Education Q&A with Deputy First Minister John Swinney

Written by Staff reporter on 4 September 2017 in Inside Politics

John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills answers questions on his first year in the job

Do you think Scots children are getting a second-class education?

No. Scotland has a strong education system, but one that we believe can be better still.

We have excellent teachers who are hard-working and committed to raising attainment for all. Exam performance remains very good and the August results, across a broad range of qualifications and awards, demonstrate excellence and achievement in Scottish education. 

The overwhelming majority of young people leave school to go into a job, training or continue their studies.

We have a strong curriculum which has the needs of children and young people at its centre.

These strengths do not, however, mask the challenges that we face. There is still too much bureaucracy generating unnecessary workload for our teachers. We remain committed to freeing teachers to teach and continue to work with their professional associations on further steps we can take to achieve this.

We fully recognise the message of PISA and the SSLN results. They reveal the significant hurdles to be overcome if we are to make progress on raising the bar and closing the attainment gap. We can, and we must, achieve more. That is why we embarked on a programme of reform.


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There has been a lot of focus on the number of school leavers going to positive destinations. Are you disappointed with the recent drop?

We want every young person in Scotland to be able to realise their full potential and we are making real progress in realising this ambition. Last year, a record proportion of our young people went on to a positive destination after leaving school, whether that is continuing their education, additional training or going into employment.

It is especially encouraging to note that the proportion of school leavers in our most deprived areas going on to a positive destination is at a record high. We clearly have a lot more work to do, but the figures demonstrate that the range of actions we are taking to address this issue is beginning to bear fruit.

I am also pleased to note that the proportion of school leavers going directly into higher education has reached its highest ever level. Again, there is more to do on widening access, but that is why we are taking forward the actions recommended by the Commission on Widening Access, including the appointment of the Fair Access Commissioner who will drive the agenda in this area.

It is essential that young people leaving school are able to make the most of the available opportunities and can make the choice that is right for them, whether that be university or college, training or a job.

 

The attainment gap has been a priority for government. When will we start to see it narrow?

We have set ourselves clear targets to make significant progress in closing the gap within this parliament and to substantially eliminate it within a decade.

Through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, we have committed £750 million over the course of this parliament to close the poverty-related attainment gap for our pupils from the most deprived areas. This year that includes £120 million of Pupil Equity Funding to be spent at the discretion of headteachers and school leaders.

Additionally, under our reforms, decisions that shape the education of young people will be made in classrooms, schools and establishments, by people working with those young people, their parents and communities.

Crucially, under these plans, councils will retain important democratic accountability for the leadership of our schools, and will continue to support teachers and practitioners to deliver excellent learning and teaching opportunities.

 

One of the less reported aspects of the SSLN was the fact that 26 per cent of children have no one at home who reads to them and that poorer children are a good 15 months behind their wealthier counterparts when they start school. This surely gets right to the heart of inequality and how it is inextricably linked to attainment but how does government address something so fundamental?

We know that the more involved and engaged parents are in their child’s education, the greater attainment, achievement, and health and wellbeing for their children regardless of the family’s background. The evidence shows that parental involvement has a significant positive effect on children’s achievement, which is why it plays such a prominent role in our national plans to increase attainment and close the equity gap. It is one of the six key drivers in our National Improvement Framework.

We are providing a strong focus on parental engagement through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, and through our investment in a series of national campaigns and gifting programmes – including the new baby boxes, the Bookbug programme and PlayTalkRead in the early years, and Read, Write, Count in early primary. These programmes help to support a positive culture of reading from an early age, and we will continue to evaluate, adjust and improve on these programmes to ensure they provide parents with the relevant practical advice they need.

Additionally, Scottish Attainment Challenge funding is being used by local authorities to support targeted family learning and engagement programmes focused on literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in areas with high levels of deprivation. We are working with identified communities in all nine Scottish Attainment Challenge authorities to help them develop and implement progressive evidence-based family learning programmes tailored to their own circumstances.

Parent councils are an important and valuable route through which parents can influence the running of their child’s school, but we also want to support and strengthen the crucial role for parents in engaging in learning at home. I welcomed the recent review of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, part of which asked for parental engagement in learning to play a more substantive part in our legislative framework. We are considering this further as part of the development process for the new Education Bill, and are committed to modernising, extending and strengthening the legislative framework on parental involvement.

 

How we care for our most vulnerable children is surely a mark of where we are as a society. Do you believe the Care Review will be able to address some of the damning anomalies in outcomes for looked-after children, particularly around education?

Every young person should have an equal opportunity to succeed in life, no matter their circumstances. Care-experienced young people are already going on to do great things and those who work with looked-after children do an amazing job.

The most recent figures on educational outcomes for looked-after children show considerable improvements, indicating the attainment gap is narrowing for some of our most vulnerable young people. For example, the proportion of looked-after school leavers with one or more qualifications at level 5 or higher has more than doubled (from 15 per cent to 40 per cent) since 2009-10 and 71 per cent of looked-after children were in positive follow-up destinations compared to only 40 per cent in 2009-10.

We know there are still many challenges facing young people in care and their opportunities are all too often not the same as their peers. That is why we have launched an independent root and branch review of the care system in Scotland to look at the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the system. And it will be driven and shaped by care-experienced young people themselves.

 

The named person policy has attracted so much criticism, not least because it breached European Human Rights, do you accept you got it wrong?

We accept the ruling of the Supreme Court.

The named person service was developed in response to parents’ expressed wish for a clear point of contact to access help. It is built on the principles of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ensuring the rights and wellbeing of children and young people are at the heart of the services that support them.

It has the support of the Scottish Parliament, backed by parent groups and many children’s charities, and endorsed by the Supreme Court as ‘unquestionably benign and legitimate’. The only changes they required were how decisions were made to share information to support a child’s wellbeing. The changes introduced by the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before parliament, will ensure that children and families can have confidence that information about the wellbeing of children and young people is processed in a way that respects their rights and the founding principles of the Getting it Right for Every Child approach.

We remain absolutely committed to the named person service as a way to support children and young people by working in partnership with them and with families. The service means children and families have equal access to the right support at the right time, if they need it, regardless of where they live. We have engaged widely with parents, practitioners and others since the Supreme Court ruling, and continue to do so.

 

How can the Scottish Government protect universities from Brexit in terms of students, funding and academics?

We are proud that Scotland is a destination of choice for students and academic staff from elsewhere in the UK, EU nations and all over the world. We are committed to ensuring this remains the case and we will explore every avenue to protect our relationship with the EU.

We have already confirmed tuition fee funding to support EU students already studying here or preparing to start this year will remain in place for the full term of their course. However, uncertainty about overall UK Government plans for Brexit are hampering future planning.

Scotland is also an active and valued partner in a large number of EU research collaborations and has secured significant funding from the EU as a result.  Scotland, as part of the UK, remains part of the European Union and so continues to be eligible to participate in EU funding programmes. We will ensure that the message is heard and understood that universities in Scotland remain committed to collaborating with our European partners and to attracting the best international talent.

We are determined to stand up for Scotland’s interests during the Brexit negotiations in which the Scottish Government will continue to play a full part. This clearly includes the interests of our world-class universities and research institutes. We will also continue to discuss with universities and students the impact of the referendum result and how we can all ensure Scotland’s universities remain attractive, competitive and diverse.

 

The numbers of students at Scotland’s colleges continues to drop. Does this concern you?

Over the last parliament colleges have exceeded 116,000 full-time equivalent places, just as they have done every year since 2011. We’ve put more emphasis on full-time courses leading to employment and we will continue this commitment focused on purposeful, job-focused learning. Alongside this commitment to full-time learning, it is important to remember that nearly two-thirds of the total enrolments at college are still on part-time FE courses.

With the number of 16 to 19 year olds projected to decrease in the next few years, increasing numbers of young people enrolling at university straight from school, the number of Modern Apprentices increasing, and with Scotland’s youth unemployment rate at historically low levels, it has never been clearer that college is one of many positive opportunities for Scotland’s young people.

 

Andy Hargreaves has said testing can cause “ill-being” in pupils. Doesn’t standardised testing then contradict the Curriculum for Excellence’s central focus on wellbeing, especially in the first stage?

We recognise the impact that anxiety about school work can have on children which is why health and wellbeing is a key priority of the Curriculum for Excellence. All adults working in schools are responsible for supporting and developing mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing to support successful learning and happy lives. 

The new Scottish national standardised assessments are not a return to high stakes testing – they will simply help check progress in literacy and numeracy, automatically generating information for teachers on where a pupil is doing well and where further support may be required. Teachers’ professional judgement remains the key measure of children’s progress.

 

What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?

As Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I’ve got to set a good example for Scotland’s school children. Therefore, I’m afraid that will need to remain a secret!

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