Ministerial Statement: Performance in Scottish education – 10 December 2019


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a statement by
the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, on
performance in Scottish education—the programme for international student assessment 2018
results and achievement of curriculum for excellence levels 2018-19 statistics. The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary
for Education and Skills (John Swinney): I welcome the opportunity to update Parliament
on the latest performance information that we have on the Scottish education system. Last week, the PISA data from the 2018 survey
was published and this morning we have seen the 2018-19 achievement of CFE levels data,
as well as the 2019 summary statistics for schools, which include the latest data on
teacher numbers. That material provides a range of information that sets out the progress
that is being made in Scottish education. I start by paying tribute to the hard work
of all the teachers, children and young people in our schools. I visit schools up and down
the country, where I see at first hand the talents of our young people and the commitment
of the teachers and other school staff who support them to achieve their potential. The school census data that we published this
morning demonstrates that the action that we are taking on teacher recruitment is working.
The data shows that teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row: the number of
teachers in our schools has risen by 288 to 52,247 in 2019, which is an increase of more
than 1,500 since 2014. That represents excellent progress; we now have a 10-year high in the
number of teachers. Even more striking is that primary-school teacher numbers are at
their highest level since 1980—the highest for 39 years. I also draw members’ attention to the figures
that were published on 15 November, which indicate that permanent teacher vacancies
for primary and secondary schools combined have fallen from 606 to 382 in a year. The ratio of pupils to teachers nationally
remains at its lowest since 2013. I am pleased that a large number of local authorities have
either maintained or improved their teacher numbers and pupil to teacher ratios. We will
continue working with partners to ensure that children in all local authorities benefit. Our focus on maintaining teacher numbers has
allowed local authorities to take flexible decisions on how best to meet the needs of
their schools and to prevent increases in class sizes. The decrease from 511 to 267
in the number of primary 1 pupils in classes of 26 or more in 2018 is encouraging. The
figure equates to about just 10 classes in the whole of Scotland. The contrast with the
situation when we took office, when there were more than 16,000 P1 pupils in classes
of 26 or more, could not be clearer. That is real progress, but work to further
improve recruitment continues. We are supporting universities in development of new and alternative
routes into teaching, including a focus on increasing the number of science, technology,
engineering and mathematics teachers. Over the past two years, those routes into teaching
have attracted 800 people who might otherwise not have entered teaching. We are again offering bursaries of £20,000
for career changers to undertake teacher training in STEM subjects, where the demand is at its
greatest. A new phase of our recruitment campaign is also under way, and we have added Edinburgh
Napier University and Queen Margaret University as teacher-education providers. It is also important to recognise the role
that other staff have in supporting children and young people in our schools. Our decision
to have counsellors available to support young people’s mental health in every secondary
school in Scotland—the first of whom will begin work this year—is a significant step
forward, as is the £15 million a year that we announced in the programme for government
to provide enhanced support to children with additional support needs. I am encouraged by today’s achievement of
CFE levels data. First, I welcome the chief statistician’s decision to remove the “experimental
statistics” label from the data. That is a clear indicator of the positive work that
teachers and local authorities, supported by Education Scotland and the regional improvement
collaboratives, have done to ensure the quality and consistency of teachers’ professional
judgements. Secondly, I am encouraged because the data
itself is positive, demonstrating, as it does, that Scotland is moving in the correct direction. The international council of education advisers
has indicated to me that we should aim to make a series of incremental gains—of the
type that are now evident in Scotland—in order to deliver sustainable improvement. The data on achievement of CFE levels shows,
for the second year running, increases in attainment across all four key outcome measures.
For example, there has been a rise of about one percentage point in primary literacy and
in secondary numeracy. The latter is particularly welcome in the light of last week’s PISA
results, which showed that we have progress to make in maths. The data, when it is looked at in more detail,
shows an improvement in the results on most indicators in reading, writing, listening
and talking and numeracy at P1, P4 and P7. Secondary 3 results show a similar picture
at third level and fourth level. I am also pleased to see that the data demonstrates
that we are making progress on equity. Attainment in numeracy at all stages, and in reading
and writing at P1, P4 and P7 rose among the most disadvantaged children and young people.
The attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged has narrowed, in most indicators.
For example, the gap in P1 literacy has closed by 1 percentage point, and in P7 literacy
it has closed by almost 2 percentage points. Although the overall picture is positive,
there are, of course, local variations in the figures, so we will work with Education
Scotland and local authorities over the coming year to support improvement. Although this is only the fourth year of ACEL
data, it clearly demonstrates that we are on the right track. We are beginning to see
the system-wide benefits of the system-wide reforms that we have introduced. We are seeing some progress towards closing
the poverty-related attainment gap. That is encouraging and has been further emphasised
by the data that we see today. In order to keep up the momentum, I signal to the education
system today that the Government will maintain its focus on closing the poverty-related attainment
gap. Today, we have published the updated “2019 National Improvement Framework and
Improvement Plan”, which sets out that continuity of direction. I am determined that the system
should benefit from a clear focus in order to ensure that the improvement work that is
being undertaken across the Scottish education system has time to become embedded. The international council of education advisers
advises me that the challenge now is to deepen the level of progress and impact, so that
is what we intend to do. I turn to last week’s PISA results. It is
important that Parliament hears accurately the outcome of the survey and what the PISA
data shows us. It shows a sharp recovery in results on reading, which is very welcome
and comes from a determination after the previous PISA results to make improving literacy a
focus of our attainment challenge. According to independent statisticians, performance
in maths and science is stable. However, I do not deny that there is a challenge in that
respect. Although performance is in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development average, it must improve. Initiatives that we have under way, such as
our STEM education and training strategy, the STEM bursaries and the work on the “Making
maths count” initiative are all about making sure that we improve performance. It is also really important that we see the
PISA data in context. I have already spoken about the positive CFE levels data; there
is a wealth of other evidence. Performance in higher exam passes is improving in terms
of the proportion of young people who leave school with highers and in terms of closing
the attainment gap in higher exam results. How those things are counted has changed over
the years, so we cannot always make direct comparisons. However, where we can, we find
that the amount of pupils who get a higher or better is up from 50.4 per cent in 2009-10
to 62.2 per cent in 2017-18. We are now seeing record numbers of young
people from all backgrounds achieving positive destinations, and more young people from more
disadvantaged communities going to university. There is a lot of good news in Scottish education,
which is tribute to the hard work of young people and their teachers. It is not “Job done”, however. The Scottish
Government remains absolutely committed to ensuring that we continue to see sustained
improvement across the education system. Teacher numbers are at their highest in 10 years,
and we are seeing incremental gains in attainment across the broad general education. Although
parts of the attainment gap remain stubborn, there are initial signs of improvement. In September, the ICEA was clear that I should
not let the PISA results—no matter what they show—be a distraction from our long-term
goals. The council advised that, on the basis of the evidence, Scotland is heading in the
right direction and is taking the right approach to improving education. I value and welcome
that advice. I believe that the direction of travel is the right one—the data supports
that view. Our responsibility is to keep a strong focus on continued improvement. Now
is the time to stay the course, as per the advice of the experts, so that is what the
Scottish Government intends to do. The Deputy Presiding Officer: The cabinet secretary will now take questions.
I will allow 20 minutes for those, after which we must move on. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight
of his statement. I am pleased that, notwithstanding some welcome improvements in the trends that
he mentioned, he admits that significant challenges remain in the Scottish Government’s education
policy and its aims. In that context, I ask the cabinet secretary
three questions. First, can he explain why he is convinced that we have better school
attainment data than we have ever had before? That is what he said last week, but that opinion
is completely at odds with the view of Scotland’s educational experts. That includes the view
of the commission on school reform, which said last week that the data set is “the poorest that it has been since the
1950s”, and the view of Professor Paterson, who argues
that, in light of the situation, effective policy making is undermined. Secondly, will the cabinet secretary now accept
the recommendations of the commission on school reform, which are that Scotland should rejoin
the international measures of both the progress in international reading literacy study and
the trends in international mathematics and science study, and that there should be a
new sample survey of performance in the key curricular areas of broad general education? Finally, will he tell the Parliament why,
despite some improvement in teacher numbers, there are 2,835 fewer teachers since the Scottish
National Party came to power while the pupil cohort is increasing, and whether he believes,
as many secondary schools do, that that has a negative effect on subject choice? John Swinney: Let me address Liz Smith’s first two questions
together, as they relate to the same issue, which is the quality and range of available
information. We participate in the PISA exercise, which is an international survey whose latest
results were published last week, and we intend to continue to participate in it. The problem
with sample surveys, such as the Scottish survey on literacy and numeracy, is that when
an issue needs to be confronted—there was such an issue in 2015—the sample survey
tells us generically that there is an issue, but it does not tell us where the problems
lie. I am interested in solving where the problems lie. The data that is now available to us, which
is assembled pupil by pupil, across every school in the country, gives us a picture
of performance. That data allows Liz Smith to compare the relative performance of local
authority areas—in my statement, I highlighted the fact that we need to confront that local
variation as a country to ensure that the educational needs of young people are met. All of that flows into the national improvement
framework data that we gather and on which we published an update today. It sets out
the various measures that we look at, which we consulted on and on which I thought that
we had reached some broad agreement that they were the measures that required to be looked
at to assess the closure of the poverty-related attainment gap. I firmly believe that we have
a comprehensive dataset that enables all of us to judge the progress of Scottish education. Liz Smith’s final point was about teacher
numbers. I am really pleased that teacher numbers are at a 10-year high: that is really
welcome and it has come about as a consequence of the investment. She asked me to explain
what the challenge has been with teacher numbers. I shall give it to her in one word: austerity.
It has been due to austerity by the Conservative Government. If Liz Smith does not know that
austerity has been the problem undermining our public services for the past nine years
under the Conservative Government and if she does not understand austerity, she does not
understand the suffering that has been experienced by people in Scotland and why we should get
rid of the Conservative Government on Thursday. Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab): I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight
of his statement. I agree with him about the hard work and achievement of our teachers
and young people, yet that has been in spite of one of the heaviest teacher workloads in
the developed world. Twelve years ago the Scottish National Party
Government was elected on a promise to cut class sizes to fewer than 18 in primaries
1 to 3. The figures released today show that, in fact, since 2007 we have 2,853 fewer teachers,
that average primary class sizes are bigger and that the pupil teacher ratio has increased.
There are more pupils in early primary classes that are bigger than 18 pupils than there
were when the SNP took office, never mind none, as promised. As for there being only
10 primary 1 classes with more than 25 pupils, nine years ago we legislated to make 25 the
maximum P1 class size, so perhaps the cabinet secretary should explain why there are any
classes at all of that size in primary 1. Instead of blaming others or picking random
years for comparison, will the cabinet secretary just be honest and admit that the SNP record
on education is fewer teachers and bigger class sizes? John Swinney: I suppose that it was predictable that Mr
Gray would trot out the same response. As for me blaming others, the only people I blamed
in the statement were the Conservatives for austerity. From what I could make out from
all the shouting that was going on while I was answering the question, it seemed as if
the Labour Party was supporting the Conservative Party on austerity. Mr Gray has acknowledged that we have more
teachers in our classrooms today. I am really pleased that teacher numbers are at a 10-year
high; that shows that the investment the Government is making, despite austerity, is having an
effect on the presence of teachers in our country. Mr Gray will know from the negotiations we
have undertaken with our professional associations that the Government is tackling the issue
of teacher workload. Much progress has been made on that through the work that we have
undertaken on unit assessments and other work to streamline teacher workloads through the
pay agreement. I hear Mr Gray muttering about the Educational Institute of Scotland. The
EIS is fully working in partnership with us to tackle teacher workloads: he should get
out a bit more and speak to his trade union colleagues. Finally, it is really welcome that we do not
have 16,000 P1 pupils in classes of 26 or more any longer: that is now down to 267 because
of the investment that this Government has made. The Deputy Presiding Officer: Before I call Ross Greer, the first two questioners
were entitled to ask long questions, which got longer answers, but 11 members want to
ask questions and I want to get them all in. I want short questions, please, and snappy
answers, if possible. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green): I thank the cabinet secretary for advance
sight of his statement, although I have to say how frustrating it is that his obfuscation
is trying to hide the fact that there are 2,800 fewer teachers than there were when
the SNP took office—no spin can hide that. I accept that the S3 attainment data— The Deputy Presiding Officer: I asked for a question and I want a question.
Show what can be done. Ross Greer: I accept that the S3 attainment data is used
to measure the attainment gap, but the S4 attainment data shows that the gap is growing
at five times the rate that it is closing in S3. Does the Deputy First Minister know
why? If not, will he undertake to find out and report back to the Parliament? John Swinney: Mr Greer will see from the data that 90 per
cent of young people now achieve level 3 in S3, which is exactly what we want them to
achieve, and growing numbers of young people are achieving level 4 as part of their achievements
in S3. Obviously, in S4, young people move on into
the senior phase and are able to make choices about the pathways that are appropriate for
them; they will make their judgments accordingly, based on the wide range of choices that is
available in Scottish education. We are determined to ensure that, at every
stage in our education system, poverty is not a disadvantage to young people who are
trying to achieve their potential. We see the fulfilment of that in the improving position
on access to university for young people from deprived backgrounds. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD): The SNP Government has spent the best part
of a week celebrating stagnation and our having far fewer teachers than we had when it took
office. Teachers are at their wits’ end with this
Government. Will the Scottish Government show them the respect that they deserve and relieve
the pressure on them by commissioning a McCrone 2 to fill in the gaps and restore support
in our classrooms? John Swinney: Despite the austerity that was ushered in
by the Liberal and Conservative Government in 2010, the Scottish Government has managed
to increase teacher numbers to a 10-year high. If Mr Cole-Hamilton had been paying attention,
he would have noticed a comprehensive pay deal with the teacher professional associations
earlier this year, which related not just to pay but to workload and a variety of other
issues, and which was supported—by a massive margin—by the teacher professional associations.
I think that that support represents a degree of satisfaction with the negotiation that
we were able to conclude with the professional associations. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP): The curriculum for excellence levels data
that was published today on an individual pupil basis, which includes primary and secondary
school pupils, shows an improvement in achievement in almost all areas and particularly in numeracy.
Given the concerns about the PISA results last week, should the data reassure parents,
carers and pupils that the actions that this Government is taking are the right ones? John Swinney: In the attainment challenge, which was formulated
in 2015, we prioritised improvements in literacy, and we saw the manifestation of that in the
PISA survey last week. We are now seeing, in the broad general education in primary
and secondary schools, a much stronger focus on enhancing numeracy activity and numeracy
interventions. The indications in today’s data are encouraging and, given the clarity
that I have provided on the constancy of direction in education policy, schools can rely on the
support and investment that we have provided to increase performance in numeracy. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con): I declare an interest: I am finance director
of Relationships Scotland—Couple Counselling Central Scotland. The decision to have counsellors available
in every secondary school to support pupils is very welcome, given the rise in schoolchildren
who are affected by mental health issues. Although many counsellors for adults are available,
there is a shortage of appropriately trained and qualified counsellors for young persons.
What is the Government doing to address that shortage so that it achieves its commitment
to place counsellors in every secondary school? John Swinney: We are involved in a recruitment and training
exercise with our local authority partners, to enable that to be the case. Alison Harris
highlights the importance of early intervention through the availability of mental health
counsellors in secondary schools, which is exactly why we have taken the steps that we
have taken; we are working with our local authority partners to ensure that the recruitment
and training process can be undertaken to ensure that that capacity is in place during
the school year. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP): The school census data that was published
this morning clearly demonstrates that the Scottish Government’s action on teacher
recruitment is working. Can the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament how the ratio of teachers
to pupils in Scotland compares with the ratio elsewhere in the United Kingdom? John Swinney: I can. In primary schools, there are 15.9
pupils per teacher in Scotland, compared with 20.9 in England, 22 in Wales and 22.3 in Northern
Ireland. In secondary schools, there are 12.4 pupils per teacher in Scotland, compared with
16.3 in England, 17 in Wales and 15.7 in Northern Ireland. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab): If we are to learn the lessons from the PISA
results, we need to be frank about what the results say. If we acknowledge that they are
part of a 20-year downward trend, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that the reading
results that he describes as an improvement are simply a return to 2003 levels, as is
stated in the report? John Swinney: Those results represent an improvement in
the performance in reading, so we are moving in the right direction in reading. [Interruption.]
I am not overclaiming; I am claiming that we are moving in the right direction. Our
interventions are stimulating an improvement in reading practice. We now need to make sure
that the same happens in relation to maths and science, and the curriculum for excellence
levels data indicates that the steps that we are taking are supporting that direction
of travel. I am entirely focused on delivering improvement
in the Scottish education system—that is what I am here to support and encourage. From
the detail that we have seen today, evidence is emerging of that improvement in practice. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston)
(SNP): The 2019 summary statistics for schools, which
were also published today, add to the range of information that sets out the progress
that is being made in Scottish education and include data on teacher numbers. What further
action is the Scottish Government taking to improve teacher recruitment? John Swinney: We have put in place nearly a dozen new routes
into teaching that are attracting new candidates who, ordinarily, would have found it difficult
to pursue the traditional routes into teaching. We have put in place STEM bursaries, which
are encouraging people to move from careers in the STEM subjects into STEM teaching training.
The £20,000 bursary arrangement is attracting a range of candidates. I am very pleased with the way in which those
new routes have attracted people to make a contribution to teaching. Many of those people
are now making their way into the education system, where they are having a profound effect
on teaching and learning, both for young people and by supporting their colleagues to enhance
their continuing professional development. Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con): Given the clear challenges that we have heard
about today, does the cabinet secretary take any personal responsibility for the state
of Scottish education? John Swinney: Mr Mundell knows me well enough; I do not
shirk my responsibilities. Of course I take my responsibilities deadly seriously. I am
here to improve Scottish education. Equally, however, Mr Mundell must take responsibility
for the shocking levels of austerity that his Government in London has inflicted on
young people in Scotland, which has had the effect of massively increasing child poverty
and forcing children to go to school hungry. That is what Mr Mundell has delivered for
Scottish education. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP): Does the cabinet secretary feel that the PISA
system, which has been criticised by academics around the world, gives an overall view of
the whole of Scottish education? The emphasis seems to be on mathematics, science and reading.
Although those are important, physical, moral, civil and artistic education are ignored. John Swinney: The PISA data is one element, but not the
only element, of the information that we must look at; the same goes for the achievement
of curriculum for excellence levels data. We must look at a range of evidence. That
is why the Government produced the national improvement framework. All the measurement
data that it contains gives us a broad picture of the wider achievement of the education
system. A development in the PISA system that will
look at wider competencies will address some of the issues that Mr Mason raised. That information
will be available in due course—if my memory serves me right, I think that it will be available
in 2020. That is not an element of the survey that we are compelled to be part of, but we
have opted to be part of it, because we recognise that it will give us valuable information
on the breadth of the effect of curriculum for excellence. Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab): Although the marginal improvement in narrowing
the attainment gap is welcome, statistics show that the gap still increases as children
progress through school. What specific steps will the Scottish Government take to tackle
that damaging trend? John Swinney: We must make sure that we support young people
constantly, at every stage in their development, to ensure that we close the poverty-related
attainment gap. That is why we are making the investment that we are making in the early
years sector. We want to act at the earliest possible opportunity to narrow that gap and
to support the learning of young people. That can be done in a variety of ways. An important
element is the provision of family support for learning, which is critical in ensuring
that young people can fulfil their potential. As we take forward the expansion of early
years provision and support for family learning and family engagement, I want to make sure
that we address the individual needs of young people who face challenges in our education
system—especially those who do so because of their background—in the way that is envisaged
through the Scottish attainment challenge, which has a focus on making sure that every
young person can fulfil their potential. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP): In 2018 the ICEA said: “the ICEA wishes to commend the Scottish
Government for its dual focus on excellence and equity, which is now central to policy
formation and policy implementation within the Scottish education system.” Given those comments in recognition of the
evidence of progress in closing the gap, can the Scottish Government emphasise the importance
of keeping focus on that long-term task? John Swinney: In my statement I made it clear that the Government
would remain very firm in its focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap through
the pursuit of excellence and equity within our education system. That is designed to
give utter clarity of purpose to those in the education system that they will not have
to deal with some change in Government policy in the foreseeable future. The Government
is committed to that agenda, and the education system has responded powerfully and emphatically
on it. I hope that the clarity that I have given today responds adequately on the issue
that Mr Kidd has raised and gives a line of sight for our education system across the
country. The Deputy Presiding Officer: I thank all members: we have been able to
get everyone’s questions in.

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