I am pleased to lead a debate during Scottish Government time on our national discussion on education. Professor Ken Muir’s review, “Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education”, provided the rationale for the discussion and the recommendation for
“a national discussion on establishing a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish education”.
I present that vision to Parliament today. I am keen, in the spirit of last week’s debate, to engage with the Opposition consensually as we move the education reform agenda forward and to listen to any ideas that Opposition members have to support the Government and, ultimately, Scotland’s children and young people in that endeavour.
This morning, I visited Towerbank primary school in Portobello to officially launch the vision with children and teachers who took part in the national discussion. Towerbank primary school has an impressive pupil parliament, and I am sure that we will see some of those representatives in this Parliament in the future. My thanks go to the headteacher, Mr Friend, for his time, and my apologies go to my friend Ms Gladstone, whose primary 3 class I interrupted.
For our older pupils and anxious mums, dads and carers, today is an important day in the Scottish education calendar: it marks the last day of the official examination diet. I congratulate pupils and learners across Scotland for all their hard work. Today will be a day of reflection for many, so it is timely that we reflect on the future of Scottish education.
I thank the cabinet secretary for the open-door approach that she has adopted so far in her new position. She will have seen that additional support needs get quite a showing in the report on the national discussion. In fact, the report refers to “a flashpoint” whenever the issue is discussed, particularly with parents. Has she reflected on that? What is her view on how we can tackle those long-standing problems?
I thank Willie Rennie for his point. I will come on to talk about the challenge that is presented in the report in relation to the issue that he addressed. He will also be well versed in the increase that there has been in pupils with additional support needs in the past 10 years. I think that just over one third of all pupils in Scotland now have some level of identified additional support need.
There is more that the Government will need to do, but I also recognise that, ultimately, the situation is about partnerships. It is about local authorities and wider partnerships in the school communities. I will come on to talk about that in my response. However, this is not the Government’s full response to the report, which, as we heard, was embargoed until 10 minutes to 3 today.
More broadly on the member’s point, the report does not sit in isolation. We also have the Hayward review of qualifications in the senior phase and the Withers review of skills delivery. We need to have a holistic and coherent approach across Government in relation to the future of Scottish education. I will say more about that in my remarks.
Back in 2002, when I was in my last year at school, the then Scottish Executive launched a national debate on schools for the 21st century. That debate generated more than 1,500 responses, and it was estimated that more than 20,000 people took part. Twenty-one years later, the national discussion reached an estimated 38,000 people, with more than 5,600 responses being submitted. I am indebted to Professor Carol Campbell and Professor Alma Harris, both of whom are internationally respected education experts and members of our international council of education advisers, which facilitated the national discussion. Today, I thank them personally for their commitment and dedication. I also pay tribute to every person and organisation that took part in the discussion.
The national discussion is the biggest engagement exercise ever to have taken place in Scottish education. It was co-convened by the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and there can be no doubt that the discussion had children and young people at its heart, and that, in general, it was consensual.
A number of events and discussions took place in every part of Scotland. Those were led by schools, community groups and third sector organisations, supported by the Scottish Government and local authorities. We heard from parents, primary school pupils, island communities, young carers, children with additional support needs, teachers, trade unions, early years practitioners and speakers of Gaelic and Scots, to name just some.
Time and again, the facilitators were told by participants that they welcomed the opportunity to give their views and that they wanted more opportunities for engagement, so I commit today to ensuring that engagement opportunities will continue to be provided throughout our education reform programme. We must get this right for the next generation, and we cannot do that without continuing to listen.
The agreed vision states:
“Children and young people are at the heart of education in Scotland. The Scottish education system is grounded in collaborative partnerships that engage all learners, the people who work within and with the education system, parents, and carers to ensure that all learners in Scotland matter.
All learners are supported in inclusive learning environments which are safe, welcoming, caring, and proactively address any barriers to learning and inequities that exist or arise. Education in Scotland nurtures the unique talents of all learners ensuring their achievement, progress, and well-being.
Each child and young person in Scotland has high-quality learning experiences which respect their rights and represents the diversity of who they are and the communities they live in.
Each child and young person receives great teaching, resources, and support for joyful learning that builds their confidence and equips them to be successful and to contribute in their life, work, and world, so they know how much they matter.”
I am not sure whether the cabinet secretary has just read out a statement of her objectives or whether she is trying to reflect reality. I hope that it is the former and not the latter, because every aspect of the report illustrates that there is frustration, unhappiness and a desire for improvement. I hope that Jenny Gilruth, as the incoming cabinet secretary, will bring a breath of fresh air and that she will address the issues that are raised in the report with the honesty and integrity that I—and others—expect of her.
Heaven forfend that I do not live up to Mr Kerr’s expectations. In all seriousness, the vision that I have set out to Parliament is the vision from the document itself and, as I mentioned in my response to Mr Rennie, it is for the Government to respond to that vision.
Given that members have had the report only since Thursday of last week and that it has been embargoed until 10 to 3, Mr Kerr will understand that the Government will need to take time to respond to the report. I intend to do so in a fulsome manner, but one that also respects and acknowledges the plethora of other reports that are current in Scottish education. I think that we need to take a holistic approach as we move forward.
As I have just outlined to Mr Kerr, I am very mindful of the fact that the Opposition will not yet have had time to fully digest what is a substantive report. Equally, as I mentioned to Mr Kerr, I am not going to stand here today and give members answers to all the issues that were raised during the national discussion. It is right that the Government takes time to consider our response, and I need to reflect the fact that the report before Parliament sits within the broader context of on-going review in Scottish education.
I have just left a round-table meeting on children with additional support needs. One comment that was made was that the only certain thing in education is reform. Can the cabinet secretary guarantee that another certainty following the report will be action from the Government?
I am happy to give Pam Duncan-Glancy absolute reassurance on that. We need to move forward at pace on reform, but we also need to ensure that we continue to engage with the profession. That is hugely important in relation to where we will get on reform. We need to take teachers and others who work in our education sector with us, as well as our children and young people.
I want to touch on a number of the important findings that were captured in the national discussion. The first relates to “joy”, which is perhaps not a word that we hear often in the chamber, and the simple proposition that learning should be “joyful”. The report talks about
“professionals who spoke of instilling the joy and igniting the love of learning and their appreciation about the opportunity to talk with each other”.
Teaching can be joyful. I think that we need to reflect not only in Government, but, as Pam Duncan-Glancy alluded to, through other organisations—be that local councils or our education bodies—on how we can better empower the profession to create the space so that teachers enjoy what they do best.
My modern studies teacher at school used to refer to the light-bulb moment—the exact moment when someone realises that they have taught a child a concept and that they have understood it. There is no feeling like it. Fundamentally, we want people who teach our children and young people to love what they do and to have a passion for it.
The report talks about the respect that exists for a graduate-level teaching profession and
“human-centred educational improvement” that places
“people who work in education, especially those such as teachers who are directly responsible for teaching and supporting children and young people, at the centre of informing and leading educational improvement.”
That speaks to the Conservative amendment, which talks about empowering the profession “to be more autonomous”. I agree with that sentiment. I want to work with our teaching professional associations on how that can be better supported as we move forward with reform.
As I mentioned previously, the context for the national discussion is important in relation to the other reports that the Government has commissioned, which we will publish in the coming weeks. It is also important to reflect the global context, which the report says includes
“austerity, a cost-of-living crisis, climate change ... and war in our world”,
“cannot be downplayed.”
In last week’s debate, we discussed the anxiety experienced by young people during lockdown and the associated impact on their mental health. However, our schools are not hospitals for all ailments; they cannot respond independently without partnerships and experts who can help.
The report talks about
“networks and collaborations with a range of communities”.
If we visit any school in Scotland, we will see that collaboration in practice, whether that is with social work, the local rotary club, Developing the Young Workforce, active schools or even Scottish Opera, as I heard about at Towerbank primary school earlier today.
As the professors recognised, reform is not about change for change’s sake. There is a lot to be proud of in Scottish education and so much that we can build on. The report is supportive of curriculum for excellence’s focus on numeracy and literacy, and it recognises the commitment to equity and inclusion, a broad-based curriculum, tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, wellbeing, and support for a highly skilled teaching profession.
There was also recognition that more needs to be done to ensure continuous improvement. Respondents to the discussion raised the need for every child to be educated in safe and inclusive environments that respect relationships and where effective anti-bullying strategies are in place.
As I set out in the debate last week, we have a level of challenge in relation to the thematic inspection that was carried out by Education Scotland some time ago. We know that a third of schools, for example, do not use SEEMiS to record bullying incidents. I have discussed that matter with COSLA directly, to ensure that we have more consistency as we move forward.
The facilitators heard about the levels of children and young people with additional support needs—we have heard about them from Mr Rennie, and I am sure that we will hear about them from other members. It is important that we take away from the report a strong action point on that and seek to embed that in the reform agenda as we move forward.
We cannot walk away from the presumption of mainstreaming, which is a hallmark of the inclusive education system that we have in Scotland. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that the system for young people that is put in place allows them to flourish in the mainstream environment. We all know of examples of where, too often, that has not been the case. It should not be for parents or carers to have to fight for that entitlement.
There is a strong theme in the report around skills-based and practical learning, learning for life, and ensuring that skills-based learning and qualifications are given parity of esteem with academic qualifications. There is also a strong focus on the need for inclusivity and diversity to be embedded at all levels.
Like any curriculum, Scotland’s curriculum for excellence needs checks and balances to ensure that it continues to be relevant. Further, we need to ensure that it meets the needs of children and young people, and that teachers and those who work in our schools are supported to deliver the curriculum successfully. It is absolutely right that we continually look to evolve the curriculum delivery model and that we equip our learners for the challenges that they will face in the future.
The vision is the starting point as we look to the future. The challenge for all of us in Scottish education now is to work together to make the vision a reality. The call to action that has been developed by the facilitators, drawing on the national discussion, sets out the principles from which we can build actions to make the improvements that we need to see in Scottish education.
As intimated earlier today, a number of independent reports exploring specific aspects of our education system are due to be published in the near future. I will consider the outputs of the national discussion alongside those reports. It is right that we take time to reflect, and I will provide a detailed response to the national discussion in the autumn.
As I mentioned, the reform of our education system is, quite rightly, ambitious for our young people, but it also needs to be pursued at pace. I recognise some of the challenges that the pandemic has presented to the education system. Our reform agenda is ambitious, but we need to take teachers, those who work in our schools and our young people with us.
I look forward to working with my local government partners and everyone with an interest in Scottish education to make the vision of the national discussion a reality.
I call on members to welcome the publication of the report, endorse the vision and work with the Scottish Government and COSLA to turn the vision into a reality. As the facilitators noted, there is
“an optimism for the future of Scottish education and an enthusiasm to be part of taking the outcomes of the National Discussion going forward.”
There is also an overwhelming appetite for change in Scottish education. Let us not miss that opportunity, and let us commit today to making that optimism a reality and ensuring that we deliver that vision for Scottish education, which ensures that all learners matter.
That the Parliament welcomes the publication of
All Learners in Scotland Matter: Our National Discussion on Education; acknowledges the significant levels of engagement that the National Discussion generated, with events and discussions taking place in every part of Scotland, led by schools, community groups and third sector organisations, and reaching more than 38,000 people; thanks the independent academic facilitators, Prof Carol Campbell and Prof Alma Harris, for overseeing this work; supports the guiding values of the report to ensure that all learners in Scotland experience an education system that is ambitious, inclusive and supportive; recognises the diversity of all learners and endorses the vision, which will safeguard the learning and the life chances of all children and young people in Scotland, and agrees to work with the Scottish Government and COSLA to turn this vision into a reality for Scotland’s children and young people, and the educators, parents and carers who support them.
As I tried to intervene on the cabinet secretary to say, it is important that we have an honest discussion about where we are in Scotland with our education system. The Scottish National Party should not try to disguise its paucity of positive ideas or policies by trying to hide behind the national discussion.
We can all clearly see that Humza Yousaf and his ministers are scratching around for policy ideas. Just look at last week—thank goodness the Scottish Conservatives had ideas about tackling violence in schools. The Government could then copy and paste the Scottish Conservative motion with minor adjustments and present it as its initiative. I am not moaning about that—I wish that it would do it more often.
Now, I am happy to give way to the cabinet secretary if she will update us on when the summit that she proposed is going to take place.
I am more than happy to do that, but Stephen Kerr needs to reflect on the fact that the national discussion did not come about in relation to the current First Minister. It has been commissioned as a result of the Muir report. It feels to me that the member may have come to the chamber with a prepared script and that he has perhaps not engaged in reading the report itself. I would certainly encourage him to do so. It is a substantive body of work.
Last week, during what was a consensual debate in relation to behaviour and relationships in school, I already gave an undertaking that I would come back to Parliament with proposals. I am yet to receive proposals from my officials on that, but I intend to take action on the matter before the end of the parliamentary session. I gave Mr Kerr an undertaking on that last week.
I really ask Mr Kerr to respond to this: is this the best that he can do for Scotland’s children and young people? Let us work together more positively and consensually to deliver the improvements that we need to see in Scottish education. That is my challenge to him.
Thank you very much.
Well, there we have it—that was the response from the cabinet secretary. But this Government is now in its 17th year in office. It cannot hide its record on education behind the national discussion. That is my point. My message to Jenny Gilruth and her colleagues is straightforward: please listen. Listen to what people are saying is going wrong and act on it. The final report
“All Learners in Scotland Matter: The National Discussion on Education”, which I have read—and which, by the way, I think we should have published long before 10 to 3, but that is a separate matter—is what the people of Scotland are telling us loud and clear. That is why the report should, in fact, make these ministers feel very uncomfortable indeed.
I repeat that we are in the 17th year of a Government that said that education was its number 1 priority.
I will quote from paragraph 9.3 of the report:
“We heard many concerns about whether the National Discussion would lead to genuine action and significant change ... We heard frustrations, cynicism, and anger, in some cases, about whether transformational educational reform, as recommended by the Muir Review, would be implemented in Scotland. We heard concerns about whether there would be a tendency to continue the status quo rather than embracing an opportunity for the entire system to do things differently.”
As we enter the 17th year of this SNP Government, people feel cheated. They feel let down and angry. They have seen an SNP Government that is big on words and big on promises but infinitesimally small on delivery.
I welcome positive destinations, but, under the definition that the Government uses, positive destinations can mean just about anything. The information is tracked only for so many months after young people leave school. I am afraid that that leaves a lot to be desired. That is my honest response to John Swinney’s intervention. Much needs to be improved.
I will go back to the report. As has been referred to, there is a
“groundswell of current support for educational improvement” which cannot be
“lost, ignored or side-lined.”
That is from paragraph 9.3 of the report. Professors Campbell and Harris, the independent facilitators, conclude:
“now it is time for action, most critically ... time for the right action.”
Will the cabinet secretary set herself apart from her predecessors? Will she take the action that parents, teachers and school leaders are begging for and reform Scotland’s education system? We all know that the business of Government is the business of tough choices. The cabinet secretary will not be able to please everyone, because doing the right things often results in at least temporary unpopularity. However, if Jenny Gilruth makes the right decisions for Scottish educational reform and she meets resistance, I can assure her that members on the Conservative benches will support her. I hope that future events will show that we are fortunate to have a former teacher as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. I know that she will empathise with the concerns that are writ large in the report about teacher recruitment and retention, which should have been fixed a long time ago. The report highlights the job insecurity that too many teachers experience. How can teachers, particularly those who are newly qualified, plan their future when they are stuck on temporary contracts?
The report goes on. Paragraph 6.1.22 says that there were concerns about
“exhaustion, stress, anxiety, and burnout affecting people’s capacity to do their work and negatively impacting their personal lives”.
That is what we were talking about last week when we called on the Government to provide extra support to teachers in the form of a national helpline. Employee helplines are very common in businesses and other organisations—that is something that can be put in place now to provide teachers with an outlet, because we need to rebuild teacher morale. Comments from teachers and pupil support assistants speak of a profession that has been underappreciated for far too long. That is why the Scottish Conservatives call for a new deal for teachers—the report backs up what we are talking about. We want to see reduced contact hours for teachers so that they can plan and prepare lessons; teachers being paid for extracurricular activities; competitive salaries being offered for specialist subject teachers; cuts to excessive bureaucracy in order to let teachers teach; opportunities for teacher sabbaticals in order to help them to develop professionally; and new pathways into teaching in order to attract the best talent.
Beyond those proposals, there are three specific issues, which I hope I have time to mention, that we need to openly and calmly debate. The first of those is the autonomy of headteachers. I have always felt that it is far better to trust them to run the schools and the school populations that they know in the communities that they know than to leave decisions in the hands of national, regional or local authority managers. There must be accountability and we need to give careful thought to how that can be best achieved. Headteachers should have the freedom to innovate and lead according to the needs of the pupils who are in their care.
I strongly agree with the need for more autonomy in schools. The member may be familiar with proposals that were made in the past parliamentary session for a headteachers’ charter. When the Education and Skills Committee took evidence on that, the response from 32 headteachers was unanimous: they wanted their schools to be empowered. They did not want to be empowered as individuals, because they wanted their whole team to take that approach to making decisions in their schools.
The best leaders in any walks of life are those who lead teams of people. That is a fact, so I do not disagree with that.
Secondly, there is a great deal in the report about the value of play-based learning. We should review the starting age for formal schooling and perhaps move it to six. That is the starting age in Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Norway—it is seven in Finland and South Korea—and we should think about that.
Thirdly, we need to give serious consideration to the presumption of mainstreaming for children with additional support needs. There is clear evidence in the report that what we have currently is not working. At paragraph 5.2.10, the report recounts the “concerning and troubling” experiences of parents in relation to
“their child not receiving timely or necessary supports and sometimes inappropriate use of exclusions and other sanctions” and says:
“The need for ... appropriate ASN provision is now urgent.”
In large classes, pupils with additional support needs struggle to learn and their classmates struggle with their sometimes distressed behaviour. It is high time that we addressed that.
The people of Scotland care passionately about their education system. Paragraph 9.2, at the end of the report, says:
“the scale of response is unprecedented in the history of national engagements about Scottish education.”
The fact that we care so passionately about our education system makes me proud to be part of this great nation. However, the report concludes:
“One thing is clear ... there is an overwhelming appetite for change”.
The people of Scotland are watching and waiting. We require urgent action from the SNP Government. More words will not cut it. I call on the Government to show teachers, school leaders, parents and pupils that it has listened to the national discussion and will now act on it.
I move amendment S6M-09213.3, to leave out from “, Prof” to end and insert:
“and all those who participated; notes the report’s conclusion that 'there is an overwhelming appetite for change’ and urges the Scottish Government to view this as a call for urgent steps to ensure real reform; further notes the concerns raised in the national discussion over the lack of support and respect given to teachers and pupil support assistants, as well as the issues experienced by teachers, pupils, parents and carers in relation to young people with additional support needs and the need to ensure a better approach to play-based learning and early years; believes that a new deal for teachers would address issues in professional development and teacher recruitment; further believes that debates should be held on the level to which teachers and school leaders should be able to be more autonomous in their decision making, the presumption against specialist schooling for young people with additional support needs and the age at which children start formal schooling, and acknowledges the frustration, cynicism and anger at previous unmet promises of reform and the resultant doubts expressed in the report over whether genuine reform would take place.”
It is always a privilege to open for Scottish Labour to discuss education. The education system is where children grow and learn, and it is the foundation of the future of the next generation. That is why it is imperative that we get it right and why it is important to listen to and take on board all that has come through this national discussion—an opportunity that, as has been said, has seen an unprecedented level of response in terms of engagement on the issue of our education system. That is no small feat, and it is one that should be commended.
I want to say a particular thank you to the 26,000 children and young people who took part and to Professor Carol Campbell and Professor Alma Harris, who produced the report. I also want to say from the outset that we will support the Government’s motion today.
“One thing is clear, and we cannot emphasise this enough: there is an overwhelming appetite for change ... now it is time for action, most critically is time for the right action.”
Those words, already quoted in the debate, are not my words but are from the conclusion of the report, drawing on responses from tens of thousands of young people, teachers, pupils, employers and trade unions. There is no ambiguity in that statement. Those who have engaged are telling us clearly that things are not working. However, the fact is that much of what they have said and what they are calling for is not new; it is a reiteration of much of what they have been saying—and what Scottish Labour has been telling the Government—for years only to be met with broken promises and a lack of action.
That is why, in a discussion that was designed to focus on the future of the system, a great deal was heard about contemporary challenges and issues, including a lack of adequate resource, disjointed policy and a labour-intensive curriculum that is cluttered and has unwieldy requirements and outcomes, creating gaps between its principle and how it is applied in practice.
Had the Government stuck to the promises that it has made over the years, perhaps those problems would not be so entrenched. However, the reality is that a fundamental failure to stick to its own commitments on increasing teacher numbers, reducing non-contact time and making class sizes smaller—to name only a few issues—has resulted, in many places, in the situation actually rolling back and has left teachers with the impossible task of trying to deliver truly person-centred education in a system that is overstretched and constrained by a lack of resource, while they are plagued by exhaustion and burnout, facing an ever increasing and intensifying workload and battling poor conditions.
Change that is visible is not just overdue, it is urgent. The system is already beginning to unravel, and that must be halted. As my colleague Martin Whitfield has already highlighted, one of the key messages from young people who participated in this engagement exercise was that they wanted to feel safe and secure, free from bullying, intimidation and harassment. In my view, it is absolutely extraordinary that safety is the number 1 priority for learners. They should not have to worry that safety would be anything other than a given for themselves and for their teachers. However, as members know only too well, for many, the current environment in schools is not safe or secure, and it is not inclusive either. Therefore, it is no surprise that the discussion has been overwhelmingly absolute in its conclusion that more must be done on that issue, particularly if we are to achieve the principle vision set out, which is that all learners matter.
More than a third of children in Scotland’s schools are now identified as having an additional support need. Such a large proportion of the pupil population means that that is no longer an additional but a fundamental part of our education system. That makes even more galling the fact that the number of ASN teachers has fallen. It is all too clear that the current approach to additional support needs is “failing”—again, those are not just my words but those of teachers, parents and learners.
The approach is failing the children who need additional support, and members know that I believe that, for disabled people, that is at least partly because of the need to legislate for a more accountable, person-centred system. However, as the report also makes clear, it is because there are insufficient resources and support, including staffing and specialists, to fully enable them. The reality is summed up by the concerning and troubling experiences that are shared by parents, as part of the consultation, of their children not receiving timely or necessary support. Witnesses have also shared such experiences with the Education, Children and Young People Committee. The approach is also failing those without additional support needs, who are losing out on the support that they need because teachers’ time is stretched.
Neither of those situations is acceptable or can continue. An education system that is fit for the future must be welcoming and inclusive of all children, to enable everyone to learn and flourish and to give all children a fighting chance. That requires time and space for educational professionals and support staff to develop their knowledge, expertise and practice and to think strategically. To do that, the report is clear that
“Implementation of the existing government commitment to non-contact time” is “necessary”.
That is not only crucial for addressing the on-going support needs of pupils in Scotland but key to ensuring that we give teachers time to get involved in developing the profession and education in Scotland. We need to put teachers closer to where decisions on what happens in the classroom are made or, as the General Teaching Council said ahead of today’s debate, give policy about teaching back to the profession, with the appropriate space and time to think and teach with impact.
Ensuring that education is fit for the future also requires staffing in schools that is stable, to ensure continuation of high-quality teaching. However, instead, we have high teacher turnover across the country. We can all agree that teachers are valuable and that, to retain them, we must now show them that we value them. That starts by giving them the time that they have been desperately asking for.
We welcome the discussion, but we must now all agree that the report that it has produced is a stark warning that the time for talk is over and the time to act is now. There can be no more broken promises or delay. The SNP Government must heed today’s report and what teachers, unions, pupils and Scottish Labour have said for a long time—that much is still to be done and the Government must get on and do it. If it does and if it acts, we will support the Government in its pursuit of an education system in Scotland that is fit for the future. For the good of our children and our future, it is time for change.
I move amendment S6M-09213.1, to insert at end:
“; recognises that the implementation of the existing Scottish Government commitment to increase non-contact time is necessary, and calls on the Scottish Government to reiterate this commitment and set out when it intends to fulfil it.”
I will read an abridged quotation from the report. It states:
“In my class of 30, 4 have ASD ... 3 ... have long-standing separation anxiety difficulties ... one has been adopted, one has a difficult home life and experiencing a form of trauma, one is a young carer, 2 others have severe learning difficulties”— and, in addition, eight have—
“‘normal’ behind-track difficulties ... There is only one of me—I can’t give those 12 children enough of my attention to support their wellbeing, never mind ... the other 18 children” in the class. That is the harsh reality of the additional support needs about which I intervened on the cabinet secretary. She understands how challenging it is for individual teachers to cope with such circumstances and to meet all the needs of all the pupils, because it is about getting it right for every child.
We had hoped that the Morgan review would be the start of real change, but I am afraid that we are nowhere near the start, and I think that the cabinet secretary knows that. The report should be a wake-up call that brings dramatic change.
Of course, I am in favour of the presumption of mainstream education: I think that that is the right thing to do. That does not mean that mainstream is always appropriate, but the presumption should be in favour of it. However, if we are going to have that presumption, we need the resources to match it, so that the teacher whom I quoted, who is struggling to cope with the variety of needs within her class, gets the support that she needs in order to be able to deliver.
Mr Rennie actually quoted from the part of the report from which I was going to quote. I very much agree about the presumption about mainstream education, but I feel that in some schools it is almost mandatory. That is not always in the interests of a child who has, let us say, severe behavioural difficulties, and nor is it in the interests of the other members of the class.
To be frank, I do not know. I hear reports of teachers who really struggle to cope with a variety of demands. I think that they would love to have great diversity in their classes so that every single child gets opportunities, but we should challenge that to make sure that it is the right decision. That is what I think the debate today helps with.
Every member in the Parliament has been around a school and has seen, as the cabinet secretary highlighted, the joy of learning. We are proud of so many of our pupils, teachers and—we should not forget them—the other members of staff in the school, who do brilliant jobs. However, our job in Parliament is to challenge. We should be impatient for improvement, so that when we challenge it, it is not because we are against the education system or against schools, pupils, teachers or staff but because we want improvement.
We should be hungry for that change, which is why I will repeatedly challenge the Government on casualisation of the workforce, especially in primary schools, where young people often go for six years on the trot having teachers who are on one temporary contract after the other. It is just demoralising. Those teachers thought that they were going to be able to craft young minds to be the workforce of the future, but they are really just struggling to stay alive in the teaching profession. That is why so many of them are leaving their positions.
I think that Willie Rennie has alighted on a very serious issue about the length of contracts that are given to newly qualified teachers. Does he acknowledge that not all such issues—in fact, none of them—are in the control of the Government, and that all of them are in the control of local authorities, which have been given the line-of-sight resources that should enable them to give full-time contracts? What does Mr Rennie propose be done in those circumstances?
I think that John Swinney is right. There is a partnership that involves working with local authorities to make this work. The Government did make an improvement by baselining quite a lot of funding, which helped with that.
We have a surplus of trained teachers coming through the system, so we need to talk to the initial teacher-education providers to make sure that we have the right supply and the right experience. We are short of secondary teachers and we do not have enough primary teachers, so we need to challenge local authorities to make sure that they provide permanent contracts when that is possible.
John Swinney is right, but the Government has a big responsibility to make sure that the pipeline of workers is sufficient and meets the complex needs in order to ensure that we are able to get people for the long term.
I would love to take an intervention, but I would run out of time. I have really only just started.
On exams reform, I urge caution. In the report, we hear about many people who want quite dramatic change in use of exams and the number of qualifications. However, those are big changes, and we need to take employers, universities and colleges with us, as well as parents and pupils. We need to deal with the two-term dash and the interface between the broad general education and the senior phase.
There are steps—which I can go through with the cabinet secretary—that we could take now, or within the next few years, to do some tweaking to make things a bit better. We need to put knowledge back in—we need to put greater emphasis on knowledge within the curriculum. Of course, we need transferable skills, cross-disciplinary thinking and problem solving, but people need a good foundation of knowledge before they can apply those various skills.
We need contact time to be reduced by the 90 minutes that the cabinet secretary and her Government have promised. Through curriculum for excellence, we need to make sure that, rather than cutting teachers adrift, which I think was the experience in the early days of curriculum for excellence, we stop reinventing the wheel almost every single year in terms of courses.
We need to make sure that the new national bodies provide course materials that teachers can deploy and can use their skills to utilise. We need to make sure that vocational education has parity of esteem with the academic route. There is a quote in the report from an employer who says that vocational and technical routes are not
“worthy of an exam or a qualification.”
In fact, they do have lots of exams and qualifications, but the fact that that employer did not know about them is an indication that we have a failure of communication with employers. The Scottish credit and qualifications framework is good; it gives us an opportunity to get that parity of esteem, as does Developing the Young Workforce.
I know that the cabinet secretary is new, but her Government is 16 years old, and we need results. We have covered many issues this afternoon and we will cover many more. There is an expectation that the Government and the cabinet secretary will deliver, so she will forgive us for being very hard on her if she does not.
I move amendment S6M-09213.2, to insert at end:
“believes that this vision should drive the closing of the poverty-related attainment gap and ensure that the international performance of Scotland’s education system is raised; further believes that vocational education should have parity of esteem with other forms of education; acknowledges that there are issues of teacher shortages, unemployment and an exodus of experienced staff from private and voluntary sector nurseries, which need to be urgently addressed; considers that the Scottish Government must respect the vote of the Scottish Parliament and end national testing of four- and five-year-olds, instead moving towards a model of national sampling; notes that the role of knowledge needs to be enhanced in the Curriculum for Excellence, and asserts that the new national education bodies, which are currently in the process of being created, must be teacher-led and must support teachers for the benefit of the education of Scotland’s children and young people.”
“What kind of education will be needed by children and young people ... in the future and how do we make that a reality?”
That important central question guided the national discussion.
I welcome the publication of “All Learners in Scotland Matter: The National Discussion on Education”, and am happy to speak in support of the Government’s motion, which acknowledges the significant levels of engagement that the national discussion has generated.
There were events and discussions in every part of Scotland, including some that were led by schools, community groups and third sector organisations. It was the biggest public engagement exercise on education to have been undertaken nationally by Scottish education. It reached more than 38,000 people, including 26,000 children and young people.
The task was to build a compelling, consensual and renewed vision; the agreed vision speaks directly to the voices of the children who said again and again that they want a safe and inclusive education system that values everyone and celebrates all kinds of success. It is worth hearing that vision in full. It is this:
“Children and young people are at the heart of education in Scotland. The Scottish education system values collaborative partnerships that engage all learners, the people who work within and with the education system, parents, and carers to ensure that all learners in Scotland matter.
All learners are supported in inclusive learning environments which are safe, welcoming, caring, and proactively address any barriers to learning and inequities that exist or arise. Education in Scotland nurtures the unique talents of all learners ensuring their achievement, progress, and well-being.
Each child and young person in Scotland has high-quality learning experiences which respect their rights and represent the diversity of who they are and the communities they live in.
Each child and young person experiences great teaching, resources, and support for joyful learning that builds their confidence and equips them to be successful and to contribute in their life, work, and world, so they know how much they matter.”
A line in the report stuck out to me. I think that it might be a helpful guiding principle for us politicians as we navigate our way through the coming reforms and scrutiny of the bold changes that might be required. There is a need to
“balance the realism of what is needed now with an inspiring optimism for education in Scotland”.
The report on the national discussion recognises that more could be done to support quality and consistency in implementation of existing policies and practices. Importantly, it also notes the strength of what we have here in Scotland. It states:
“features of the Scottish education system ... must be continued and further enhanced, such as a commitment to valuing children and young people’s views, a broad-based education, the foundational importance of literacy and numeracy, the development of wellbeing, the pursuit of equity and equality, respect for a graduate level teaching profession, the importance of the work and working conditions of all members of the education workforce, and partnership”— which the cabinet secretary spoke about—
“with parents, carers, communities, and relevant agencies, specialists and service.”
Ahead of the debate, YouthLink Scotland provided a helpful briefing note that suggests that Scottish education remains too narrowly defined, and that it is too often understood as formal learning that is planned for and delivered by teachers in formal settings. The purpose of Scottish education is to ensure that all our children and young people develop the knowledge, skills and attributes to allow them to reach their potential in learning, life and work.
I agree with YouthLink Scotland that youth work in all its forms
“complements and enhances delivery of the formal curriculum” and provision of support for pupils. It contributes greatly to raising attainment and to improving outcomes for children and young people. A future Scottish education system will need to offer not just high-quality teaching and learning, but different learning pathways.
The national discussion report talks of the
“need to re-ignite the joy of learning”.
I strongly welcome the fact that play and outdoor learning are specifically mentioned. Not just as an MSP, but as a parent and, perhaps, even as someone who was not naturally inclined to thrive indoors in a classroom, I know just how important youth work is. Any “ambitious”, “inclusive” and “supportive system”, with children’s rights at its heart, will be clear that youth work is part of education. It would be helpful if, in her closing speech, the cabinet secretary could speak a little to how the national youth work strategy will link to the educational reforms that are coming.
I will end on that balance of realism and optimism. I acknowledge the issues that we have and the challenges that we face around investment—we face them right across our public services, as we are operating in hugely challenging times. For meaningful education reform that truly reflects the statement “All learners ... matter”, there will be difficult choices to make.
Here is the optimism bit. The vision is there: I believe that in Scotland we have all the skills and resources to achieve it.
When Nicola Sturgeon told education leaders in August 2015 that education was her number 1 priority, l think that the vast majority of people across Scotland, and certainly in this chamber, agreed with her. I certainly did, so when six months later she reiterated that commitment and told us that a new education bill was forthcoming that would promise greater devolution to schools, I was very encouraged. I was not someone who ever subscribed to the view that everything in our schools was going badly wrong, but neither did I subscribe to the view that everything was going well and that the status quo was acceptable. In fact, I remember John Swinney saying, as he was on the cusp of introducing an education reform bill—I hope that I quote him correctly—that
“the status quo is not an option”.
He was absolutely right in that comment.
Now, interesting as some of the feedback is, I wonder whether we would be in quite the same place had the Scottish Government both listened to and acted on the collective findings of the Donaldson, McCormac, Cameron and Bloomer reviews of Scottish school education, all of which were carried out by experts in their respective fields between 2011 and 2016. Their collective message was that although Scottish education had much on which to pride itself, the school system needed to be shaken out of its complacency. Incidentally, exactly the same conclusion had been arrived at the time of the proposed Howie reforms, way back in 1992.
Of course, the reports from 2011 to 2016 appeared at the same time as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Scottish survey of attainment, the programme for international student assessment—PISA—Reform Scotland and the Scottish Government’s own statistics all produced compelling evidence that Scotland was flatlining when it came to attainment. Worse still, that evidence showed that the attainment gap between rich and poor was widening, thereby disadvantaging a large number of young people, which was fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of good Scottish education, which was once renowned across the world.
The 2017 programme for government proclaimed that
“A new education bill will deliver the biggest and most radical change to how our schools are run”.—[
, 5 September 2017; c 13.]
Nicola Sturgeon went further when she wrote, in an article for
, that the London model of cluster schools was worth looking at, given that it was clearly delivering results for more disadvantaged pupils. I was extremely disappointed when all that got dropped, for some reason.
Three things above all else matter to me. First, teachers have not been sufficiently valued as key professionals. Graham Donaldson had interesting things to say about that, particularly when he said that too many teachers were reporting that they felt uncomfortable about gaps in their professional training. Of course, it does not help when the number of cases of verbal and physical assaults on teachers is soaring, as Stephen Kerr’s debate highlighted last week, and which I know my colleagues across the chamber will attempt to deal with during the debate.
Secondly, the Scottish Government has shown extraordinary unwillingness to properly reform the education agencies—not just to rebadge them and move the deck chairs around a bit, but to properly reform them to enhance the support that is available to teachers. No one can argue that Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority have had a happy history in recent times. Indeed, when I was on previous education committees for a substantial number of years, hardly a term went past without the committee’s attention being drawn to significant problems in the agencies that meant that teachers felt remote from and frustrated by the education agencies. That can never be a good blueprint for a successful education system.
However, I think that the main message from the national conversation is that education cannot stand still and that school leaders should not expect the curriculum to do so, either.
That brings me to my third point, which is one that members have heard me raise in the chamber over many years. I do so again because I am utterly convinced that it matters: it is the subject of extracurricular activity. We should all ask ourselves what education is for. We need to consider the intrinsic value of education. In the difficult and perhaps perplexing quest for the answer to that question, we need to stand back and ask ourselves, from a holistic perspective, what we should do to ensure that schools provide education in the round. Extracurricular activity—perhaps it is better named “co-curricular activity”—has many definitions, but it is an integral part of the process.
That view is not popular in some quarters. After all, extracurricular activity is not measurable in the same way as we can measure test results or SQA exam passes, but it matters so much to young people. I do not believe that that type of activity can or should be condemned to obsessive quantitative measurement. For many pupils, those activities are the most enriching. They help pupils to make decisions in difficult situations and they build confidence and self-esteem. They build understanding of what commitment and responsibility mean and of working in teams. In the post-Covid era, when many youngsters’ lives are beset by anxiety, those skills are increasingly priceless assets.
I believed that when I was a teacher between 1983 and 1998, and I have continued to believe it in my 17 years in Parliament. That is why I have proposed my outdoor education bill, and why I am glad that Sam Rowlands in the Welsh Senedd has a similar bill, and that there is likely to be a bill at Westminster from Tim Farron.
We have a huge opportunity to get our education system right, but we need to be far-sighted. We need an all-round vision of Scottish education. It should be a vision that not only suits the economy but promotes a fair-minded and ethical society in which individuals are valued for who they are.
I support the amendment in the name of Stephen Kerr.
The education landscape has changed beyond recognition in just a few decades, as has the world around us. Between the education that I had in the 1950s and 1960s, the education that I delivered as a secondary teacher in the 1970s and 1980s and education today, there are worlds of difference, in and outside the classroom. With the online world and technology, the needs of society continue to change and accelerate. What is taught will have to adapt while focusing on ensuring that children have the basic tools of numeracy and literacy.
There is much to be recommended in the broad base of our education syllabus, particularly in secondary education and beyond to tertiary. However, I welcome this wide-ranging report, which endeavours to provide a broad discussion about what our children need in today’s world to help them thrive and contribute to society in their own way. The report also endeavours to make schools a place where inequalities are minimised and diminished and, most importantly, a safe and happy place to be.
I will focus first on what is for me the linchpin of success: the teachers. Something that remains constant is the value of a good teacher, and there are many good teachers. Some of us here can no doubt easily recall the good and distinguish them from the mediocre, no matter how distant our learning experience. That evidences the impact that the quality of teaching has on us, even decades on, and it is recognised in the report, which states:
“One very strong theme that featured heavily in the responses to the National Discussion was the importance of valuing and appreciating all educational professionals working with and within schools. We listened to some robust views about the importance of teachers and the need for more support staff, including classroom assistants, learning assistants, support for learning staff, and pupil support staff. ... We heard about the importance of class sizes affecting how much time and attention a teacher or support staff member could give to each individual child or young person.”
The issue of class sizes comes next for me. The smaller the class, the easier it is to teach and to give time to each child. I once taught a class of 40 and another of 16, and how I taught was determined not just by the character of the class but by the size itself. That for me is self-evident.
Inclusivity is to be welcomed, but it is not the answer for all children who have, for example, severe learning difficulties or behavioural issues. That is not just about their development and wellbeing; it is about the other children in the class. In that respect, I refer to my intervention on Willie Rennie.
There is a question about whether it is best for a child with, say, very difficult behavioural issues to be in a mainstream class. I repeat that, in my casework, it sometimes seems that what is a presumption verges on the mandatory. I have had representations from parents of children who would need substantial support in order for them to remain in a mainstream class that they have concerns that that would not be best for their child’s development. That is especially the case if many children in a class require additional support.
I turn to the testy matter of how a school can deal with bullying which, again, often comes up in my casework. The report states:
“Within the National Discussion, we heard many times how important it was for pupils of all ages to feel secure and free from any form of bullying, intimidation, or harassment.”
However, in my casework experience, policies in certain schools are not always effective in striking the balance between the bully and the bullied. I appreciate that that is a difficult balance to strike, and I know that Scottish Borders Council, for example, is reviewing its bullying policy. For some parents, there is the perception that every effort is made to keep the bully in school, not the bullied child.
I understand that some 30,000 children have caring responsibilities. They might not always disclose that to a teacher in order to protect a parent out of fear—whether baseless or not—that social work might remove them from the situation if, for example, the child is supporting a parent with addiction problems.
Of course, if concerns about a child’s wellbeing ring alarm bells, there is a duty on a teacher to bring those concerns to the attention of the appropriate authority. We ask a lot of our teachers, and we ask even more of them now than we did during my time in the classroom.
In my view, teachers need to have more in-class support and more non-teaching time for continuing professional development, for example. Sometimes, they are so busy that they do not have time to do anything else.
People can educate, in its broadest sense, even in a dilapidated hut—although that is not a suggestion from me to the Government. For me, it comes down in the simplest terms to the teacher, the in-class support and the size of the class.
I am glad that the Scottish Government is finally taking charge of the future of education in Scotland. Our education sector has been wrecked by 16 years of SNP failure. The SNP has failed to support teachers and pupils with additional support needs, and it has failed to update an outdated and narrowing curriculum.
I have a lot to get through.
As some of my colleagues have pointed out, the number of teachers has fallen over the past 16 years—since 2007, the number has fallen by 907. The Scottish Government has not yet delivered on its promise to hire 3,500 teachers and pupil support assistants, which is putting a strain on teachers and pupils and is having a negative impact on class sizes.
Teachers were also promised 90 minutes of non-contact time per week, but the Scottish Government has made little progress in meeting that promise. Teachers in our education system need to be valued and given time to think about and plan their teaching and learning outcomes.
Teachers are not the only ones in our schools who are struggling. Pupil support assistants provide essential support for children’s education and social development, but there is currently a crisis in the recruitment and retention of PSAs. That is primarily due to PSAs being underpaid and undertrained to deal with the demands of the job. PSAs often work with children with additional support needs without adequate training or support, and that further exacerbates the lack of support available to children with additional support needs. A lack of PSAs in classrooms can create unsafe working conditions and decrease attainment for children. However, the Scottish Government has yet to outline exactly how it plans to support that vital role in schools, on which both teachers and pupils heavily rely.
Last week in Parliament, a debate took place on violence in schools. Violence from children towards other pupils or staff is often left to pupil support assistants to handle; I have heard stories from constituents about the daily violence that they experience in the workplace as PSAs. They are often the ones who deal with the brunt of violent behaviour and relieve classes of violent disruptions, yet they receive little support or training on how to effectively deal with violence in their workplace, which, once again, causes many to leave the profession.
The Scottish Government must move forward with showing teachers and support staff that they are listened to and valued in our education system; only then can we begin to improve the situation.
There needs to be some development, too, in the curriculum that is being taught in our schools. The narrowing of the curriculum for excellence does not effectively prepare young people for the future. Our education system should prepare children and young people to deal with the major social, economic, cultural, personal and political challenges that are present in the 21st century. The current curriculum for excellence is ill equipped to teach young people about that important aspect of life.
The Scottish Government’s recently announced Scottish connections framework addresses the need to deal with the more difficult parts of Scotland’s history, including colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. That commitment to address the atrocities of the past needs to be done at home, too, and in our schools. Through learning about the past and Scotland’s role in it, young people can be more open to, and understanding of, the racial, cultural and gender inequalities that still exist in Scotland today. In that way, we can send young people away from the education system more tolerant and with a better understanding of the social challenges that they might face outside of school.
Progress on the Government’s reform of education is welcome. However, it cannot be another broken promise; if anything is to be fixed, the Scottish Government simply must recognise what the past 16 years have done to our education system.
It is a real pleasure to warmly welcome to her role the new cabinet secretary—this is the first opportunity that I have had to do so. I have no doubt that she brings energy, enthusiasm and a great deal of effort with her, and I wish her well.
It will come as no surprise to many members that I will focus my remarks on what I consider will be the enormous benefits that will accrue to our economy and society, and particularly to our children, by teaching touch typing—a skill that I believe to be one of the most valuable that we can possess for our working and personal lives, and for the remainder of the century.
This is mark 4 of this speech—
To match the fourth rendition of this speech, it is also right to say that touch typing is included in the curriculum for excellence under information technology skills. Yes, keyboard skills are hugely important, but the skill of touch typing frees our young people from the challenges of physically writing, particularly in the case of children with dyslexia.
I totally agree with Mr Whitfield that it is in the curriculum, but the problem is that, although it is in the curriculum, supervision, which is essential, is not provided for. I will come on to that. My attempts have failed thus far.
Members might see a slight bit of co-ordination in today’s debate. As somebody who types with his thumbs, I think that there should be greater education on touch typing in schools, and I hope that we can persuade the minister to task somebody to ensure that it is given greater priority.
I am extremely grateful to Mr Rennie. This spontaneous expression and outburst of cross-party support is extremely welcome. However, it is a very serious issue, because that support demonstrates that this is not a party-political issue. Absolutely nothing that I have to say has anything to do with party politics; it is all about the enormous benefits that I think can be achieved for virtually zero cost—just by training teachers how to supervise young people in learning this skill. The average length of time that it takes a young person to learn this skill under supervision is 15 to 20 hours. That is a blink of an eye when one thinks of the time that children spend in school.
Here are some of the benefits. With a short investment of time and money, children gain one of the best life skills that will be used daily in their work and for personal purposes. This skill results in a huge improvement in self-esteem and confidence in young people. That is so important and empowering. When children feel confident, they can succeed, but if they are worried and afraid, perhaps that will be far more difficult. For adults, the potential productivity benefits are simply astounding. In a typical six-hour day, a touch typist will complete up to three times more work than those without this skill.
We frequently hear people talk about broad aims and aspirations to increase productivity. Very rarely do we hear about a specific, clear-cut, concrete measure that can actually do it—this is it! I cannot think of any more efficacious way to increase productivity and empower people in their workplace to do work at a much faster rate.
I very much agree with the member. If we are talking about productivity, may I also introduce the idea of the importance of young people being physically active all the way through their school life?
Yes, I absolutely agree with that.
I want to say to the cabinet secretary that the information that I have, which also comes from members in the chamber about personal experiences in their lives and with their families, is that, as Willie Rennie alluded to earlier, it is especially children with special needs—children with dyslexia and autism—who benefit from the acquisition of this skill, moving from a life of difficulty, challenge and worry to a life of confidence, self-esteem and self-regard. I specifically want to mention that.
One parent gave this testimonial:
“Our eldest son is dyslexic. Learning to touch type has unlocked his academic potential in a way unimaginable before the course.”
I will discard the last three pages of the speech—well, everybody has heard it before anyway.
I want to stress this. I had a courteous hearing with Diane and Robin Gifford, who run a training company called Type by Touch and to whom I am extremely grateful for a very detailed briefing. I know that they have spoken to other members, too. Diane Gifford said:
“After 10yrs of running courses, I’ve yet to find anyone”— anyone—
“who’s mastered the skill through self-learning. It requires lots of repetition, encouragement and structured direction.”
The reply that I received on 2 August 2022 from the cabinet secretary’s predecessor that touch typing materials are available is fine—that is great and it is a start, but it is not enough. Supervision is required. One would not expect a child to learn how to play the piano, the violin or any other musical instrument without tuition or supervision. Therefore, why should it be different when one is learning how to use a different type of instrument, one that can empower people for the rest of their lives at almost zero cost and zero time, and which I believe would be of substantial benefit to the people of Scotland the economy in the decades to come?
The package of education reforms to be delivered in this parliamentary session is the biggest since the curriculum for excellence was introduced. Indeed, the reforms in the Hayward recommendations, which I expect we will see, could be the biggest set of reforms since the Victorian era. Some of them are overdue and some are as a result of the pandemic, and we probably would not have had this opportunity otherwise, but they are all hugely exciting.
Organisational reform is critical to this, but even with really good consultation efforts organisational reform can be pretty impenetrable or at least quite distant to most people. The national discussion was an opportunity for wider society to engage in the debate on the future of Scottish education, and I think that it has been successful. We often hear of the frustration that people have that the scope of Government consultations does not allow them to talk about the issue that they wanted to bring to the table. We should congratulate
Professor Carol Campbell and Professor Alma Harris on their approach, which allowed people to bring whatever issue they wanted to to the table to discuss the future of education.
Debates in this area can often be quite challenging—not only for the public but for politicians—due to gatekeeping by established powers in our education system. In Professor Muir’s recommendation for a national discussion, he made clear that it needed to prevent the “narrative privilege” of existing organisations. I think that that has been achieved, because I cannot detect the suffocating hand of the SQA and Education Scotland in the final report. That is easier to do in this area than it is in organisational reform, but there are lessons to be learned for the officials who are leading on organisational reform about consultation and engagement with pupils, teachers and wider society on what they need.
Like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report, the national discussion reinforces the core strengths of the curriculum. Its vision statement aligns with the core premise of the curriculum for excellence, and the report notes that much of what is in the vision is not new. The vision and values are easy to agree to, though, and I expect that, even in the areas where there is most significant disagreement between members, we could come together and agree on a set of common values. We need more challenge in our education system. Even what is in the call to action is broadly pretty agreeable.
If I have one concern about this, it is that those existing powers—those with a narrative privilege in education—can agree to what is in the report and also say that what they are already doing will fulfil it, which is why we need a greater challenge. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to drive forward substantial reforms across the system.
Absolutely, and Mr Whitfield has robbed me of the conclusion of this speech, which is on exactly that topic. The format of “you said, we did” for the Government’s consultation efforts absolutely needs to be used here. It is right that people are cynical about this, because we have been here before in a lot of areas.
I want to focus my remarks on recommendation 4.12,
which the cabinet secretary highlighted, because I think that is it fantastic to say that we need to
“reignite the joy of learning”.
That is a great example of a completely agreeable concept; who is going to disagree with that? However, it is a challenge to deliver. The Hayward review is critical to doing that.
The OECD confirmed that we are doing a pretty good job of delivering the broad general education stage of curriculum for excellence but, once we get into the senior phase, there is too much pressure to teach to the test rather than deliver the senior phase of the curriculum. Reforming our qualifications and assessments system to match our curriculum will be critical. If we want to make learning more enjoyable, we also need to break it out of subject styles, which would align far better with our qualifications system and with the needs of our economy.
The submission from the Royal Society of Edinburgh summarised that really well. It said:
“Subject-specific knowledge is no longer the primary determinant of suitability in the majority of graduate recruitment. What matters more are transferable skills and attributes, breadth of knowledge and experience, cross-disciplinary thinking, and problem-solving capabilities.”
There is a lot of merit in the baccalaureate system, as Liz Smith says. First of all, we need a serious appraisal of what happened with the Scottish baccalaureate efforts that were previously attempted. Why did they not have the success that many of us hoped for?
Willie Rennie was also right to say that we need to take employers, colleges and universities with us in any reform of the qualifications system. Employers want the wider set of skills to be recognised. I acknowledge that, in many cases, they already are, but there is a disconnect. However, universities are an example of where reform of the qualifications and assessment system has already happened. They have raced far ahead of school-based exams when it comes to the move towards continuous assessment and alternative models. They have a lot to contribute to how we move forward on that area.
Reigniting the joy of learning also requires us to acknowledge that learning takes place outside of schools. If we want happy children and young people, we need a good balance of schoolwork with the rest of their lives. That brings me to the question of homework.
We know that, if we were to extend the school day it would, on balance, have a net negative impact on children and families. However, there is growing recognition that adults have a right to disconnect from their work out of hours, so we need to ask whether our current levels of homework are necessary and seriously consider ending homework in primary schools.
If children need to get through that work, we need to question the curriculum itself. If there are issues of cluttering the curriculum, which is certainly the case in primary school, we need to resolve those. That is compatible with giving teachers professional autonomy in the classroom. It is for them to decide how to deliver learning in class, but it is for all of us in the Parliament to have responsibility for children’s whole lives. School can be a place of joy if it does not follow children home.
We have significant opportunities over the next couple of years to deliver on reforms that, in some cases, are long overdue and, in others, have emerged as an opportunity only in the past few years. There is a lot of cynicism about our ability to deliver them, but we have the right package of reforms and the desire across the chamber to ensure that we leave a lasting legacy for decades to come.
This is a welcome debate on the future of Scottish education and I compliment the cabinet secretary on the inclusive way in which she is trying to generate greater agreement, especially in Parliament, about how our education system should develop. Securing that greater agreement matters because the future of our country literally depends on it.
In working to establish that agreement, there has to be a willingness on all sides and among all partners to recognise the reality of Scottish education and to be prepared to consider evidence that supports the appropriate direction of travel. In that respect, the cabinet secretary might have to revise, refocus or even remove some of the precious interventions of some of her predecessors. I know that she will have the resolve to do so; her predecessors will just have to come to terms with that.
Equally, other parties might have to be prepared to recognise more than they are prepared to admit of the strengths that truly exist in Scottish education. I am constantly struck by the often negative characterisation of Scottish education that is expressed by Opposition parties in the chamber, compared with what Opposition members say about the performance and achievements of individual schools in their communities and constituencies when it comes to issuing press releases and getting media opportunities.
There is very high satisfaction with Scottish education and very high confidence—as recent opinion polling demonstrated—in the Government’s stewardship of education. The situation is not helped by Mr Choudhury’s characterisation that the Government has “wrecked” Scottish education. What sort of language is that? Mr Choudhury cannot substantiate his point, so that was inappropriate language to use to characterise the situation in the debate. I note that Pam Duncan-Glancy did not use her intervention to come to his defence or to justify his characterisation.
It is most unlike Mr Swinney not to listen to what I said, but I will read him part of my speech. I said:
“I was not someone who ever subscribed to the view that everything in our schools was going badly”.
There is a lot to pride ourselves on. Yes, there is a need for change; I think that Mr Swinney is the one who said that the status quo was not acceptable.
The national discussion has been well steered—not surprisingly, in my view—by Professor Alma Harris and Professor Carol Campbell. They have listened with care to a wide range of voices across our education system and have identified key values that should guide its development—values that are ambitious, inclusive and supportive. Those are good, strong and clear values that can provide the necessary focus in our education system. The key is what steps we take to turn those values into reality.
I would like to raise three key elements that, for me, are critical in that endeavour. The first of those elements is the importance of ensuring that every child or young person is ready and supported to learn. Poverty is by far the key inhibitor to ensuring that every child has a chance to learn and to grow. The work of the Scottish attainment challenge, the introduction of the national minimum school clothing grant and the impact of the Scottish child payment, which are just three Scottish Government measures, are key contributors to the process of ensuring that every child or young person is ready and supported to learn. The sincerity of others on the question of removing poverty would be demonstrated by their taking an approach to measures to tackle poverty that is different from the approach that the current United Kingdom Government is taking with its measures on welfare reform.
The second element is teacher agency and autonomy, to which the Conservatives’ amendment refers. Our children and young people will be able to learn only if they are guided by motivated professionals who have been able to develop and renew their professional capacity. I encourage the cabinet secretary to intensify the focus on that element of the agenda. That will involve Parliament supporting the cabinet secretary on the need for local authorities to create a more confident climate, in which professionals are able to deploy their strengths and their judgments in their practice. I met far too many teachers, and many headteachers, who felt constrained in developing their practice by the overbearing presence of their local authority employer. If Parliament is to value the importance of teacher agency, it must be prepared to help the Government to bring that about.
Stephen Kerr is not in the chamber at the moment but, in his speech, he set out a range of propositions, many of which I agree would be helpful in strengthening the professional capacity of teachers. However, they will all cost money—and lots of it. The Conservatives are against increasing tax—they want us to cut tax—and they have not supported investment in the education system. They need to turn their rhetoric into reality.
The third theme, which is encapsulated in the not-selected Lib Dem amendment, is the importance of parity of esteem for vocational qualifications. That is absolutely vital, crucial or seismic—members can call it what they want. It is what has driven so many of the improved outcomes that have been achieved by young people in recent years. Mr Rennie cited the Scottish credit and qualifications framework. The development of new qualifications and awards in recognition of the potential in every young person is central to ensuring that our education system lives up to the values of the national discussion of being ambitious, inclusive and supportive.
Without wishing to sound like an old man, one of the biggest differences that I see in our education system today compared with when I was in school in the 1970s and 1980s is the focus on ensuring that every young person goes on to achieve a good and positive outcome. I received a fantastic state education in that period and went on to achieve a good outcome, but that was not the case for most of my peers. One of the strengths of Scottish education is in ensuring that every young person gets a positive outcome. That should be central to the national discussion.
The SNP Government has presided over 16 years of failure in
Scottish education, with the gap between the poorest and richest pupils widening and education standards dropping. The SNP has starved schools and staff of resources, and its curriculum for excellence has been a failure.
The publication of “All Learners in Scotland Matter: The National Discussion on Education” is welcome, and serves as a resounding call to action for the Scottish Government to prioritise urgent and meaningful reforms. In acknowledging the prevailing frustrations that Stephen Kerr mentioned in his speech, the cynicism and the anger stemming from unmet promises of reform in the past, the report instils a sense of doubt regarding the Government’s commitment to genuine and lasting change, and underscores the need for immediate action. The Government has fundamentally broken the education system in Scotland, and urgent action is required to address the problems.
The evidence that I hear from people when at committee, including on the attainment gap, which we see widening, and the dropping of regional, national and international statistics says something, and we need to acknowledge that.
I want to acknowledge that the people who work and volunteer in the sector, including parents, carers, young people and teachers are all ready to embrace the change that is needed and the reform that they are seeking. They are ready for significant change.
We have heard about the importance of a future Scottish education system that is welcoming and inclusive of all children and young people, including attention to early identification and adequate resources and specialist support to enable everyone to learn and flourish.
The Scottish Conservatives would encourage use of digital from the earliest stages of school and in all subjects—not just in the ones that are traditionally associated with information technology, such as computer science and administration. Our young people want to use technology in their learning, but teachers and pupil support assistants must be provided with continuing development opportunities to keep pace with the change—it is rapid—in how and what people are learning. We should also deliver a laptop or electronic device of some sort to every pupil, thereby eradicating the technology divide between rich and poor.
One of my constituents is a music teacher, and he has raised with me concerns about various discrepancies in music teaching across Edinburgh. He works in a number of primary schools across the city with the youth music initiative. Although he acknowledges the additional funding that has been announced for the youth music initiative, he does not believe that it is enough. That goes back to the extracurricular work that Liz Smith mentioned. We are already seeing a situation across the UK in which most of the young people who go on to study music at university are privately educated, because they are among the few people who receive adequate music education. The Scottish Conservatives’ new deal for teachers would allow more children to learn music.
Linked to music is the fact that it is now abundantly clear that the wellbeing and the health of children and young people is one of the most pressing and important issues in Scotland. Without proactively addressing wellbeing and mental health, attempts to improve learners’ achievement and attainment levels will be undermined.
We know that there is a growing need for support for children and young people, with most long-term mental health problems beginning in adolescence: 75 per cent of mental illnesses start before a person’s 18th birthday. Schools and colleges should be utilised to provide early preventative mental health support to children and young people across Scotland.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. Teaching mindfulness, and therefore resilience in our young people, will help them with the challenges that they face now and into the future. The nurturing and supportive environment in our education system must start as soon as possible. It makes our young kids more resilient, as I said. Through mindfulness, they can help to understand what is normal in terms of feelings. Being anxious and nervous is part of life; it is when that becomes overpowering that support and help are needed.
Currie primary school has nurture clubs, a worry box, a de-stress zone, and a time in the day for mindfulness colouring and calm music, just to relax. A focus on health and wellbeing and making sure that there is a safe space and available staff to support pupils who are struggling is important. People need a safe place to go and calm down and someone safe to speak to when they are upset, overwhelmed or angry.
Although we acknowledge that there are many policies, instances of good practice within schools, and supportive groups that already focus on the issue, from conversations with children and young people it is clear that much more needs to be done. A future education system must uphold norms, practices, and values right across the system in order to remove barriers to learning that young people encounter. The need for change is accepted by all those who are taking part in the discussion, so let us be brave and make the wholesale changes that are needed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. As my colleague Pam Duncan-Glancy said, Scottish Labour welcomes the Government’s national discussion on education and the publication of the report, but they must now lead to the right action and positive change.
It is essential that the voices of those in the education sector, especially children, parents and teachers, are not only listened to but acted on. It should be clear that we will not create an education system that meets the needs of all our children and young people without that.
The sad reality is that pupils who live in more affluent families are still more likely to succeed in school and higher education. We will not close the poverty-related attainment gap unless we give our teachers and staff the proper resources to do their jobs. Pam Duncan-Glancy made some important points about non-contact working time in that regard. Resources will also be needed to better support children with additional support needs and to tackle issues such as violence in our schools. It will take the efficient use of resources to make our shared objectives a reality.
A national discussion or vision for education will be a national success only if it delivers positive results for the whole country, and places such as Renfrewshire in the west of Scotland in particular.
I now want to discuss the major challenges facing children and education staff in Renfrewshire. Renfrewshire children are currently facing a double whammy when it comes to resources, which will make positive change more difficult, rather than easier, to achieve. Not only are local pupils and staff facing cuts to attainment challenge funding; they are also facing a massive bill due to the disruption of the Dargavel school debacle.
Four of the nine authorities that have been allocated attainment challenge funding are in my West Scotland region: Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. That is a stark reminder of the scale and concentration of poverty in the west of Scotland, but those areas all face massive cuts to their share of attainment challenge funding—in Renfrewshire, it is 71 per cent. I say to the Government that I do not have a problem with providing extra money for education in every council across Scotland where it is badly needed or with reviewing how existing funding is being used and considering improvements. However, I have a problem with funding extra money for all councils by taking it from the councils that the Scottish Government itself has identified as facing the biggest challenges in relation to the poverty-related attainment gap. Hitting the poorest families in the poorest areas hardest will only worsen the attainment gap.
One group of people with whom the cabinet secretary should definitely have an urgent discussion is the parents of children in Dargavel, Renfrewshire, where a primary school with a capacity of 430 was built when accommodation is, in fact, needed for 1,500 pupils. The former education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, told me that she had not seen anything like it. I agree.
Does that whole episode not point to a very important issue that lies at the heart of our local democracies, which is that nobody seems to be accountable for these things? Does Neil Bibby agree that something needs to be done to change that dynamic in our local democracies?
I absolutely agree that there needs to be greater accountability, including on this particular issue. There needs to be a full and independent investigation by the Accounts Commission, which I will come on to shortly.
Renfrewshire Council’s catastrophic failure to accurately estimate school roll projections has left children with the joy of learning in portakabins and Renfrewshire taxpayers facing a massive bill of at least £160 million to fix the mess. That money should have been paid by developers; it should not have cost the public a penny. I raise the issue not because it is just a little local difficulty but because it is a major and scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money. It is the equivalent of £2,000 in tax for every Renfrewshire household, and the equivalent of nearly one of the CalMac ferries that we have discussed many times in this chamber.
The original mistake was bad enough, but the response by Renfrewshire Council has also been woeful. Parents have now lost confidence in Renfrewshire Council’s chief executive and director of education, and they have called on council leader Iain Nicolson to consider his position.
That was not always the case. To be clear, when the debacle was first exposed, the parent council for Dargavel was clear that it wanted to work with Renfrewshire Council constructively and without recrimination in order to find solutions for the children and parents and for Renfrewshire as a whole. However, after months of trying to work with the council, it has had to give up, citing a lack of urgency in trying to fix the error, a lack of transparency regarding the fiasco and the poor state of planning for the new primary school. Rightly, it has also questioned the sufficiency of an extension to Park Mains high school to cater adequately for the area’s secondary school requirements, which councillor Gillian Graham has described as a “sticking plaster” approach.
There needs to be accountability for the debacle and urgent solutions need to be found in order to ensure that no child in Renfrewshire is left to pay the price of the council’s incompetence. An external review by the chief executives club, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, which was initiated and paid for by Renfrewshire Council, simply will not command public confidence. The council already appears to know the review’s findings, given press statements declaring that no current senior employee at the council was responsible. A full and independent investigation must be carried out by the Accounts Commission. The Scottish Government should be demanding that, as well as accountability. It also needs to step in to ensure that solutions, including financial support, are delivered so that other children in Renfrewshire are not left to pay the price.
Families are asking how long it will take for the other schools that need to be built to get built. They are also asking what other services, including education services, will have to be cut in order to pay for the failure. If families and taxpayers do not have confidence in Renfrewshire Council, I do not see why the Scottish Government should. Parents in Dargavel want a commitment from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills that she will have a discussion with them and for action to follow from that. In Renfrewshire, there are major obstacles that stand in the way of achieving anything relating to the national discussion for education. No child should lose out because of the council’s incompetence.
This debate and the national discussion on education as a whole are important opportunities for us to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we are going in Scottish education. As I consider my contribution to the debate and reflect on the report, I note that it was interesting that the cabinet secretary launched the report at Towerbank primary school this morning. I think that about four of my friends went to that school. One went on to be a professional athlete and then a journalist, another a successful academic, another a successful electrician who has their own business and the last is a successful painter and decorator. All of them did well. If I think about the circumstances at the time when they went to school in comparison with current circumstances, it is undoubtedly clear that Scottish education has improved. There has been more investment. There is more innovation and more room for creativity, and there is more acceptance and support for people who have different abilities. As we reflect on where we are, we also need to highlight the positives of what the curriculum for excellence has achieved. We know that recent statistics show that a high level of individuals are going on to positive destinations—the figure is 95.7 per cent for the academic year 2021-22, which shows that there are successful learners and effective contributors.
Does the member agree that we ought to take the measurement of positive destinations further than just a few months into the post-school life of our school leavers? We ought to be tracking what happens to them. They are so important to the future of our country. Surely we should invest more effort in finding out what becomes of our school leavers?
Efforts to improve our statistical analysis should always be under consideration. There are also aspects of the curriculum for excellence that are less measurable, such as the value that we place on creativity, which was a key element in the launch of the curriculum and was the focus of the architects at that time. In 2008, I went to see Brian Boyd at the Edinburgh international book festival. He said that lots of things are excellent and that we need to consider how to value the different ways of being excellent. We have definitely developed in that regard and we have more confidence as a country— young people today are so much more confident than they were when I was growing up. They have a much greater sense of civic responsibility about issues such as climate change and how we improve our society. There is also a sense of internationalism that is much more prevalent than it was in decades past.
However, the situation is not perfect, and I am not pretending that it is. One issue that I want to highlight is violence against women and girls. In its briefing for the debate, Zero Tolerance Scotland highlighted that a survey carried out by Girlguiding shows that, in recent years, 64 per cent of girls and young women have experienced sexual harassment at school. I encourage all of us to continue to support initiatives such as the white ribbon campaign and to continue to focus all year round on how we challenge those negative behaviours and improve that situation, because it is concerning.
I want to pick up on some issues in the report. The issue of digital has been highlighted today. In its contribution to the report, the Royal Society of Edinburgh said:
“As the world steps further into the so-called fourth industrial revolution, marked by increasingly sophisticated and integrated technologies, the way in which education is delivered could drastically change.”
We cannot underestimate that issue, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence. Prompt engineering might well become one of the most important skills in an AI world. If there are efforts to be made to ensure that we are ahead of the game rather than catching up in terms of our IT skills, that is an area that needs focus.
That also highlights how important it was, particularly during the pandemic, that the Government took the initiative on digital access and inclusion, with the investment of £48 million to deliver devices to around 60,000 households, working with organisations such as People Know How, which is based in my constituency. Getting ahead on digital and technological issues is vital.
I want to highlight the points that were made around breaking down the academic and vocational divide, which is addressed in paragraph 4.4 of the summary report. One idea that I wondered whether we should consider is that of how we can marry up encouraging young people to engage with the arts with ensuring that they improve and enhance their digital and practical skills. How we get that balance right is something that we could finesse.
Ross Greer was right to mention the issue of homework. For some time, I have had concerns about how homework contributes to the poverty-related attainment gap, in that it is much easier for some people to do homework than it is for others. That is an area of concern that we need to consider.
We also need to consider teacher training and continuing professional development, and whether there are measures that we need to take in that regard.
Overall, we are at the start of the next chapter of the conversation. As the cabinet secretary highlighted, we now enter a phase of engaging with young people and the profession. I am excited to see how that develops and I encourage the Parliament to be solution-focused and constructive. I look forward to seeing how the agenda is taken forward, and I support the cabinet secretary in her endeavours to do that.
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am a former employee of East Lothian Council, which I might mention in my speech.
It is always a pleasure to follow Ben Macpherson—I find myself saying that more frequently these days than in the past. He highlighted some important matters that the report points to, particularly in his comments about violence against women and girls and about the 64 per cent of young women and girls who have suffered sexual harassment in school. That speaks to the earlier discussions about the fact that we have a cohort of young people who do not feel safe when they attend school. The responsibility for dealing with that falls on all of us, because, as all teachers—indeed, all human beings—know, if we cannot fulfil the basic elements of food, protection, safety and housing, it is almost impossible for our young people to achieve anything.
Does Martin Whitfield agree that what is absolutely essential to tackling violence against women and girls in our schools is ensuring that every young person, during sex and relationship education, learns about consent? That is not currently the case, despite aspirations for it to be.
I absolutely agree. Part of growing up involves pushing against boundaries, and people around us must explain to us why those boundaries are there. Through empathy and understanding, and through discussion with adults and, indeed, with young people of the same age as them, as well as with those who are older and younger than them, people develop the tools to inhabit an adult life safely.
I think that we are letting our young people down, not just with regard to consent but in relation to a lot of other matters. We are not giving them the experiences that they need to draw on in order to become better adults. Indeed, one of the veritable foundations of curriculum for excellence is the aim to be a better contributor to and citizen of Scotland.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s introduction and, again, the consensus that she is striving to achieve across the chamber. To echo Pam Duncan-Glancy’s comments, we will support the Government. Indeed, we will support anyone who has the right solutions to these problems, but they are urgent and they cannot wait any longer, because our young people are growing up. I slightly flippantly suggest that, if this is the cabinet secretary’s P1 year, the Government is just finishing university, so there is a period that we have to address and there is a shortage of time going forward.
I am very grateful for that intervention. A lot of the contributions today and, indeed, the report that the debate is based on have talked about the multifaceted nature of what a good education system looks like. It is not a simple solution and it is not the same solution for every young person, but there are essential elements, from the touch typing that we discussed earlier—with some level of humour but also importance, because it is a tool of communication—to outdoor education, sport and keeping fit, which our young people need to experience.
I am conscious of the time, and I apologise to the members I do not get a chance to mention, but I want to raise with the cabinet secretary the holistic and coherent approach across Government, with the publication today of the “Violence Prevention Framework for Scotland”, in which the Scottish Government says:
“For example, we are committed to incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, through implementation of Getting It Right For Every Child.”
I ask that that does not mean that we have abandoned the idea of bringing the bill back and placing it on the statute book here. Again, with a holistic and coherent approach across Scotland, it would be good to see joined-up language, so that we do not end up with unnecessary questions being raised.
There have been some very positive contributions today, and a lot of them have picked up a number of important aspects. Ruth Maguire commented on the national youth work strategy and she picked out the joyfulness of learning. We need to recognise that it is not necessarily just about qualifications; experiences outwith school need to be reflected, because young people very proudly bring their lives into school, and schools should be places where that joy can be shared.
Absolutely—and it is right to say that education should be lifelong. In fact, there has been much mention of the different areas of education throughout the debate. To some extent, we have concentrated the contributions on primary schools, but we have also spoken about high schools and the reform of the assessment situation.
In concluding, with regard to my declaration of interest, for many years, Preston Lodge high school in Prestonpans has had the aims and values of achievement, respect, learning and community but, above all, happiness. If our children can be happy in school, they can be confident; if they can be confident, they can learn; and, if they can learn, they can contribute.
I feel that parliamentarians have been somewhat spoiled over the past two weeks, with not one but two debates on education. That is two opportunities for this Government to defend its record on its handling of our education system and two opportunities for the Scottish Conservatives to promote new, bold and ambitious ideas to restore Scotland’s education system to its once-renowned world-class status. However, it is a shame and a missed opportunity that the Scottish Government has backed itself into its usual corner of denying accountability for the mess that it has presided over for the past 16 years.
The Scottish Government has previously shown a lack of willingness to fight to improve education standards and learning outcomes for young people, has yet to announce any bold or new ambitious policies and has rightly been challenged by members on this side of the chamber and by other Opposition members during today’s debate.
The Scottish Conservatives made our position clear again today—the SNP is presiding over an education system that is in desperate need of repair.
I will come on to that, but we need to look at the story of how we got here and why we are having a national discussion on our education system.
Members from across the chamber have examined the publication “All Learners in Scotland Matter: The National Discussion on Education”. It was an interesting read, but my worry is that it will be another report that will gather dust on a shelf at the back of a Government office, because that has happened before. In 2017, the Scottish Government announced a new education bill, which was subsequently dropped and has not been spoken of since. Therefore, I really hope that history will not repeat itself. After all, the Scottish Government has had plenty of opportunities to bring in substantial changes to improve outcomes for our young people and to give our young people the best possible start in life. They have been let down at every turn, and I did have a chuckle to myself when the Government referenced COSLA in its motion as a solution to
“turn this vision into a reality for Scotland’s children and young people”,
because the SNP has stripped local authorities of powers and made them penniless. How does the SNP intend them to reform education when they do not have the right infrastructure, finance and resource in place? That point was also raised by Neil Bibby.
A better question for Mr Swinney would be why, when he was in Government, did the SNP squander so much money that could have been put into educational resources?
I will pick up on a couple of the themes that were debated today. On additional support needs, ASN provision is failing in many council areas, including in my own, North Lanarkshire. Children are being placed in the wrong learning environment, which is undoubtedly having a detrimental impact on young people who need more support. Stephen Kerr was spot on—it is time that we addressed that.
Other issues were directly highlighted in the report, including job insecurity; the exhaustion and stress that teachers face daily; violence and bullying in our schools, which are issues that we debated only last week; and classroom sizes, which must be one of the biggest missed opportunities of the SNP’s time in Government. Why has it not achieved that goal, given that it was a manifesto promise in 2007?
Liz Smith raised the importance of extracurricular learning, which is vital to the development of a young person, both mentally and socially. That is why I am backing her member’s bill, and I hope that MSPs across the chamber will, too.
With regard to mindfulness, which was mentioned by Sue Webber, having a focus on health and wellbeing in the classroom is crucial given the modern-day pressures that are placed on our young people.
The last theme that I will mention—it would be remiss of me not to—is touch typing, although Stephen Kerr’s intervention stole my thunder. The Scottish Conservatives have adopted touch typing as part of our skills policy, and I am pleased that Fergus Ewing welcomes that decision.
I make no apologies when I say that the SNP has yet to make any real improvements to our education system. Teachers deserve better, teaching staff deserve better and pupils deserve better. I welcome the opportunity to have a national discussion about education—in fact, it is long overdue—but, unless it improves learning outcomes or closes the attainment gap, it will all have been for nothing.
Having listened to the debate today, I know that it is the Scottish Conservatives who have the ambition to bring something new and exciting to Scotland’s education system. If we were in charge, there would be no more talking about change; change would already be happening.
For now, we will encourage this Government to do better, to give our headteachers more powers over their schools, to deliver a new deal for teachers, to establish a national college and to introduce life skills as part of the core curriculum. That is the ambitious vision that our young people and teachers deserve, and that is the vision that the Scottish Conservatives will continue to promote.
We have had enough education reports to last us a lifetime. There should be no more dithering and no more delays. We need action from this SNP Government now, and everyone who has contributed to the national discussion will expect nothing less. Time will definitely tell whether the Government is up to that task.
I want to start on a note of consensus. Stephen Kerr said that he is proud of Scotland for our record engagement through the national discussion. People in Scotland care about our education system, and I think that we can all agree on that today.
Pam Duncan-Glancy spoke about the hunger for change in her speech. I agree with that. We heard some of that from Meghan Gallacher, although I would not agree with the substance of her contribution. However, more broadly, there is a hunger for change in the education system currently.
As I think I outlined in my opening remarks, the Government will accept Labour’s amendment. The evidence tells us that increasing non-contact time can help to improve learning and teaching. That is really important. I give Parliament the undertaking that we will work with the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers to progress that action and important focus of Government.
I am not able to give the member one currently, but I am more than happy to write to her before the end of this session to give her an update on the timescales.
Mr Rennie spoke in favour of mainstreaming. I very much agree on that. I think that he gave an example from a constituent. In all honesty, that sounded familiar to me, as a former classroom teacher. Teachers have also had to adapt to meet the needs of pupils in classrooms—that is part of the job of being a teacher. I suppose that the approach to the implementation of the Morgan review has really been about a partnership between the Scottish Government and local authorities which, fundamentally, are responsible for delivering education in schools. We had a progress update in October 2022, but I accept that we need to do more in that regard, particularly in relation to the increase in the numbers of pupils who have identified additional support needs.
Christine Grahame spoke about the numbers of staff in relation to additional support needs, giving examples from her teaching career. Again, I could identify with some of those examples and how classroom teachers adapt. I think that we all need to be mindful that teachers are skilled experts: they adapt to the class in front of them and they tailor the lesson to the needs of those children and young people.
In my speech, I was quoting the national discussion report rather than citing an example from my constituency. However, it is a familiar example. I accept the cabinet secretary’s point that teachers are skilled, but the situation is pretty overwhelming. The Government needs to understand that, on some occasions, it is almost impossible for teachers when so many pupils in one class have such a variety of needs. Does she accept that?
I do accept that, but we must also reflect the reality that we have the highest recorded level of support staff for additional support needs in schools. That is the direct result of the Government providing an additional £15 million a year to support those additional staff in our schools.
As I said, I accept the wider point. There is more that we will need to look at. That includes looking at the Morgan review but more broadly to the outputs of the national discussion and, I think, to the Hayward review, to ensure that we are providing that support when it comes to more challenging instances of additional support needs, and, as we heard in the chamber last week, changes in relation to behaviour and relationships and how that plays out in our classrooms.
To be absolutely clear, despite what Jenny Gilruth has just said, the national discussion report said in paragraph 5.2.13 that
“responses from the National Discussion were clear that there were currently insufficient appropriate resources, including staffing and specialists, to fully support all children and young people’s individual needs.”
In reality, although the level of additional support needs has risen to a third, an increase in the proportion of resources being expended to support classroom teachers in teaching pupils with diverse needs is not being delivered by this Government, is it?
I am afraid that I disagree with some of what Mr Kerr has said. I recognise the critique from the report that he puts to me and, of course, the Government will come to respond to the report in due course. However, it is also worth saying that the Government spent a record-high amount last year alone on additional support needs—a record £830 million in 2021-22. We are putting a significant amount of public money into supporting those children and young people in our education system. If Mr Kerr and the Conservative Party would like us to spend more money, from where in the Scottish Government budget should we take that money?
Ross Greer spoke about the openness of the approach that was adopted by the facilitators and the lessons that we can learn as we move forward with our reform agenda. We also heard from Liz Smith and Willie Rennie about the reform agenda, and I will come to Parliament in a few weeks to give an update on that. Ross Greer talked about more challenge of the narrative privilege, and I whole-heartedly agree, having worked for two of the organisations that I think he quoted in his contribution.
It is hugely important that we have a wider reach in terms of where we go on reform, and that we do not hear just from the same old voices in Scottish education. I think that the report has been very successful in that regard, in that it managed to get into local communities to speak to children and young people about their views.
Ross Greer, and I think Liz Smith too, spoke about a potential level of cynicism about the reform agenda. I think that how the teaching profession is engaged in the output of the Hayward review—particularly in the secondary schools sector—will be key in that regard, as I think that I said in response to Pam Duncan-Glancy earlier. Teachers need to be fundamentally a part of what comes next—we cannot do it without them—whether that is a diploma approach or an international baccalaureate approach, as I think we heard from Liz Smith, although I have not yet, of course, received the final report from Professor Hayward. All that should be up for debate. We need to engage directly with the profession, which, as we heard in a debate in the chamber last week, has been through quite a tough time, it is fair to say, in recent years.
It also has to be joined up. I think that we heard from Mr Rennie about interconnectivity between higher education and what happens in our senior phase in relation to assessment. Forgive me, it was Ross Greer who touched on approaches to continuous assessment, and I declare an interest as I am married to a lecturer. The difference in approaches that are now used in the higher education sector makes it night and day from when I was at university 20-odd years ago. It is hugely important that our school sector could learn from some of those different approaches that could better support our children and young people fundamentally to attain their potential.
It was good to hear from John Swinney. He spoke of the strengths in Scottish education. He made three substantive points. One was on poverty and how it inhibits children and young people reaching their potential. I know from personal experience exactly what Mr Swinney means when he says that, and it is why the Government has a programme that tackles poverty in our schools. The report acknowledges a number of outside influences—particularly in relation to the cost of living crisis—that are also impacting on our children’s attainment in our schools. The Government in Scotland is limited, to an extent, in what we can do to respond to those.
John Swinney also spoke about supporting the profession and about the role of local government in that regard. It is an interesting point and I am keen to take that forward with COSLA. Parity of esteem is also hugely important, with the output of the Hayward review but also with the output from the Withers review, which will look at the skills landscape. It is hugely important that we do not look narrowly at the senior phase in isolation but look more broadly at skills delivery, particularly in our schools, which are really good at finding out the best pathways for their young people.
Sue Webber spoke about digital provision. She will know, of course, that the Government provided substantial finance in 2020-2021 for the delivery of 72,000 devices, and we are working with local government to roll that out further. We know that about 55 per cent of learners might already have access to a device, but it is fair to say that we will need to go further. I recognise that point, particularly in relation to the outputs from the report.
Neil Bibby raised an important local issue in relation to school provision in Renfrewshire and Dargavel. I give him an undertaking that I will meet him and the parents affected. I know that he has written to me on this matter and met the previous cabinet secretary on the issue.
Finally, I give a commitment to Ruth Maguire that we will continue to engage with stakeholders on the outputs of the new strategy. It is important that that youth work strategy ties up with the broader approach that we have seen from the national discussion today.
I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. Today has been an opportunity to seize the optimism that is highlighted in the national discussion. There is an eagerness in the teaching profession and among parents and carers. Fundamentally, there is a need for all of us to ensure that our education reform agenda delivers for our young people. I say to Parliament today that the national discussion provides us with a foundation for the agenda to move forward, but we all have an obligation to engage in that agenda in good faith. I commend the national discussion to Parliament and I commit to work with all parties on delivering a Scotland in which every learner matters.