The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-04445, in the name of Michael Marra, on protecting attainment funding. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to please press their request-to-speak buttons now.
I call Michael Marra to speak for up to six minutes and to move the motion.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I appreciated the couple of moments to prepare.
In lodging the motion, I had been hopeful that it might, even at this late stage, allow the Scottish Government to see its way clear to reversing its position on the cuts that have been made to funding for our most vulnerable young people in our poorest communities.
Nothing in the very short Scottish Labour motion is very critical of the Scottish Government or of either of the parties in the Government. There is no excuse to vote against the motion, other than not agreeing with its premise that it is wrong to ask the poorest children to shoulder the cost of new services for others.
The motion asks for reflection and a change of course. The motion was lodged before this morning, when we heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills that the commitment that the First Minister had made to substantially close the attainment gap by 2026 was to be abandoned, and that the green light was being given to backfill cuts with pupil equity funding money. I have to say to the cabinet secretary that nobody in the Scottish Labour Party will in any way tolerate using Covid as an excuse not to honour that timetable for our young people.
Scottish Labour recognises and welcomes the resources that all local authorities will use to challenge and tackle poverty and low school attainment in their communities, wherever they are found. Poverty exists everywhere and can be hidden. In the face of yearly savage cuts to council budgets, Scottish Labour councillors and councillors of any party are right to grasp any resource that the Government puts on the table.
Just this morning, the cabinet secretary told the Education, Children and Young People Committee that, timetable aside, closing the education gap between the richest and the poorest remains
“the defining mission of this Government.”
However, the Government must be judged on its actions rather than on its words.
Nine local authorities will suffer a 60 per cent cut to their attainment challenge funding. Dundee will suffer a 79 per cent cut, Inverclyde will suffer an 82 per cent cut, North Ayrshire will suffer a 75 per cent cut and Renfrewshire will suffer a 71 per cent cut. I could go on. Those are not just percentages; they are real cuts.
A report from the Dundee City Council earlier this year identified 106 posts that can be cut to make the saving. They are vital posts. They are teachers and they are speech and language therapists who work with incredibly vulnerable young people, helping them to meaningfully engage with learning. They are school and family development workers who themselves are backfilling the decimation of social work provision.
I recently visited a primary school in Dundee where an outstanding headteacher told me that she could not countenance losing those workers. If they go, there will no longer be statutory provision on which to fall back. A former headteacher of 20 years’ standing from Dundee told the Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee that he had no idea how the city would cope.
The local authorities were originally selected because of their very high levels of deprivation, and we know that that deprivation has not gone away. In Scotland child poverty continues, shamefully, to grow under the Scottish National Party and the Tories.
We also know that the pandemic has been worse for the poorest communities. Infection and mortality rates and school absences were higher, and we know that the impact on education has been severe.
The little statistical evidence that the Government has gathered shows that the attainment gap is now wider than it has been since the policy began. To choose to make cuts in these communities “beggars belief”, according to the Educational Institute of Scotland. It has said:
“we have been absolutely appalled at the levels of funding cuts ... It beggars belief. We do not understand why those cuts would be made at a time when we know that poverty levels are rising, when the pandemic has absolutely bludgeoned some communities and we know that individual families and the young people within those families are struggling as a result of Covid.”—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee,
20 April 2022; c 31.]
Andrea Bradley of the EIS also said to the committee on 20 April that
“There is an opportunity now in the fact that the framework has been adjusted to include all 32 local authorities”,
“With the new framing, there is an opportunity for us to do more and to do things differently. It is important that we seize that opportunity to the best of our ability.”—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee,
20 April 2022; c 3.]
Does Michael Marra acknowledge that she also said that on behalf of the EIS?
I certainly do, but I do not think that it has any relevance to the point that I am making. It is entirely appropriate that we take the opportunity to do the best that we can for young people, but I say to Kaukab Stewart, and to other SNP members and the Greens, that making cuts to their communities does not serve the poorest kids in this country well. It means asking them to pay the costs of provision of services to other parts of the community. It is a disservice to the EIS to pretend it supports that.
Kaukab Stewart will recall that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said:
“It is clearly not right to be making those swingeing cuts”.—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee,
20 April 2022; c 32
Jim Thewliss, of School Leaders Scotland, said:
“it is surely immoral to take away that funding.”—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee,
20 April 2022; c 34.]
He said that it is “immoral”.
In the words of a headteacher who submitted evidence to the education committee, teachers are “raging.” The single most important thing that could be done to improve the attainment challenge is, as she said, to put the money back.
In the end, this is a very simple matter, but it tells us an awful lot about priorities, because the SNP and the Greens are asking us to believe the—frankly—ludicrous proposition that the best way to support poor kids is to cut support for areas that have the highest numbers of poor kids living in them.
No member can, in good conscience, say in the morning that education for our poorest children is their “defining mission” then vote in the afternoon to cut funds.
That the Parliament calls on the Scottish Government to revise plans for the Scottish Attainment Challenge to reinstate full funding to the nine original Attainment Challenge Authorities.
The Government wants Scotland to be the best place for children to grow up in, and it wants all children—regardless of their background—to flourish and achieve their potential. However, we know that poverty is a major barrier to that, which is why our commitment to the Scottish attainment challenge remains unwavering. That could not be more evident than it is through our increased investment of £1 billion in the attainment Scotland fund to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and to support education recovery.
Before the pandemic, we were making progress in tacking that gap. The year-on-year trend for curriculum for excellence levels data was positive. The gap for primary school pupils was narrower for both literacy and numeracy, and on our Scottish credit and qualifications framework—SCQF—level 5 or better and SCQF level 6 or better, the attainment gaps are now at their lowest level since consistent records began in 2009-10.
Indeed, only yesterday we published statistics that show that the number of Scottish students from deprived areas who are progressing to Scottish universities is at an all-time high. That demonstrates progress towards our goal that, by 2030, 20 per cent of students who enter higher education will come from our most disadvantaged communities.
However, we know that there is more to do, and that tackling the poverty-related attainment gap will take more work and endeavour. I say that very much in the knowledge that the challenge is now more pronounced, with evidence highlighting the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children and young people who are impacted by poverty. That sits alongside the challenges of the cost of living crisis that the same children and their families will face.
In recognising the progress that has been made to date and the scope to make progress on the impact of the pandemic, we have worked tirelessly with stakeholders to refresh the attainment challenge. We have a new mission, which is
“to use education to improve outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty, with a focus on tackling the poverty-related attainment gap.”
The mission acknowledges that in order to tackle child poverty we need to break the cycle of poverty.
The Scottish attainment challenge will continue to empower headteachers, who know their pupils and communities best, to invest more than £520 million in pupil equity funding during the current session of Parliament to support children and young people who need it most, and to do so with the certainty that comes from confirmation of allocations for the next four years.
Alongside that, we know that poverty impacts children and young people across Scotland. That is why, for the first time, we are distributing strategic equity funding to all 32 local authorities, which will enable them to take strategic approaches through working in synergy with headteachers and others to support children and young people. As is the case for PEF, local authorities can develop long-term plans with their allocations, which are now confirmed for the next few years.
I point Mr Mundell to the fact that pupil equity funding is allocated through the free school meals provision, which can, of course, take account of children living in rural and in the most urban areas. I note that we have moved away from using the Scottish index of multiple deprivation in allocating other parts of the fund, because we want to deal with rural poverty.
At committee this morning and again in his speech in the chamber, Mr Marra mentioned that he recognises that there is poverty in every community. I say to him that we do not have £43 million in the education budget that is not already committed. If he wishes the change to happen, and for us to go back, we must either take the money from the other 23 local authorities, from the funds for early learning or colleges or from the school clothing grant—the opportunities are nearly endless. Alternatively, we could take it from health, justice or some other Scottish Government portfolio. I hope that Mr Marra is about to tell us where the money will come from.
Education is the Scottish Government’s number 1 priority and “defining mission”. Out of a budget of £40 billion, putting back the money would represent 0.01 per cent of that. How on earth can that amount not be found?
With the greatest of respect to Mr Marra, I point out that the budget for education is already committed, as the budget is committed across the Scottish Government’s portfolio. We do not have £43 million waiting unallocated to put back. I ask again: where would the money come from? Mr Marra seemed this morning to suggest that I take it from PEF that rolls over to Scottish schools. If that is what Mr Marra wants us to do, let him be clear that that is the case.
The Government has taken, and will continue to take, important steps on the issue. However, we need to take account of the context in which we are living. We are living in a country in which we are tackling child poverty as well as the attainment gap. That is exactly what this Government is determined to do.
I move amendment S6M-04445.2, to leave out from “calls on ” to end and insert:
“notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to invest a record £1 billion through the Scottish Attainment Challenge to recover from COVID-19 and accelerate progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap through the refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge, an increase from the £750 million invested over the course of the last parliamentary session; recognises that poverty exists in every community in Scotland; welcomes the clear, funded role in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap; notes that the refreshed Scottish Attainment Challenge model was developed in partnership with, and agreed and welcomed by, COSLA; welcomes that headteachers will continue to be empowered to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap in their school communities; notes the refreshed mission of the Challenge, which focuses on improving outcomes for children and young people impacted by poverty, contributing to the Scottish Government’s ambitions to tackle child poverty, and supports complementary action being taken forward by the Scottish Government to tackle child poverty, including the delivery of five family benefits, including the Scottish Child Payment, increasing the school clothing grant, and through services to support income maximisation.”
By introducing criticism of the Government in my amendment, I have perhaps been less generous than colleagues. However, I suspect that the motion would be hard for it to support.
The debate perfectly sums up the challenges in Scottish education under the SNP. It is yet another example of where the rhetoric does not match the reality. After its action on SAC funding, the idea that the Government can continue to claim that education is its number 1 priority is a joke.
Since I was elected to this chamber, I have consistently made the case for more funding for rural schools and for recognition of the challenges that rural poverty brings to education. In one sense, I am pleased that we have now had an admission from the Government that that has been overlooked for years. However, at no point did I imagine that such support would be paid for by taking money and resources from others who are experiencing poverty.
It is not just the seemingly casual redistribution of the funds that troubles me; it is the timing off the back of the Covid pandemic and the speed with which the authorities that are losing out will have to make eye-watering cutbacks. Perhaps all that would have been more excusable if our schools had not become so reliant on attainment funding to plug the gap and pay for key staff and specialists.
Under the SNP, our education system has been stretched to breaking point and left woefully understaffed and under-resourced, as the pandemic exposed. In the pandemic’s aftermath, we are left with an SNP Government and cabinet secretary who seem detached from the realities that our schools and young people are facing. The Government’s priorities are all wrong and the level of investment is insufficient to deliver on past promises.
Looking at the issue more widely, there is little point in claiming to put additional financial support into the system to increase attainment when you do not get the teaching and learning bit right. That is where teachers can make a difference and help close the gap. No one is saying that welfare and wellbeing are not important, but we must stop asking teachers to do everything, and we must start resourcing them to do the job that they are there to do. We must support teachers and let them get on with helping young people.
That means making sure that we can recruit and retain the right teachers, specialists and support staff across the country. It means getting class sizes down to a level at which behaviour can be managed and individual pupils can get the support that they need. It means offering pay and conditions that reflect the work that teachers do. It means trusting teachers to decide more about what a school needs.
The PEF and attainment challenge funding serve as nothing more than a mirage when we do not properly resource our schools in the first place. There are many questions over additionality when it comes to this money, and I could go on about them all afternoon, but they are for another day.
That is because, for the areas of the country that are seeing their funding cut back, we are not talking about additionality. We are talking about fewer resources going to our most vulnerable young people. We are talking about fewer teachers and fewer professionals being there to support young people off the back of the pandemic. Yes, we are seeing more resources going to other parts of the country, and that is to be welcomed, but those resources do nothing for the young people and teachers who are left to pick up the pieces.
How a cabinet secretary who claims to be here to champion education can say that that is enough, and not be able to find more resources within her segment of the budget, instead of pushing her colleagues in Government to find more money for what is one of the most important areas of public life and our most sacred duty in this Parliament, beggars belief. I do not know how the cabinet secretary can justify robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is a matter for her conscience, at the end of the day.
I move amendment S6M-04445.1, to insert at end:
“, and believes that, if the Scottish Government and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had kept their promise to make education their number one priority, resourced the education system properly, and had not cut thousands of teaching and support roles prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the challenges that are being seen could have been significantly reduced.”
Oliver Mundell was bang on with that latter point. At the very least, you would expect the education secretary, if no other minister, to champion education. I know that the First Minister has sort of gone off education and does not regard it as the top priority anymore, because the numbers do not suit her argument. It is now a long-term ambition, instead of a “judge me on my record” matter. We cannot judge her on her record if she will not be in office any longer. It will take that long to get the progress that we are looking for.
For the education secretary not even to argue for an additional £43 million to plug the hole made by the Government’s cuts from nine challenge authorities across the country, is depressing. SNP ministers make the predictable argument that if we want to make the case against something, we have to find the money in the budget, even though we do not have access to the books and we do not know what secret pots of money they have for their favourite future schemes. SNP ministers should be standing up for these things, but they seem incapable of doing so.
The SNP has been slow-footed in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Back in 2010, while we were in government in the UK, we were arguing for a pupil premium, which involved targeted funding for those in disadvantaged communities. That was five years before the SNP Government woke up to the problem. Who would have thought that the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition would be way ahead of the SNP on closing the poverty-related attainment gap?
No, not just now.
The UK Government was way ahead. The evidence was there, and I was going on about it. I pleaded with the SNP Government to follow suit, but it was incapable of doing so. Meanwhile, the poverty-related attainment gap grew wider, and it is still growing, despite what the cabinet secretary said. The cabinet secretary’s complacency at this morning’s meeting of the Education, Children and Young People Committee was staggering. She was grasping at little statistics to try to prove that, somehow, the gap had closed before the dreaded pandemic came along and blew away all the progress. That is not the case—none of that happened. If we look at the numbers, we see that the gap was growing wider rather than narrowing.
Initially, we had concerns about the approach of having nine challenge authorities, and we wanted the money to go across the country. We were in favour of the money being targeted, as with the pupil premium in England, at pupils who needed it, wherever they were in the country. However, as the system has been set up, the structures developed, the staff employed and the best practice developed in those nine local authorities, it seems absolutely nuts to pull away the rug just when they are managing to make a little bit of progress. For the want of another phrase, we should be levelling up, not levelling down with the challenge funding for those authorities.
The approach is typical of the Government. We have short-term decisions after micromanagement after depressing narrative. That is what the Government is about. Rather than make closing the attainment gap its top priority and defining mission in the shorter term, it now talks about the longer term. It is a depressing story from the SNP and, I have to say, a depressing response from the education secretary. We need bold action and the funds to go with it if closing the attainment gap is to be our defining mission. However, I am afraid that we will not get that from the education secretary or the SNP Government.
The First Minister is fond of telling us that education is her priority. She never tires of telling us how passionate she is about ensuring that every young Scot has a decent start in life, irrespective of their background or circumstances. However, for most of her 15 years in government, the evidence and the reality is that Scottish children born into the poorest families in the poorest communities have been badly let down. Pupils who live in more affluent families are still more likely to succeed in school and higher education.
When the Scottish Government belatedly launched the Scottish attainment challenge, Scottish Labour welcomed the recognition that investment and action were needed to close the poverty-related attainment gap. The funds allocated, although they are insufficient to fix the problems, were still a step in the right direction.
Four of the nine authorities that have been allocated attainment challenge funding are in my West Scotland region. That is a stark indication of the scale and concentration of poverty in the west of Scotland. Councils in the west have worked creatively to use those funds to make a real difference to the lives and educational progress of children and young people. Nevertheless, Audit Scotland has warned us of the challenges that remain. In a March 2021 report, it said:
“The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the Scottish Government’s aims.”
As has been said, that was in 2021, and we can now add the problems that are being caused by inflation and the cost of living crisis. As well as being a damning indictment of the Scottish Government’s failure to resolve the problems that we all know exist, that highlights the utter stupidity of cutting money from the authorities where the need is greatest.
As Michael Marra said, by 2025, funding for the nine challenge authorities will have been slashed by £25.3 million per year—that is 60 per cent overall. In total, there will be a cut of £63 million over the next four years, with cuts of 82 per cent in Inverclyde; 75 per cent in North Ayrshire; 71 per cent in Renfrewshire; and 58 per cent in West Dunbartonshire.
I say to the minister that I do not have a problem with providing extra money for education in every council across Scotland—it is badly needed—nor with reviewing how existing funding is being used and considering improvements. However, I have a problem with funding extra money for all councils by stealing it from those councils that the Scottish Government itself has identified as facing the biggest challenge with the poverty-related attainment gap. That is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Taking money from our poorest areas to help better-off areas is something that Boris Johnson would be proud of—it is the tartan version of the Tories’ so-called levelling-up agenda.
I do not have time, I am sorry.
I could understand that decision if the attainment gap had already been closed, but that is clearly not the case—just ask Audit Scotland.
Inverclyde’s attainment challenge funding will be gone by 2025-26. Ruth Binks, the director of education in Inverclyde, said:
“we are one of the biggest losers as a result of the revision”,
and she went on to say that
“We are now considering revisiting and revising all the initiatives that we have taken forward, such as ... on mental health and employability for parents.”—[
Education, Children and Young People Committee
, 4 May 2022; c 7.]
I am sorry—I do not have time.
In the cabinet secretary’s closing remarks, I would like to hear how that can possibly be justified, because I have not heard a single justification from a single SNP member so far in this debate. How does the Government suggest that Inverclyde tackle the problems that are being caused by this Government’s cuts?
As a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, I take my role and responsibilities very seriously. Only a matter of hours ago, the committee completed the last evidence session in our inquiry into the Scottish attainment challenge, and we have not yet begun work on our cross-party report. For that reason, I feel compelled to note that I find the Labour motion today disappointing and perhaps even a bit disrespectful of that work, part of which involved outreach to hear directly from parents and teachers about their experience of the Scottish attainment challenge.
Those parents and teachers shared with us things that worked, and we heard first-hand testimony of caring, diligent professionalism and practice that reflected knowledge of their pupils, families and children and meant that support was delivered in a dignified way. I am mindful in particular of the words of one headteacher, who told us that the discourse around education was rarely about what happened in the classroom and more often about political point scoring and headline grabbing elsewhere. In my remarks today, I will endeavour not to add to that unhelpful noise.
The area that I represent has a lot going for it, but it faces severe economic challenges, and no one in my position would welcome a reduction in the funding to address the impact of those challenges. However, it is important to look at the facts of the matter. The Scottish Government decision to change the approach of the Scottish attainment challenge fund was backed by local authorities and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities leaders, and it ensures that the redistributed funding allocations recognise that poverty exists in all parts of Scotland. It is an inescapable fact that there is poverty all over Scotland, and I understand the rationale behind wanting to ensure that the 59 per cent of children in relative poverty who reside outwith the nine challenge authorities receive a fair share of resource.
Martin Whitfield raises an interesting point. My local authority, North Ayrshire, was one of the nine challenge authorities and, until the pandemic, was progressing very well on both raising attainment and reducing the poverty-related attainment gap overall. That was evidenced in an Education Scotland inspection report in July 2018, which stated:
“North Ayrshire Council is making very good progress with improving learning, raising attainment and narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap.”
In addition, the 2021 Scottish attainment challenge 2015 to 2020 impact report for North Ayrshire stated that North Ayrshire’s attainment in literacy and numeracy between 2016 and 2019 had improved for learners at all stages. The work that the local authority, teaching and support staff have done around professional learning, nurture, mental health and wellbeing and family learning has been valuable, and it has made a difference.
I will vote for the Government’s amendment, which lays out the work that needs to be done to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.
The local authority is working on how the programmes will work. The fact that the multiyear allocations are being confirmed over a four-year period will be welcome, and that will assist all local authorities to plan for the long term.
Addressing the poverty-related attainment gap is about more than what goes on in the classroom. The actions that the Scottish Government has set out are putting money in the pockets of families now, helping to tackle the cost of living crisis, setting a course for sustainable reductions in child poverty by 2030, and expanding access to free school meals, so that children can feel the benefits of nutritious cooked food during the week. School uniforms place a significant pressure on families, which is why the Scottish Government has increased the national school clothing grant. The newly doubled Scottish child payment, together with the three best start grant payments and best start foods, will be worth more than £10,000 by the time a family’s first child turns six, and £9,700 for second and subsequent children.
I know that Opposition colleagues do not like comparisons with our friends and neighbours over the border, but that difference is more than £8,200 for every eligible child born in Scotland in comparison with England and Wales. That does not make things better for people experiencing poverty here, but it provides context to politicians.
Children cannot attain while they are hungry. To talk about an attainment gap at all is to acknowledge that many children and young people living in our poorest communities do significantly worse at all levels of education than those from the wealthiest ones. That gap has got worse over the course of the pandemic. Data shows a drop in the number of pupils attaining an expected level in literacy and numeracy, with fewer school leavers achieving one or more national or higher qualifications. Sadly, that is no surprise, when we consider that the number of children living in poverty has increased over the same period. I will quickly touch on child poverty before I go on to talk directly about the cuts that the Government has passed down to the poorest pupils in the poorest communities.
Almost 240,000 children—one in four—are living in families who simply cannot make ends meet. As we plunge deeper into this devastating cost of living crisis, the gap between the money coming into those families and the money that needs to go out to cover the basics is growing wider. The insufficient amount of money that families were already struggling to live on is being stretched even thinner, and children not only recognise that but are left at a disadvantage to their more affluent peers as a result.
In some parts of Glasgow, more than one in two children are in families who are being forced to choose between heating and eating—a figure that rises exponentially in the First Minister’s own Glasgow Southside constituency. How we can expect pupils to learn and experience the full potential of their education? That is before we even touch on the poverty rates among the priority groups of black and minority ethnic children, disabled children and children in single-parent families, to name a few.
Although I acknowledge the action that has been taken so far, the Government must go far further. My colleagues and I have taken suggestions to the Government on how to reduce the figures, and we have told it how to pay for that, but it has almost always refused to do so.
Beyond that, and as my colleague Michael Marra has set out, by implementing a cut of 60 per cent to the attainment challenge funds for the nine authorities that got them previously, with no additional support to plug the gap, the Government has not just failed to take enough action to pull children out of poverty; it has now actively made decisions that will increase the impact of poverty on the ability of children in those areas to excel despite their economic circumstances. That risks jobs and threatens innovative and important projects. Crucially, it will have a direct impact on attainment.
In Glasgow, the dedicated funding has been cut by 12 per cent. A quarter of children living in the lowest two SIMD quartiles attend a Glasgow school. Those children are already pushing against deep poverty and inequality.
I believe that the cut is 12 per cent, not 3 per cent.
As I was saying, a quarter of children living in the lowest two SIMD quartiles attend a Glasgow school, and those children, who are already pushing against deep poverty and inequality, are now seeing their life chances weakened ever further by direct attacks on funding that was put in place to recognise that they come from a starting position of disadvantage.
Rather than reversing a long-term trend of local authority and education cuts, and recognising the dire need for investment in the system, the Government has spread funding that is already thin on the ground even thinner by taking the money from nine areas that have specific needs and spreading that same amount over 32 local authorities. It is vital that funding is provided to guarantee that young people from low-income families everywhere have the best possible chance of achieving qualifications, but it is immoral to do it by removing support from poor children in parts of the country to give it to children in other parts of the country, rather than ensuring proper investment for the wider education sector.
I mentioned earlier that people in minority groups face disproportionate levels of poverty. Their educational inequality is also being exacerbated by the reduction in funding. Take children with additional support needs—
Children with additional support needs are five times more likely to leave school with no qualifications, and 43 per cent of them are less likely to leave with one or more qualifications at higher level.
Earlier this month, I completed my five-year term as a councillor at North Lanarkshire Council. It was an honour and a privilege to represent Motherwell West and I wish all the returning and newly elected ward councillors the best of luck in their roles.
I mentioned North Lanarkshire because it was one of the nine original attainment challenge authorities that were identified alongside eight other local authority areas as having the highest concentration of deprivation. That means that young people in those areas do not experience the same opportunities as their peers who live in more affluent areas. I am sure that all MSPs who are present in the chamber today will agree that no child should be disadvantaged because of their background or postcode.
It made sense that the Scottish Government wished to take direct action by allocating £43 million throughout those local authorities to support children and young people who were living there but, as we know, the SNP backtracked on that promise and, instead of investing in areas that needed it most, decided to extend that sum of money to all Scotland’s local authorities, spreading that vital funding thin.
The decision that has been taken by the Scottish Government to remove targeted support from the nine challenge authorities will not help disadvantaged young children in Forgewood, the area that I represented as a councillor and represent as an MSP. It will not allow local schools to implement measures to close the attainment gap, which is essential if we are ever to give all young people the best start in life.
It appears to me that the SNP is content with underperforming when it comes to education. The Government has no ambition, no drive and no innovative strategies to make the necessary improvements to tackle the attainment gap.
How much more productive does the member think the Scottish Government could be in tackling child poverty if the Government did not have to mitigate her party’s bedroom tax and benefit cap?
I remember when the Scottish Greens used to challenge the Scottish Government on education. It is a sorry state when that no longer happens.
When Nicola Sturgeon said that she would make education her number 1 priority, people took her at her word. However, after 15 years, our education system has fewer resources, fewer teachers in our schools and slipping school standards. It is no wonder that the SNP cannot tackle the attainment gap when it does not understand the basics of what makes an education system work well. It is not good enough, and our young people deserve better than this failing SNP Government.
One area that I want to mention today is PEF. Michael Marra rightly spoke out against the effect that the loss of the challenge funding will have in Dundee. The Scottish Government has also been clear that PEF money cannot be used to backfill those cuts. That puts schools in areas of high deprivation in a difficult position. What if a school that has not been able to spend its PEF allocation would benefit from using that money to help tackle the attainment gap through other methods? Will we see situations in which staff posts could be lost because of the Scottish attainment challenge funding reduction?
When I looked at the PEF allocation across North Lanarkshire schools, it was a mixed picture. Some schools had managed to allocate all or most of their PEF, but I also noticed that a significant number of schools located in areas of high deprivation had not. I understand that there might be many reasons for funding being unspent and carried forward, but the stance that is currently adopted by the Scottish Government does not give schools the ability to spend money where it is needed. It is restrictive, and it is typical of SNP to throw money around and hope that it provides a solution.
The decisions that have been taken by the SNP Government do not empower our headteachers. After all, teachers know our schools and our communities, so they should be given more autonomy to make the best possible decisions for our young people. As part of that, they should be given the flexibility to use school funds to make a targeted plan to help pupils in the areas of greatest need. That goes back to my point that the Scottish Government has no strategy when it comes to tackling the attainment gap.
We need a credible plan that will restore school standards, increase teacher numbers and ensure that our young people receive the high-quality education that they all deserve. My only ask today is that the Scottish Government listens to the concerns that have been raised by Opposition members across the chamber and finally makes education its number 1 priority by supporting the motion and the Conservative amendment.
When I saw the
Business Bulletin this week, I was pleased to see that Scottish Labour was using its parliamentary time wisely to debate two very important issues that are close to all our hearts—health and education. However, when the motion for this debate came in, it was very disappointing, to say the least.
No—not at the moment.
The Scottish Government is ensuring that every child and young person has the same opportunity to succeed in education, regardless of their background.
As we have heard, the Scottish Government is putting in place improvements to the Scottish attainment challenge to aid our recovery from the pandemic and to accelerate the closing of the attainment gap
, which I would have thought would have been welcomed by everyone here today.
However, once again, the Labour Party, with its endless grievance politics, is using its time to stand in the way of progress to help the most disadvantaged children and young people across Scotland.
What I find interesting—and slightly confusing—about Labour’s motion is that the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge model has been warmly welcomed by COSLA. Even Labour’s Councillor Stephen McCabe, the COSLA spokesperson for children and young people, said
“We welcome the recognition that councils across Scotland will be pivotal in work to tackle the attainment gap, not only providing additional support within schools but enabling stronger links with the wide range of important services for children, young people and their families that sit beyond the school gates.”
It would be helpful if all members of Labour were on the same page.
In its refresh of the Scottish attainment challenge, the Scottish Government has taken the decision—which is backed by local authorities and COSLA leaders—to ensure that the redistributed funding allocations recognise that poverty exists in all parts and every corner of Scotland, and that no area that is deserving of help should be left behind. I welcome the fact that South Ayrshire will now be included.
I am sorry, but I do not have time—I have a bit to get through.
In my constituency of Ayr, there are deprived areas such as Wallacetown, which is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland. The children and young people of Wallacetown have just as much right to thrive in their education as those anywhere else in Scotland.
Through the PEF, the Scottish Government has stepped in to provide South Ayrshire Council with more than £2 million, which is to be spent at the discretion of teachers and school leaders to help to close the attainment gap. In doing so, it is putting power into the hands of the people who are most experienced and well placed to make such decisions about the needs of their young people.
I am proud to say that, as a result of Scottish Government initiatives—and, most importantly, the hard work of the teachers and the young people—98.3 per cent of young people in South Ayrshire currently go on to positive destinations in employment, training or further study after leaving school.
I am not saying that there is not more work to be done. No one is denying that there is more work to be done. We must not rest on our laurels. However,
I believe that the SNP Scottish Government’s policies to tackle child poverty and the attainment gap are progressive and world leading. The SNP has delivered the highest spending per pupil across the four nations of the UK. Scotland has more teachers than at any time since 2008 and the Government is committed to recruiting more. For example, the number of primary teachers is at its highest level since 1980. Investment in education is at a record high. In addition, the Scottish Government introduced the minimum school clothing grant at a level that relieved the pressure for around 145,000 families. That is to name just a few of its policies.
I welcome the fact that, under the changes, all 32 local authorities in Scotland will have access to available funds and be empowered to get on top of the attainment gap as quickly as possible and ensure that every young person is encouraged to be the best that they can be. We should all want that, and we should all get behind the Scottish attainment challenge.
Like colleagues, I am glad that Labour decided to have a debate on attainment funding, even if I disagree with its conclusions. The objective is one that we all share—we all want to close the poverty-related attainment gap everywhere in Scotland. The question is how we do that with the resources that are available to us.
Over the past six years, I have taken part in a number of debates on the attainment gap, and in every one of them, I and a number of other members have made the same point: that the best way to tackle the gap is to tackle poverty itself. We cannot expect teachers and school support staff to play a role somewhere between that of a social worker and that of a miracle worker, working to undo the damage that wider societal inequality has done before children have even arrived in the classroom each morning.
That is why the Scottish Government is ramping up its efforts to tackle child poverty: free bus travel for young people; doubling the Scottish child payment to £20, with a further increase to £25; capping the cost of school uniforms; increasing the wages of low-paid workers, by mandating that anyone bidding for a public sector contract or a grant must pay at least the real living wage; mitigating the UK Government’s cruel benefit cap—and far more. Those measures are how we are tackling child poverty at source in Scotland.
Does the member agree that the change in policy that we are debating is a sign of the abandonment of what I think is a generational agreement on the issue of multiple and deep deprivation? Communities that have those particular challenges face particular barriers and require the resource to combat them.
I am going to come on to a point about the differences between communities that are experiencing poverty as a whole and individual families who experience what we describe as hidden poverty in wealthier postcodes.
Schools and the attainment funding that they have been provided with still play an essential role. Poverty exists in every council area; indeed, most children living in poverty do not live in what we regard as poor postcodes, if we are to use SIMD data. However, those who live in a deprived community have differences in experiences and outcomes from those who live in an area where most families are financially secure. There is an important debate to have about how we support those in areas with high concentrations of poverty and those whose poverty we refer to as hidden—although it is more often a case of people not wanting to look than a case of poverty being hidden.
A funding model that is based on postcodes misses most of the children whom we are trying to help: 59 per cent of those children are missed by such a model. As even those who are opposed to the change in funding have noted, there is hidden poverty everywhere. Therefore, the funding that is intended to close the poverty-related attainment gap needs to get everywhere too, and be proportionate to the level of child poverty in each area. Young people in 23 council areas will now benefit from support that was not previously there.
I am not trying to gloss over the impact over the next four years in the nine challenge areas, but this is where I really struggle with Labour’s position. Just a few months ago, we debated this year’s budget. During those debates, Labour representatives proposed additional spending on a raft of policies—all of which, from memory, I agreed with. They totalled more than £2 billion, but not a single tax rise or cut elsewhere in the budget was proposed alongside them. It is entirely legitimate for Opposition parties to oppose Government policy, but if they are serious about changing it, there is an onus on them to present a viable alternative. That applies in this case too, given that the budget is fully allocated and £43 million a year is being asked for.
More support is being provided to young people and their families in those nine areas. Everything that I mentioned earlier, from free bus travel to increasing the Scottish child payment, will disproportionately benefit those on the lowest incomes. The overall quantum of money being spent to support young people who are experiencing poverty is increasing, not decreasing.
That is in the context of a Scottish budget that has been cut by the UK Government to the tune of 5.5 per cent this year alone. In the previous session £750 million was spent, and in this session, a further £1 billion will be spent, solely on the Scottish attainment challenge. That does not include the funding for free school meals, the increased school clothing grant or myriad other interventions.
Again, I am not dismissing the difficulties that, in ensuring that children everywhere who need extra support are able to receive it, the change in funding will cause in some areas. However, as the head of education at Inverclyde Council told us two weeks ago, this is the “fair thing to do”.
Our children’s education is more important than any one politician, party or political ideology. I believe that we all recognise that to be true, so I do not doubt the sincerity of anyone here today in wanting to see every young person in Scotland succeed in life. They must succeed, because how can we hope for a better, more prosperous and fairer Scotland when only some children have the opportunity to achieve their potential?
What I have doubts about is the effectiveness of Scottish Government policy. I would encourage the SNP, after 15 years in power, with full control over education, to look honestly at the results of its policy, which I will set out. We have heard statistics today already, but they are worth repeating again and again to drive home the message that, when it comes to education, failing our children is never an option.
Let us first consider the basics. The attainment gap was bigger for primary literacy and numeracy in 2020-21 than at any time since comparable data was first made available. Last year, numeracy levels fell to 74.7 per cent from 79.1 per cent in 2018-19, and literacy levels dropped from 72.3 per cent to just 66.9 per cent.
It is a grim picture at secondary level, too. The 2021 attainment gap is wider than at any point since 2017. For those attaining A grades, the difference between the most and least deprived pupils is stark, at more than 22 percentage points. For A to C grade attainment, the difference is 7.9 per cent, which is worse than the year before.
We have already heard about funding today, but funding alone is not enough to close the attainment gap. That is why the Scottish Conservatives want to see more focus on teaching and learning. Getting the basics right early on would ensure that pupils are equipped with the skills that they need for the future as they advance through school—for example, preparing them to work in the circular economy, which requires specialised engineers, innovators and leaders.
Although funding is obviously important, it is not the whole answer, so it makes no sense for the Scottish Government to cut support for those who need it most. Ultimately, that is what its new challenge funding scheme amounts to.
Let us consider Dundee. We know that children from the most deprived backgrounds fare worse in school, and Dundee has some of the highest concentrations of deprivation. That should mean that Dundee gets more support, but under the SNP’s new scheme, Dundee will actually lose almost £5 million by 2025-26. How is that fair for struggling kids in Dundee?
I appreciate that other areas will see their funding increase. For example, Angus will see an increase of almost £877,000 by 2025-26, but it should not be the case that support is reduced for one set of children to help another. In effect, that is what the SNP is doing.
The goal must be to help every child who needs it. We all want to the attainment gap to be closed, education outcomes to be improved and every child to be able to succeed regardless of their background.
I am pleased to support the Government’s amendment, and I welcome the range of anti-poverty measures that it highlights.
As the head of education services at Glasgow City Council, Gerry Lyons, told the Education, Children and Young People Committee on 4 May, the Scottish Government’s focus on poverty did not start with the attainment challenge, but it allows even greater focus to be put on that policy priority.
Over this parliamentary session, the challenge will be supported by £1 billion of investment, which is an increase of £250 million from the previous parliamentary session. The refresh that was announced by the cabinet secretary included that increase in investment. It also included a change in the challenge’s mission to acknowledge that poverty cannot and should not be tackled only during school hours. Increases in the school uniform grant, the expansion of free school meals and the Scottish child payment are all policies that link into the work of the attainment challenge.
The challenge refresh also includes a change to the distribution of funding. As Emma Congreve of the Fraser of Allander Institute told the committee,
“It is incredibly difficult for a diverse country with different needs in different parts of the country to agree on what the best approach is.”—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee,
9 February 2022; c 10.]
The decision to use a funding model based on the data on children in low-income families will deliver challenge funding to every local authority in Scotland, including the nine original challenge authorities. That move was welcomed by COSLA and council leaders across the country. The cabinet secretary has also delivered a tapered reduction in the year-on-year funding to the nine authorities that already receive it, to enable them to manage their resources.
As Ruth Binks, director of education in Inverclyde Council told the committee, the local authorities that are in receipt of challenge funding knew that the funding was not guaranteed year on year and were regularly challenged on their exit strategy. She said,
“There is poverty throughout Scotland ... so revision to the original funding model was merited”,
and she went on to say,
“I think that it was a fair thing to do.”—[
Education, Children and Young People Committee
, 4 May 2022; c 7, 8.]
The committee heard from headteachers from the West Partnership that any cut requires to be looked at, of course, but they accepted the situation in order for funding to be fairly distributed across all local authorities.
I welcome the opportunity that Labour has given the Parliament to reflect on the many ways in which the Scottish Government is delivering funding to reduce the attainment gap the length and breadth of Scotland. I thank colleagues in my party for mentioning some of them; I will not go over them again.
The Government is clearly serious about reducing the attainment gap. I am shocked that Labour endlessly chooses to align itself with the Tories in attacking the Government when it is taking sustained, meaningful action on a hugely important issue. [
.] I am about to finish.
The Education, Children and Young People Committee has taken extensive evidence from teachers and school leaders, and I pay tribute to all those people, who have worked incredibly hard. Indeed, quite a few of them put on the record the support that the Scottish Government has provided to enable them to do their jobs.
When Opposition members try to do down education, they do our children and educators a disservice—
We have heard many speeches and, given the tight timing, I will not be able to mention them all. It is clear from the mood among members in the chamber, with the exception of SNP and Green members, that removing the targeted approach will not help the children who most need help.
It is not surprising that we have been reminded about Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority, which I think that everyone here bar SNP and Green members remembers.
We have heard the same old, same old from SNP members. They have spent years sticking their heads in the sand over their failure to close the attainment gap, so it does not surprise me that nothing has changed. The First Minister declared that closing the attainment gap is a moral challenge. She was quite right, but that makes it all the more regrettable that, after seven years—
I will, Presiding Officer.
The decision to target additional attainment gap funding at nine challenge authorities was at least a step in the right direction. The decision to remove targeted attainment gap funding from challenge authorities is nothing more than the action of a Government that is out of ideas and has resorted to placing sticking plasters over problems in the desperate hope that things will look better when it has finished.
In my region, West Dunbartonshire, the cuts mean a reduction of 58 per cent between 2021 and 2025, which equates to more than £1.2 million. Here is a newsflash for the SNP: it cannot improve a targeted funding system by making the system less targeted, and it will not improve the prospects of deprived children by removing £25 million from their schools. That is especially problematic when we consider that, if we exclude attainment funding, spending on education fell between 2013 and 2019 in nearly all key challenge areas.
Where does that leave our key challenge areas and the pupils who need that funding most? We know that, already, the NSPCC in Scotland has written to the Education, Children and Young People Committee with concerns that large cuts to the most deprived local authorities will result in mass departures of headteachers.
The Scottish Government has failed to support disadvantaged children: first, by failing to close the attainment gap at both primary and secondary level, as pointed out by my colleague Maurice Golden; secondly, due to the wider underinvestment in schools leading to cuts in teaching posts, as my colleague Oliver Mundell rightly acknowledged in his amendment; thirdly, by retaining a restrictive stance on pupil equity funding, meaning that it cannot be used to backfill cuts and does not give the schools autonomy to spend more money where it is needed, as rightly asserted by my colleague Meghan Gallacher; and, last but not least, by replacing the attainment challenge fund with the less targeted strategic equity fund.
We need to see less talking and more action from the SNP Government—innovation, not stagnation. If the SNP needs some pointers, it should consider our proposals for a curriculum for all, which would see funding allocated effectively to encourage responsibility and innovation in our education workforce and would prompt a restoration of high education standards in our classrooms.
As we looked to refresh the Scottish attainment challenge, it was important that the Government and stakeholders took cognisance of the fact that 59 per cent of children in relative poverty lived outside the challenge authorities. There was general agreement that that model needed to be looked at and that we needed to find a fair model.
I think that that is exactly why, as Siobhian Brown and others have mentioned, Councillor Stephen McCabe, COSLA’s then spokesperson for children and young people and Labour leader of Inverclyde Council, welcomed the changes and announced that COSLA welcomed
“the recognition that councils across Scotland will be pivotal in work to tackle the attainment gap”.
Ruth Binks, who recently gave evidence to the Education, Children and Young People Committee and has already been quoted in this debate, said that, given that there is poverty in every local authority area in Scotland, the original funding merited revision and that it was the “fair thing to do”.
Also, as has been mentioned, these changes will be brought in over four years.
Impact assessments were published when we published the refreshed Scottish attainment challenge programme on 30 March.
We have seen both from individual councils and COSLA a recognition that this was an important area for the Scottish Government to look at. That is one of the reasons why we did so. However, understandably, although there has been consideration of this matter today, we have not heard as much about the £520 million pupil equity funding that is going directly to headteachers—
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We have seen £520 million of pupil equity funding going directly to schools. As the guidance makes clear, it is up to headteachers to spend that funding, because this Government is putting into action the empowering system that we want to see.
However, I have found it difficult to stomach the directions that we have had from various Opposition parties to simply find the money—a point that Ross Greer and others made. I would point out that the budget is published every year. Back in the day, Opposition parties put together costed and credible alternative budgets. Now, we are told to “find the money”, and that is testament to the fact that they are so far from government that they make demands that they genuinely have no idea how to achieve in a fully allocated budget.
We even had Willie Rennie casting back to the good old days of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. I suggest to Mr Rennie that that is not a pleasant place for the Liberal Democrats to go, given how well it went for them recently.
We were also challenged to take bold action. I point to the £1 billion of attainment challenge funding that the Government is putting in, and the 3,500 thousand additional teachers that we have committed to, with our Green Party colleagues.
I find it particularly rich that, today of all days, the Labour Party has moved the motion as it makes what would appear to be backroom deals with the Scottish Conservatives right across Scotland to make administrations that, quite frankly, make a mockery of any pretence that it is about progressive educational politics. Better together indeed—it is not better for our young people right across Scotland.
Ross Greer said that the best way to tackle the attainment gap is to tackle poverty, and we will continue to do just that. However, we will continue to tackle the attainment gap with one hand tied behind our backs, because of the continued progress that the UK Government is making to make our job more difficult. There is no thanks to the Tories and its coalition partners, the Labour Party—and, it would appear, the Liberal Democrats.
It is a great pleasure to close the debate in this cauldron of argument and dispute about what is happening in our local councils following the elections. Education either is or is not the SNP’s defining mission—I am not sure that the debate has provided a great defence of it being the defining mission of the SNP-Green Government. Of course, it is right that all authorities are now being supported with a budget, and sadly, as Ross Greer and so many others pointed out, the reality is that children across Scotland are living in poverty—as my colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy said, the figure is one in four. However, that support should surely not come at the expense of the nine authorities that were identified in 2015 as the areas with the deepest level of poverty across Scotland.
The funding allocated to all local authorities going forward should of course remain, but it cannot be paid for on the backs of poor children who are hungry—0.01 per cent of the budget! With respect, the cabinet secretary should be able to turn to those who discuss finance within the Government and say, “Our defining mission is education, and 0.01 per cent will protect the poorest children in Scotland.”
The figure £43 million is being spoken about. We have made clear time and time again that, if the member wants to take that away from health, justice or social care, which we have just had a debate about, he has to say so—where exactly would it come from? As Ross Greer pointed out, there is no costed analysis, which is the case with every other policy that the Labour Party has put forward.
I am very grateful, Presiding Officer.
I will turn the clock back to 2015. The First Minister’s aspiration then was that a child born in that year would have the same chance as everyone else by the time they left school. A child born in that year would now be eight years old. So, how are we doing? As Maurice Golden rightly pointed out, literacy levels have plummeted from 72.3 per cent to 66.9 per cent and numeracy levels have dropped from 79.1 per cent to 74.7per cent. The literacy attainment gap has risen from 20.7 to 24.7 per cent. We heard about the Audit Scotland report in the debate.
Let us look again at what the then cabinet secretary, Angela Constance, said in the chamber in 2015 on the launching of the attainment challenge, when it was pointed out that the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas do only half as well as the most affluent areas. Liam MacArthur MSP made an intervention to ask about the postcode lottery of the nine attainment challenge areas. Her answer was:
“Nonetheless, as we move forward ... we need to invest in a more targeted resource for the children who are most in need.” —[
, 17 February 2015; c 12.]
What we have heard about today is the effect of that targeted resource. Members on the SNP back benches have spoken about improvements in North Ayrshire, but what of going forward? Suddenly, the cliff edge is reached. That is the end of the funding—it goes, for 0.01 per cent of the budget.
We have heard from a number of people, including Oliver Mundell. I confirm to the Conservatives that we will support their amendment, but we cannot support the SNP amendment, which talks not about how people in those nine areas will be helped but about what will happen down the line. When will that ever be delivered?
We heard from Willie Rennie, who succinctly said that the cabinet secretary is unable to argue in her own Government for funding for these people.
Neil Bibby reminded us that the children who are born in our poorest families are being let down today—it is the tartan version of the Tories’ levelling up.
I welcome Ruth Maguire’s confirmation of the attainment challenges in North Ayrshire, where the staff had worked hard to bring about improvements. Will those improvements continue with the 75 per cent cut? I fear not.
There was agreement today across the chamber about the importance of poverty and young people, except in the final contribution from Kaukab Stewart, who said that she was disappointed that members had talked down education. I do not believe that anyone in this chamber today talked down education. What we talked about was the pathway to improve our young people.