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Schools (Equal Access to Learning)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 21st April 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

2. To ask the Scottish Government, with the school term resuming, whether it will provide an update on how it is ensuring equal access to learning, including for those with additional support needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds. (S5T-02102)

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

On Monday 20 April, the Scottish Government published comprehensive guidance to help to support continuity for children and for young people’s learning for the term ahead.

The guidance is for pupils, parents and teachers and was prepared by the Scottish Government and Education Scotland, with helpful advice and input from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and professional associations. It gives an overview of the measures that are in place and the steps that are being taken at the national and local levels to support children and young people in Scotland.

We recognise that children and young people with additional support needs may be finding this time particularly challenging. We have developed advice for parents and carers to enable them to support children and young people with additional support needs when learning at home. The advice will be published by the end of this week on the Parent Club’s coronavirus hub.

We also recognise and value the efforts that colleagues across the country have made to support our most disadvantaged children. As I said in answer to a previous question, the Scottish Government has provided local authorities with flexibility to redirect resources aimed at closing the attainment gap to help t mitigate the impacts of school closures on our most disadvantaged families.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

I remind the chamber that I am married to a primary school teacher who is working at the key worker childcare hubs.

It was a heroic effort on the part of our teachers and parents to get learning in place for the 10 days before Easter, but we are now entering a 10-week term with the very real possibility that remote learning may be required throughout. We know how fast children develop and that attainment gaps can widen quickly without proper teaching. Some pupils will be keenly feeling the loss of classroom structure and other support services. One father has told me that there is limited availability online of material that is suitable for his daughter, who needs one-to-one support, with material involving Makaton sign language and other provision. Requests for more material that he and the rest of his family have made have yet to bear fruit. Will the minister ensure that videos and other resources are available online to help children with moderate learning difficulties?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

Absolutely. The families of vulnerable children, including some children with additional support needs, have access to childcare through local authority hubs, as Alex Cole-Hamilton mentioned. Support and advice are being provided to the parents of children with additional support needs through the Scottish Government’s Parent Club website and by a whole range of partner organisations, including CALL Scotland, Dyslexia Scotland, Reach and Enquire. Alex Cole-Hamilton’s constituent should be able to find some support from some of those partner organisations, but he is more than welcome to come back to us if his constituent is struggling to find the support that is required.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

A month ago, the education secretary told Parliament that vulnerable children would be supported, but he explained that he was not going to be prescriptive about who they were or what form that support would take. Can the minister update the chamber on how many children have been identified by local authorities, how the system is responding to parents who do not engage or who disagree with the needs assessment and how she is ensuring that no child will fall through the cracks?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

As Alex Cole-Hamilton can imagine, a great deal of work is going on in Government to identify, reach and support the children we consider vulnerable. However, at the moment, because of the restrictions on every person in society in Scotland, most families do not want their children to leave their home, go to a hub and be supported outside the family. Almost all families have responded to the current threat and the current situation with a sense of wanting to keep everyone safe at home.

We are looking at supporting families in different ways from those that we perhaps originally envisaged at the beginning of the pandemic response. The flexible approach to free school meal provision has been remarkable: some of that provision is happening in school buildings; some is delivered from schools to homes; some is provided through e-vouchers; and some is provided through cash if a family is in a rural area where they are unable to use vouchers or certain supermarket tokens. The flexibility that our local authority partners have brought to the challenges is remarkable. About 140,000 children in Scotland are currently benefiting from free school meals.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I have been contacted by teachers who are concerned that there are still young people in Scotland who do not have access to home broadband or laptops. I have taken on board what the minister has said, but what can the Scottish Government do to make sure that those young people have such access in future?

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

That is an excellent question. As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I commend Highland Council’s decision a number of years ago to provide Chromebooks to the whole learning population in the Highlands. That caused a great deal of controversy at the time but looks an absolute masterstroke given the current situation.

Great examples have emerged across Scotland of how to tackle the challenge of children not having access to devices or broadband. Led by Aileen Campbell and through the Scottish Government’s no one left behind project, work is being undertaken with industry and other partners to identify and support digitally excluded households. More support will follow this term, building on the positive feedback to date and taking account of the continuing priorities that teachers and other practitioners identify.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Yesterday, the Scottish Qualifications Authority published information on how it will award qualifications, including the information that its appeals service will be based on assessment evidence. However, prelims are taken across Scotland in a wide variety of ways, and any appeals process that is based on that information must ensure that pupils are not unfairly penalised for poor-quality prelim papers or mock exams that they took earlier than their peers. Can the minister clarify how those issues will be taken into account?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I call Maree Todd to answer, but that supplementary was a little wide of the question.

Photo of Maree Todd Maree Todd Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I think that everyone agrees that exceptional circumstances mean that the 2020 exam diet cannot go ahead—it is very clear that it cannot do so. The certification model that the SQA is developing will allow the hard work of learners to be recognised and qualifications awarded. Teachers and lecturers are being asked to make important decisions about how learners might have performed in the exams that they were due to sit this year. To ensure the integrity of the awards, it is right and important that the SQA will be able to check out and validate the teacher and lecturer estimates. That process is being designed to promote fairness and ensure that an A in one school is the same as an A in any other school, that a B in one school is the same as a B in any other school, and so on. The process is being laid out and is as fair as we can possibly make it in the circumstances that we face.