I pay tribute to all the young people who have achieved qualifications and awards this summer, and to all those who have moved on to employment or started new apprenticeships or courses in our colleges and universities. They are a credit to themselves and to those who have supported them.
In particular, I recognise the dedication, commitment and hard work of our early years workers, our teachers, our college and university lecturers and all those who work alongside them.
There is much to celebrate in Scottish education and it is right to recognise and acknowledge some of that today. Our education system has an excellent reputation internationally. Beatriz Pont from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said last September to the Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee that
“Scotland is viewed internationally as an example of high performance.”—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee
, 8 September 2021; c 30.]
We have a higher proportion of adults with tertiary-level education than any European Union country. Scotland is ranked fourth in the 2018 programme for international student assessment study of global competence. Since August 2021, all local authorities in Scotland have been offering 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare to all eligible children. Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom to offer the equivalent of 30 hours of funded childcare per week in term time to all eligible children, regardless of their parents’ working status.
Over the past 10 years, we have seen the poverty-related attainment gap close on a range of indicators—for example, among school leavers achieving a pass at higher or equivalent. The resilience and hard work of our teachers and young people are extraordinary. This year saw one of the strongest ever sets of qualification results in an exam year. There was also a big increase in 2022 in those achieving skills-based qualifications. We have more school leavers who are in education, employment or training and we have a record high of full-time first degree entrants to university coming from the most deprived areas. Indeed, the commissioner for fair access said in his last annual report that the Scottish Government’s approach has been “an unambiguous success”. Our commitment to free university tuition ensures that eligible Scottish students studying in Scotland do not incur up to £27,750 of additional student loan debt, resulting in the lowest student debt levels in the UK.
We are spending wisely on the people and the infrastructure where it matters most. We spend more per pupil and we have more teachers per pupil than any other UK nation. Our teacher numbers are now at the highest that they have been since 2008, with primary teacher numbers at the highest that they have been since 1980, and our school buildings are in the best condition that they have ever been in.
There is lots of self-congratulation there, but that could be easily predicted for the speech that we are listening to. How many Scottish pupils who applied to go to Scottish universities were not able to gain admission because of the cap on the number of places for Scottish students?
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. What recourse is there for us, on this side of the chamber, when someone blatantly misrepresents the position of our party in relation to an issue, as the cabinet secretary has just done? If that is setting the tone of the debate, it is a very poor start.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Indeed, if the Tories do not want people to pay for university tuition, they must say where the money will come from, because that is the context in which Mr Kerr is operating.
Does what I have outlined represent a system that is failing, as many in this chamber and, indeed, some commentators claim? Of course it does not. However, we know that there is more to do. Our aim remains to achieve excellence and equity in the outcomes that children achieve.
We have now seen a full year of the delivery of the expansion of funded early learning and childcare, bringing benefits to thousands of children and families spread across Scotland. Increasing access to high-quality funded early learning and school-age childcare is a priority and is fundamental to our national mission to tackle child poverty, to support families and to narrow the poverty-related attainment gap.
Our strategic childcare plan will set out our vision for early learning and school-age childcare. In 2022-23, we will invest £20 million to design and test options for all-year-round school-age childcare systems. We will also build the evidence base that we need to develop a high-quality learning and childcare offer for one and two-year-olds, starting with those children who will benefit most.
Continued improvement is at the heart of our plans for learning after the pandemic. That aim is shared with everyone who helps to deliver education in Scotland. We are committed to raising attainment for all our young people and accelerating their progress in learning.
As we move beyond the pandemic we are, rightly, also placing an increased focus on health, wellbeing and children’s rights. The ambitious new approach for the Scottish attainment challenge that I announced last year includes a record investment of £1 billion and a strong focus on health and wellbeing. We have given councils and headteachers significant funding and trust them to get it right, because they know where that funding is needed most.
I have rehearsed my point with the cabinet secretary on numerous occasions, but it is a little bit out of order to describe that approach as “ambitious” when she is cutting resources for the poorest communities in Scotland, such as those in my constituency in Dundee, which is resulting in massive cuts in the kind of provision that the poorest pupils in Scotland need.
The funding arrangement that we have was welcomed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It is important to recognise that the impact of poverty and the pandemic go right across Scotland. It was demonstrated that the way in which the fund previously operated ensured that around 59 per cent of children from low-income families were not able to access the funding through their school. I think that it was right—and COSLA agreed—that more should be done in that area.
In June, I visited Castlebrae community campus with the international council of education advisers. We were delighted to hear first hand how the school and pupils have benefited from pupil equity funding, as well as from a new building that they are, rightly, proud of.
Our 2016-17 programme for government said:
“It is the defining mission of this Government to close the poverty-related attainment gap. We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this Parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.”
We remain committed to that and we are seeing progress. Covid has had a negative impact on the attainment gap, not just in Scotland but all over the world, and the cost of living crisis certainly is not helping. Therefore, we need a relentless focus to address the gap, reduce it and, ultimately, close it.
A consistent approach to limiting variation in performance across Scotland will be crucial to that. Our framework for recovery and accelerating progress requires local authorities to set their own stretch aims for progress against an agreed set of measures. That will enable authorities to use local data and knowledge in their contexts to set their own ambitious, but realistic, aims for progress. The Government will publish those stretch aims later in the year.
I think that the cabinet secretary is exaggerating. The apparent progress that she has alluded to is in comparison with 2019 figures. At the very best, progress is stagnant. Compared with the Covid years, there is a massive drop. At this rate of progress, it is going to take another three decades to close the attainment gap. Why is she being so timid?
Mr Rennie does a disservice to the work that has been done, particularly given that the money for the Scottish attainment challenge has been increased in this parliamentary session and particularly when we look back to the start of the attainment challenge. In primary schools, between 2016 and 2017 and up to 2018-19, the attainment gap narrowed for numeracy and literacy. We have also seen improvements in attainment in some higher education results. However, I absolutely recognise that there is more to do, which is exactly why the stretch aims have been introduced.
The member will forgive me, but I am going to make some progress and I have already given way to him.
We will continue to provide support for our children and young people. We will maintain funding for additional support for learning to enhance capacity in order to respond effectively to individual needs. We will ensure that all school-age children have access to an appropriate device and to connectivity to support their learning by the end of the parliamentary session. We are committed to helping families with the cost of the school day, and to working with our local authority partners to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision to primaries 6 and 7 later in the parliamentary session.
However, we also recognise that education does not stop at the school gate. Learning is lifelong and we recognise the value in all learner journeys through our schools, colleges, universities, professional skills providers and apprenticeships. We have already started work on our new purpose and principles for post-school education, skills and research. We will consult with partners, learners and employers to ensure that we hear the voices that need to be heard so that we get our purpose and principles correct.
I apologise; I am going to make some more progress.
Finally, I will touch on our ambitious programme of educational reform to ensure that our system remains world leading. Launched last week, our national discussion on the future of Scottish education,?co-chaired with COSLA and facilitated by Professors Carol Campbell and Alma Harris, will focus on how we get even better and build an education system that is fit for the future. It is an unprecedented opportunity?for children and young people, parents and carers, and teachers and other practitioners?to shape the future of the Scottish education system.
Ahead of the launch, I visited Carnegie primary school in Dunfermline, where I saw from learners how the resources can be used to support a conversation facilitated by teachers. I was deeply impressed by how knowledgeable and enthusiastic the children were.
I thank Professors Campbell and Harris, Councillor Buchanan, Willie Rennie, Ross Greer, Pam Gosal and Michael Marra for taking the time to attend the first facilitated conversation on the national discussion, which we had in the Scottish Parliament last week.
We will always have our political differences—we have already seen that this afternoon—but the new report asked us all to have a national discussion, and it stressed the importance of reaching a “consensual vision” for education. I hope that we might see some of that this afternoon.
The national discussion will set the context for our reform—it has been 20 years since we had our last national discussion on education. It is crucial that we listen to children and young people as we go through that process. That national discussion will lead into the work that Professor Hayward is undertaking on the independent review of qualifications and assessments.
The education reform bill will establish a new independent inspectorate and a new qualifications body. We are also developing the new national agency for Scottish education.
Our vision of excellence and equity is a shared endeavour, with partners including councils, early years practitioners, parents and carers, teachers, lecturers and care services playing a pivotal role in improving outcomes for children and young people. It is important that we recognise their hard work and listen to what they have to say.
We remain confident that our record levels of investment, our collaborative approach with key partners in the system and our continuous focus on improvement, underpinned by curriculum for excellence, will help to ensure that Scottish education remains a world-class system that places the needs and voices of children and young people right at the heart of education, which is just as it should be.
That the Parliament recognises that there is much to be proud of and to celebrate in Scottish education; commends the hard work of all staff and teaching professionals in Scotland's schools, colleges, universities and early learning and childcare centres to support children and young people throughout this period of recovery post-COVID-19-pandemic; pays tribute to all the young people who achieved qualifications, broader achievements and skills in summer 2022, as well as those who have moved onto employment, started new apprenticeships, or courses in colleges and universities, having overcome the challenges they faced; recognises that, despite those challenges, this was one of the strongest ever sets of results for any exam year, given that pass rates were up on the last time that formal exams were held in 2019; welcomes that the attainment gap has closed over the last 10 years and that there has been a record high number of full-time first degree entrants to university coming from the most deprived areas in Scotland, but acknowledges that significant progress is still required; welcomes, therefore, the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that all children and young people receive a first-class education in their local school through significant investment in teacher employment, with the highest spending per pupil, and more teachers per pupil, than any other UK nation, as well as increased digital inclusion, action to address the costs associated with the school day, and a £1 billion investment over the course of the parliamentary session to close the poverty-related attainment gap; commends teachers, schools and local authorities across Scotland for their commitment to build a continuously improving system, which raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap, and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential, and encourages everyone – children, young people, families and teachers – to give their views on the future of education by taking part in the National Discussion.
I gently nudge colleagues who wish to participate and who have not already done so to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible. There is a little time in hand, so I encourage members to make and take interventions, for which they will get the time back. Therefore, I discourage members from providing a running commentary on speeches from a sedentary position.
Today, with grim inevitability, we will hear more of what we heard from the cabinet secretary—a variety of Pollyanna-esque speeches from Scottish National Party members outlining how great the SNP is doing. We will hear statistical acrobatics to prove that the figures are wrong, and we will be presented with Donald Trump-style alternative facts. We will inevitably be told how much worse things are in England as an excuse for the SNP’s failures.
The SNP keeps repeating its doublethink, as if saying it often enough changes the reality of what teachers, pupils and parents experience daily. Nicola Sturgeon said that she wanted her time in office to be judged on her education record. She said that it was her “sacred responsibility”. No wonder she is not in the chamber today; she knows how bad her record is.
There are 815 fewer teachers than there were when the SNP came to power in 2007. There is a scandalous number of teachers on temporary contracts. Attainment is falling and, despite what we have heard, the attainment gap is widening. One in three primary pupils is not meeting the expected level of literacy. One in four primary pupils is not meeting the expected level of numeracy. Fewer pupils are taking maths and science at higher level, and more than 40 per cent of Scotland’s schools have not been inspected for at least 10 years.
We should be angry at this litany of failure and at how we are letting down Scotland’s children and young people.
Scotland’s education was the envy of the world. My Scottish education has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. I am forever indebted to my teachers as well as to my parents for being so encouraging and supportive.
I have to declare an interest. My eldest daughter is the head of guidance at a secondary school.
I was listening to the cabinet secretary. Does my colleague agree that what she is describing does not reflect the incredible stresses and strains that our teachers are increasingly under? Inevitably, our teachers are going to reach burnout unless we do something to support them and our schools.
I wonder how the member would respond to Andrea Bradley, who recently took over as the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. She said:
“Yes, there is a lot more to be done and there is a lot more we want to achieve, but it is demoralising for young people to hear their work completely dismissed by politicians and the press as not being worth terribly much. That is very difficult for them to hear, for their parents to hear and for the wider school community to hear. It is really not how you encourage and support and stimulate progress in the direction we want to see it and you don’t achieve success by setting up competitions between different schools and different local authorities.
I hope that Mr Kerr can get to the point where he congratulates Scottish education for what is right as well as pointing out what more we can perhaps do.
That is a typical SNP line of argument. Whenever someone puts the Government under examination and scrutinises it, ministers, including the cabinet secretary, hide behind the good people who are doing their level best to educate our young people. It is a low tactic, and I would have hoped for more from the cabinet secretary than that kind of argument.
I return to what I was saying about my own family and my own personal indebtedness to Scotland’s education system. No one in our family had ever been to university, but my mum and dad wanted that for my sister and me.
Let us look at what has happened under this hopeless SNP Government. Scotland’s global reputation has suffered under the SNP in so many areas, but none more so than the area of our proud reputation for education. It is true to say that
“The importance of education is ingrained in Scottish history”.
Those words are Nicola Sturgeon’s. Yet, little did we realise when she said them that she meant that Scottish educational standards were to be a matter of history rather than of the present.
A Scottish education must once again be seen as one of life’s greatest advantages. It must be a gift that gives to every Scot equality and quality of opportunity. It must inspire and uplift. It must be the passport that opens doors and leads to wider horizons. This is the very definition of levelling up: giving children and young people the opportunity to gain skills, knowledge and fortitude to live a full and happy life. [
.] I am willing to give way to the cabinet secretary, because she is giving a running commentary on my speech. I am more than happy to give way to her, but instead I will give way to Bob Doris, from whom we always hear sensible things.
Does Mr Kerr remember a visit to St Roch’s, in my constituency, when he was convener of the Education, Children and Young People Committee? We heard from many teachers who were working with young people from deprived areas on the attainment challenge. They were hugely optimistic and very positive about the future of Scottish education. Can Mr Kerr reflect any of that in his speech at any point?
I am reflecting the critique of the Government that the member supports. That is what Parliament is for—to scrutinise the performance of the Government. I know that the SNP does not like scrutiny, but that is, in part, what this Parliament exists for and it is what we are going to do, whether it is comfortable or not.
By the way, I agree with Bob Doris. We met some fantastic teachers. I will return to teachers if I can make some progress in my speech.
The reason why I want to make some progress is because I want to talk about the themes around which the Conservatives wish to make some contribution. This is the beginning, I hope, of that contribution, though let us keep the Government scrutiny going here.
The SNP is good at shirking accountability, and we are hearing that today. It is taking far too long to make changes in education and far too long on reform; it is not making it happen. The SNP wastes time at the speed of light and is expert at prevarication, making it into an Olympic-class event.
We are now to have a national discussion, and I really hope that the cabinet secretary is not cynically using a national discussion as a smokescreen for her Government’s 15 years of failure. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review was just such—[
I just make the point, Presiding Officer, that I am more than happy to take interventions from the cabinet secretary.
The OECD review was just such a smokescreen. It was called “partial, sycophantic and superficial” in a damning criticism by Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh university. We should not keep defending the indefensible and commissioning review upon review simply to embed failure.
Vested interest in education means that those in charge today are responsible for the state of the system, which is failing. It is perfectly normal for them—it is a human reaction—to want to defend that system, but it is our job to be clear in our view—and incisive in our scrutiny—that we must be led in our policy deliberations by evidence, not wishful thinking and obfuscation.
The changes to Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority are turning out to be nothing more than a cosmetic exercise. It is all the same people; they will not deliver the change that we need. It is time for some honesty. Are we really doing the best that we can for our teachers, parents, children and young people? If this is our best, we should be ashamed.
We have tireless and dedicated teachers. I am always inspired by what I learn when I meet Scotland’s teachers and I pay a heartfelt tribute to them. Close members of my family are teachers and I believe that they are typical of the very best of Scotland’s teaching profession. My admiration for teachers knows no boundary. How much do we all owe our teachers? Our laws and policies must support them. Teachers must feel that we have their backs.
The Times reported earlier this year that more than 10,000 attacks had been made in one year on teachers in classrooms, with some schools threatening strike action over the lack of safety. I tried to get ministers to come to the chamber to make a statement on the EIS survey on attacks in the classroom and they would not come. They said that they had nothing new to say.
I can tell that I need to wind up.
I state very clearly that the Scottish Conservatives want real change leading to sustained improvement in our education system. Scotland should, once again, be defined by its world-beating education system. No doubt, this debate will be just another time filler in the parliamentary order paper if all we get now is craven, lickspittle speeches from the Government benches. [
.] Let us hear some critical assessment from the SNP members—[
.]—not a self-congratulatory performing seal act.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
I have been in this Parliament since 1999. There are certain members of this chamber who abuse the good will, the spirit and the respect that the standing orders require in how we conduct our debates. They also use up valuable time that should be spent on the subject and content of a very important matter. Can you relay to the Parliament the seriousness with which the Presiding Officers take this chamber and remind members, who should know better, that, in the content of their speeches, they should show a bit of respect for the people and children of this country, rather than misrepresent others—as the member said earlier—so severely, as we have just heard, and that that is completely and utterly unacceptable?
Thank you, Ms Hyslop. As I ruled earlier, that is not a point of order, but you have put your point on record. I think that you have completed your speech, Mr Kerr—you are well over time.
I move amendment S6M-06102.3, to leave out from “recognises that, despite” to end and insert:
“expresses concern that the Scottish Government remains complacent about education in Scotland with fewer teachers, larger class sizes, a growing attainment gap, lower levels of numeracy and literacy and a lack of school inspections demonstrating its neglect of Scottish education; notes that the Scottish Government has broken its promises on class sizes and failed to support teachers and pupils in the classroom, and further notes that the withdrawal from international comparisons and a lack of decent measurement of outcomes has shielded the Scottish Government from proper scrutiny while its reforms to Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority appear set to amount to nothing more than cosmetic changes.”
I join colleagues in paying tribute to our young people, who are leaving school and emerging into, frankly, quite a worrying time in their lives and in the rest of the country. Scottish Labour is happy to support the national conversation that forms the substance of the Government’s motion, which Professor Ken Muir recommended almost seven months ago.
I confess to approaching this latest exercise without a great surfeit of enthusiasm, given the blizzard of reviews and consultations that are so numerous in this Government that you might as well be counting snowflakes. Let us be clear that there are no substitutes for leadership and action. However, our first meeting, which the cabinet secretary highlighted, was full of good intentions and I will set out some of the Labour Party’s expectations around that exercise.
In any wide-ranging series of forums, it is imperative that the voices of the public and all stakeholders are heard. The voices of those people who use our education system should be central to guiding the forums, and so should an overarching sense of purpose that can only really come from the democratic process that elects our Government. What kind of country do we want? What kind of country do we want to become? What are the opportunities to be seized and what challenges must we face?
There is, rightly, much focus today on the atrocious actions of the “doomsday cult” that dwells in Downing street. Those are not my words—I am quoting the chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management. I suspect that Professor Adam Tomkins, late of this parish, is a natural Tory voter, but it is little wonder that he is now making it clear that a Labour Government must happen if this unfolding macroeconomic disaster is to be addressed.
In that context, the SNP will—understandably—clamour for a referendum and its own version of economic chaos in order to seize the economic levers. Yet, what we are discussing today is the single greatest economic lever available to any nation anywhere. An educated population would be ready to build a better Scotland.
In any national conversation about our education system, the hard facts of our economy must be acknowledged and be placed centre stage: Scotland’s economic stagnation; our woeful productivity; our sclerotic business innovation; and business enterprise, research and development figures that have remained stubbornly poor for well in excess of a decade. However, our education system is about so much more: confidence, opportunity, friendship, community, music, stories—the reasons to live rather than just the means and the chance, as Keir Starmer put it eloquently this week, to live rather than just exist. That is what our people hunger for.
I am listening to the member’s speech with interest. I agree that education is our country’s greatest lever on our route to prosperity. Does the member agree that the first thing that we have to do is ensure that the mechanism is there to support our teachers in their efforts to deliver for our children? Is he as concerned as I am that our teachers are reaching burnout?
Mr Whittle makes a good point, as did Mr Kerr in his intervention. The strain that has been placed on our teaching workforce in recent years is extraordinary. In the schools that I visit regularly in my role, it is quite clear that teachers are on the verge of burnout. We know that that issue is part of the negotiations that the EIS, the largest teaching union, is involved in now to ensure that teachers have some form of recompense for the situation. I hope that the First Minister gets around that table to sort the situation out as soon as possible.
I will make some progress if that is okay with Mr Kerr.
A real national conversation must encompass all those issues. If it does not, it will not be credible. The cabinet secretary must ensure that all voices are heard, that the methods are in place to produce that report and that the submissions of all organisations are published in full. The conversation must be broad based and challenging for the country and the Government. It must address the need for resources rather than dwell on the years of enduring cuts on cuts from the Government.
I worry about this general reform programme, and I have expressed to the cabinet secretary previously my view that, frankly, the whole thing is a bit of a mess. First came the announcement of the closure of the national education organisations in the face of their abject failure during the years of the pandemic. Then there was the establishment of a commission on assessment, which was followed by the establishment of the national conversation, the resultant precepts of which would, in any logical sense, surely inform the assessment commission.
With that guddle stretched out over a period of long years, it is little wonder that we discover that the system is fighting back and that Education Scotland and the SQA refuse to believe that they have been scrapped. They turn up at the Education, Children and Young People Committee like Monty Python’s black knight—the Muir report is “but a scratch” and the education secretary telling us in a statement that they have been abolished is “just a flesh wound” for those organisations. The reform boards are packed with people from their leadership.
I ask Mr Kerr to please bear with me for a moment.
They are hardly busting a gut to get those reports written, and they are not burning the midnight oil, lest it set fire to the long grass.
That is a fair point well made. The composition of the boards is a problem, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will reflect on and address that point in her closing remarks. I think that the Parliament would have more confidence in the process if the boards were restructured.
There have been real consequences. We are told that the organisations did not serve our children and their future. Why, then, were the many life chances of tens of thousands of children impacted by the organisations’ self-serving continuation over a period of years? The cabinet secretary must be well aware of the frustration that the recommendations of the Muir report are rusting like a ferry in Ferguson’s yard. She can and must accelerate the process. I ask her to get the job done.
The immediate term is all the more difficult for pupils and teachers. They need their resources. The First Minister should be at the table, dealing with the EIS situation. After all, if she had addressed the bin strikes earlier, we would have got out of that situation an awful lot quicker.
I thank all those who work in our schools. For the sake of the country, I encourage everyone to engage, wherever they can, on how to improve our education system. Scotland needs those ideas, that passion and that commitment, because there is a sorrowful lack of them from the Government.
I did, but I will move it again.
I move amendment S6M-06102.1, to leave out from “recognises that, despite” to end and insert:
“regrets that the poverty-related attainment gap has widened for pupils sitting National 5, Higher, and Advanced Higher exams in summer 2022 compared to results in 2021, and remains unacceptably wide; understands that the assessment model used had over double the impact on the poorest pupils, with the Higher pass rates among pupils from the 20% most deprived areas falling by 13%, compared to a 5.9% decrease in the 20% least deprived areas; notes with concern that the Scottish Government’s recent reform of the Scottish Attainment Challenge funding resulted in money being taken from Scotland’s most deprived communities, and amounts to pupils in the most deprived areas paying for extra investment in areas of less deprivation; believes that Scottish Attainment Challenge funding should be available to pupils in every local authority; considers that the Scottish Government has failed to grasp or sufficiently respond to the scale of lost learning during the pandemic; welcomes the Scottish Government’s launching of the National Discussion and the opportunity for everyone in Scotland to give their views on the future of education; believes that the views of all stakeholders including children, teachers, families, employers and business will be of particular value in informing the direction of education reform in Scotland, and ensuring the education system is enabling the country to reach its potential; believes that this process must address the issues that teachers, parents and experts have highlighted in recent years, in addition to considering the long-term resourcing of education and skills; acknowledges the need to deliver genuine reform in the education system; regrets the length of time being taken to enact reform, and calls on the Scottish Government to accelerate the process to ensure that the maximum number of young people can benefit from a reformed and high performing education system.”
The Government has a nerve. “Excellence in Scottish education” is the title of this debate. We have excellent teachers, excellent staff and excellent pupils, but this Government is far from excellent on education, and the education secretary should stop insulting teachers, pupils and staff by seeking to use them as a human shield against any criticism of the SNP track record and SNP failure.
“Defining mission”, “judge me on my record” and “close the poverty-related attainment gap completely” are words of the First Minister from six years ago that scarcely pass her lips these days. I stood on the same platform as her in that election. Such was my commitment to education that I said that we would put a penny on income tax for education. I made it my number 1 priority. The difference between us is that, this afternoon, I stand here again talking about education, which continues to be my number 1 priority, whereas the First Minister is nowhere to be seen.
Let us look at the record. I argued with, encouraged and pleaded with the Government for years to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, which was at the centre of our slipping international education performance. Ten years ago, I said that funds targeted directly to the poorest pupils, through a pupil premium, was the best way to go. However, education secretary after education secretary, for years on end, refused to do it. Because of that refusal, young children from poorer backgrounds struggled in school and, today, we see a yawning poverty-related attainment gap.
This year’s exams saw the attainment gap stagnating at best and, at worst, growing. At the current rate of progress, it will take 35 years to completely close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is the promise: to close it completely. We have an education secretary who, before this Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee, sought to wriggle out of the commitment to close it by 2026, yet this is a Government that allows funding to pay for the police to patrol school corridors.
Every good teacher deserves a full-time contract, not years on end of short-term contracts. The zero-hours nature of so many of our employment contracts is unacceptable. This week, a teacher wrote to me to say that, “due to the stress”, she was—like so many others—“considering leaving the profession”, as it was “not sustainable”, especially in the current climate, to live off the odd day here and there of supply work on a zero-hours contract. I get endless emails like that every week. That situation is not acceptable.
Not at the moment.
In direct contradiction with the rest of the SNP’s education policy, we have national testing, which leads to national league tables and all the negative behaviours that come with those. National testing must go. It is in contradiction with curriculum for excellence.
I have told the education secretary that we will engage on the promised reforms and will work constructively to ensure that people engage in the process, but I am far from convinced that we will get real change, because all the signs are that the reform process will be managed into mediocrity. There need to be a lot more teachers on the reform bodies and review groups. At the moment, there are far too few of them on those groups.
We must strengthen the role of knowledge in the curriculum, resolve the transition between the junior and senior phases at secondary school, remove the two-term dash that has been created and give teachers the materials to teach in the classroom so that they can do the job that they were trained to do.
I hope that Willie Rennie agrees that, when we talk about education, we should talk about education in its widest sense. Does he agree that the erosion, over the past three or four decades, of the inclusion in education of things such as sport, music, art and drama has contributed to the decline in our education system and that the positive influence that those things have on pupils’ confidence and resilience will help them to make the transition that he mentioned?
As strong advocates for sport, Mr Whittle and I share that view. I agree completely with him that we need to make sure that pupils get the broadest possible experience in school. I would be keen to work with him on that important area.
I spent many a session seeking to persuade Alex Salmond to offer free nursery education for two-year-olds. I eventually won the argument but, years later, many two-year-olds are still not receiving those free hours, because the Government could not get organised. Only about half of those who are entitled to that free nursery education are accessing it, which is not acceptable. That must change.
In addition, there is an exodus of staff from private and voluntary sector nurseries because of the built-in discrimination in the funding arrangements that are organised by the Scottish Government. Staff in one half of the sector are paid much less than staff in the other half of the sector to do the exactly same job. That is discrimination.
That matters, because the First Minister promised flexibility for parents. She promised that they would have the hours that they needed when they wanted them, but that will not happen without the flexibility that is provided by the private and voluntary sector nurseries.
Coming on to colleges, the Education, Children and Young People Committee held an evidence situation on the cuts in that sector, and the information that we received was devastating. Universities have had a devastating cut in the funding for research—a cut that is devastating not just for the universities and their staff, but for the wider economy. I could go on endlessly.
There is much more that we need to debate on education. One debate is simply not enough. I do not have a great deal of hope that we will be able to get into the detail of all the various areas, because the Government is not particularly keen on scrutiny on so many of those aspects.
I always welcome the opportunity to debate education in Parliament in a constructive spirit. It is only right that we should reflect on as many positive experiences and examples of success as possible, as well as considering the challenges for further improvement.
I start with a reminder of the four capacities embedded in the curriculum for excellence: pupils should be confident individuals, effective contributors, successful learners and responsible citizens. Those capacities remain as relevant today as when curriculum for excellence was first developed. Let us also remember that the OECD values Scotland’s approach highly, and has described curriculum for excellence as a “holistic, coherent and future-oriented” approach to learning. Indeed some countries are looking to adopt elements of our curriculum for excellence.
On the back of that ground-breaking system, schools are delivering success in exam results and positive destinations. Pass rates for national 5, higher and advanced higher have increased compared with 2019, with A passes also up. Achievement in skills-based qualifications is close to the highest ever level. Positive destinations for school leavers stand at 93.2 per cent, with many schools achieving their best ever results against that measurement. I welcome the Scottish Funding Council’s report on widening access in 2020-21, which found that 16.7 per cent of higher education students now come from our most deprived areas and that, with a continued focus from our Government, we are on track to meet the longer-term target of 20 per cent by 2030.
I believe that the increase in the Scottish child payment has changed the parameters for applying for free school meals. I believe that that is being looked at.
As someone who is in regular contact with schools, I am not surprised to hear that almost nine in 10 headteachers suggest that improvements have been made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap, despite the impact of the Covid pandemic.
As a former teacher, I know—and want to remind everyone about—the joy of seeing children developing and thriving socially, emotionally and academically and having fun learning.
I place on record my respect and gratitude for all members of the education profession, who work with compassion and dedication to deliver the best outcomes for the pupils in their care. Teachers have borne a huge responsibility as they have supported pupils and families throughout the pandemic, turning on a sixpence to upskill, go online and deliver remote and in-person learning while also dealing with their own personal circumstances.
Schools undertake a range of social inclusion work to mitigate the effects of the cost of living crisis. The Scottish Government rightly prioritises funding to support teachers and pupils throughout Scotland with measures including the Scottish child payment and the on-going expansion of free school meals, which will be available to all primary school pupils by the end of this session of Parliament. I urge the Government to go further with free school meals when it is possible to do so. It has also provided the school clothing grant and increased the number of hours of free childcare.
All that work means that teachers deserve decent salaries. It is worth noting that teachers in Scotland are currently the best-paid teaching workforce in the UK. The starting salary for a teacher in Scotland is £33,724, which is considerably higher than the £28,000 starting salary proposed for teachers in England and Wales.
Last week, I attended the Scottish Learning Festival in Dunfermline. It was a joy to be among pupils again and to speak to them about the real-life innovation that is going on in schools. This year’s festival theme was placing learners at the heart of Scottish education, and the festival was busy and vibrant.
The cabinet secretary chose that event to launch the national discussion referred to earlier, an initiative suggested by Professor Ken Muir in his report, “Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Education”.
The national discussion is specifically designed to encourage and facilitate the inclusion of learners and teachers in education reform. That takes time and it has to be done properly to make sure that it is meaningful.
I will answer it quickly and wind up. Mr Kerr needs to remember that there are also teaching union representatives on the board, and those unions represent thousands of teachers.
I commend teachers and pupils in Scotland for their hard work, their resilience, their enthusiasm and the results, which they can take pride in through challenging days. I commend the Scottish Government for commissioning the Muir report and I encourage it to be bold in delivering on the recommendations.
Like other members who have spoken in the debate, I commend, in the words of the Scottish Government’s motion,
“the hard work of ... staff and teaching professionals in Scotland’s schools, colleges, universities and early learning and childcare centres”.
However, we have also heard from members across the chamber that the SNP Government has presided over 15 years of failure in Scottish education, with the attainment gap widening and education standards dropping. The SNP has starved schools and staff of resources, and its curriculum for excellence has been an unmitigated failure. We need to restore excellence in Scottish schools so that every child has the chance to succeed, no matter their background.
The SNP seems to have dropped its commitment to close the attainment gap by 2026. Shirley-Anne Somerville told the Education, Children and Young People Committee:
“I will not set an arbitrary date for when the attainment gap will be closed”.—[
Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee
, 18 May 2022; c 4.]
If the member does not mind, I will carry on.
The SNP stated in the 2016-17 programme for government:
“We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this Parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.”
It is clear that that has not yet happened. In 2022, the percentage point difference in higher A-grade attainment levels between the most and least deprived pupils is bigger than in any year since 2017. The attainment gap in the pass rate for advanced highers is the second worst since 2017. The attainment gap for those with additional support needs has widened at national 5 level. The attainment gap for pupils with additional support needs has widened at higher level, and the attainment gap for disabled pupils has doubled since 2020. Furthermore, a Scottish Government audit found that the school closures had a disproportionately negative impact on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Education, Children and Young People Committee noted Audit Scotland’s conclusion that
“The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide”, with limited progress on closing the gap, and that
“inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19.”
The report states:
“Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the Scottish Government’s aims. Improvement needs to happen more quickly and there needs to be greater consistency across the country.”
As we have already heard, Nicola Sturgeon said that she has a “sacred responsibility” to provide equal opportunities to all children. She stated:
“Now that I am First Minister, I am determined—indeed I have a sacred responsibility—to make sure every young person in our land gets the same chance I had to succeed at whatever they want to do in life.”
I think that we can agree that she has failed to deliver on that promise.
It was a sign of the weakness of our current system that it took the PISA tests to identify that there might be a problem with attainment in key areas. We should have our own data about how young Scots are doing against international comparators. That is not the case at present and we must make sure that it is the case in the future. It is, after all, imperative that our young people can be confident that, wherever they go in the world, their academic achievements will be recognised.
I want to touch on the much-needed on-going reform agenda. When it comes to the detail surrounding who is responsible for each element of the current education reform, the picture is very unclear. Is the SNP merely rebranding the SQA rather than creating a genuinely reformed qualifications body?
The new qualifications body, which is tasked with reforming the qualifications agency, is dominated by former SQA managers, while those with the most valuable contributions to make—teachers, pupils and parents—appear to be pushed to the side. Shockingly, as we have heard from Stephen Kerr, it has been revealed that only three teachers were involved in the high-level discussions on the reforms of Education Scotland and the SQA.
It is important that the Scottish qualifications review does not duck the big issues. Any reform programme must address the mismatch between the curriculum’s ambition and what the national qualifications deliver—or, right now, fail to deliver—for our young people.
Despite what it says, the Scottish Government remains complacent about education in Scotland. There are fewer teachers, larger class sizes, a growing attainment gap, lower levels of numeracy and literacy, and far fewer subject choices. The withdrawal from international comparisons has shielded the Government from proper scrutiny, while its reforms to Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority appear to be nothing more than cosmetic changes.
Nicola Sturgeon said that she should be judged on her education record. She stated:
“Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this.”
If we are to judge her on that, it is obvious that young people have been failed by the Scottish Government—not only now but for each of the past 15 years that the SNP has been in power.
Earlier this month, during the debate on the programme for government, Liz Smith made some legitimate points about the expectation of the public that both of Scotland’s Governments would work together to address the cost of living crisis. It would be reasonable of me to observe that, in order for them to work together, the relationship requires to be respectful and one of equals, and that the conduct of the UK Government towards its Scottish counterpart, and the comments from the new Prime Minister that were directed at the First Minister, have hardly engendered that. However, I will leave that to one side, because Liz Smith, as a long-serving and respected member of this institution, was right in what she asserted.
However, the public has other, similar expectations, which, I argue, we MSPs ought to have of ourselves. As an MSP of less long standing than Liz Smith but who has served for more than a decade, I will focus on one of those.
The oft-heard cry in this place is that it is the role of the Parliament to hold the Government to account—and it is. However, I say, particularly to Stephen Kerr, that how the institution sets about that task is every bit as important.
Since returning to the back benches earlier this year, I have been pleased to serve on the Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee. Under the convenership of Mr Kerr’s successor,?Sue Webber, that has been a pleasure, not least because of the approach that has been fostered and taken by members—a genuine cross-party endeavour to interrogate fairly the condition of our education system in a balanced way, giving credit where that is due and offering criticism where and when that is merited. The recent unanimous report on the Scottish attainment challenge was evidence of that.
I contend that the Parliament would benefit from the replication of that approach in the chamber, where, too often, regrettably, oppositional politics tend to overwhelm the reaching of measured and balanced conclusions. Too often, our debate—especially on topics such as education—descends into a “Government awful” versus “Government good” contest, whereas the truth lies somewhere in between. The Scottish Government is not perfect and we, on these benches, sometimes need to acknowledge that. However, nor is it anything like as deserving of the nature of the criticism that sometimes pours down on it from the Opposition benches.
In treating subjects such as education as a political football, not only do we let down those who seek the best from it—be they parents, pupils or professionals—we also sometimes ignore or downplay the actual causes of shortcomings, or at least the contributory factors to those. That does nothing to achieve the goals that collectively, I think, we all hold.
There is much to celebrate in our education system, despite its being sideswiped by the pandemic. I will highlight, briefly, one or two aspects of that, as they relate to my Angus South constituency: the significant strides that have been made, in partnership between the SNP Scottish Government and Angus Council, to improve our school estate; the progress that has been made—again, jointly—in delivering a transformational early years and childcare offering; and the congratulations that are due to the teaching staff and pupils of Monifieth and Webster’s high schools and Arbroath academy, whose 2021-22 exam results performance represented a significant step forward.
However, equally within education, locally and nationally, there remain areas for improvement, as the cabinet secretary has acknowledged. Above all, not all children enjoy or benefit from our education equally. This year’s exam results revealed that the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils had grown, with the gap in higher qualifications almost doubling and the national 5 and advanced highers gaps widening considerably.
In the course of participating in the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s inquiry into progress in the attainment challenge, I was struck not only by the passion of the teachers we met in west central Scotland for the task at hand but by their willingness to innovate and learn from mistakes.
More recently, in the course of the committee’s inquiry into the impact of college regionalisation, I had a wry smile at hearing from college representatives about the benefits of mergers and regionalisation. Oh, how I remember the reaction of the college establishment when the idea of mergers and regionalisation was advanced by Michael Russell—let us just say that it was arctic in its warmth.
I highlight those examples to illustrate the importance of, on the one hand, listening to those at the coalface and then rolling out best practice, while, on the other hand, acknowledging that sometimes we have to implement change because it is the right thing to do, regardless of resistance to it from vested interests.
That brings me to the second subject that I want to focus on, which is the change to come, as highlighted by other members. More specifically, I want to talk about the implementation of the recommendations of Ken Muir’s report, “Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education”. The Education, Children and Young People Committee’s recent session with the leadership of the SQA threw up an interesting exchange around the shaping of reform—or, more accurately, the replacement—of that body. We explored the concern on the part of some that what is being embarked on will, as other members have noted, produce only a rebranding. As Michael Marra highlighted at that session, the fact that, of the 11-strong delivery board, six are employees of the SQA only heightens those concerns, whether they are justified or not.
As I said earlier, having coalface input is important. If nothing else, it can identify problematic and unintended consequences of change. I am in no doubt about the intent of the Government and the cabinet secretary in that regard, but when the SQA chief executive, Fiona Robertson, tells a committee that she does not accept that the decision to replace the SQA is indicative of the conclusion being reached that it has failed, we can understand the concern. If the SQA does not think that it is being replaced because it got things wrong, how can we be certain, with such a significant in-house presence on the board, that the recommendations that come forward will acknowledge the need for genuine change of the sort that Ken Muir and the cabinet secretary, by their comments and actions, have indicated is required?
I wonder whether, during her closing remarks, the cabinet secretary might provide reassurance about exactly how she will ensure that the modus operandi of the new awarding body, which it has been accepted must change, will undergo the transformation that is being sought. Sadly, I ask that while holding the view, after listening to Mr Kerr’s contribution—and, to a lesser extent, that of Willie Rennie—that there is a far greater chance of that than there is of my earlier plea being heeded. Call me naive, but I live in hope.
An excellent education is the best thing that we, in this place, can offer our young people to give them a fighting chance at a future. However, although it is important to appreciate the excellence in our education system, it would be naive of us to overlook its shortcomings. The reality is that far too many young people are falling through the cracks. We cannot celebrate excellence in education when the very system that it relies on falls short of excellent.
Right now, in a number of ways, that is the case in the system that we have. Our teachers are being asked to do more with less. That is not excellent. Cut after cut to classroom workforces is not excellent. Above all, though, not all children are enjoying or benefiting equally from an education. That is not excellent.
I apologise for interrupting the member in full flow. She mentioned young people falling through the cracks. No one wanted Covid, but one of the outcomes of the alternative certification model was that young people from the most deprived backgrounds did far better under that model than they did under conventional exams. Does she agree that the balance between continuous assessment and examination has to be looked at seriously, as is currently happening, to make sure that young people from the most deprived backgrounds can do as well as they can, because that seemed, in a limited fashion, to stop some of them falling through the gaps?
I thank the member for the intervention and the Presiding Officer for the generosity around the time.
These issues are incredibly important and I am sure that my party is willing to talk to the Government about that, because we need to get the best possible system for our young people and ensure that everyone can strive for the best education that they can get and get the best possible out of it.
There is another gap that we must focus on: the one between disabled and non-disabled pupils. The most recent results show that there is a five-point gap between disabled and non-disabled pupils who achieve an A to C at higher. It is not only that data that should be of concern to us: only 43 per cent of pupils with additional support needs leave school with one or more Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 6 qualifications, compared to 74 per cent for pupils without ASN. Disabled pupils are six times more likely not to be in education, employment or training when they leave school. In the longer term, disabled people remain more likely to be unemployed, and Enable confirmed this morning in the Social Justice and Social Security Committee that the disability employment gap, which is wider here than elsewhere, is at 32 per cent.
Although failures on social justice and tackling poverty more widely are a conversation for another debate, the correlation between disability and poverty further exacerbates the disadvantages of disabled young people because of the compounded inequality that they face. The numbers speak for themselves, but so do disabled people. This summer, I went round Scotland to speak to people and they told me how hard it is for them. I put my thanks to them on the record. I also thank members who engaged with me during that conversation.
Young people told me that, at a time when they should be focusing on what they want to do when they grow up, they and their families are spending endless hours chasing and calling people and agencies that are needed to support them to get on. They are project managing their own lives. Staff in schools, social work and other agencies are doing their best, but the postcode lottery that has developed around local authority spending on support for young disabled people is making it harder for them and holding young people back.
Support in the teaching workforce is being drawn back, too. The number of dedicated ASN teachers dropped by 16.3 per cent between 2012 and 2019. That is 553 teachers who are no longer available to offer the dedicated, specialised and tailored support that those young people really need. Those cuts to the classroom workforce come at a time when the number of ASN pupils continues to increase. That means that teachers are being asked to stretch themselves even more thinly and to divide their time between more and more pupils. That not only threatens their ability to ensure that young disabled people get the fighting chance that they need and deserve, it impacts on teacher wellbeing, too.
The situation is so detrimental that many young people feel that they have no option but to leave school prematurely. Disabled people are five times more likely to do so than their non-disabled peers.
Despite people doing what they can, education is failing disabled people in Scotland. That is why I ask members to join people across Scotland in supporting my proposed disabled children and young people (transitions to adulthood) (Scotland) bill. I ask for their support to ensure that every young disabled person in Scotland has the statutory right to a transition plan no matter where they live or what school they go to, to ensure that the Government is accountable by reporting to Parliament on a national transition strategy and to require agencies to work together to reduce the burden on families who have to project manage at a time when they should be dreaming.
I thank Martin Whitfield for his intervention. My proposed bill is a step towards reducing the attainment gap and truly giving each young person a fighting chance at a future. I thank Camphill Scotland, Inclusion Scotland and my predecessor, Johann Lamont, for their hard work in getting us to this point.
I will share the strongest case for the bill: at age 16, disabled people have the same aspirations as everyone else; by age 26, they feel hopeless and feel that nothing they ever do will change their lives. That cannot go on. It is time to take real, tangible action to improve education for young disabled people, make it excellent for them, too, and give them the fighting chance that they deserve.
I do not intend to talk solely about what is already going well in Scottish education. There is plenty to celebrate, but this afternoon’s debate gives us an important opportunity to acknowledge the challenges that it faces and discuss how we tackle those.
That said, I want to start with some positives. Scotland is among the most highly educated countries in the world. Although I accept that they are not a perfect measure, our programme for international student assessment—PISA—scores are high. In 2018, as the cabinet secretary mentioned, Scottish pupils scored 534 on the global competence assessment, which was far higher than the average of 474 and was one of the top results in the world. After a long-term decline, teacher numbers are now up, and the pupil-teacher ratio is going down once again. The Bute house agreement between the parties of Government commits to an additional 5,000 permanent teaching posts compared with pre-pandemic levels—that represents about 3,500 new posts and the replacement of the 1,500 or so temporary contracts that were created during the pandemic by permanent ones. There are challenges around how the money that is allocated to that is being spent by councils, as alluded to by Willie Rennie, and I hope that we have a chance to come back to that later, because it presents us with some challenging questions around the autonomy of local government versus the ring fencing of funds for specific purposes.
We should not lose sight of those positives—and the many others—but, as the motion rightly acknowledges, there are still significant challenges and, on the attainment gap in particular, a huge amount of progress still to make. We need to recognise the key drivers of that gap, though, and thus the ways in which we will be able to actually close it rather than just mitigate it.
A poverty-related attainment gap needs to be tackled at source, by eradicating child poverty. Although progress is never quick enough, child poverty in Scotland has reduced in the past few years, and the Scottish Government is delivering policies such as the child payment, free bus travel for young people and the mandating of the real living wage among those bidding for public sector contracts, which will help families with their finances.
Eradicating child poverty is the aim that we should all have in the job that we are doing. However, does the member recognise that Audit Scotland has said that the process that the Scottish Government is using in relation to the Scottish child payment and other areas is looking to alleviate child poverty rather than end it completely?
I think that the member presents a key challenge when it comes to the question of the powers that we have available to us. If we want to tackle child poverty at source, we need reserved powers such as the power to set the minimum wage, without which we will simply be using devolved social security payments to compensate for poverty wages at minimum wage level, as set by the UK Government.
It is essential that we do not expect teachers and support staff to perform a role somewhere between that of a social worker and a miracle worker. We all know that schools perform miracles every day, but we cannot expect them to solve all of the social ills and inequalities that pupils arrive with each morning. However, poverty can, of course, be exacerbated by school-related factors. Those are areas in which we can take—and are taking—action right now. In the final budget of the previous session of Parliament, the Greens and the SNP agreed to expand free school meals to pupils in primaries 4 and 5 and to include P6 and P7 pupils as soon as possible. We acknowledge that councils had concerns about the speed at which the Government was rolling that out, but we all agree that it is an important measure, given the cost of living crisis. That is the reason for the commitment in this year’s programme for government.
School uniform costs have long been an increasing burden on families, and they are one of many areas in which prices are rising, so I am proud that the Scottish Greens’ manifesto proposal for statutory guidance to limit the cost of uniforms was included in the Bute house agreement. The consultation on that guidance is on-going, and I ask members to encourage groups in their communities, such as parent-teacher associations and youth groups, to respond to it before 14 October. That guidance is an opportunity not only to ensure that uniforms are affordable but to address issues of inequality, such as needlessly gendered uniform policies that result in girls paying more than boys because, for example, the required skirts are more expensive than the trousers.
Turning to exams and qualifications, I am more aware than most of the avoidable but fortunately reversed disaster of the SQA’s 2020 alternative certification model, of the huge workload issues and stress caused by the 2021 model and of the disbelief at the patronising study guides that were produced earlier this year.
It is true, and absolutely worth repeating, that this year’s results are more comparable to 2019 than to the intervening years and that, on that basis, there has been a slight narrowing of the attainment gap. However, the comparative data sets that we now have pose a question, which Bob Doris posed a moment ago, that is critical to the current review being led by Professor Hayward. Why, when student grades are based on the professional judgment of teachers and on work that has been produced throughout the year, is the attainment gap dramatically narrower than it is when grades are based on high-stakes end-of-term exams? The review of the model used in 2021 showed that there is a strong preference for alternative methods such as continuous assessment.
Young people across the country have come to the conclusion that antiquated Victorian-era high-stakes all-or-nothing exams are not an assessment method that is fit for the 21st century. Thanks to pressure from learners, teachers, MSPs and children’s rights defenders, this year’s appeals system was at least a significant improvement. That is a positive step that I want to celebrate. Learners can now appeal directly, they can do so free of charge and, beyond the specific cases of clerical errors, there is a no-detriment policy in place. There can be no return to the old appeals or re-marking system. To do so would take us further away from compatibility with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The appeals system might have improved but, yet again, the SQA’s communication with learners was far below what it should have been. Yet again, there was a breakdown of trust with key stakeholders, as laid out by the chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, Sophie Reid. The SQA again communicated only with schools and colleges, not directly with students. It was only through the intervention of Sophie Reid, who was the only young person on the national qualifications group, that direct communication was later issued to young people over social media.
I was on the Education and Skills Committee five years ago, when it issued a report that was scathing of the SQA and, in particular, its ability to communicate with young people and teachers. It had the opportunity to improve but it did not, and it is now being replaced.
I understand entirely the scepticism about a reform process that is so heavily populated by officials of the organisation that has failed—I associate myself with Graeme Dey’s comments on that point—but I thank Professor Hayward and Professor Muir for their continued involvement. They have proved their ability to tell the Government hard truths. I also welcome the appointment of the children’s rights expert Dr Tracy Kirk, whom I worked alongside to undo the damage caused by the SQA’s alternative certification models during the pandemic.
Despite the successes, which we should all celebrate, there are serious governance and policy problems in Scottish education. The reform process that is now under way is the opportunity to address them. The Greens have, and will continue to, put forward our proposals for reform in all areas.
Complaining is easy—it is also often justified—but we will be thanked far more by young people and teachers if we all put the effort in to deliver the changes that they are crying out for.
It is an honour to participate in such an important debate.
Let me be clear from the very start: the main threat to Scottish education is the persistent and callous poverty policies of the current UK Government. This morning, I watched on television people despair about their mortgages, heating their homes and feeding their kids. That has everything to do with education because, as long as our children and young people live with the stress and despair that poverty brings, we cannot expect them to arrive at school feeling ready to learn.
The Tories are speaking to an amendment that contains not a single positive word about excellence or achievements. There is nothing at all that celebrates our pupils, students, teachers or further education. It is telling that having a pop at the Scottish Government is the amendment’s only content.
What is excellence in education? Although excellence can mean different things to different people, it is, in essence, about providing young people with the knowledge, skills and attributes that they need for learning, life and work in the 21st century. It is also about happiness, wellbeing, health and confidence.
Scotland has a proud educational history that dates back centuries and in which innovation and embracing the future have defined our institutions. That has produced among the world’s most educated populations. Excellence should be for everyone, and we must always strive for it.
Education is about much more than academic achievement; it is about providing supportive environments that encourage individuals to learn, grow and thrive in a way that is meaningful to them, and about recognising their wide-ranging achievements. Excellence is driven from the ground up. It puts individuals at the centre of policy, and it builds in strengths to create lifelong learners. It equips our young people to craft their own paths to success and to lead fulfilling lives.
Recent times have brought unprecedented change and challenges, reinforcing the need to put people’s wellbeing and mental health at the centre of all that we do, including education. There is much work still to be done around that and other reforms, as other members have already highlighted. However, although every child is capable of excellence, some face much bigger barriers and challenges than others do, especially those who live in poverty. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap remains critical, and the pandemic challenged earlier progress.
Bob Doris mentioned the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s meeting with a large group of teachers at St Roch’s in Glasgow to discuss the Scottish attainment challenge funding. The teachers highlighted many challenges, but they also told us how they were reaching into families and understanding poverty like never before. Those teachers spoke about creativity and in-depth work to support families and help children to achieve. That really was inspiring. The Scottish Government’s continued investment in attainment—£1 billion over this parliamentary session—will continue that work.
We know that the poverty-related attainment gap starts early. That is why the Scottish Government continues to invest so heavily in extending free nursery care, with 1,140 hours for every three and four-year-old and for vulnerable two-year-olds. As well as early learning, free school meals and uniform grants, many wider policies tackle poverty, including the game-changing Scottish child payment, free bus travel, social security, renewable energy and many more. All of those will impact on our young people’s future, but the current cost of living crisis is a growing threat, as has been noted.
Staying at the forefront of change means listening. Scotland’s curriculum for excellence was ahead of the curve in 2010, and many other countries have followed that lead. However, we must continually strive to improve and make the changes that are needed.
At the invitation of the Scottish Government, the OECD reviewed the curriculum for excellence, and we listened, accepting all 12 of its recommendations. The significant changes that are under way as a result bring significant challenges, but they also bring opportunities. Making our education system fit for the future also means listening to our learners and to everyone with an interest in education. As the cabinet secretary noted, that is why the current national discussion on education invites children, young people, families and teachers to help us in getting it right for every child.
Sadly—I say this as a parent—our children grow up and move on from school. This year, we have seen exceptionally high positive outcomes for school leavers, with 92.4 per cent moving on to positive outcomes. That is a testament to the dedication of Scotland’s teachers. I am also grateful to our teaching professionals for their hard work in difficult times. Their commitment to our students, to businesses and to progress is very clear.
The success of the New College Lanarkshire smart hub—a collaboration between North Lanarkshire Council, the University of Strathclyde and other partners—is a really good example. Not only are businesses benefiting and being encouraged to invest in technology, but the college is sparking school pupils’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, thanks to accessing the Scottish Government’s advancing manufacturing challenge fund.
Finally, I must mention that it was a privilege to work with David MacMillan, a Nobel prize winner in chemistry. This Nobel laureate credits much of his success to Scottish education, and I had the pleasure of reconnecting him with his old school, Bellshill academy. David’s love of science took him to America, but he often returns to his family and his roots in Bellshill, and I really cannot wait for his next school visit, to watch him inspire even more pupils into scientific careers. David MacMillan—an ordinary wee Lanarkshire laddie—is living proof that the sky is the limit for our young people. That is real excellence, and may he inspire many young Scots.
I very much enjoyed the robust contribution from Stephen Kerr—our party’s new education supremo—who regularly schools the SNP Government. We have heard many interesting speeches, but I was particularly impressed by Sue Webber’s, Willie Rennie’s and Michael Marra’s thoughtful and passionate contributions. It was also refreshing to hear such a thoughtful and measured contribution from Graeme Dey. To his admission that the Scottish Government is not perfect, I say “Well done”, but I fear that the SNP whips will already have been informed. In fact, they might have already got him—he has vanished.
Let us begin with some simple truths. Despite the cabinet secretary’s selective exercise in self-congratulation, under the SNP Scotland’s education system has gone from being world-renowned to being distinctly average. The minister has already attempted to allege that that is a criticism, so I state that it is not a criticism of our hard-working pupils and teachers, for whom I have great respect.
Stephen Kerr and Willie Rennie have already reminded us of what the First Minister said in 2015. She said:
“Now that I am First Minister, I am determined—indeed I have a sacred responsibility—to make sure every young person in our land gets the same chance I had to succeed at whatever they want to do in life.”
I repeat: “a sacred responsibility”. Those were fine words, First Minister. She also stated:
“Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to do? It really matters.”
Those were yet more fine words.
Then there is the attainment gap. That is a phrase that gets bandied about, but what it actually means is the gulf between outcomes for children who come from poorer households and outcomes for those who come from richer households. In 2016, the SNP stated that closing the gap would be its “defining mission” and that it would “substantially eliminate” that gap over a decade. With three years left of that decade, how is that going? Well, this year, the gap got bigger—again. It should surprise no one that the SNP has now, in effect, abandoned its time target, despite what the cabinet secretary said today. So much for it being a “defining mission”.
If I announced that I was going to sit advanced higher physics without saying when that might actually happen, no one would take such a claim seriously—and quite rightly so. In the same way, we can no longer take seriously very much about education that comes out of the mouths of SNP ministers—ministers who love to talk big but often fail to deliver.
Other speakers in the debate will, no doubt—some have already—lay bare how the global good reputation of Scottish education has been trashed under the SNP. However, the party is not content merely with reducing pupils’ life chances. There is also its other fixation: bringing the damaging obsession with breaking up the UK into the classroom. That is done through the rewriting of history.
I fear that the “damaging obsession” might be the member’s own. Is he really saying that teachers in Scotland’s schools are in some way indoctrinating children? That is the direction in which he is going.
Let me turn to what I was about to explain. In answer to Dr Allan’s second point, I say that that is absolutely not the case: my point is about the Government’s direction, not about teachers.
Was that the word “Jesus” from the front bench?
I did utter in despair, because we have been through this countless times. Dr Allan is quite correct that the resources are developed by people from Education Scotland, and not by the Government, to be used by teachers.
We could be taking a higher tone in the debate, but the member is sorely lacking in that respect. What he says is a disservice not just to him but to his party and, quite frankly, to the Parliament. The fact that we are on that subject again when we could be debating so many other things is utterly desperate.
The cabinet secretary should listen to the experts who are making their views clear. She might not enjoy hearing them, but their points are absolutely valid. It is worth listening to what the experts have to say.
Education campaigner Chris McGovern described that particular episode as “propaganda” and an attempt to
“brainwash pupils into believing that Scotland is the victim of a wicked conspiracy”.
Neil McLennan, a former President of the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, has called out nationalism in education. He wrote recently that
“Our children deserve better. They are global citizens growing up in an interconnected world. Narrow nationalist ideas and parochial power-games have no place in the classrooms.”
I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.
There are many more examples, but, as I have taken interventions, I do not have any time to spare.
Very quickly, I will touch on a subject that is close to my heart—the joy of reading, which is shared by the First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon often tweets about her love of books, but one in eight public libraries has been closed since 2010. If only Scottish children were as fortunate as the Bute house bibliophile. The FM’s enthusiastic espousal of literature makes the episode that relates to the book that was issued for the Queen’s platinum jubilee quite hard to swallow.
I will wind up my remarks, because I am out of time. To conclude, I say that I look forward to hearing from Pam Gosal, who also has a great passion for education and who will close the debate for the Conservatives.
I will start by offering my congratulations to the young people who passed their exams this summer. Their years in education have been more disrupted than any in living memory, and they can be proud—rightly—of their achievements. The legacy of Covid will take many years to filter through our education system. Unfortunately, Covid has intensified problems that have existed for years.
I am, therefore, dismayed by the motion, which is the sort of motion that we have come to expect from the Scottish Government. It is mostly self-congratulatory, with only occasional reference to the idea that not everything is rosy.
However, we are only 18 months down the line since the joint report from the Auditor General for Scotland and the Accounts Commission, which found inconsistent progress in the national improvements. Although the Scottish Government is content to pretend that all the problems started with Covid-19, the report also said that the poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and that inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Those problems were not created by the pandemic; we know that those inequalities have been there for many years and we know that they have repercussions right through our society.
The Scottish Labour amendment highlights the scale of the poverty-related attainment gap this year, but we should not be tempted to believe that it ends with this school year. We know that those inequalities filter through society and that they entrench themselves geographically and generationally. The more those inequalities persist, the more Scotland will literally and figuratively be poorer. It will be poorer in the lost human potential of people who could have gone on to greater things but who were held back by the circumstances of their birth. It will be poorer as the effects accumulate and blight particular areas and communities across Scotland.
We know that poverty and race are closely correlated in Scotland. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that poverty levels among people in minority ethnic communities in Scotland are double the national average, and rising. The Scottish Government always has warm words on matters of equality, but when we see educational inequality being repeated year after year, even in the years before Covid, we should be aware of exactly what that means for marginalised people across Scotland. By allowing the poverty-related attainment gap in education to become entrenched, we are limiting the life chances of people in ethnic minority communities. Therefore, we are also continuing the cycle that leads to poverty becoming entrenched in those communities.
Surely we can hope for better than that. In so many ways, Scotland has come so far. Here, in Edinburgh, we have recently had the slavery and colonialism legacy review group, chaired by my friend Sir Geoff Palmer, which has done much to help our city to come to terms with its past.
I am sorry—I have a lot to get through.
What good is coming to terms with the past, however, if we are entrenching inequalities in future generations? That is partly why I strongly believe in anti-racist reform in our education system. As I have said in the chamber before, I praise the Scottish Government for setting up its race equality and anti-racism in education programme, but, the last time I raised the issue, I was promised that we would hear more about it over the summer. What happened?
I firmly believe that we need an education system that addresses both the inequalities that ethnic minorities in it face and the injustices of Scotland’s past. It must address the inequalities that I have mentioned, it must contain curriculum reform to address the legacy of colonialism and wider racism, and it must work to create an actively anti-racist Scotland. Only then will we start to make social progress that is worthy of the warm words of the Scottish Government.
It is with great pleasure that I speak in this debate on the excellence of education in Scotland. I will focus my speech on my constituency of Argyll and Bute, where there are many examples of that excellence. I want to pay tribute to all teachers and staff who make our schools and colleges great places to learn.
Argyll and Bute is home to many diverse communities, each with its own assets and challenges. Community collaboration is key to delivery of excellent education, so it was with much delight, but no surprise, that I learned last week of Dunoon grammar school’s success in being shortlisted in the top three of the world’s best schools for community collaboration. That is an incredible achievement. I was so pleased to mark it today by welcoming to the Parliament pupils and teachers from the school, including their inspirational headteacher, David Mitchell. They had a ball; they thoroughly enjoyed it. Just to see children be so excited to be in the Parliament and taking interest in what was happening in this chamber was truly inspirational. I will say more later about what that school achieved.
First, I will talk about UHI Argyll. The college offers further and higher education in nine centres across Argyll and Bute, from Tobermory to Campbeltown, and from Islay to Helensburgh. Last Friday, I joined staff, students and guests at the university’s graduation ceremony. The Queen’s hall in Dunoon was full of people who were bursting with pride, as student after student took to the stage to be awarded their degree—and the degrees were in many diverse subjects.
The guest speaker was Ryan McCuaig. Having experienced state intervention early in his childhood, he overcame significant personal, financial and social barriers to graduate from the University of Strathclyde with a first-class law degree. He is now a dispute resolution and criminal defence lawyer. Ryan is also truly inspiring. His message was simple: positive relationships are at the centre of everything. He encouraged the graduates—and, in fact, everyone in the hall—to continue to connect with people, to be resilient, to have the right mindset and to build positive relationships.
This August, our Parliament hosted an international culture summit. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, also focused on the importance of relationships. He reminded us that learning is a social experience. He suggested that we think about our own schooling. Our favourite subjects were likely to be the ones in which we connected with our teachers. I can certainly attest to that, when I compare my interest in modern studies to my interest in physics.
Social and community learning is happening across Argyll and Bute. For example, the Argyll and the Isles Coast and Countryside Trust outdoor nursery in Lochgilphead has shown progress with pre-school children with additional support needs who have struggled to settle into more structured settings. Research has consistently demonstrated that outdoor learning shows levels of success that are unmatched in other approaches. It brings many benefits that anyone who has splashed in a muddy puddle or guddled in a rock pool will understand. When they are out of doors, children express themselves more freely and can explore with creativity and communication in the most natural way possible.
An independent supply chain specialist in the green energy industry, Renewable Parts Ltd, which is based in Lochgilphead, believes that introducing new jobs and skills is central to growing its organisation. It works closely with Lochgilphead high school, offering job experience, three-month attachments and apprenticeships. It is a business that is building good community relationships with the school and learners and is providing a path to training and jobs.
The Scottish Government has just launched its let’s talk Scottish education initiative, which is the next step in this ambitious period of education reform. The time is right to reflect on and consider the attributes, skills and knowledge that young people will need in the future, and the associated support that they will need to gather them.
Argyll and Bute Council recently completed a rather bruising consultation on reshaping education delivery. It has been a difficult time for everyone involved and trust needs to be rebuilt, but we have been shown the way. Remember Ryan McCuaig’s words: connection, mindset, resilience and relationships. I hope that council officials, elected representatives, teachers, parents and learners will focus on those things to ensure that the best service is established.
I return to Dunoon grammar school. Its recognition is richly deserved. What can education in Scotland learn from that school? Headteacher David Mitchell says:
“Our mission statement here at Dunoon Grammar School is about being at the heart of the community, where we strive together to achieve excellence and have set up so many partnerships to help develop our curriculum”.
Those are not just words; it is how the school works. Young people learn best when they feel that they are doing something meaningful, not just textbook stuff.
Let us look at the Dunoon project, which promises to be one of the most exciting and innovative community regeneration schemes ever seen in Scotland. The project board approached the school to ask whether the young people would be interested in working with it. With mountain biking, a zipline and a gondola all being proposed, who would not be interested? Therefore, a student advisory board was set up, putting young people right at the centre of the entire project and getting the opportunity to shape Dunoon’s future.
Community collaboration helps young people to reach their potential by allowing them to take part in activities that are real learning experiences. As teacher Paul Gallanagh says,
“We are so passionate about our young people being part of the community because they are not just the future; they are the here and now.”
Andreas Schleicher opened his contribution to the international culture summit with the words,
“The future is always going to surprise us.”
To ensure that Scotland is finding solutions to those surprises, we need our education system to be inspirational, innovative and people focused. Let us learn from the success of Dunoon grammar school, let us take inspiration from Ryan and let us follow the example set by companies such as Renewable Parts and work collaboratively within our communities to ensure that the best decisions are made for our future.
It is a pleasure to close for Scottish Labour in this debate, which has, I think, ranged in emotions across the entire alphabet. However, there has been some clear water and clear light, and it is interesting to see the possible start of hands reaching across the chamber to seek a unified approach. That is, of course, one of the purposes behind the national discussion on education.
I start by giving Jenni Minto an accolade. Possibly more important, I give an accolade to Ryan McCuaig for that ability to overcome challenges and achieve, even with so many barriers in front of him, and for pointing to what is probably the single most important factor of all: the ability to build relationships with those who care for us, our teachers and those around us. That skill is so important and one that a perhaps significant number of our young people struggle with. Perhaps we all do when we think about whether our favourite lesson was taught by our favourite teacher. How often does that prove to be the case?
Scottish Labour welcomes the launch of the Government’s national discussion on education. It is essential that the voices of those in the education sector are listened to—the voices of parents and teachers, but also the voices of our young people. That is why I very much welcome the First Minister’s comments yesterday at the Conveners Group meeting in response to being asked how the conversation can take place in a way that enables our children and young people to contribute properly. There is a great deal of expertise in Scotland in allowing young people to have a voice at the table and to influence the decisions that are made, so I very much welcome that.
I turn to the excellent contribution from Graeme Dey. To reach out in that way places a challenge on those in the Opposition parties to do the same in return, because our education system, our young people and, indeed, Scotland deserve that. I put my thanks to him on the record. In one area of the debate on education, I think that there is agreement across the chamber.
I know that it is not an easy problem to reconcile, but concerns were raised by Mr Dey, Ross Greer, Sue Webber and others about the people who make up the advisory committees looking at how education will go forward. I think that there is an opportunity to reconsider the issue and, if not to change the structure of the committees, to broaden the range of those who can influence those committees. In part, the responsibility of the Parliament, and of us as MSPs, is to look at the evidence that the committees listen to and the conclusions that are drawn and to move our education system forward both for the young people who are in it now and for those who will come forward.
I, too, pay tribute to Graeme Dey for his remarks and I completely take on board the message that he imparted in his speech. I am also greatly encouraged by the idea that we can work together on the basis of evidence rather than party dogma. Therefore, I very much endorse what Martin Whitfield has said.
I am grateful for that intervention. Perhaps the hands across the chamber are reaching further than we had hoped. We need to build on that.
Scottish Labour has called for urgent action following the OECD report on curriculum for excellence, which remains the foundation of our education. Changes are being proposed and analyses have been made—indeed, my colleague Foysol Choudhury talked about Sir Geoff Palmer’s work in Edinburgh. The content of what our children learn will change, and that decision rests on our teachers who have the expertise and professionalism to make it.
I go back to the full capacities that were mentioned in the first speech in the open debate. If we are to create lifelong learners, we need to use different vehicles to reach out to different young people in our schools.
I apologise to Graeme Dey, but it would be remiss of me not to poke a bit of fun at the motion. We had interesting contributions from several people about what excellence means exactly. The motion says that
“this was one of the strongest ever sets of results for any exam year”— but not for pupils from the 20 per cent most-deprived areas, where higher results fell by 13 per cent compared with a 5.9 per cent decrease in the 20 per cent least-deprived areas.
The motion also says that the Parliament
“welcomes that the attainment gap has closed over the last 10 years”.
In March 2021, the watchdog Audit Scotland reported that
“the poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19”, which the Scottish Government has to admit. The report acknowledged that some progress had been made but concluded that that progress was “limited” and fell
“short of the Scottish Government’s aims.”
It is slightly disappointing that the Scottish Government is now welcoming a result that fell short of its aims only a short period ago.
“the record high number of full-time first degree entrants to university who come from the most-deprived areas in Scotland”.
The Presiding Officer will forgive me for pointing out that 16.7 per cent of our students come from the 20 per cent most-deprived areas, whereas, in Wales, the number of 18-year-old applicants from the most-deprived areas increased from 21.1 per cent to 24 per cent in the past year.
I go back to Graeme Dey’s speech—I will repeat Graeme Dey’s name to put it on the record more than anyone else’s name. I welcome that the SNP-Green Government’s motion acknowledges that
“significant progress is still required”, because it is through that recognition that we can reach out across the chamber to do what is right.
I apologise to members whose excellent contributions I was unable to mention.
Scottish Labour believes in an education system that will enable our country to reach its potential, equip our young people with the skills that they will need to rely on throughout their lives and respond to the needs of employers in building a high-wage, high-skill economy. To live is not just to exist; we must strive to live fully and not just to survive. That is the idea that our education system serves and what we all want for our young people.
To be frank, it is shocking that the SNP Government has the audacity to hold a debate on education and use the term “excellence” in the title, when the cabinet secretary knows that the Scottish education system, despite being hailed a priority, is in turmoil after 15 years of neglect under her SNP Government.
The calls for change from across the chamber reflect the growing mood across Scotland. As Stephen Kerr has highlighted, the SNP loves to reminisce on the glory days of Scottish education but fails to mention that that standard and quality have been consigned to the history books. As my colleague Russell Findlay has pointed out, those same history books are likely to be littered with distorted facts and to ooze political grievance—
No—I need to get on with my speech.
Those history books are likely to ooze political grievance, resulting in schools being flooded with SNP propaganda material.
Stephen Kerr rightly condemned the stripping away of virtually everything that is education. There are fewer teachers, lower levels of literacy and numeracy and a lack of emphasis on knowledge. The list is endless.
My colleague Sue Webber drew our attention to the growing attainment gap and to how the SNP Government failed children and young people in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges of remote learning.
I welcome the speeches from Lib Dem and Labour members, who, like us, condemn the repeated attempts at political spin to cover up the string of failures in Scottish education that this SNP Government has presided over.
Like Michael Marra, I took part in the national discussion. I agree with him that that is full of good intentions. However, at the meeting that I attended, I highlighted that I am particularly worried about financial resources and how the SNP will deliver good outcomes. Let us see how that goes.
I am sorry.
Pam Duncan-Glancy said that far too many children are falling through the cracks. Attainment gaps are growing. There is a perfect example of that in my region—we see it from East Dunbartonshire to West Dunbartonshire. Like Foysol Choudhury, I congratulate pupils on their achievements after being through such a horrific pandemic. Willie Rennie spoke about many truths of the reality under the SNP Government.
Rather than naming each SNP or Green member who delivered a speech, I note the one thing that defined them all: they patted themselves on the back instead of facing up to the harsh reality and taking responsibility for failing too many children in Scotland too many times. However, like my colleagues Russell Findlay, Stephen Kerr and Martin Whitfield, I enjoyed listening to Graeme Dey’s speech.
Staff and pupils have adapted so well to challenging circumstances during and after the pandemic, but we recognise that the scale of the challenge has been amplified by the mishandling of the education portfolio at the very top.
The SNP Government has promised a lot: universal free school meals for all primary school children; laptops for every school pupil; the closure of the attainment gap; the reduction of class sizes; the improvement of the pupil to teacher ratio; and, most important, delivery for pupils. However, the Government has consistently failed to deliver again and again.
On top of that, we do not have an accurate picture of the state of education, most notably because the SNP has pulled us out of international comparisons. There has been a notable decline in subjects that are central to our future economy, such as modern languages, STEM subjects and English at higher level. The attainment gap for pupils achieving an A at higher level is at its highest in four years. The time for change is now.
The SNP Government is reluctant to change and it allows review and reform only when pressured to do so. As is clear from the Scottish Conservatives’ amendment, we believe that “reform” is a stretch when referring to what is taking place in our education system. Ken Muir, who recommended that the SQA and Education Scotland be scrapped, made it clear that teachers should be deeply involved in the agency or agencies that replace the SQA and Education Scotland. However, to no one’s surprise, three quarters of the reform board members work directly for the Scottish Government, the SQA or Education Scotland. How many of them come from classrooms? There are just three teachers. The reluctance even to publish that information is evidence enough that the education system is set to sail the same course that it has always sailed—by that, I mean one that is shrouded in secrecy and cover-ups.
For the Scottish Conservatives, reform means having an independent inspections agency that is fully accountable to the Parliament, not to itself, and one that is staffed by teachers, not by civil servants. It means having a teacher-led curriculum for all and renewing the focus on subject-specific knowledge and life skills. It means providing more autonomy for the experts—our teachers—to designate resources in the most effective way to meet the needs of their pupils and schools. It means rejoining the process of developing decent measurement of outcomes to ensure proper scrutiny, transparency and awareness of education in Scotland. Most important, it means getting rid of practices that do not work and replacing them, not rebranding them. We trust our teachers; why doesn’t the SNP?
After Pam Gosal’s speech, I want to start with a positive. I join Jenni Minto in congratulating Dunoon grammar school on its success. It was a pleasure to meet pupils and teachers from the school after First Minister’s question time. I am still wearing my badge with pride for our debate on excellence in education. I think that the pupils and teachers of Dunoon grammar school are a good example of that. They are an example of what happens in many of our schools across the country, which is why we have a good international reputation.
The 2018 PISA study—I point out to Pam Gosal that that is an international study, in case she is not aware that we are still in it—said that Scotland was ranked among the top-performing countries in global competence and that Scotland was the fourth top-performing country. The international council of education advisers and the OECD have highlighted that Scotland has an excellent reputation internationally. It is true that there is more to do, but we can work together to achieve that.
The debate was a tale of two tones. We had very constructive comments from members of the Labour Party, for which I thank Michael Marra and Martin Whitfield, in particular, as well as Michael Marra’s back-bench colleagues. I thank them for their commitment to taking on the national discussion. I will be more than happy to have further discussions with Michael Marra about the timings of the different areas of reform. He will be aware that we have changed some of them slightly. For example, we have moved Professor Hayward’s work slightly to ensure that it will be informed by the national discussion. Sometimes Michael Marra tells me to get on with it, but sometimes he says that we should wait and see what comes out of the national discussion. Let us work together to see whether we can come to some sort of compromise so that we are on the same page on that. I think that that is entirely possible.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that commitment and would be most happy to have such discussions.
Does the cabinet secretary recognise that there is consensus across the chamber on the concerns about the reform boards and their membership? I am sure that she will come on to that. It would be good for her to reflect on that in her speech and to make a commitment to ensure that we can all have faith that the job of reform will be done and that a resolution for the relevant organisations can be arrived at quickly.
The member is correct—I will come on to that issue later in my speech, so I ask him to bear with me.
Perhaps unfortunately, I turn to the Scottish Conservatives. It is perhaps unsurprising that I was disappointed that Stephen Kerr offered no positive proposals on his first outing as education spokesperson. I am also disappointed that, through their amendment, the Tories have chosen to seek to delete all mention of the national discussion. I sincerely hope that that does not reflect a lack of commitment to genuinely take forward a process that is looking for consensus in this area.
Opposition members and members of my party spoke about the importance of tackling the attainment gap. I point out that, when we talk about results day in 2022, it is very important that we compare it with results day on the most recent year in which we had exams. We had two years in which we had an entirely different process of assessment. That comparison shows that the gap in attainment between the least and most deprived areas has narrowed since the most recent year in which formal exams were held—2019—at national 5, higher and advanced higher level.
Of course, there is more to do, which is why we are putting a substantial amount of funding—£1 billion-worth—into reducing the attainment gap in the current parliamentary session.
I again congratulate our young people on the results that they achieved under the most difficult of circumstances and thank those in our schools, colleges and homes who helped them do that.
I turn to the issue of reform. There was some dubiety from Conservative members about who is in charge of reform. Let me put this clearly: there is one person in charge of reform and that person is me. I have said time and time again, in every public statement about reform, that I am absolutely determined to take forward genuine change in our agencies. I think that that is required and I am sure that the agencies themselves are in absolutely no doubt about that; it is something that we speak about every single time we meet.
That work is being taken forward by a strategic programme board, which includes Scottish Government officials working under ministerial direction. As I said, that minister is me and I am in charge of reform and am determined to bring that forward. External members have also been appointed to the board. They are there to provide input and critical challenge and to ensure that we achieve significant change in Scottish education, which cannot be done by the Scottish Government alone.
I point out to members that Professor Ken Muir’s report, in which he discussed the new national bodies to be established, clearly recommended that the transition should be taken forward in partnership with the bodies subject to reform. We must ensure that we include the agencies that we are replacing and that there are critical voices on the board so that I am held to my word and the project board is accountable. A lot is going on to ensure that that happens.
It is also important to point out that the boards are not the only way to be involved in reform. For example, I chaired a stakeholder reference group yesterday, numerous conferences are happening and I have also spoken to the learners and teachers panels about that issue and to the BOCSH group of curriculum leaders. There are therefore various ways in which teachers are being involved in the process; the boards are but one way.
Forgive me for being unable to remember who said so during the debate, but the unions are involved. Mr Kerr does a great disservice to the trade unions if he does not think that they are there to represent their members, who the last time I checked were teachers. Individual teachers are involved, and to say that the unions somehow cannot represent their members when that is exactly what they are there to do does them a great disservice.
I highlight again that the board is not the only way for people to get involved.
I am afraid that I do not have time to get into the detail of the points raised by Pam Duncan-Glancy, but I thank her for raising them. She will be aware of the updated action plan that will be published later in the autumn and I will be pleased to take part in discussions about her bill as it progresses.
Ross Greer and Stephanie Callaghan pointed out that eradicating the poverty-related attainment gap will be very much helped by eradicating poverty. That is why, when we talk about education, we must also think about what has an impact on education. One way to have an impact on education is to tackle child poverty. Many members, including Stephanie Callaghan and Ross Greer, pointed to the work that the Scottish Government is doing on that along with our partners in the Scottish Greens. It is difficult to do that work when we have a UK Government that seems hell-bent on trashing the entire economy and making bankers’ bonuses a higher priority than anything to do with child poverty.
We have also heard discussion of teacher numbers. It is important to point out that those numbers are at their highest since 2008. We have 2,000 more teachers than we did before the pandemic. Ross Greer is right to point out that the Bute house agreement commits us to going further.
Based on what he said in his speech, I think I may owe Foysol Choudhury an apology if we did not write to him after we last spoke about antiracism in education. I apologise for that. I will ensure that that is followed up after today and I am more than happy to meet him if he requires that. If we did not write to him last time, I will ensure that we rectify that this time, because he again raises an important point about tackling race inequality and I thank him for that.
Only last week, we saw unfortunate incidents where some of our educators were attacked on social media for tackling that issue. The other aspect that we need to take account of in our reform is gender equality, and I am absolutely determined to ensure that that lies right at the heart of our reform process.
I will end by quoting Larry Flanagan. He said:
“Scottish education is way ahead of the English system ... If you are attacking the education system you are attacking teachers. It really annoys me because it should not be difficult for politicians to mobilise behind the efforts schools are making.”
We have a real opportunity to do that in the national discussion. I am determined to rise to that challenge, and many members have shown that they are also ready to rise to it. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.