Teacher numbers and learning hours: Cabinet Secretary's statement

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Shirley-Anne Somerville's statement on teacher numbers and learning hours delivered to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday 7 February 2023.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.   

I am pleased to provide this statement to Parliament today, on our commitment to protect teacher and school support staff numbers, and the current number of learning hours for children, and the action we will take to deliver this.   

This government’s vision for education in Scotland remains to deliver excellence and equity for all.  These measures are critical to our aim, that is shared by local government, to raise attainment and substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026.  

As I reported two weeks ago, there are promising signs that the attainment gap is, once again, narrowing. 

But there is no room for complacency and there remains much work to do to support education recovery and accelerate progress in closing the attainment gap.  

I want to be clear that I understand the difficult budgetary choices local government faces.  These decisions are no less difficult for Ministers.  Time and again we have acted to ensure that local government receives a fair settlement.   

We are making very difficult choices to support vital services and it is essential that the funding allocated supports the outcomes it is intended for.   Presiding Officer, this Government has a clear commitment to improve Scottish education. Maintaining increased teacher numbers is fundamental to that.   

Before I go into detail, I want to place on record my thanks to our colleagues in local government for their dedication to the delivery of a first-class education for our children and young people. For example, we remain close to record levels of teacher numbers and our Pupil Teacher Ratio remains historically low at 13.2.  

Last year we witnessed the biggest single year decrease in the attainment gap in primary numeracy and literacy levels since records began (in 2016/17).   And 2022 exam results show pass rates for National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers increased to record levels for any exam year since current qualifications were introduced, whilst the gap between attainment levels in the least and most deprived areas has narrowed from the 2019 level. 

 To build on that,  we have agreed ambitious stretch aims with local government, which set out each Council’s own ambitions for their learners.   

For both overall attainment and in terms of closing the poverty-related attainment gap in literacy and numeracy in primary schools, the collective stretch aims of local authorities is for a six to seven percentage point improvement. If achieved, this would amount to the biggest two-year improvement recorded since the introduction of the Challenge.  

As we support this generation to recover from the disruption to their education caused by the pandemic, I am grateful for these sustained efforts, and I recognise the importance of strong partnership working between local government, central government and Education Scotland to achieve our ambitions. 

I wish also to address the current teacher pay dispute and the disruption being experienced by pupils, parents, carers and teachers across Scotland. And I wish to provide reassurance to my commitment to work with local government and teaching unions alike to reach a fair and sustainable settlement that is acceptable to all sides.

I also want to pay tribute to the dedication, commitment and hard work of our teachers and school support staff, and all those who work alongside them. Delivering positive outcomes, including raising attainment and closing the attainment gap, is a shared endeavour and one in which we are making positive progress 

A key element of continuing this positive progress is to ensure there is no reduction in the fundamentals of education delivery, including the number of teachers or support staff, and the amount of time children spend learning in schools.   

My immediate concern is the threat that the numbers of teachers and support staff may start to fall in the next financial year as a result of council budget decisions. I wish to avoid such an outcome.  

Local authorities have historically received funding every year to maintain pupil teacher ratio, teacher numbers and to provide places on the Teacher Induction Scheme for all probationers who need one. We also provide a further  £145.5m each year to fund teacher numbers and pupil support staff.  

Combined, this funding was made available and agreed with local authorities to deliver on three specific aims:

  • Maintaining teacher numbers at their current levels in the year ahead;
  • Maintaining the number of school support staff at their current levels in the year ahead; and
  • Continuing to ensure there are places available for probationer teachers who need them on the Teacher Induction Scheme.

In the year ahead, where these criterias are not met by a local authority, we will withhold or recoup funding that has been given to a local authority for these purposes.

 Now I know this decision may be welcomed by local government but I have a very clear commitment to improve Scottish education, which we are making good progress on, and I am firmly of the view that we will not do that by having fewer teachers or support staff, or less time in school. 

It is vital that we can maintain increased teacher numbers in the context of the difficult budgetary choices currently faced by both local government and the Scottish Government, while we work towards the delivery of our commitment to increase teacher numbers by 3,500 by the end of this Parliament. 

As I have said, I understand the financial pressures facing local authorities, and acknowledge that councils are wrestling with these decisions.

Councils have a range of responsibilities and inflationary impacts understandably mean difficult choices are having to be made. That is why the Scottish Government is committed to delivering fairness in the budget settlement for the next year and a new deal for local government in the longer term.

Ministers and COSLA leadership continue to discuss how our legitimate and important aim of maintaining teacher numbers can be delivered, while respecting local councils wider priorities, which we share. These discussions will continue as we finalise next year’s budget and beyond.

Finally, the current pupil week of around 25 hours for primary pupils and 27.5 hours for secondary pupils is well established.   

It is the backbone of our education provision and benefits all our children and young people.   

School not only provides the vital learning our children and young people need to succeed, but is also a safe and secure place that nurtures them.  

A reduction to the school week, as reported to be considered by some authorities in recent weeks, would be expected to materially reduce pupil attainment and wellbeing.   

That is why I will commence the provision in the Education (Scotland) Act 2016 which will enable Scottish Ministers to set the minimum number of learning hours in a school year.  Following thorough consultation, I will then bring forward regulations that will specify the minimum number of learning hours per annum and effectively provide a statutory basis for the pupil week.   

There is currently some limited variation in delivery across Scotland.  This has arisen for a range of reasons.  For example, the variation may relate to rural transport requirements, to meeting the needs of our youngest pupils or to ensuring older pupils can access flexible options as part of their senior phase.   

The regulation-making power also anticipates that there would need to be flexibility where pupils’ wellbeing requires it; and where, for example, matters are outwith the education authority or school’s control.     

This variation and the need for flexibility would be fully explored in a consultation and considered before regulations are laid.  These regulations will be subject to affirmative Parliamentary procedure.  

So in conclusion, Presiding Officer, I am committed to ensuring every child and young person in Scotland has the best opportunities through their education.  

I am determined that our efforts to accelerate progress on tackling the poverty related attainment gap will continue.  

The measures I have outlined today demonstrate this Government’s unyielding commitment to closing the attainment gap and making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. 

I will be writing to COSLA today, and each individual Council in the coming days, to set out the details on protecting teacher and support staff numbers, and next steps on learning hours.    

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