Debate time is short today, but there are several important points that I want to raise with members.
I thank members from all the political parties who have engaged constructively on the substance of my motion. To that end, we will support the Labour amendment. Had it been selected, I would have supported the Liberal Democrat amendment, too. They both contain valid points, which I hope to elaborate on.
It is fair to say that this year has been nothing short of an annus horribilis, to rehash that often cited term. However, it has been an additionally stressful one for our teachers. Teachers are our key workers, too. Every day, they are potentially exposed to Covid-19, just as others are. They allow that because they love teaching and they feel the weight of that responsibility on their shoulders.
On 18 November, the Parliament debated a Green Party motion about the realities of teaching on the ground during a health emergency. We heard numerous anecdotes of teachers being encouraged not to self-isolate because of staffing pressures in their school and of many clinically vulnerable teachers being refused their request to work from home. We collectively condemned that in the chamber.
The Parliament voted on the motion, and we were clear and specific in our asks of the Government. I supported the motion then, and today I reconfirm that support. However, I hope that my doing so this time will elicit a response from the Government, because, although these motions are non-binding, they are important nevertheless. The Scottish National Party Government is often the first to talk about the will of the Parliament, but it is oddly silent when it loses such votes.
I will turn to my motion. First, we reaffirm the calls to recruit at least 2,000 additional teachers. That is more important than ever, given the newly expanded and comprehensive roles that teachers will play in replacing the job of examinations. One teacher called me this morning and said:
“I am a teacher. My job is to teach. Our workload is big enough without this added responsibility, why are we doing the job of the SQA for them?”
That is a fair question. Teacher workload is important because the wellbeing and mental health of our teachers, and of all our school staff, have often been forgotten in the debate. In fact, it is often taboo to talk about them.
Increasing teacher numbers will deliver three clear benefits: it can help to reduce class sizes; it increases school resilience to deal with absences; and it helps to increase subject choice. We know this week, following a freedom of information request, that, since 2014, the average number of Scottish Qualifications Authority course entries per pupil is down in 31 out of 32 local authorities. We have already agreed in the Parliament the importance of teacher numbers. However, to date, no definitive plan has emerged on how the Government will honour that
My motion goes on to address the issue of free school meals. In my view, that is an issue of substance, and it is also one that I am passionate about. I accept that there has not always been consensus on it, either between parties or even within them—it is often a heated and political topic. However, I want to be clear on it in the debate. When the First Minister announced the SNP’s policy in her recent speech to her party’s conference, I welcomed it—just as I did when, back in September, it was contained in a policy paper produced by Scottish Conservatives, which we debated in this very chamber, and just as I have when other parties have done the same, such as when a similar proposal appeared in Labour’s manifesto in 2019.
To be honest, I could not care less whose idea it was first. As someone who grew up on free school meals, from primary school right the way through secondary school, I know about the stigma that was attached to them, which I felt. I believe that the Parliament now has an opportunity to end such stigma. If we could put aside our differences on such a serious and important issue and coalesce around the Government’s policy, it would send a powerful message. I have made clear my views on the policy because, sometimes, our lived experience affects our politics. It is not often that politicians have the privilege of introducing policy that has been so affected by their own lives. I ask members to reflect on that in their contributions if and when they broach the subject.
The rest of my motion represents a timely follow-up to yesterday’s announcement by the cabinet secretary on the 2021 exams. However, I believe that that is only the start of the conversation and not the end. Anyone who heard Dorothy McGinty speaking on the radio this morning will know about the disquiet and discomfort that exist among the teaching community over the way in which this year’s events have been handled. Whatever one’s views on the decision to cancel all exams—mine are publicly known—it seems to have raised more questions than it has answered.
The cabinet secretary has said that assessments will be based on teacher judgment. I applaud that, but questions remain. For example, if prelims are held, will they count? What about schools that do not hold them? Are prelims or mock exams required? Is the new model a fair and level playing field? Will it be fairer than exams? If so, why and in what way? Those are questions that people are asking us, and I pose them to the cabinet secretary.
Now that responsibility for assessment has been abdicated by the SQA and left to teachers, they are rightly concerned about their workloads. The one-off payment that the cabinet secretary has announced might compensate them financially, but it will not buy them more time. Further, students who start university next year will have little or no experience of sitting exams, which is of concern to many in the academic sector. Following the announcement of the decision yesterday, one chemistry teacher told me:
“Students heading into university laboratories run the risk of serious danger where they have not yet gained the required knowledge and skills.”
He also said:
“It would be an abdication of responsibility to send students to university in the knowledge that they may not be ready.”
There are other questions. On moderation, teachers are being asked to use their judgment, but we know that, this year, their judgment was moderated, ignored, overturned and then reinstated. The situation was a complete farce. The big question is, therefore: if we value teachers’ judgment at all, will we value it properly? Will their estimates be overruled again as they were this year? What moderation will take place? How will the Government ensure consistency and fairness in what is delivered? More importantly, what role will the SQA play in all that?
Further, how will appeals work in the new model? That is equally unclear. The Priestley review was specific in calling for enhancements to the appeals system, but we have yet to see the detail of those. How will they be fair, and how will we put young people at the heart of them?
Our motion calls for clarity on all those aspects. I take no pleasure in saying that all the warning signs about next year are there. These are crucially important grades that allow our young people to move on in education and in life. The education secretary must not let history repeat itself. It is not too late. I urge members to support my motion, because we cannot let young people down again.
That the Parliament notes the outcome of the debate on motion S5M-23385 (Safe Schools) on 18 November 2020 and reasserts its support for this; expresses disappointment that the Scottish Government has not presented proposals in response to the motion; calls on it to deliver at least 2,000 additional full-time teachers to fill the vacancy shortfall and to bring forward proposals to provide free school lunches and breakfasts for all primary pupils, to take effect from the start of the next financial year, and further calls on it to make a decisive and final decision regarding the 2021 Higher exam diet and to provide further support, before the Christmas holidays, to teachers, headteachers and local authorities by providing comprehensive guidance on the processes of assessment, moderation and appeals of all Higher level and National 5 awards.
Yesterday, I outlined to the Parliament that plans for the 2021 exams have been updated in the light of the continuing disruption to young people’s education caused by the coronavirus. I highlighted that higher and advanced higher exams will not now go ahead and that grades will instead be awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgment of evidence of learner attainment. The assessment model, details of which were published yesterday, will be based on that which is already agreed for national 5 awards, although there will be adaptations for the higher and advanced higher requirements.
That model has been developed by a group led by the SQA but involving local authorities, professional associations, the college sector and Education Scotland to make sure of an important element that lies at the heart of answering almost all the questions that Mr Greene has raised in his speech—that this approach is supported and endorsed by the whole education system and can be delivered as a consequence of that agreement.
Having taken that decision, we can now provide certainty to the education system and time to ensure that appropriate alternative processes can be implemented. This is the safest and fairest way to ensure that pupils’ achievements are recognised in the difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in.
The proposals recognise the reality of the disruption that many pupils have already had to their learning, through having to self-isolate to learn from home or as a result of school closures. The proposals also recognise that, although we hope that the public health situation will improve, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to learning in the period that lies ahead.
In coming to these decisions, there has been significant engagement with everyone involved. Following on from my announcement yesterday, I reiterate our on-going commitment to listening to the views of others to ensure that all the decisions that are taken are as balanced and as fair as possible.
In recognition of the additional workload of assessment of national qualifications in 2021, I am making provision for additional resource to meet the requirements of the new assessment approach. It is important that, as part of the exercise, there is adequate opportunity to ensure early support for moderation practices within individual schools. As we work through the steps, which are all outlined in the model that was published yesterday, there will be adequate opportunity for members of the teaching profession to be engaged in dialogue and discussion about the standards that are expected in each of the qualifications and to ensure that the assessment of the work undertaken by young people at a local level, which will be structured around the assessment modules that are provided by the SQA, enables consistency of judgment to be applied in every part of the country.
It will come out of public expenditure because all these activities are paid for through public expenditure. However, we will not be paying SQA marker fees in the usual fashion, because there will not be exam papers to mark. The resources that are allocated for that factor will be instrumental in making provision for the one-off payment, which is to recognise the fact that teachers and lecturers will be undertaking an activity that would ordinarily be carried out by SQA markers.
The other point from Mr Greene’s comments that I have to counter relates to what was put to me on the radio this morning—that, somehow, assessment is not the business of teachers. I have never heard a more ridiculous remark in my life. Teachers are assessing the performance of pupils on a daily basis, and anyone who suggests that teachers are not involved in assessment knows absolutely nothing about the conduct of education in our society.
Mr Greene made reference to the part of the motion that relates to the employment of full-time teachers. The Government has already put in place £80 million of additional resources, which has resulted in the recruitment of over 1,400 additional teachers and 246 support staff. That additional resource is bringing much-needed resilience to schools and the education system right now.
Mr Mundell will forgive me—I have to draw my remarks to a close.
Decisions about school staffing rest with local authorities, and I continue to discuss their on-going needs and aspirations around staff numbers in relation to providing education during the Covid crisis.
The Government has demonstrated over a number of years—including very recently, without prompting—additional support for the provision of free school meals, with the allocation of an additional £37 million to local authorities to continue the provision of free school meals during the period of schools being closed and in the summer, winter and Easter holidays. That is a fundamental commitment, and we have boosted that by indicating that, if the Government is re-elected, we will expand the universal provision of free school meals and breakfast clubs to all primary school children by August 2020. That commitment would extend to all school holidays. That is what decisive leadership to meet the needs of children and young people is about, and I am proud of the Government’s record in demonstrating that commitment.
I move amendment S5M-23629.3, to leave out from “outcome” to end and insert:
“announcements that National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams will be replaced by alternative certification models, and acknowledges that measures to address teacher workload, including additional financial support, will be put in place for those teachers and lecturers helping enable the certification to take place.”
I rise to support the motion and to move the amendment in my name. I start by paying tribute to all school staff for their efforts in keeping our schools going through this most difficult of terms and to pupils for their determination to keep learning, whatever 2020 has thrown at them. Unfortunately, too often, what has been thrown at staff and pupils has been critical decisions that come at the last minute and that are couched in confusion rather than clarity.
That goes right back to March, when, one day, we were told that schools would stay open and then, almost the next, we were told that they would close and that learning had to go online overnight. Then, after weeks of preparation for socially distanced blended learning, we were told just before the summer holidays that schools would open full time.
There was, of course, the SQA fiasco, when ministers went to the barricades to defend downgraded results until they were forced by pupil protest to respect teacher assessments. Teachers were told that classes would be socially distanced and then that they could not be. Pupils were told not to wear face coverings and then that they must wear them. It is no wonder that teachers have felt increasingly ill-used. That culminated in ministers dealing shambolically with a modest request for a slightly early end to face-to-face teaching before Christmas by wrapping that up with a January holiday extension and then ditching the whole thing at the last minute. Incredibly, the Educational Institute of Scotland now says that teachers in England have been better treated by the Tories than ours have been by the Scottish Government.
Difficult decisions are, of course, unavoidable in the face of the pandemic, but their mishandling was not inevitable if ministers had really listened, as the Deputy First Minister claims that he does.
The poet Alexander Scott once satirised Scottish education of the last century in this way:
“A telt ye
A telt ye.”
Well, the Parliament is entitled to say to the education secretary, “We telt ye.” We telt him over and over that downgrading SQA awards on the basis of school performance and not pupil achievement would be a disaster. We telt him that he had to decide on exams long before now, or teachers would tell him that it is too late, as they are now doing.
Only last month, the Parliament explicitly told the education secretary in a Green motion that teachers had to see enhanced measures that allayed their safety fears, but he has not listened. There are no more additional teachers beyond those that he was claiming a month ago, when we had that debate, so there are no smaller classes. There is no funding for improved ventilation, so schools are still sitting with the windows open. There is no more routine testing. Yesterday, he said that he was going to get round to speaking to some local authorities about having a pilot next year, which suggests that we might have invented, produced and delivered a vaccine all before teachers can get routine tests.
Many of the decisions have been the right ones, but too many of them have been the right decisions taken way too late or only after another handbrake turn. That is why we need the additional staff and routine staff testing now, and not sometime in the future. It is why we must get the 2021 award scheme right, which can happen only if the whole scheme of moderation and validation is published urgently and with complete transparency. We cannot repeat the mistakes of last year, when the SQA published its moderation scheme only on the day that the results came out and all hell broke loose. We are saying to the cabinet secretary, “Listen now, and please let us get it right this time.”
I move amendment S5M-23629.2, to insert at end:
“, and notes that the Scottish Government must also instruct the SQA to publish any moderation methodology that will be used in the grading of awards in 2021, in full and in advance of assessment.”
I thank Jamie Greene for ensuring that we have time to debate the broad range of serious and interrelated issues that our schools face this term. As Mr Greene’s motion states, the Parliament set clear expectations of the Government when we passed my safe schools motion, as well as Conservative and Labour amendments, nearly a month ago, so it is disappointing that this debate is even necessary, but it is.
On 18 November, the Parliament called for vulnerable school staff to be supported to work from home, or in a safer alternative setting. We called for a further 2,000 teachers to provide cover over the winter and ease the crippling workload pressures that are currently faced, and we called for regular testing to be made available for all staff and for senior pupils.
The one area in which I see some progress being made is testing, with the recent announcement of an asymptomatic testing pilot, but given that we are nine months into the pandemic, frankly, another pilot feels like a delay. I would appreciate it if the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills could outline why a further pilot is necessary, given the wealth of evidence that we now have from across the world and from mass testing programmes that are already in place here, such as what is currently happening with university students and the pilot in Johnstone. I would further appreciate it if he could confirm where the pilot will take place, when it will start and end, and when the mass asymptomatic testing in all schools that the Parliament voted for will be delivered. Given the near certainty of a post-Christmas surge, I am not the only one who believes that that should be in place for every school in January.
I am aware that some discussions have taken place on the issue of protecting vulnerable school staff but, beyond the effective advocacy of unions in individual cases and, in some cases, at local authority level, no solution is in place. A postcode lottery on a fundamental issue of health and safety still exists, and many extremely vulnerable teachers whose employers made changes while their areas were at level 4 are today wondering whether those protections will be maintained when their areas are at level 3. The cabinet secretary said that no teacher should be pressured into class against the advice of their GP, but he knows that that is exactly what is happening, so we are again asking him to intervene.
On the recruitment of additional teachers, like Iain Gray, I can see no progress. High staff absence rates will continue well into the new year, and to say that teachers are at breaking point would be an understatement. However, today’s budget update made no mention of additional funds for teacher recruitment, so we can only presume that the Government is not going to do what the Parliament has instructed.
I hope that the cabinet secretary will address those points, but time is tight and Mr Greene’s motion also makes reference to the critical issue of next year’s exams, which I want to address, too.
The Greens are, of course, glad that the Government has finally made the decision to cancel and replace highers and advanced higher exams. We have called for that since May and have been contacted by increasing numbers of young people anxious about having had to miss weeks of school because of self-isolation. They did not know how they were going to manage exams in comparison with those who have been fortunate enough to avoid absences.
However, in leaving the decision so late, the Government has caused some entirely unnecessary stress for pupils and particularly for their teachers. When the decision on national 5s was taken, the cabinet secretary categorically assured me that it should not increase teacher workload. He did so again yesterday when I made the same point in relation to highers and advanced highers, but if he genuinely believes that to be the case, he needs to explain why not a single teacher seems to agree with him. The reality is that exams have essentially been replaced in large part by de facto exams, to be administered and marked by teachers.
Pre-pandemic, Scotland’s schools were dependent on an average of 11 hours of overtime being worked each week by teachers. That has only increased this year, and with the assessment model, it will increase further. The proposed approach will take many teachers beyond their breaking point, and it is simply not sustainable.
The Parliament has already given the Government clear instructions, and we are now set to do so again. If the Government does not act, it will be not just the Parliament but teachers, pupils and parents who will hold it responsible next year.
I want to start by acknowledging and thanking pupils, parents and carers, teachers and all school staff for their hard work, especially during the pandemic.
I note that it is just three weeks since many of the issues that we are considering today were last debated by the Parliament. Many people who work in Scottish education can feel their patience with the Scottish Government wearing thin. It has been a long and trying year, but it has felt all the longer and all the more trying because teachers, staff and pupils have been at the mercy of a Government that is paralysed by indecision.
Yesterday’s announcement followed the pattern that we are all now very familiar with: a decision being made on exams, but only after another damaging delay. While the Government has been slowly pondering, teachers, parents and pupils have been going through real and legitimate anxieties about their work and their futures. Cancelling exams was the right thing to do, and it was inevitable; it is clear from the evidence that pupils would not have had an equal shot at success if they had gone ahead.
Pupils who attend schools in Glasgow have had a very different experience from those in the Highlands ever since schools returned. It is difficult to see how there could ever have been a level playing field for highers and advanced highers. The Liberal Democrat education minister in Wales made the decision weeks ago, yet in Scotland the autumn term has almost passed, with pupils in level 4 areas having been asked to shield and learn from home while those elsewhere in the country attend as normal. Once again, it took political intervention by the Scottish Liberal Democrats and others for the Scottish Government to find its way to a conclusion.
These are difficult times and I do not underestimate the challenges that are involved in making such decisions, but there are real people at the other end of those announcements. The Educational Institute of Scotland reported unsustainable workloads for school management teams in September as they grappled with change after change while trying to give their pupils the best possible education, and it is safe to say that things have not improved since then.
I am seriously concerned about the health and wellbeing of those who are on the front line in Scottish schools, and I do not understand why the Scottish Government refuses to acknowledge the valid concerns that have been raised by vulnerable teachers. The education secretary lodged an amendment that would remove all reference to them.
The Scottish Government needs to take concrete action and make decisions in anticipation of problems that are coming down the line, not on reflection afterwards. Schools need to have the detail of the new exam model for highers and advanced highers in their inboxes by the time they return after Christmas. That means detail on how and when pupils should be assessed, how results might be moderated and what support will be offered to those who have already been impacted by the virus.
Vulnerable teachers need to be offered a safe place to work so that nobody is left feeling unsafe. Additional school staff need to be recruited and ready to deal with the new problems that will arise in the new year. The patchwork hiring that has been reported so far, with nine local authorities adding no new, additional support staff, is not good enough.
As Jamie Greene eloquently highlighted, issues such as free school meals need to stop being treated like political hot potatoes. There also needs to be an interim report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development so that people in Scotland have a chance to reflect fairly on the state of education ahead of the next election.
We will support the motion and Labour’s amendment, but not the Government amendment.
I declare my membership of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
I start by thanking our teachers and everyone who works in our schools for supporting our young people in formal education during these difficult times. We should recognise that staff and pupils are under great pressure and that pupils in poorer areas are affected more by absence rates. Many pupils have been off school and isolating several times, which will undoubtedly have an impact on their education alongside the pressures, worries and social impact of the pandemic having a detrimental effect on their mental health and wellbeing.
It is important that there is certainty about the exams in the current academic year and that, following the announcement of the cancellations yesterday, full details are published. Teachers need clarity on what is expected of them, and young people must be treated fairly and have their personal circumstances taken into account, to ensure that they get the results that they deserve this year.
In the previous education debate a few weeks ago, concerns were expressed about the safety of schools, transmission rates and the pressures on staff to go to work. It is difficult to comprehend that, due to concerns about transmission rates, we cannot socialise in our homes and we can only meet one other household outside, but a teacher can mix inside with 30 young people from 30 different households. Because of that, it is vital that all the safety measures and improvements that the Parliament voted for are implemented.
The announcement of routine asymptomatic testing of school staff is welcome, but it is not happening soon enough. There is also undoubtedly a case for teachers to be offered the Covid vaccine as soon as possible, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will comment on that when he sums up.
I will now concentrate on the issue of free school meals, which is included in the motion. As the cabinet secretary and others in the chamber will know, I have been a long-time campaigner on the issue and I co-sponsored Frances Curran MSP’s Education (School Meals etc) (Scotland) Bill in session 2.
The original campaign was supported by a wide range of organisations including the Scottish Trades Union Congress women’s committee and the Child Poverty Action Group, which produced a campaign book entitled “Even the tatties have batter!” That title was taken from a comment that a pupil made about the standard of school dinners, and it referred to the appalling meals that were on offer, which included the infamous Turkey Twizzlers. That was allowed due to a Tory Government having got rid of nutritional standards for school meals and having removed price controls, which permitted private firms, under compulsory competitive tendering, to charge a fortune for junk food.
Currently, footballer Marcus Rashford is campaigning on school meals. Back then, it was Jamie Oliver who was demanding better-quality food and a ban on Turkey Twizzlers. The Scottish Labour-led Government of the time introduced nutritional standards in our schools through the hungry for success policy.
In 2007, the SNP came into government with a promise to introduce free school meals,
“beginning with our youngest children”.
However, it was only after the Tories at Westminster introduced free school meals for children in primary 1 to 3 in 2014 that the SNP Government used the Barnett consequentials to do the same in Scotland in 2015.
I have no doubt that free nutritious school meals are necessary not only to tackle poverty and hunger, but in terms of nourishment and overall health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, too many of our children remain at risk of being overweight or obese—the figure is around 30 per cent. Despite the Government pledge to halve that by 2030, little progress has been made.
We could engage children with healthy eating by tapping into the fact that many have been inspired by environmental campaigning. Food-related environmental factors could be promoted in order to encourage healthy eating and the uptake of free school meals. However, we need to be sure that schools have the facilities to accommodate children for those meals. Councils have suffered severe cuts to their budgets over the years, so it is essential that the Scottish Government fully compensates them for expenditure on free school meals, in order that other educational services, such as learning support, do not suffer.
Our society has high levels of food insecurity, children going hungry and families increasingly dependent on food banks. There are predictions of a further increase in demand for food banks, due to the pandemic, the resultant unemployment and increasing poverty. That is why my proposal for a right to food is so important.
It is 13 years since the SNP promised to roll out free school meals. Many children have lost out through not having had access to them during that time. Unless the latest promise is just election propaganda, it really is time to act now and fully deliver on the 2007 promise.
I draw members’ attention to the fact that I have a daughter who is head of department in a secondary school and my youngest has just started secondary school.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate on education. It is a subject that we do not debate often enough. Far too often, it is the Opposition which forces the Government to face up to its responsibilities in what is a devolved portfolio.
However, I start where there is consensus. I was delighted when the Scottish Conservatives announced that they would put forward a policy commitment to provide free school lunches in all primary schools. I have always stated that education is the solution to health and welfare. From the perspective of my health brief, I can say that ensuring access to nutritious and quality food is an essential element of academic attainment as well as good physical and mental health. The attainment gap and inequalities continue to grow. It was therefore welcome that the SNP decided to follow a similar path. Given the inclusion in Labour’s most recent manifesto of a like-minded policy, it would seem that agreement has broken out across the chamber.
It would be helpful if local public food procurement were adopted in tandem with that policy. Perhaps that would allow us to make a positive impact on the rural economy as well as on the environmental issues that are often discussed in the Parliament.
In the remainder of my time, I will focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our teachers and staff, and on the increasing pressure that has been heaped upon them by the issues that Jamie Greene has addressed in the Scottish Conservative motion.
There is a lack of teachers. At the moment, Scottish Conservatives are calling for the approximately 2,000 teachers that Scotland lacks. The shortfall has been exacerbated by the forced absence from the classroom of many of our teaching staff because of the Covid pandemic.
We cannot ignore the pressure that teachers were under pre-Covid. The piles of paperwork and the tick-box exercises have continued to creep into their daily work. I have always advocated that, given that teachers are trained to teach, the system should allow them to get on with the job that they were trained for and about which they feel so passionately. Creating that positive working environment speaks directly to the recruitment and retention of staff. Not only does having to spend increasing chunks of their day on paperwork impinge on teachers’ ability and desire to teach but it discourages them from potentially getting involved with extra-curricular activities—I just thought I would slide that in there, Presiding Officer, because it is another of my consistent calls.
Covid has raised the issue of health and wellbeing to the top of the agenda. A teacher recently told me about a huge rise in pupils reporting with mental health and anxiety issues. They said that teachers do not have the resources to deal with that and are concerned by the potential to miss something that might lead to a tragedy further down the line. Surely that is too much pressure and stress for teachers to have to cope with over and above their day-to-day pressures.
Last week, we debated mental health support for children. There was general agreement that not enough is being done, especially in the current climate. That must have a knock-on effect on those who are charged with looking after our children in the education system. The pressures of exams or assessment processes, the uncertainty, which feeds pupils’ anxieties, and the inability of teachers to prepare for those eventualities because of a lack of guidance and clarity from the Scottish Government will obviously affect morale.
We must remember that we are in December and nearly into a new year, and so just a few short months from when the assessments and exams would have been timetabled. I simply do not think that the Scottish Government is giving our teachers sufficient resources or time to plan properly.
The Scottish Government’s report card on education was poor pre-Covid. The current crisis has highlighted its inability to take anything like the decisive action that we should expect from our Government. Our teachers, school staff and pupils deserve better.
We will reflect that wisdom and knowledge changed on a daily and sometimes hourly basis in 2020 as the Covid crisis progressed. Some things—some wisdom and knowledge—have got old and outdated very quickly. The Conservative motion is an example of that. It has not aged well.
On exams, the Deputy First Minister has announced that the national 5, higher and advanced higher exams in 2021 will be replaced by alternative certification models and that measures will be in place to address teacher workload. Clarity has now been given.
On teacher numbers, the Scottish Government has taken action to help schools to respond to the challenges of Covid, with additional investment of £135 million. That help includes the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers. Clarity has now been given on teacher numbers.
I remind members that it was the SNP that had to incentivise maintaining teacher numbers in 2015. The then finance secretary, John Swinney, maintained teacher numbers and the pupil teacher ratio by giving a funding package of £51 million to local authorities.
Only last month, the Scottish Tory MPs in the House of Commons famously voted against extending free school meal provision to the summer holidays. Despite Douglas Ross publicly backing the plan, he did not turn up to the House of Commons for that vote. Meanwhile, the SNP Government has delivered its free school meals and is committed to a further £100 payment for those who are in receipt of free school meals, to help families to deal with the pressures of Covid. I say to my Conservative colleagues that that is the difference between a soundbite and real bite—a real bite of food for hungry weans, delivered by the SNP.
The weight of expectation from our young people, parents, carers, educators and local and national bodies is immense. No matter what decisions are taken, we should be mindful that some will be disappointed, anxious and worried, especially about how the crisis might impact on outcomes for our young people.
We should thank everyone for their resilience and patience. There are no winners or losers in these times. To couch this debate in the retrospection of “We told you so” adds nothing. We should all be looking to the road ahead, to the challenges that we still face as a community, and to the outcomes for our young people, which should be everyone’s focus.
Education has to be delivered safely and equably to ensure that our young people, parents, carers, educators, local and national bodies and the wider community of Scotland, including employers, have confidence in the grades that are awarded this year. All those who are involved in delivering Scottish education have faced extremely difficult circumstances.
The Deputy First Minister has announced that national five, higher and advanced higher exams
will be replaced by an alternative certification model and that measures will be in place to address teacher workload. That assessment needs to be fair. As was mentioned, almost 40 per cent of secondary 4 pupils who have not been in school for a Covid-related reason for more than one fifth of school opening days are from our poorest communities.
It has been unavoidable that Covid has disrupted learning. It is impossible to guarantee that all learners will be in a position to have their best chance to perform to their true potential during exams. That is why cancelling exams this year has been the right decision. Overall, we should be concerned for the wellbeing of our young people and teachers and we should get behind our school communities as they continue to face the challenges of Covid, as we all do.
No one is under any illusion that running an education system in the middle of a global pandemic is easy. All across Europe, Governments have been forced to take unpopular and unprecedented decisions about schools, universities and early years. No one is seriously suggesting that those decisions have been taken with anything other than the best of intentions, even if those decisions sometimes divide opinion. That gives the Scottish Government some cover for the past nine months. Finding adequate excuses for the failings in education that have been amassed over the past 13 years will be trickier.
As has been well documented by colleagues across the chamber, the SNP’s domestic record on education has been shocking. Unfortunately, the chaos that has been caused by the Government’s indecision on higher and advanced higher exams has left pupils and teachers in a situation of uncertainty since the beginning of the parliamentary session, having to second-guess whether exams will take place in 2021.
Even with the severity of the challenges that have been posed by Covid-19, surely there has been enough time for any Government to decide and act on a proper plan. That should have all been done and prepared months ago, not announced yesterday, more than halfway through the academic school year. Whatever decision the SNP Government wanted to reach, it has waited far too long to make it.
So where are we now? John Swinney’s response yesterday was to issue guidance on how teachers should assess their pupils, recognising that that will create additional work for and pressure on our already overstretched teachers. By way of acknowledgement, the Government will give teachers and lecturers who are critical to assessing and marking exam courses a one-off payment. How much extra pressure and time will that work involve for teachers? [
.] The member will have to forgive me. I have only four minutes.
What about the additional payment; how much will that be? Let us note that it will be taxable.
Highers are not just about the year leading up to the actual exam; they are the culmination of years of hard work for students and teachers alike. John Swinney said that he
“will not stake the future of our higher pupils ... on a lottery of whether their school was hit by Covid.”—[
, 8 December 2020; c 49.]
I am sorry; it will be a complete lottery, and if the 2020 assessment process is anything to go by, it will be a complete shambles too. That is especially the case given that guidance is only now being issued to teachers on how to assess their pupils, rather than have every pupil in Scotland sit the same exam on the same day.
I have touched on the additional pressure that will be heaped on to teachers, but what about our pupils? They are now living under huge pressure at school, where they are constantly being assessed, as opposed to aiming for a higher exam next May. That is affecting pupils’ mental health and should be flagged as an area of major concern. Let us think about what will happen when this generation of young Scottish people goes to university or college and suddenly has to sit exams, when for the past two years, that opportunity has been taken away. Some children will be left ill equipped and at a disadvantage, because they will have no exam experience under their belts.
As we all know, the First Minister requested that the people of Scotland judge her on her record on education. Given the performance of the past 13 years, it is perhaps unsurprising to see that the SNP Government is now so averse to examinations.
I am pleased to support the motion in the name of Jamie Greene.
The Conservative motion that we are debating has many asks, and it appears to be a composite of many issues, some of which, as has been said, have been superseded by yesterday’s announcement by the cabinet secretary. However, I will try to address most of the points that are raised in the motion.
On safe schools, the safety of pupils, teachers and all school staff has been paramount in the Government’s approach to dealing with the pandemic. Arrangements have already been put in place, in conjunction with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to allow members of school staff to get a coronavirus test whether or not they have symptoms, and we are the only part of the UK that provides such routine access. In addition, when schools return in January, we will begin to pilot routine asymptomatic testing of school staff. Teachers and all school staff should not feel that they are being put at risk simply by doing their job.
The call from the Conservatives to bring forward free school lunches and breakfasts to all primary pupils from the start of the next financial year is, in my view, pretty breathtaking. I acknowledge Jamie Greene’s personal view on that call, but it is in their motion. I would not have thought that the Tories needed reminding that it was their Westminster Government that had to be shamed into giving free meals to pupils during the school holidays by a premier league footballer, so it is a bit rich to call on us to bring forward our own ground-breaking initiative.
That, coupled with the news from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that more than half a million children across the UK are living in poverty because of Westminster failings, really compounds that extraordinary part of the motion.
The question about the 2021 higher exam diet was answered in full by the education secretary yesterday. National 5, higher and advanced higher exams in 2021 will be replaced by alternative certification models, and measures will be in place to address and decrease the workloads of teachers and lecturers. They will rightfully receive a one-off payment for their extra work in assessing and marking exam courses this year—a process that I am confident will be carried out professionally and efficiently. I am glad that comprehensive guidance on the process will be given, but it is important that the Government responds quickly to any difficulties that might arise, given the importance of those assessments for the future of our children.
I believe that cancelling exams was a sensible and logical decision, given the disruption that the virus has caused to learning this year. Many pupils have lost significant learning time through the lockdown or self-isolation, and evidence shows that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been affected disproportionately. It is vital that they are not disadvantaged further.
A teacher-based assessment of individual learner attainment might offer a better approach to delivering fairness, especially when supported by an exceptional circumstances process and an appeals process. I am also pleased that the cabinet secretary has confirmed that no algorithms will be used in the assessment process.
All those who are involved in delivering Scottish education this year have faced a monumental task. There have been no easy resolutions to the issues that have arisen over the past nine months and the challenges that lie ahead. Facing that reality, the Scottish Government has taken action to help schools respond to the challenges of Covid with additional investment of £135 million, which includes funding for the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers. The £50 million education recovery fund, which supports councils to deal with additional staffing requirements and with cleaning, facilities management, transport and other issues, is critical to ensuring a safe return to schools; it is absolutely vital.
We are living in unprecedented times and are having to take unheard-of decisions. However, I am confident that the Government has made young people and our valued teaching staff an absolute priority during the pandemic.
I do not doubt the commitment to education in Scotland of any of my colleagues in the Parliament. I do not doubt that they want the best for our young people, but sometimes in a debate such as this one we have to take a deep breath and acknowledge that we are living in unprecedented times.
It has been difficult for everyone to know what is going on from day to day, let alone be able to plan and ensure that we have got everything right in education all the time, every single day.
I welcome the work being done by our teachers and pupils to try to continue down their educational path, but we have to find a way of making everything safe for them so that pupils can build for their futures.
Many colleagues come to the chamber and say that they welcome the debate that they are speaking in. It is a bit of a cliché, like many others that we use. However, I welcome today’s debate because the Deputy First Minister has already covered many of the issues that are in the Tory motion. Yes, there are many challenges out there for us all, and there are many things that we need to address, but the Deputy First Minister recently announced that exams would be replaced by alternative certification models, and he also addressed teaching workload. Those are just two of the points in the Tory motion.
The fact is that the Scottish Government has taken action to help schools to respond to the many challenges of Covid-19 in education, with £135 million that includes funding for the recruitment of 1,400 additional teachers—[
I would love to take an intervention, but when we have these speed-dating debates, it is difficult to take time out.
It is, however, strange to read in the Tory motion that the Conservative Party is a new recruit to the idea of all forms of free school meals. I will always encourage new recruits on an issue as important as that. However, it was not long ago that the Scottish Tory leader made a similar commitment, but then did not even bother to turn up for the vote. Members should not think for a minute that I do not believe that my colleagues mean what they say, but, at the end of the day, the Tory leader did not even bother to turn up for a vote on extending free school meals during the summer, despite publicly backing it—[
I really do not have the time to take an intervention.
Many years ago, I sold cars. Car salespeople are perceived to have a sullied reputation because of the industry that they work in. I do not know one car salesperson who would do what Douglas Ross did when he said one thing and delivered something completely different. I have never known anybody in the industry—even though it is one that the public has a negative view of—to do anything like that, but that is the Tories for you: they just cannot help themselves.
Last night, I watched a young man on TV—a school pupil—saying that he welcomed John Swinney’s announcement yesterday because it takes the pressure off him and his colleagues and gives them the opportunity to concentrate, given that they are still dealing with the challenges of Covid. It will give them the opportunity to get on with their education; the EIS said something similar on that point. That is an interesting point, and I think it is why all our colleagues sometimes need to take a deep breath and understand what is actually happening out there in the real world and get on with delivering for the people of Scotland.
One day, this will all be over—it will all be history—and we will tell our grandchildren about it but, when that day comes, we have to be sure that we have given our pupils the educational opportunity that they need so that they can go forward and get on with the rest of their lives.
In his remarks, George Adam asked us to take a deep breath. I would ask SNP members to consider that it is they who need to take a deep breath. There is nothing in the motion or the amendment proposed by the Labour Party that they should disagree with. Indeed, if we are all agreed that we want to see our education systems succeed, they should not be points of disagreement; they should be points of consensus about how we take our education system forward.
As many members have pointed out, we are in unprecedented times. As we face Covid-19, it presents challenges in terms of immediate infection control, and how we deal with those things given limited information and the fact that this is an emerging virus without the science to back us up. We have grappled with the long-term, social and economic consequences. Education policy, in microcosm, has each of those three elements.
It is not easy and it is understandable that mistakes would be made, because of the unprecedented circumstances. However, as many members have pointed out, we are nine months on and we have seen a great number of issues arise, as Iain Gray set out in his opening remarks.
We are asking the Scottish Government to learn from those mistakes. When the exams were cancelled back in May, it should have been clear and obvious that there was a risk that the exams would have to be cancelled in 2021, too. From that moment, it was incumbent on the Government to draw up contingency plans with regard to what it would do if those exams had to be cancelled, but that is not the announcement that we have just had. The announcement should have been that we were reverting to a plan B that was well understood and had been announced at the start of term, as opposed to a plan that has been half announced as schools get ready to rise for Christmas.
That brings us to the motion in front of us. George Adam rather confusingly seemed to point out that the Government is apparently in agreement with each of the points raised in the motion, but it is opposing them because of who is raising them. The Government will vote against more teachers, despite claiming that it is putting more teachers in place and acknowledging the increased workload that we are placing on our teachers. The Government claims that it is providing clarity and yet it will vote against calls for clarity.
I agree with many SNP members that the Conservatives have been on something of an ironic journey on the issue of free school meals, but let me say this: I do not care what journey someone has been on if they arrive at the right conclusion and agree on an important issue such as free school meals, which had its case made well by Elaine Smith. I congratulate them on arriving at the right conclusion; I do not dismiss their calls because I do not agree with where they started from.
The Labour amendment calls for clarity on methodology, and it is claimed that we have had an announcement on that. We have a timetable and a framework, but we do not have clarity about how quality control of the assessment will take place. We also do not know how appeals will take place. Anyone clicking through the documentation on the SQA website will be taken to a document that states that appeals will be made through centres, not by individuals.
There are two clear lessons to learn from the exams debacle earlier this year. First, when candidates’ grades are altered, they need to know the basis of that alteration—why it has happened and what the justification is. The framework that has been set out does not provide that clarity and it will not be sufficient until it does so. Secondly, when candidates feel that their grade is unfair, they, not their school, need to decide whether to appeal.
These are unprecedented times, but we must learn from the mistakes, not repeat them, because the future of our young people rests on the decisions that we make.
Let me address some of the points that have been raised by members.
First, Ross Greer and Beatrice Wishart both mentioned the position of vulnerable teachers. I have placed on the record, and it is implicit in the guidance that the Government has issued on the matter, that individual assessments must be made by the employers—the local authorities. The Government does not employ teachers, so local authorities must make assessments of the clinical circumstances of individual teachers and, as the Parliament has said in the past—the Government agreed—teachers who are judged to be clinically vulnerable should be deployed on other duties to enable them to preserve their health and wellbeing. That is central to the duty of employment that rests with individual local authorities.
Elaine Smith raised a number of points in relation to testing, as did Ross Greer. I will put on the record something that has not been particularly obvious from some contributions to the debate: asymptomatic testing is available for teachers now. Today, Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom that makes it available to teachers. A teacher who is worried can get a test even if they have no symptoms. That provision is not available anywhere else in the United Kingdom, but there has been no acknowledgement of that in points that some members have made in the debate.
Elaine Smith also made a point about prioritisation for vaccination. The Government and the health secretary have been quite clear about that, and the Cabinet has agreed. We have taken our clinical advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Asking us to take a different stance means inviting us simply to ditch clinical advice. I do not think that the Parliament would forgive us if we were to ditch the clinical advice that is available to us.
That is because lateral flow tests cannot be administered without clinical supervision, which means that we would have to put such supervision into every single school in the country, as well as ensure that we had sufficient lateral flow devices.
We have allocated supplies to students to address directly the issues that arose from the spread of the virus, and we have put in place clinical supervision for use of the lateral flow devices. That is the fundamental difference. That has been done in 19 institutions in the country. I note, for Mr Greene’s benefit, that we have 2,500 schools in the country, so putting such provision in place in schools would be a substantially different proposition.
I turn to exams. Ross Greer made the point that exams are potentially being replaced by de facto exams—prelims. I completely debunk that point of view; that is not what is in the guidance that has been set out. I do not believe that it is necessary for young people to sit a mid-term exam to replace the end-of-year exam. That is not what the change is about. It is about holistic assessment and relying on the judgment of teachers to enable—as Elaine Smith correctly highlighted—the taking into account of the personal experiences of individual young people and their access to education.
Alison Harris raised a concern about the mental health of young people in our schools. I am concerned about that, too, but I do not believe that the solution is to put young people, with all the worries that they have just now, in the position of having to wait for an end-of-year exam when we can instead support them to develop their learning during the year to ensure that they have command of the curriculum and can be entitled to awards.
If Alison Harris thinks that young people’s mental health would, in the current circumstances, be better served by having them wait for one afternoon in May as the opportunity for them to be supported, I disagree with that view. The Parliament is entitled to hear honest disagreement between its members; members are hearing such disagreement with that suggestion now from the education secretary.
I come to the question of the timing of exam decisions. There has been some criticism of the timing of my decision yesterday. However, I point out that various members—on the Conservative side of the chamber, in particular—have argued vociferously that I should not take any premature decisions—[
.] I appreciate that that does not apply to members on all sides of the chamber; nevertheless, members have argued against my taking premature decisions.
We now find ourselves in a situation in which, when I take a decision, it is judged to be a delayed decision by the self-same members who previously argued that to make such a decision would be premature. That stinks of total and utter rank hypocrisy, of which we have heard a lot this afternoon. [
My final point relates to the practical contents of the motion. There are two provisions in particular that I entirely support. One is expansion of the number of teachers—which we have done. The other is expansion of provision of free school meals, which we have done and continue to do. We did not need to be shamed into action by successful footballers, because we had already decided to enable that provision.
The Parliament must consider how all the measures in the motion would be implemented in practice. It must be careful about the motions that it passes, because it must be able to put in place the financial and operational support to ensure that the measures can be delivered.
I start on a note of consensus after that grumpy, angry and dismissive speech, which has become John Swinney’s trademark when it comes to education—[
In all seriousness, I join other members in thanking our teachers and pupils, and all the support staff, parents and carers across the country who have had to work doubly hard throughout the pandemic as a result of John Swinney’s failures.
Today’s debate provides an important chance to take stock of the Government’s performance and progress—[
Could we stop for a moment, please? Sit down, please, Mr Mundell.
I have spent the last 10 minutes listening to shouting from one side of the chamber, and I am now hearing it from the other side. Could members all just calm down and start showing a bit of respect for one another, please?
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Covid has revealed where education truly sits in the Government’s priority list, and it is not at the top. It is hard for the Government to call it its number 1 priority, or even to call it a priority at all. With every debate, every parliamentary statement and every passing day, it becomes clearer that the SNP and John Swinney are content to preside over an underperforming education system, and that they continue to refuse to listen to the will of the Parliament. Worse than that, they refuse to listen to our teachers who are working on the front line.
Far from equity and excellence, all we see is dither and delay, and a blame culture in which responsibility lies with everyone but the Scottish Government. As we saw yesterday, even the most basic questions seem to be difficult to answer. The never-ending U-turns are becoming more like a loop the loop, and I am not surprised that even the cabinet secretary is finding it hard to keep up with himself.
Iain Gray is right: we often get the right decisions, but they come far too late. Usually at this point in the debate, I would say that the Government is too busy focusing on a divisive independence referendum, but I am honestly not sure whether John Swinney is more preoccupied with burying the legal advice that the Parliament has been asking for.
Anyway, all that we can know for sure is that education has fallen even lower down the priority list over the past few months. The SNP has no new ideas of its own, no new thinking, no real commitment, and no willingness to engage with the Parliament, teachers or unions. It is all just talk. That is why I find it pretty galling to hear SNP back-bench MSPs suggest that, after 13 long years in government, it is a total and complete coincidence that increasing free school meals provision to all primary school pupils has come about just a matter of weeks after the Scottish Conservatives called for that change to be made.
What is even more ridiculous is that SNP MSPs seem to care about or to be interested only in what is happening in England when there is an opportunity for political point scoring. If we are going to talk about politicking, and if we are going to suggest that people are being shameful, I say that that is shameful. Where is the SNP’s concern for the rest of the UK, as it seeks to tear our country apart?
As our motion suggests, let us bring forward the plans now—let us deliver the change, let us take the politics out of this issue, and let us get it done before the election. Let us make the change at the start of the next financial year. If we all agree that it is a good idea, why wait?
I will pick up on another point that was made by my colleague, Jamie Greene. I am unclear why the SNP Government, having accepted that it was a mistake to cut our teacher numbers to the bone, has been so sluggish about putting in place plans to deliver additional teachers. Where are the 2,000 additional full-time teachers whom we need to fill vacancies? The pressure and workload on teachers in our schools would be much less, and there would be much more resilience in the system, if those teachers were on the front line, helping our young people. How can a Government that is serious about maximising opportunities for Scotland’s young people be so relaxed about such a significant failing?
Is the cabinet secretary happy that young people, particularly those who live in rural and remote communities, are getting a second-class education service simply because the teachers are not there to give them the teaching and support that they deserve? I am certainly not happy, and my constituents feel that the Government lacks understanding of what is needed to turn things around. There is certainly a lack of prioritisation when it comes to delivering more teachers.
Of course, the teachers who are there are working very hard, and I would never seek to do down our young people or our schools, but they should not have to pick up the slack as a result of national failings in policy and lack of resources.
It would be tempting to say that many of the changes have come about as a result of an urban and central-belt dominated mindset that is at the heart of the SNP, but the reality is that things are no better in our cities, and our young people are being let down the length and breadth of the country.
As a number of other members have done, I want to highlight briefly the many questions that have come up as a result of the Deputy First Minister’s statement yesterday. Surely, having had the advantage of significant practice when it comes to the announcement of U-turns and changes in policy, Mr Swinney would have had the chance to think through the answers to some of the obvious questions that were asked. It does not inspire confidence to hear deflection of legitimate questions, nor to hear that it will be left to schools and universities to sort out the tricky issues.
I would sit down now to give the cabinet secretary a chance to give a bit more clarity, but I know from experience that we will just get more of the same. I am starting to suspect that the new strategy is just to give as little information as possible, so that people have less chance later to point out that things have gone wrong.
When it comes to education, it is clear that the SNP Government will do nothing proactively, which is why I urge colleagues across the chamber to continue to hold it to account this evening, and to ensure that it listens to the Parliament and the people of Scotland.
That concludes the debate on responding to parliamentary will and to calls for clarity in education.
It is time to move on to the next item of business. I was about to ask members please to take care with social distancing measures when you leave the chamber, but it looks as though everyone is staying.