The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-02839, in the name of Meghan Gallacher, on education failures and guaranteeing the 2022 exam diet.
I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function now.
I call Meghan Gallacher to speak to and move the motion for up to seven minutes.
I welcome the opportunity to open today’s debate on education and to move the motion in my name.
The Scottish National Party’s record on education has been a sorry tale of broken promises and failed reforms. The foundation was broken long ago. In 2016, the First Minister said that the “defining mission” of her Government was education. In fact, so confident was the First Minister that she asked to be judged on her education record. The SNP’s dismal record on education presents a damning indictment indeed. The judgment is one of failure after failure.
The pandemic has of course presented challenges, which was to be expected. Every MSP in the chamber will recognise that. When the First Minister announced in the programme for government that
“COVID will not be the defining experience for this current generation of young people”,
I am sure that there would not have been any dissenting voices. However, over the past two years, the Scottish Government has presided over examination chaos, with last-minute cancellations and a system that reduced the grades of the pupils in the most deprived areas across Scotland.
MSPs were promised in this chamber that the SNP would learn from past experiences in order to ensure less disruption and stress for young people who are about to sit exams during the pandemic, yet here we are—new year, same old SNP. According to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, a final decision on exams could be made as late as the end of March.
We were told that the SNP would
“put protections in place for young people and minimise disruption to education.”
Where are those protections? How can leaving young people in limbo about their examination diet be described as minimising disruption? How can leaving local authorities and teachers in the lurch over examination programmes be the best way for professionals to spend their time—especially when we know that the SNP Government is not recruiting enough teachers to catch up on lost schooling.
If teachers were given a clear steer by this Government, they would be able to plan and make sure that their students are ready to sit their exams.
I am seeking clarification on what exactly the Conservatives’ position on exams is. If public health officials were to approach us in March or April and say that it was simply too dangerous for exams to proceed at that point, would the Conservatives’ position be that we should ignore that and proceed anyway, because it would be too late to change course?
The Conservatives’ position is that the Scottish Government needs to take a clear stance on the examination diet. Other areas across the United Kingdom have already said that exams will go ahead, whereas here we are in Scotland without any clear guidance on whether exams will definitely go ahead. That is not good for pupils or teachers.
I am going to make some progress just now, thank you.
Recently, the education secretary announced that the Scottish Government had back-up contingencies in place to allow for exams to go ahead. However, it was later revealed that that was not the case and there were no plans in place to hold exams at alternative venues in the event of Covid restrictions, and that no money had been set aside for that. To go back to Ross Greer’s point, those are the issues that we are raising today. Any responsible Government would have started preparing for this year’s exams last year and would have secured alternative arrangements to ensure minimal disruption to school exams.
As we know, the SNP is often fond of comparing Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom. The UK Government has already committed to this year’s examination process. That has provided pupils and teachers with the reassurance that is needed to allow pupils to be ready to sit their exams this year.
Can the member clarify for the chamber whether the other countries in the UK have a contingency in case public health guidance suggests that exams cannot go ahead?
I would like the cabinet secretary to define what a contingency is, because she has not been very clear on that up to this point.
Perhaps the Scottish Government could learn a thing or two from our friends south of the border.
It is not just Opposition MSPs who are frustrated by the Scottish Government and its lacklustre approach to exams. Daniel Wyatt, rector of Kelvinside academy in Glasgow, said that he was dismayed at the lack of clarity and he has called for exams to go ahead unless a “significant health concern” emerges. He said that leaving the decision until March would be “far too late” and that it is not acceptable for the Scottish Government to behave in the way that it is, as it
“shows complete disregard for the mental health of pupils and staff following two years of disruption, distraction and disappointment, all against a backdrop of coping with the impact of the pandemic.”
I agree with Mr Wyatt that the mental health of young people is paramount when it comes to exams.
As we have witnessed in recent years, it is young people from poorer backgrounds who have suffered due to examinations being cancelled. Braidhurst high school in Forgewood, an area that I represent both as a councillor and as an MSP, saw bright and hard-working pupils’ grades lowered, as previous decisions taken by the Scottish Government turned the exam system into a postcode lottery and reduced the efforts of pupils to entries on a spreadsheet. That is why the Scottish Conservatives are seeking a guarantee from the Scottish Government today that the 2022 examination process will go ahead in full.
The Scottish Government amendment provides no confirmation that the examination diet will go ahead. Voting in favour of it is to vote in favour of uncertainty. It would allow the SNP to kick the can down the road instead of making the right decision for our young people. It will come as no surprise that the Scottish Conservatives will be voting against that amendment tonight.
I will touch on the Labour amendment briefly. I understand Labour’s position, but its amendment could suggest that exams should be cancelled altogether in favour of an appeals process.
It is not just the examination diet that is of serious concern. Analysis by several different sources shows that the SNP has failed to close the attainment gap. In secondary schools, the attainment gap has grown with regard to the percentage of pupils meeting expected levels of literacy since attainment funding was introduced in 2017. A report by Audit Scotland pointed out that the attainment gap remains wide and that steps to close the gap need to happen more quickly. Given the poor performance by the SNP on closing the attainment gap, the First Minister and her Scottish Government have failed to improve outcomes by ensuring that every child has the same opportunity to succeed.
The SNP has overseen a decade of educational failures that have only been exacerbated during the pandemic. Instead of listing areas where the Government wants to give itself a pat on the back, the cabinet secretary must commit to the 2022 examination diet and outline ways to tackle the Government’s abysmal record, especially when it comes to closing the attainment gap.
It is clear that, despite the many warm words from the Government on education, education has never been its top priority.
That the Parliament regrets that education has never been the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s number one priority, and expresses frustration at the widening attainment gap and the failure to guarantee that the 2022 school examination diet will go ahead in full.
We are still living in a global pandemic, which continues to have a significant impact on education.
For that reason, caution should remain and contingencies are needed in education as in other aspects of life.
I take this opportunity to thank our teachers and support staff for their on-going efforts to put our learners first. Indeed, we should all be working to put the interests of learners first, in the face of on-going uncertainty. For that reason, I strongly disagree with the highly irresponsible motion and will set out the Government’s plans to support pupils and staff at this time.
The Government has increased our investment in the Scottish attainment challenge from £750 million over the previous parliamentary session to a record £1 billion over this parliamentary session. The investment is supporting education recovery, tackling the attainment gap and recognising the impact of the pandemic.
We have committed to bringing into the system—on top of the 1,400 teachers who have been recruited during the pandemic—a further 3,500 teachers and 500 support staff by the end of this session. The school census data that was published in December shows that we already have 2,000 more teachers in the system than we had before the pandemic. There are now more teachers than there have been at any time since 2008, and the pupil teacher ratio is at its lowest since 2009.
I want to make a little progress, after which I will be happy to take an intervention from Mr Kerr.
The focus of the entire education system, including teachers, headteachers, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Government, is on ensuring that young people are supported to perform as well as possible in their exams. As the First Minister reiterated last week, it is our firm intention that exams will take place in 2022. That position has not changed.
There are a number of aspects to that. First, significant modifications have been made to current course assessment in relation to exams and coursework to take account of disruption to learning. Secondly, contingency plans are in place, as the SQA outlined in August and described in more detail in September, to respond to the further significant national disruption that arises from Covid. There are two parts to the contingency plans. The fact that Opposition members were remarkably unaware of those measures when I reiterated them last week on social media says much about their lack of understanding of the on-going work on the issue and the lack of importance that they place on it. On that point, I am happy to take an intervention from Meghan Gallacher.
The messaging from the Scottish Government about the contingencies that are in place has been confusing, and we have yet to have the detail. Is the cabinet secretary willing to give members the information today, or are we to be left in the dark, not knowing what the contingencies are?
I refer Meghan Gallacher to what the SQA said in August and described in more detail in September. It is working through what will happen to each individual course if scenario 2 has to be implemented with our stakeholders—and it is important that we carry on that consultation with stakeholders.
Scenario 2 is designed to provide further support to learners in the face of additional disruption, but on the basis that exams will go ahead. Meghan Gallacher asked for more detail: support will include, for example, the provision of guidance on topics, to help learners to maximise their exam performance and reduce exam stress.
That part is a decision for the SQA board, which is actively reviewing the quantitative data, such as national teacher and pupil absence levels, as well as the qualitative evidence from partners such as the national qualifications 2022 group. That stakeholder engagement is integral.
Scenario 3 would take place if exams had to be cancelled for public health reasons.
There is daily correspondence and discussion about the data, and if the data signifies that we are required to move to scenario 2, the SQA board can take that decision. It can take that decision at any time when the data suggests that that is required.
Scenario 3, in which exams would be cancelled for public health reasons, would be a decision for me. In the event that that happens, qualifications will be awarded on the basis of the professional judgment of teachers and lecturers, using evidence from the normal in-year assessments that take place during the school year.
As I have repeatedly set out since the beginning of this term, it is our firm intention for exams to take place, but it would be highly irresponsible to ignore the possibility—however exceptionally remote, as we hope it will be—of the pandemic worsening. Therefore, we have a robust contingency should the public health conditions make exams impossible. To answer the point that I think Meghan Gallacher did not know about the other nations, the devolved Administrations have prepared for the same eventuality. Indeed, on 11 November 2021, the Department for Education and the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation—Ofqual—
“confirmed contingency plans to support students in the unlikely event that exams in England cannot go ahead”.
We are planning for contingencies across the United Kingdom.
“It is essential that appropriate and robust contingencies are in place”.
Let us be clear—and this is a point that Ross Greer correctly made in his intervention: the Tories are proposing that, even if there is a future new variant or a turn of events in the pandemic that leads public health experts to advise against public gatherings, the Scottish Conservatives would bring children and teachers into school regardless of the consequences of that action.
It is the height of irresponsibility and political posturing to do so. On that basis, we will continue to have contingencies in place to provide certainty for schoolchildren.
I move amendment S6M-02839.1, to leave out from “regrets” to end and insert:
“commends the education workforce for its continued efforts to deliver high-quality school education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; acknowledges that the pandemic has caused disruption to learning, not just in Scotland but around the world, as recognised by the World Bank and the UN; welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to education recovery through significant investment in teacher employment, digital inclusion, tackling costs associated with the school day, and study support; recognises the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, the progress made pre-pandemic in closing the gap, and the further £1 billion investment over the course of the current parliamentary session through the refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge; notes that it is the Scottish Government’s firm intention that the 2022 national qualification exam diet will take place if it is safe to do so; welcomes the National e-Learning Offer, which has been in place since August 2020, and acknowledges that the Scottish Government and SQA continue to closely monitor disruption caused to schools by COVID-19, with a commitment to provide additional support to learners as required.”
I am happy to lead this timely debate for Labour.
These remain incredibly challenging times in our schools, and the disruption of the past few years is truly unprecedented since the advent of universal education in this country. All of our education staff deserve our thanks. An already difficult job is made worse by having to deal with the dithering and delay that has become a hallmark of SNP education policy over many years. We are now in late January, and the situation surrounding exams and assessment remains far from clear. Senior education officials speaking at the Education, Children and Young People Committee this very morning sought urgent clarity about the planning scenarios for assessment, and they commented that it is far better for schools to know what mitigations and support may be open to them.
If the cabinet secretary refuses to answer questions on that in the chamber and will not listen to members, I urge her to heed the calls from senior education professionals across Scotland. Equity in education is not a mere subjective value, and it is not fluffy or a nice to have; it is the objective basis on which a national system of qualifications is founded. Grades must be comparable if they are to act as a passport to employment and to the next steps of education.
The national system has been vital for social progress in Scotland, both material and cultural, for women, for Catholics and for black and minority ethnic Scots. It gives people a piece of paper that says, “I am as able as any other, and your prejudice is that alone.” The whole process gives validity to the very idea of social progress, even if the reality of it has become far less likely over the past decade and a half. We know that the experience of the pandemic has been unequal across different areas and demographics.
More work is urgently needed to assess for whom and how the impact has been greatest, but we know that, at an individual level, there are young people who have lost far more time in school than others, through no fault of their own. The next steps that are taken must redress that equity gap. The Government should urgently produce a plan to ensure that young people are supported, including through specific provision for those who need most support.
Our education staff are working tirelessly in unprecedented circumstances to that end, but they need all the help that we can muster.
Further, and as the barest of minimums, the Government must immediately publish an appeals process, inclusive of a no-detriment policy, so that young people in exceptional circumstances can achieve redress if the Government fails to act before grades are assessed.
The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has made it clear that the Government’s failure in that area—not once, but twice—was a breach of the children’s rights that the Government claims to respect. Those without standing appeals from 2020 were, at a stroke of the cabinet secretary’s pen, told that they would not have any route of appeal.
We are well past the point of cumulative lost education that forced the cancellation of last year’s exam diet. It stands to reason that, without taking steps now, the Government will fall below its own very low bar for action.
A senior teacher contacted me this very afternoon to express concern at the huge loss of learning that has been faced by his pupils. He said:
“I feel sorry for so many kids who are going to be treated like everyone else, when they are not the same.”
The Government has backed itself into a corner on the exam diet. Now we all need the exams to go ahead, because there is no real alternative. Teachers unions are very clear that there is no real plan B. We all want to see the decline in cases continue, but I am daily concerned that a surfeit of confidence might mean that the necessary preparations for new variants or for a rapid deterioration of the situation were neglected.
Let us hope that circumstances permit a full exam diet, but action must be taken now to ensure that it is a fair one. I hope that the chamber will back Labour’s amendment.
I move amendment S6M-02839.2, to leave out from “and the failure” to end and insert:
“; recognises the disruption to the educational experience of young people caused by COVID-19; believes that it is the duty of the Scottish Government to ensure that there is equity in the qualifications system; notes that in-year learning has again been disrupted in this academic year, and calls, therefore, on the Scottish Government to immediately publish a National Appeals Process, which includes exceptional circumstances caused by disruption and guarantees no detriment to pupils.”
We do not often get a chance to debate education in this chamber, despite it, apparently, being a top priority for the Government five years ago, so I will broaden my remarks beyond the exams, although I will cover them, too. I want to cover the major issues, because we are at a crossroads for Scottish education.
I feel sorry for Shirley-Anne Somerville because she has been landed with a job that her four predecessors flunked over the past 15 years.
The performance on education is on the slide in international terms. In the most recent programme for international student assessment study, Scotland received its worst-ever scores in maths and science. Scotland is worse than Hungary, Slovakia and, on some measures, Poland and Turkey. Heaven forfend—it is even worse than England.
While the SNP’s performance has been falling in international terms, the poverty-related attainment gap has grown. That is not quite true—it has narrowed marginally, but at the current rate of progress it will take decades to close. Closing it is the objective that has been set by the First Minister. Just narrowing it, at this rate, will let down thousands of pupils for decades.
The SNP’s response to the decline in international terms was to scrap the survey of literacy and numeracy and replace it with the already discredited, national census-based Scottish national standardised assessment testing system, which includes—this is unbelievable, but it is still in place—testing of five-year-olds. The SNP did not like the international comparisons, so it also withdrew from the trends in international mathematics and science study and the progress in international reading literacy study. Even Russia and Iran take part in those studies. Who would have thought that Scotland would be more secretive than Iran and Russia?
This is a short debate, but let me make some positive proposals at this important crossroads for Scottish education. The education secretary should improve the role of knowledge in the curriculum, especially in the broad general education. We should give teachers more support with materials that are created by expert teachers and bring back principal teachers.
We must reverse the dramatic decline in education support plans for pupils with additional support needs. We need to put teachers back in charge of the bodies that replace the SQA and Education Scotland, so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to reverse the growth in temporary teacher numbers by making more teachers permanent, by making the funding for them permanent.
We must also give pupils greater confidence and clarity that this year exams are on. As we heard at the Education, Children and Young People Committee this morning, the dithering—and it is dithering—about whether we should have scenario 2 in place should end. We should have it in place right now, so pupils can have greater certainty.
No—I am sorry; I do not have enough time.
All those proposals are constructive and positive. However, the truth is that the SNP has been belligerent for years on education. It was far too slow to expand early education, especially for two-year-olds, and it failed to accept that the pupil premium was necessary, just because those were ideas that originated in England. It would just not listen, for years on end, until the growing poverty-related attainment gap forced it to act. It put the worst of Scottish nationalism ahead of Scottish education, and it is pupils who are paying the price.
My fear is that the new education secretary does not have the political backing to address the deep-rooted problems in Scottish education. It appears that she has been sent by the First Minister—
I will say out loud what many people are thinking when they look at the text of the motion: it is short, it is curt and it is shrill. It woefully oversimplifies what has already been a challenging time over the past two years. I put on record my thanks to all the people across all education sectors who have, to be frank, knocked their pan in, rapidly upskilled and adapted in the changing Covid context.
The motion is lazy. It sums up the Tory attitude to Scotland, devolution and our education system. It tries to grab the headlines with negative soundbites that pay no regard to hard-working professionals, parents and pupils. Is it the total sum of Scottish Tory thinking on education to go negative rather than come up with actual solutions?
I will not give way. I will have my say at the moment and come back to the member if I have time.
We are not yet in the clear from a huge public health challenge to humanity across the globe. The pandemic has disrupted every country, every person and every aspect of our lives. As someone who worked through the lockdown at the chalk face, so to speak, I know exactly what the impacts on children, families and teachers have been. The pandemic has taken its toll, but to turn it into a political football for partisan gain is appalling.
However, let us face it, we should not be too surprised: the last time the Tories controlled Scottish education their big idea was to saddle headteachers with budget management as if to say, “Here’s your allocation. You have no training in financial management but, hey, don’t blame us if you can’t get what you need.” That was a blatant attempt to undermine local government and an ill thought-out attempt to bring the commercial market ideology into Scottish schools.
I do not know whether Meghan Gallacher thinks that attacking the First Minister personally is a great tactic. We are watching the worst Prime Minister dissemble, lie and bring his public office into such disrepute that now even AC12 has come in on the act.
The Scottish Government has provided significant investment that is making a world of difference: more teachers, the lowest teacher pupil ratios since 2009 and practical support for all, such as free school meals or digital devices. That investment is delivering results and 94 per cent of teachers feel that they have the autonomy to develop the PEF plans that respond to their local needs.
As Meghan will be aware, the PEF budget has been realigned to ensure that local authorities can respond to their local needs. We know that the challenges of poverty are not located in one place or the other; there are many variables.
Ninety-five per cent of headteachers feel that Covid-19 and school building closures have had at least some impact on their progress on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. That challenge is faced by countries across the world but, in the months since I was elected, I have not heard a single Tory suggestion on how that could be improved upon.
One unintended consequence of the Covid pandemic is the opening up of a debate on whether school exams are the best assessment for our young people. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to reflect on and assess how we best measure the academic and wider achievements of our young people from all backgrounds.
I express my support for the motion that was lodged by my colleague Meghan Gallacher.
In my region, West Scotland, there are two high schools that are only minutes apart. The first is ranked sixth in the league tables, and the other is ranked 230th. It will not come as a shock to members to learn that the percentage of pupils attaining five higher passes at the former is more than double the percentage at the latter. Such statistics are replicated across Scotland. Throughout the majority of a child’s learning journey, the odds are distinctly in favour of those from the least deprived areas, yet despite Conservative objections the Scottish Government has pushed forward with its cuts to the attainment challenge areas without having addressed the key problem, which is that one child’s future will be drastically different from another’s because of the postcode lottery.
The past two years have been chaotic, despite several months’ notice of cancellation of exams. It remains a myth that this year will go any more smoothly with just a few weeks’ notice. That shows a complete disregard for pupils’ mental health and for their futures. The Scottish Government must announce its final decision immediately so that extra revision resources can be made available and the necessary health measures can be put in place.
The SNP continues to blame its bad track record on the pandemic. The cabinet secretary was quick today to remind my colleague Meghan Gallacher that we are going through a pandemic. I remind the cabinet secretary that higher pass rates declined for four years in a row prior to the pandemic; that the SNP lowered the standard that is required for a person to be deemed literate or numerate; and that our education system has continued to plummet in the international rankings. I am not sure what Kaukab Stewart was talking about when she referred to international rankings. I remind her that Scotland is plummeting, having recorded its lowest performance yet in the PISA rankings.
I do not have enough time; I would like to finish.
If education—and reducing disruption of it—was truly a priority for Nicola Sturgeon’s Government, it would listen to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which has recommended that exams go ahead and said that schools would benefit from extra funding to cover virus-related staff absences.
Last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report on the education system in Scotland highlighted that an important step in moving forward would be realignment of the early stages of the education system to ensure more consistency. I truly fear that pupils will, without undergoing any sort of formal examination, feel unprepared for the mode of assessment that they are likely to experience should they progress to further and higher education. That is evident in the growing positive-destination gap.
I am just concluding. I am sorry.
In conclusion, Scotland’s children—our children—deserve an education system that is not content with meeting baseline targets but strives to be world beating, competitive and—most of all—inclusive. Since I was elected last year, I have consistently repeated in the chamber that we have had 14 years of SNP failings. I now stand here saying that we have had 15 years of the SNP failing our children. I sincerely hope that I will not be standing here next year—
The Conservatives contend that the Scottish Government has not prioritised education. Of course, that assertion does not stand up to any scrutiny. Scotland has the highest spending in schools per pupil of any UK nation, teaching numbers are currently the highest they have been for 14 years, and the Scottish Government will fund 3,500 additional teachers and 500 support staff in the current session of Parliament, which is over and above the 1,400 teachers who were recruited during the pandemic. Indeed, in today’s meeting of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, we were rightly scrutinising how the new baseline funding for teachers and support staff will lead to permanent, as opposed to temporary, contracts.
There may be differences of opinion regarding the policies, approaches and levels of success within Scottish education, including on closing the poverty-related attainment gap, but to suggest that the Scottish Government—which has committed a further £1 billion for Scotland’s attainment challenge, on top of the £150 million that has already been invested—has not prioritised education is demonstrably wrong. It is simply wrong.
Of course, the Scottish Government has prioritised not only education; it has also sought to prioritise various other factors that are crucial in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. The draft Scottish budget includes £197 million to double the game-changing Scottish child payment from April this year, and to extend it to cover under-16s by the end of 2022, which will help to lift an estimated 40,000 children out of poverty.
Let us contrast that with the impact of the cruel UK Government decision to remove £20 a week from universal credit. What impact do the Conservatives think taking scarce funds from low-income families will have on education, in relation to supporting children and families and children’s ability to learn? It makes no sense.
Best start grants and best start foods, access to digital devices, school trips and school uniforms, and free school meals form a strong base on which to continue to build our efforts to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. Although progress was being made to close the gap pre-Covid, we clearly had to go faster and more had to be done. A review of progress with the attainment challenge last year demonstrated that nine out of 10 headteachers believed that resources had made a difference in addressing the poverty-related attainment gap. My colleagues and I on the Education, Children and Young People Committee want to understand better how incomes and progress are measured, given the national priority and the sheer volume of cash. By the end of this parliamentary session £1.75 billion will have been invested in the attainment challenge.
We also need to ensure that Scotland’s system of accreditation for learning in schools, which is currently underpinned by a top-heavy swathe of extra exams—the past two years aside, of course—can better recognise the skills, efforts, talents and abilities of young people, especially those from our most deprived communities. That will play a crucial role in addressing Scotland’s poverty-related attainment gap. The Education, Children and Young People Committee and Parliament as a whole must carefully scrutinise the reforms that will, ultimately, be presented, but there is definitely a real opportunity to recognise better the abilities of students.
I note that the Conservative motion demands that the 2022 exam diet must “go ahead in full”. No ifs, no buts—it should go ahead no matter what. In the quote that was read out by Meghan Gallacher to support the Tory position, Mr Wyatt quite sensibly included a caveat that public health factors could still impact on exams. That is the Scottish Government’s position. I understand that that is also the position in England. Tory rhetoric in Scotland is simply embarrassing.
Today, the Education, Children and Young People Committee heard evidence that, with regard to contingency planning on exams, scenario 2 needs to be considered in short order. I am sure that the Scottish Government will want to consider that.
I support the Scottish Government amendment and I ask members to reject the Conservative motion and the Labour amendment.
We all know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on education. In the past two years our learners, teachers and other staff have all experienced significant disruption to education. Learning has continued to be interrupted in this school year, with infection-control and self-isolation requirements having meant that many pupils have been unable to attend school, whole classes have been asked to work remotely, and there has been uncertainty for pupils and teachers over the exam diet.
The Scottish Government continues to state that education is a priority. Although working to keep schools open is crucial at this point in time, there are broader issues that I wish to highlight. We know that the pandemic has affected children from the most deprived areas the most, and that the already unacceptably large poverty-related attainment gap has increased.
In 2020, I called on the Scottish Government to commit to an equity audit when pupils returned to school. Even at that point, we were seeing significant differences in engagement and educational experiences. The audit found particularly negative impacts for young people who are transitioning from primary to secondary school and for those in early primary, and it found that higher numbers of pupils from less advantaged backgrounds showed a regression in literacy and numeracy. It also showed the impact of the pandemic on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children and young people.
The audit document was initially published at a very high level, and it is unclear to me how the problems that it identified are being significantly addressed. The Scottish Government has a responsibility to address those findings or it risks there being additional gaps in learning, which will create more disadvantage. The pupils who are most negatively impacted are those who are affected by poverty. We need immediate steps to address its underlying causes and to support them in their education.
Across the country, the picture continues to be mixed, as self-isolation of pupils and teachers causes disruption. Teaching staff who have worked throughout the pandemic—not without risk to their health—are already under huge pressure amid staff shortages. They face additions to their workload because they are expected to prepare for all eventualities. Uncertainty around exams and the future of the SQA is only exacerbating the situation. I understand the desire for certainty that some members have expressed this afternoon, but we also need to be realistic about the situation that we face.
I ask the Scottish Government whether any assessment is being made of the areas and schools that have been, and are being, most impacted by Covid. In my region, some schools have had more absences and closures than others; we need to ensure that increased support is received where it is needed.
We know that pupils who are at key points in their schooling feel the impacts of the pandemic more keenly. For pupils who are sitting exams, there have been huge challenges. The same goes for those who are transitioning from primary to secondary school, and for those who are starting primary school. There are children who are now part of the way through primary 2 whose only experience of school has been during a pandemic. They have been unable to mix across classes and have only recently been able to have lunch in dinner halls. Nativities and school concerts have been cancelled or performed to a camera. The social experiences that those children have been missing out on should not be overlooked and the potential longer-term impacts must be addressed.
The pandemic has also impacted parents and guardians of children who are due to start their primary schooling. At a point in history when starting school is potentially more difficult for a child, we should be doing all that we can to support families who choose to defer entry in the interests of their child. I have long supported the Give Them Time campaign and its calls for funded childcare provision for all families who choose to defer the start of primary school. I welcomed the inclusion of Fife, Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils in the pilot areas for an additional year of funding, but I call on the Scottish Government to bring forward full implementation of that and to support all local authorities to deliver it as soon as possible. We cannot have families waiting because of where they live, and the pandemic surely adds to the argument for the policy change.
We have seen the impact, from the early years to university, on education over the past two years. We must ensure that we assess that and act on it. Pre-pandemic, there were huge challenges in education that have only been exacerbated. The Scottish Government needs to do more to ensure that this generation of learners does not continue to be disadvantaged.
I fully expected this afternoon’s other Conservative debate to be the most trying of the week, in which we had to listen to the party that has cut Scotland’s budget demand that we somehow spend more money than we have. However, this motion blows that one out of the water in how disingenuous, dangerous and incoherent it is.
For months, the Scottish Government has made it clear—over and over again—that the only circumstances under which exams will not go ahead this year is if the public health situation makes that impossible. However, somehow, that is not good enough for the Conservatives, who want a cast iron guarantee that exams will go ahead.
Meghan Gallacher’s motion makes sense only if the Tories want a guarantee that exams will go ahead even if public health officials say that it is not safe for them to do so. If that is not what the Tories are saying, why are we here? If, for example, they agree that the outbreak of a dangerous new strain could, conceivably, make exams unsafe, they agree with the Scottish Government’s existing position.
Taking the motion and the Tories’ public statements to their logical conclusion leads me to the same conclusion that I have come to a number of times during this pandemic, which is that, if they think that they can get headlines out of it, the Scottish Conservatives have a wilful disregard for the health and safety of teachers, support staff and school pupils.
When I was making my contribution, I said that I agreed with Daniel Wyatt, who said that “a significant health concern” would be a reason for the exams not to go ahead. However, does Ross Greer not agree with the Scottish Conservative position that leaving it until March is too late to make decisions on exams? That is why we are seeking clarity today.
I really hope that it does not come as news to the member that the Scottish Government cannot speak on behalf of Covid. The Scottish Government cannot predict what variants will emerge in March, April or May.
In bringing the debate, the Conservatives have at least given other colleagues the opportunity to make more reasoned contributions, and better understand other elements of this year’s national qualifications diet beyond the exams themselves.
Both the education secretary and the First Minister have repeatedly stated that if there is significant disruption in this school year, additional support will be made available for those undertaking national qualifications. In recent weeks, both have also acknowledged that disruption has happened. Therefore, I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for outlining the process for activating further support. However, I associate myself with the remarks made by colleagues, particularly Mr Marra and Mr Rennie, about the impact of delaying those decisions.
In recent years, the appeals system has been a point of acute failure, and I am glad that Mr Marra brought it up. For all its failings, some improvements were made last year, which I hope will be maintained, most obviously the removal of any associated charge in making appeals. Making appeals universally free to access, and ending the scandal of the old quasi-appeal system—which was disproportionately used by private schools that had the financial means to do so—would be an improvement.
The SQA has consistently failed to take a rights-based approach to its work, compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that cannot be repeated with any additional measures that are brought in to reflect this year’s disruption.
I will make one other request of the cabinet secretary in relation to any forthcoming announcement about additional measures ahead of this year’s exams. Thousands of college students who are due to take NQ exams this year have been impacted by far greater levels of disruption, and have has far less access to in-person learning than school pupils. That happened on the basis of public health restrictions, which I still absolutely believe to have been the right call. However, if we are to acknowledge that grading students as if this were a normal year would be unjust, the impact on college students in particular should be factored in to whatever decisions are made in regard to additional support. I make the same point to the board of the SQA.
Before closing, I will briefly touch on the rest of the motion. It is hard to take seriously Conservative criticism about the slow rate of progress in closing the attainment gap when it is the very party that is taking £20 a week away from the most vulnerable people in this country, at a time when the two parties of this Government are putting £20 a week back into the pockets of the most vulnerable families across Scotland. We will not close a poverty-related attainment gap without tackling poverty at source.
As my party’s former spokesperson on education, I do understand how challenging the past 18 months have been for everyone in education. However, today, I can hear history repeating itself. Time after time, our education sector met endless U-turns and a lack of advice support and clarity with resilience and patience, and we should be thankful that it did so.
The Government’s position today is utterly bizarre. The rosy picture that it is painting bears no resemblance to the reality of what many staff and pupils have actually faced over the past 18 months.
The Government amendment makes some bizarre and bold claims, such as its rehashing of the Scottish attainment challenge funding. That policy was launched in 2015—it is not news to us today. What about its self-congratulatory back patting over closing the attainment gap? That is just bizarre, because we know that progress was not being made long before the pandemic, and I will come on to the point in a moment. Worse is the woolly commitment to this year’s exam diet going ahead. The Government uses the words
“if it is safe to do so”.
What does that mean? The cabinet secretary needs to tell the teachers and the young people, because nobody actually knows.
“When it is safe to do so” means that the public health guidance is not that gatherings should not go ahead. When it is safe is when public health guidance says that it is. I am not sure how much clearer we can be. It is about public health guidance.
Will the cabinet secretary explain to us why, in a few short weeks, there will be 67,000 people at Murrayfield stadium watching the rugby, but we cannot get 100 people in a sports hall sitting an exam in a well-ventilated room? The cabinet secretary needs to explain that to young people, because the logic behind it makes no conceivable sense. Why is the First Minister relaxing Covid restrictions week after week, which we support and called for, yet she cannot make a firm commitment around exams?
Let us look at the barriers to exams. Let us address them one by one. Is place the problem? Is the school estate ventilated enough? If it is not, it should have been more than a year ago. That is what the EIS demanded and what teachers and Opposition members have asked for. Are people the problem? Is there a worry that there are not enough invigilators? What has the Government done? Where is the massive improvement exercise? Where are the hundreds of retired teachers and newly qualified teachers that we called for? Where is the effort for plan A, plan B and, God forbid, plan C? None of that preparation was put in place and there has been 18 months of warning that this could happen again this year. There has been no preparation or plan and I am afraid that the outcome for young people may again be dire.
How can the Government set up criminal courts in cinemas but not find somewhere to hold an exam for 100 people? It makes absolutely no sense, cabinet secretary. Here is my biggest worry about the issue: is preparation, not place or people, the Government’s true concern? Is there a genuine worry that those young people are not ready to sit exams? I am genuinely concerned that there is a cohort of young people in Scotland going on to further and higher education who have never sat an exam in exam-like conditions, and that should worry everyone who has an interest in education.
That used to worry the Green Party, which sits there bereft of criticism of front-bench members now that it is in government. The Greens used to work with us to defeat and pressurise the Government—for example, when John Swinney was dragged to the chamber to apologise and make amends for the utter shambles of the 2020 SQA diet.
Mr Greer has had his say. I am afraid, and I say this with no pleasure, that he will not stand up to front-bench members on the issue, but it is about time that somebody did.
In closing, I will say what I said the last time that we proudly brought the issue of education to the chamber. Where there is a will, there is a way. There are plenty of ways, but listening to front-bench members and the glib contributions from their back benchers, there is very little will.
The Conservative members who are in the chamber are often keen to describe the perceived benefits of being part of the UK as the broad shoulders of the union, but I have always found those shoulders a tad slopey. Today, Conservative members have not just slopey shoulders, but brass necks.
Ms Gallacher’s motion does not even give the subject of debate its full title. It is the poverty-related attainment gap—poverty that is largely inflicted by the punitive practices of the UK Government that introduced the two-child cap on benefits and is cutting universal credit payments by £20 a week at a time when living costs are soaring. Those costs are soaring because of the failure to manage the UK’s energy market, Brexit costs being passed on to consumers when Scotland did not vote for Brexit and increased costs at fuel pumps and for food. At least let us have an honest discussion about the causes of poverty and where the blame for it lies.
I am glad that the member has given way. Here is what the Deputy First Minister said in March when he was out courting for votes: he promised every child in Scotland a free digital device and a free internet connection. Where are they? It takes a brass neck to say that to get votes and then fail to deliver.
The member is obviously not aware of what is happening in schools right now and where the support is coming from for families who need digital devices. I know where the families in my area need to go to get them, so perhaps he needs to investigate how to get them himself.
I commend Claire Baker for her constructive comments, but I wish that we also had powers over employment law in Scotland, because another real problem that families face is zero-hours contracts and precarious employment, but that is in the hands of the shambles that is the Tory party Government in Westminster.
What is the Scottish Government doing to challenge poverty in our education system? The education maintenance allowance, which was scrapped in England, continues in Scotland to allow young people from the most financially challenged backgrounds to support their continued education at schools, colleges or universities, through a £30 per week payment. There is record funding of more than £250 million for the attainment Scotland fund and 167,000 pupils in primaries 1 to 3 benefit from free school meals, which have been rolled out further. That is a saving for families of £400 a year per child. The Scottish Government has achieved the commission on widening access’s target of 16 per cent of full-time first degree entrants to university coming from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland. It has also increased the national minimum school clothing grant—£120 for primary school pupils and £150 for secondary pupils.
Frankly, the facts do not bear out the rhetoric from members on the Opposition benches. We have continued to achieve better outcomes and better leaving statistics for pupils. More pupils in Scotland go on to further and higher education and we have record numbers of people in modern, graduate and foundation apprenticeships. Those points are all positives for our young people. I was convener of the Education and Skills Committee when the alternative assessment model was brought in last year. The model worked, and businesses, colleges and universities recognised young people’s qualifications.
What message is sent out today? I want to send one to pupils that their efforts and those of their dedicated professional teachers will allow them to move on to positive destinations. We should support them and not cast shade on robust and fair processes. I f the Tories do not know what contingency means, or the difference between open-air and indoor events, they need to go back to school.
It is a pleasure to close for Labour and to support the amendment in my colleague Michael Marra’s name.
Our most effective tool to truly improve the future, advance our country and help our communities is education—to have an environment that allows our young people to think critically, imagine, dream and even come up with the solutions to today’s problems and hopefully implement them tomorrow.
The debate has been fractious, but many members have made interesting contributions. I highlight that of Willie Rennie, in which he talked about our being at a crossroads. I deeply hope that we are at a crossroads and not at a cul-de-sac with education. It is for the Government and Parliament to ensure that it is a crossroads.
Pam Gosal rightly talked about inequality and the poverty-induced attainment gap, which is a frightening truth, day to day, for our young people and their families. There is inequality across Scotland. Some children have missed substantial parts of school; some have struggled to re-engage with it as a result of Covid; and some are frankly disillusioned with it, because of Covid and because of their background.
There is an inequality of experience. One of the challenges that we have found in the debate is around the experience of individual pupils, and I want to concentrate on the question of appeals. Looking back to previous years, I think that we should have learned from experience about the appeals situation but, frankly, we are not in a good place in Scotland.
In the first year of Covid, the cabinet secretary wrote off a number of appeals with the stroke of a pen—the futures of those individual children were changed with the flick of a pen. That is an aspect that t he Scottish Human Rights Commission and everyone looks at with a deep sadness. That was against those children’s human rights, but they could not do anything, because we do not have the UNCRC bill as a statute in this country.
The experience of the past year was little better. Some children’s personal circumstances could not form the grounds of their appeal, be it the death of a parent or their own experience of Covid or suffering from long Covid. They could not have the opportunity to say, “My experience was horrendous. Please, can you do something about it?”
This year’s pupils do not even know on what grounds they could appeal. I welcome Ross Greer’s comments about the appeals situation, because notwithstanding where one sits on the argument about whether exams absolutely will happen or absolutely will not happen, we have heard from across the chamber and particularly from the cabinet secretary about the work that has been put in should there be additional disruption. Can we hear about the work on what the journey of appeal will look like for children this year? I hope that it is free; it always should have been. I hope that it will take the individual’s experiences of the exam situation or the assessment model that is used into account. I hope that children can appeal on their own individual experience of that. I hope that additional resources can be put in so that our incredibly hard-working teachers and support staff can give those children additional time when they come into school.
As we stand here—
—debating, pupils in some year groups are already starting their preliminary exams. They are doing so not knowing what the journey ahead holds for them. Please can we see a road map for appeals?
We have got to the point of the debate at which we now know that the Tories accept that there are reasons why exams might not be able to take place, and that is if public health guidance says that they should not. It would appear that we are also now at the point at which the Scottish Government is being blamed for not having a crystal ball and being able to see what the public health guidance and advice will be between April and June. The Government will continue to make decisions as soon as we can with the data and advice that we have at the time. That is the best that we can do and, to be honest, it is as much as the public should expect. The Government should deal with the information that we have rather than assuming what might happen four months from now.
With the greatest of respect to Meghan Gallacher, we will move as quickly as possible if the public health guidance changes. I cannot tell what the public health guidance will be nearer exam time.
Everyone in the system is planning for the exams to take place and is determined to make that happen. The only thing that will change that is public health guidance. It is a remote possibility, but it would be highly irresponsible not to have a contingency plan in place, as other countries do.
We have heard some more thoughtful contributions during the debate, particularly Claire Baker’s, and I thank her for it. I will take at his word Willie Rennie’s positive contribution and suggestions. Some—who knows?—I might take up; others I will respectfully continue to disagree with.
Once again, Pam Gosal got us into the Scottish Conservatives’ trap of describing last year’s qualifications as chaotic when 137,000 candidates received their formal results, and we had more passes at higher level than we have had since the advent of devolution. As Clare Adamson pointed out, the qualifications were welcomed by universities, colleges and employers as credible in very difficult circumstances. That is the reality of what happened last year.
Ross Greer rightly pointed out the need to make quick decisions, particularly on scenario B, and other members also mentioned that. I reiterate the point that we are looking at numbers every day. The SQA has that close contingency with the Government, and it is working closely with stakeholders on that. It will take a decision as soon as it feels that that point is reached.
If Daniel Johnson will forgive me, I want to make progress to deal with a point that Ross Greer and Martin Whitfield discussed on appeals and exceptional circumstances. We expect an announcement on that soon. I appreciate that many people are looking for that to happen.
One of the reasons why this time has been taken is to ensure that we are having the right type of consultation with the national qualifications 2022 group about what the process should look like, and what should be contained within it. We are absolutely determined to have the right type of stakeholder engagement, but I confirm that there is no cost and the system will be much more comprehensive than in the rest of the UK.
We have not had time to discuss the support that is already in place for students in this time of disruption. There has been a small number of partial school closures and—thankfully—an even smaller number of full school closures but, through the national e-learning offer, support is available to every learner from the age of three to 18. There is a great deal to support students through the very challenging times that they are going through, such as the West Partnership online school videos to support the senior phase and the e-Sgoil study support webinars and resources.
During today’s discussions, I have been genuinely baffled by Meghan Gallacher’s assertion that we should learn lessons from what is happening down south. I say to Meghan Gallacher, with the greatest respect, that today is definitely not the day to espouse that view. Lessons are being given by a Tory Government that is scrapping rules to save a Prime Minister’s skin. That is highly irresponsible.
The Prime Minister is more interested in his own political survival than what is right. We in the Scottish Government will continue to do what is right, in the right way, as quickly as we can, to support our learners. What a shame it is that we have had such an irresponsible motion from the Scottish Conservatives—
The Scottish Conservatives have come here today with one very simple ask—that Scottish pupils be treated with respect. Throughout the experience of the past two years, our young people have not been able to enjoy that right. Instead, they have been shunted from classroom to home and back to classroom, with little consideration of the effect that any of that was having on their mental health, the attainment gap or—more importantly, some would argue—their grades.
As with so many aspects of Covid, clarity is what we need right now—clarity on exams, clarity on face masks in schools, clarity on the attainment gap and clarity on the free laptop for every child that never arrived—but the truth is that clarity is one of the many things that the Scottish Government has failed to provide. It is obvious to anyone that the confusion is having a detrimental effect on our children’s wellbeing. It was necessary only to listen to today’s meeting of the Education, Children and Young People Committee to hear at first hand from the experts about the impact that that confusion is having on an education system that was once the envy of the world.
Exams are not the only thing that have been affected; the whole school experience has been affected. Scottish students have lost out on many of the extracurricular school and social activities that play such an important role in their development. All members will remember their own school sports days. For the past two years, many Scottish children and their families have missed out on creating those special memories. For them, there have been no prizegivings, no sports days, no nativity plays and no end-of-year shows.
I would like to make some progress.
In a way, those things are as important as exams. Therefore, I ask the SNP Government to offer a guarantee and to commit not only to the exam diet being held this year but to school plays and sports days going ahead, too. It is a small ask, but it would mean so much to so many pupils, parents and teachers.
My colleague Meghan Gallacher reminded us that the First Minister asked to be judged on her education record. What a record that is. The First Minister told us that education was her top priority and said:
“I want to be judged on this.”
I think that it is fair to say that the First Minister has been judged and has been found wanting. Meghan Gallacher told us that the SNP’s record on education is a tale of broken promises and failed reforms, and she is right. If members go to any school in Scotland, they will find that sentiment echoed by parents at the school gates.
The international performance of our education system should not be ignored either, as Pam Gosal noted. Although the results of the OECD reports might not matter much to the SNP, educators overseas are paying close attention and are coming to their own conclusions.
Pam Gosal also noted the lack of progress that has been made on the attainment gap. I have now lost count of the number of times that I have heard SNP politicians tell us that the gap is closing. The reality is that, after seven years and £1 billion, the Scottish Government has made little headway. Closing the attainment gap is the First Minister’s “sacred responsibility” and her “defining mission”. If this is how she goes about her sacred task, I shudder to think what happens to the projects at the bottom of her in-tray.
Jamie Greene refreshed our memories of the chaos of last year’s exams, the fiasco that was the appeals system and the failure of the SNP Government to tackle inequality in education. All of that is, of course, before we even get to the Scottish Government’s humiliating climbdown over primary 1 testing, which it implemented against the will of this Parliament—a decision that, two years on, is still coming back to bite it.
I will touch on some of the contributions around about. Shirley-Anne Somerville said that contingencies are needed to ensure that we are doing all that we can to keep schools open and that exams take place. She said that it is her firm intention that they should go ahead, but we are looking for a commitment to that today, so that schools know that the exams are going ahead and they can plan ahead. That would give clarity to teachers, parents and pupils.
I have listened many times to the assurances. Is Sharon Dowey still not assured that a commitment has been given that exams will go ahead unless the public health advice at the time goes against that? The safety of our children is paramount—surely, Sharon Dowey agrees.
No, I do not agree—[
I think that we should be told today. At committee today—[
.] At committee today, some of the comments included that, to release the anxiety that is out there, we need a decision sooner rather than later. A decision that could take up to another three months is no good; we need a decision now so that the schools can plan ahead. They are already planning to have exams, but we need to take away pupils’ anxiety. They need to know now that the exams will go ahead.
Kaukab Stewart made a political football of the issue in her speech, although she said that it was us who were doing that. She also said that the SNP had made a world of difference to education, but the results do not show that.
Michael Marra spoke about how teachers are working exceptionally hard to support pupils. We totally agree with that. His contribution was really good. Claire Baker’s was also excellent. She talked about all the problems that we have in relation to regression in literacy and numeracy.