some schools, that parents feel that because their children do not have the same opportunities that they would have in other schools, their youngsters lose out. There is concern about how that affects colleges and universities, and, more important, the world of work. It is a worry that there are significant concerns about that.

There are also serious concerns about the percentage of the school leaver population in some local authorities—although by no means all—who are leaving school without very much at all, even within the context of some different qualifications. It is important that, collectively, parliamentarians are seen to address that matter.

In 2016, Dr Mark Priestley said something very interesting about the curriculum for excellence, which was that although it was very much built on the right founding principles, the structure might have to change in order to deliver better results. I come back to the points that Mark Priestley raised.

He agreed with the OECD that its implementation had at that stage been incomplete—that goes without saying—but he said that there had to be a much clearer process for curriculum development, where who has responsibility for deciding it is completely clear. We have seen issues around the role of Education Scotland and the SQA in that. There also needs to be an accountability element. As the cabinet secretary knows, I would like to see that and it has been part of my issue with what we have been doing for some time.

I come back to the issue of the Education and Skills Committee’s concern over the lack of clarity about who has been in charge of decision making. Johann Lamont made a good point about who made the decision on whether the national 4 qualification should have an external exam. She was quite right to point out that although we had a debate about it, we could not get to the nub of who had made the decision. That is something that we cannot have; it is crucial that we know why decisions are made, who is making them and who will be accountable for them.

The OECD in 2015 described CFE as a “watershed moment”. It found that the levels of academic achievement were above average international levels in science and reading, but it highlighted considerable concerns about maths, and we are still there; we have not moved on from that. It said that social inclusion in Scottish schools was very encouraging and that attitudes to school life were generally positive—although it had some worries about whether those declined in secondary school—but it also found that one fifth of schools were no better than satisfactory. That is one of the crucial outcomes that we need to address. There is something far wrong if we cannot find a better way of ensuring that all our schools are more than satisfactory.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

This has been a good debate, which makes me wonder why the Government has not had more debates on education—it has been such an enjoyable afternoon that I will reflect on that in the light of the discussion. I am glad that it was Iain Gray who sullied the debate with statistics. I have my usual compendium here ready to be delivered, but I shall not detain Parliament with that; I will detain Parliament on the much more interesting things that were said by members.

I will start with the comment that was made by my colleague Maureen Watt, who recounted the experience of visiting one of the secondary schools in her constituency. She talked about having seen a practical example of a young person who had been able to re-engage with education by virtue of their participation in a foundation apprenticeship. I have had the pleasure of having many conversations of that type in schools around the country, when it has not been the pursuit of national qualifications that has met the needs of particular young people and sustained their engagement—although I appreciate that national qualifications are important in our system—but the fact that a pathway was available. Had it not been available, it is likely that they would have disengaged from education.

That is one of the big improvements that has been made, and I was mindful of that when I listened to Brian Whittle’s story about the prisoner. I do not know all the ins and outs of that story, but I would hazard a guess that that individual had probably disengaged from education not because of any active decision on their part but because the education did not interest or engage them. I will let Mr Whittle in in a second. Our education system is now increasingly looking at individual young people and finding the routes that enable them to remain engaged in education and to make progress. That is a product of the curriculum for excellence.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

In searching for ways to re-engage pupils who are not that engaged in general in school, I am trying to shine a light back on the sort of engagement that we had all the way through our school life and to see whether we can bring it back.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I had a slightly different experience in my school days. School worked perfectly for me. It served me fantastically well and got me everything that I needed to get on with the rest of my life, but there were lots of my peers whom it did not serve well and whose experience was exactly the type of journey that Mr Whittle recounted. Therefore, I am all for finding ways to engage individual young people in their learning, and I think that CFE enables us to do that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I think that the cabinet secretary makes a very good point. In that context, will he undertake to have a look at different models of schooling, such as the model of which Newlands Junior College, which did very good work for many disengaged youngsters, was a classic example?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I think that the issue is about what our education system delivers. I must be satisfied that, regardless of which part of the country a young person lives in, they can go into a school that will be able to meet their needs. If they live in rural Perthshire, where I live, and Newlands Junior College is the only option available for disengaged learners, that will not meet their needs. The local schools in Perthshire must be able to meet the needs of every young person who comes in the door.

In that respect, Alasdair Allan is absolutely correct: CFE gives schools the freedom and the flexibility to meet the needs of learners in their own circumstances. Many schools have done what Clare Adamson talked about—they have taken forward the developing Scotland’s young workforce agenda, which enables a much greater configuration of educational pathways to be delivered to meet the needs of individual learners.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

I was thinking about how to formulate my intervention. The cabinet secretary keeps using the term “meet the needs”. What does he consider the needs of young people to be? Is he talking about what they want to do or what a teacher says that they ought to do? It would be helpful to get a definition of that.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

For me, the needs of learners are twofold. First, they must be equipped with the core attributes that are necessary in our curriculum, which I set out earlier in my intervention on Michelle Ballantyne. They must also have the capacity to move on to a positive destination as a consequence of their education, whether that is higher or further education, the world of work, the world of training or the world of employment. All those opportunities must be available for young people, but they will represent different things to different young people, based on their interests.

I am happy to confirm that we must pay very close attention to the aspirations and the interests of young people. Last week, I had a group of young people in to see me who had a conversation about listening to the pupil voice in our education system. They did not want to have everything prescribed for them; they wanted to be influential over the curriculum that they chose. I hear that a lot from young people in our education system.

I think that our debate is heading in a direction in which we must have a good, open understanding of what we think all young people must have experience of. That way, we can give them the capacity to make choices about the broader range of experiences that they want to have. I will have one view about what I think should form part of that core activity, and I am pretty certain that Liz Smith will have a different one. I fear that Liz Smith’s view will resemble that of Forrester high school in 1978 or 1980, but we can debate that later. That epitomises some of the choice that is at the heart of curriculum for excellence.

That brings me on to the points that Johann Lamont made about subject choice. I think that it is beyond dispute that there is much more choice available to young people in the education system today—there are many more options, courses and possibilities. The hard point that Johann Lamont raised was about whether the nature of the way in which we structure our education system allows young people to exercise a reasonable choice within that expanded range, or whether their ability to do so is much more limited than it should be. That is one of the core issues that I want the review to look at.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I have a slightly different point to put to the cabinet secretary. The issue is not that, in some of our schools, pupils’ choices are more limited in terms of the number of subjects that they can do; it is that the nature of the subjects that they can do is more constrained than it is in other schools, which means that their opportunity to leave school with certain qualifications and compete with others is reduced. Does the cabinet secretary agree that there is an equality issue in that respect?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I certainly would not want that to be the case. That is one of the issues that we have to address. I go back to my core point in response to what Liz Smith said. I want every young person who goes into their local secondary school—or their local primary school, for that matter—to come out having had their educational opportunities fulfilled as a consequence of their education. That should not in any way be undermined by a lack of equity around the country. That point is of enormous significance to me.

Ross Greer raised teacher workload issues. I have put a great deal of effort into reducing the teacher workload or focusing the teacher workload on what enhances learning and teaching. For me, the critical test is whether the work enhances learning and teaching. If it does not, under the teacher agency model that I support, teachers should be free to exercise professional responsibility over whether they exercise those functions.

Iain Gray raised a significant issue, which relates to the relationship between the curriculum and our methods of assessment. We must have a system of assessment that is driven by the nature of our curriculum rather than the other way round. I think that those questions will be explored in the review along with some of the other issues that Iain Gray raised that relate to the attitudes towards achievement and performance in the education system.

I wanted to make an intervention when Mr Gray was speaking but, as I was getting up, he mentioned the Scottish credit and qualifications framework, which is what I wanted to mention. We are very lucky in Scotland that we have a credit and qualifications framework that allows us to have a read across different qualifications from different sources, all of which are benchmarked against particular standards of achievement. That is a huge asset for us to have, but I accept that public attitudes do not equate the range of qualifications that individuals are achieving at any given time. There is work that we need to do to strengthen the valuing of alternative routes to the national qualifications. Actually, we should stop talking about things such as alternative routes to national qualifications. The routes that young people are pursuing and taking forward will deliver good outcomes for them.

Ultimately, we all want to ensure that curriculum for excellence delivers good outcomes for young people. There is one statistic that I will mention. Just a few weeks ago, we saw that 95 per cent of young people who left school went on to an initial positive destination as a consequence of their education. That speaks volumes about how young people are being well served by curriculum for excellence.

One of the strengths of this afternoon’s debate has been that all the parties have put on record the strength of their support for the foundations, aspirations and ambitions of curriculum for excellence. That is very welcome. Knowing that the Scottish Parliament, across all parties, remains hugely supportive of the conclusions that we made at the outset in establishing the curriculum for excellence will help the OECD to undertake the review. Curriculum for excellence is serving young people well and we have to challenge ourselves to ensure that that is done more effectively. That is what the review will undertake, and I am sure that this debate will inform the OECD’s deliberations in due course.