29 October 2014

S4M-11304 Addressing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Schools

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-11304, in the name of Liz Smith, on addressing the attainment gap in Scottish schools.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

The Conservatives say in their motion that they believe in “greater diversity in schools”. The Collins dictionary defines diversity as

“the relation ... between ... entities when ... numerically distinct”.

In other words, there must be a multiplicity of entities. In my constituency, in the Moray Council area, the future of schools in Findochty, Portknockie, Portessie, Cullen and Rothiemay, of Crossroads and Cluny schools and of schools nearby at Portgordon and Newmill is under review. Milne’s high school, which covers Fochabers and Mosstodloch, is under threat of closure.

The Tories also say in the motion that they believe in maximum choice. Are schools in Moray with good educational attainment being supported by what is proposed? No. They are threatened by proposals to merge, to close and to reduce the number of schools, thus reducing diversity and choice. The proposals will deliver not maximum choice but quite the opposite. They will not deliver greater diversity through reduced numbers.

Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I may come to Mary Scanlon later, because I will say things of considerable interest to her.

No educational case has been made for the changes that are proposed in Moray. Nor does the economic case stand any scrutiny. Many of the schools are below the 70 pupils level at which additional funding trips in. If the schools whose closure is proposed do close, Moray Council will sacrifice a seven-figure sum. The decision is not justified by diversity or by choice; it is highly unlikely to be justified on economic grounds.

More fundamentally, there is not a squeak, not a sound and not a word from the community in favour of such change. How do we know what the community thinks? On Saturday, the communities in Fochabers and Mosstodloch in my colleague Richard Lochhead’s constituency were on the march to save their local high school—Milne’s high school. It is an excellent high school, as are many of the schools that I have referred to, with good marks. We are not looking at closing failing schools; we are looking at schools with good education records.

Mary Scanlon rose—

Stewart Stevenson: Just wait, please.

We had a community energised in defence of its school—not quite unanimously, though. The local Conservative councillor, who is well known to Mary Scanlon, was not with the team in Fochabers and Mosstodloch. He was not standing shoulder to shoulder with his constituents; he was standing on the touchline at Easter Road as an assistant referee in the match between Hearts and Hibs. That is an important job and it is important that he gives support in that capacity, but on that day of all days, he should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with his constituents. I hope that in future he will do so. Does Mary Scanlon wish to comment?

Mary Scanlon: It is inappropriate to talk about a member of my staff who has a contract with the Scottish Football Association. I ask Stewart Stevenson, as the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, to reflect on his comments.

My granddaughter is a pupil at Mosstodloch school—I declare that interest.

The only proposals to close Milne’s are from Caledonia Consulting. I am sure that, as an SNP member, Stewart Stevenson will be aware that all the councillors in Moray Council will vote on Monday to determine whether that school is up for closure.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Hurry along, please.

Mary Scanlon: I am on the same page on attainment levels. I have a paragraph in my closing speech on Milne’s high and I agree very much with Stewart Stevenson on the attainment level there.

Stewart Stevenson: I am perhaps encouraged by what I have just heard, but it sounds as if we may be hearing an attempt to outsource the blame for something that the council initiated. However, if on Monday we get the result that the communities have been marching for, I will make common cause with anyone in any part of the chamber to express gratitude for it. I am glad to have given the issue an airing today in the hope that we may see progress on behalf of our communities.

In my remaining 50 seconds I will say a little about disadvantage and where it comes from. It comes from economic circumstances; it certainly does not come from children’s genetic circumstances when they are born. As a minister, I attended an event in Aberdeen in 2009 or 2010 at which I saw a film of a one-year-old child beating with music. From birth, children are affected by the environment, so having an economic environment in which we deny children the range of opportunities that they would get in wealthier environments is not a way forward. I ask the Tories to reflect on that and consider the effects on future generations of economic policies that are coming from Westminster.

I am happy to support the cabinet secretary’s amendment.


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