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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 13 January 2021

Agenda: Business Motion, Vaccination Plan, Covid-19 Education Update, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Covid-19 Education Update

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney, who will provide a Covid-19 update on schools and remote learning arrangements. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Scottish education is today focused on ensuring that our children receive the high-quality learning to which they are entitled despite the current challenging circumstances. In my statement, I will set out what remote learning means for young people, teachers and parents, what our young people are entitled to expect, and the measures that are being put in place to make sure that they receive that support.

As we consider the educational provision that is available, it is vital that we acknowledge the importance of ensuring that our children’s health and wellbeing is supported during the pandemic. That has been a fundamental priority of the education system since schools returned in August, and it will remain a fundamental priority during this period of remote learning. Children can learn well only if they feel well.

At the outset, I reiterate my firm view that the best place for young people to learn is in school. We are doing everything that we can to allow them to return safely as soon as possible but, in the meantime, their learning must be sustained and as rich and rewarding as possible.

Remote learning is learning that is directed by teachers and undertaken by young people who are not physically with the teacher while instruction is taking place. Remote learning will not replicate in-school teaching in style, approach or hours of delivery, but what constituted high-quality learning, teaching and assessment prior to the pandemic is what constitutes high-quality learning, teaching and assessment now. It remains the responsibility of Scotland’s dedicated teaching professionals to plan, organise and deliver that learning. I know that our teachers are deploying their professional skills and are rising to the challenges that have been posed by the current situation.

Remote learning involves a combination of live interactions between teachers and learners, and learning that takes place away from the direct presence of the teacher. Online learning is important, but it is not the only aspect. Education Scotland has published guidance explaining the definition and principles that govern remote learning, together with clarity on what young people and their families are entitled to expect while it is not possible for all pupils to be in school.

Remote learning activities will offer pupils opportunities to develop and progress, to be assessed and receive feedback, to engage with age and stage-appropriate activities and to receive opportunities that account for additional needs, disadvantage or vulnerability. Good communication between home and school is fundamental to ensuring a shared understanding of the approach and of everyone’s responsibilities.

Young people should have access to appropriate physical resources where needed—examples might include learning materials or digital devices. They are entitled to access high-quality, interactive remote learning and teaching using technology or other methods, with an appropriate balance of live learning and independent activity, and on-going dialogue with teachers. The available support includes access to online resources to aid interaction, assessment and feedback. Each learner is entitled to a daily check-in that is appropriate to age, stage and need, and they will have regular opportunities for engagement with other pupils.

All of that must, as ever, be underpinned by due regard for young people’s wellbeing and safeguarding. It is right that schools and teachers make the appropriate decisions for the young people they know while delivering the entitlements that are set out in guidance to ensure that everyone receives a consistently high-quality experience.

I will now outline the resources that have been developed for remote learning and teaching. We have significantly enhanced the national e-learning offer by growing the provision for live remote learning, recorded lessons and supported learning.

The expanded offer includes e-Sgoil, which currently encompasses 27 courses ranging from national 5 to advanced higher, including live webinar lessons for advanced higher pupils. It includes a bank of online recorded lessons and 14,000 items of supported online learning and teaching materials, including resources for teachers to use in planning and delivery.

Access to that work is made possible for learners across Scotland through the Glow platform—our national online learning environment. Indeed, our commitment to Glow over many years demonstrates Scotland’s long recognition that digital technology can enhance learning and teaching. Other parts of the United Kingdom have sought to learn from our experiences in the field of online learning. Through their local authority Glow login, every learner and teacher in Scotland has access to a comprehensive range of digital tools, including Microsoft Office 365 and Google Classroom.

I can confirm that the problems that were experienced by some schools with Microsoft Teams on Monday have been resolved by Microsoft and the service is now operating as expected. Those problems were not related to Glow; they were experienced by Microsoft users across the UK and parts of Europe. We continue to work with Microsoft to keep the service under constant review.

In November 2020, more than 420,000 users logged on to Glow more than 7.6 million times, compared with approximately 260,000 users logging on to the platform around 3.7 million times during the same month in 2019.

After the last period of school building closures, we commissioned an equity audit, which was published today, to better understand the impact on children’s learning, health and wellbeing, particularly those experiencing disadvantage. The equity audit provides important evidence to help us target mitigations effectively during this period of remote learning.

We have taken action to ensure that disadvantaged children and young people have access to the devices and connectivity that are needed to engage in education. The £25 million that was provided in the summer will deliver well over 70,000 devices for learners across Scotland. By the end of December 2020, almost 59,000 devices had been distributed and connectivity had been provided to more than 10,000 learners, with more dispatched since then.

In many households, families will not have a dedicated device for each learner. To ensure that families have flexibility, Glow can already be accessed on digital devices with modern browsers, and many elements can be accessed on consoles such as Xbox or PlayStation.

The BBC Scotland television channel is providing content that is benchmarked to Scotland’s curriculum starting this week. Education Scotland and the BBC are working to make it easy for teachers, learners and parents to navigate what is available and understand how it aligns with wider learning.

For all learners—particularly the very youngest children—some of the best learning already takes place through play in the home with parents or carers. I am mindful that working parents of very young children are finding it particularly difficult to balance childcare and work at the moment. Resources are available via the Parent Club website to support parents in engaging children of all ages in meaningful activities.

Teachers need support to feel confident that they can do the best for their students, and Education Scotland continues to provide a range of professional learning on digital learning and teaching via the website.

I am conscious of the impact that the move to home learning will have for learners who are studying for national qualifications. On 8 December, I confirmed the cancellation of higher and advanced higher exams in addition to national 5 exams. I also confirmed that an alternative model for certification that was based on learner evidence and subject to quality assurance would be developed to deliver credible and fair results.

Communications were issued yesterday by the national qualifications 2021 group that set out the priorities that schools and learners should focus on now—essentially, learning and teaching—while consideration is given to the implications of the move to remote learning and the length of time the arrangements will be in place for the new assessment model. I discussed that with the chief examining officer yesterday, and the education recovery group will consider it in more detail tomorrow.

Everything that I have set out on principles and entitlements is published online for all to refer to. We have worked with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to write to every registered teacher to make certain that everyone who delivers education is clear about our remote learning expectations and the resources that are available. Last Friday, I spoke with around 800 headteachers to discuss our expectations, and I will continue to engage directly with teachers as we deliver remote learning.

I know that schools are already doing their utmost for their pupils. They have responsibility for the quality of the education that they provide and for ensuring continuous improvement. They will improve their offers and reflect on their experiences and on the feedback from parents and learners.

Local authorities have statutory responsibility for ensuring the quality of education that is provided by their schools, including remote learning. That is emphasised in the educational continuity direction that was issued on Friday, which states:

“Each education authority is required to provide education by way of remote learning to pupils who normally attend schools ... under the management of the education authority from 11 to 29 January 2021.”

Education Scotland has already gathered evidence on our system’s readiness for remote learning, including by reviewing local authority plans for blended learning in the summer.

I can announce today that the quality and effectiveness of remote learning across the country will be reviewed by Her Majesty’s inspectors of education. A programme of national overviews will commence immediately and will last for the duration of remote learning. They will evaluate what is working well and where further improvement is required, based on information that is collected from varied sources, including engagement with schools and local authorities. This week, Her Majesty’s inspectors of education are evaluating the first focus area, which is local authority planning and guidance on remote learning. Those overviews will be published weekly, and the first report will be published on Friday 22 January.

Schools are, rightly, deeply focused on delivering quality remote education now. We will make sure that those reviews do not distract or burden them while providing important assurance to parents and ensuring further improvement in the remote learning offer where needed.

I appreciate only too well the additional burden that home learning is placing on many of our children and their families, and I know that the best place for our children is in their schools, with their teachers and their friends. Schools remain open for the most vulnerable children, as identified by teachers. For children of key workers who have no viable alternatives, schools are open on an exceptional basis. However, to ensure that we reduce the interactions around schools and therefore contribute to the of the virus, we have to keep the numbers of key worker children to the absolute minimum required. We need employers to support employees in taking up in-school learning only where there is no alternative, only on the days on which they need it and for the minimum amount of time.

More childcare options exist during this lockdown. Childminders remain open, and informal childcare is an option for some families. We have set out three categories of key workers to support local authorities in keeping numbers to a minimum. I am aware that remaining open for very small numbers of children creates pressure for some childcare providers. I can therefore confirm that we will make available temporary financial support of up to £3.8 million for each four-week period of restrictions to providers of day care of children that are open during the restrictions. We will confirm those details shortly, and we are considering further support to childminders.

Against that background, I know that many families are struggling and that we need to make sure that they get the support that they need. I can also announce today a package of £45 million of new funding to allow local authorities to deploy more support to their schools and families. The money will allow local authorities to prioritise the purchase of additional devices for children who still need them, recruit additional staff and provide support to parents and families to engage with home learning. That responds to the First Minister’s commitment to members last week. Local authorities will have flexibility to use their allocation within parameters, including those elements. That money is additional to the £160 million that I have already committed for education recovery since the start of the pandemic.

The funding is sufficient in principle to support the recruitment of an additional 2,000 teaching staff up until the end of the financial year. However, local authorities have the option to use it for other vital staffing needs, including classroom assistants, administrative staff to support contact tracing, and facilities management staff. Since the start of the pandemic, our additional funding has led to an additional 1,400 teachers and more than 200 support staff being appointed.

My messages to learners, teachers and parents are as follows. My message to learners, for whom this school year is like no other, is that we will ensure that you receive the support that you need just now. I am committed to keeping the voice of young people central, as we navigate the current challenges, through the Scottish Youth Parliament and our new youth education recovery group.

My message to teachers is that I am deeply grateful for the work that you have done to make remote learning work. Please to access the advice, support and professional learning options through Education Scotland, your regional improvement collaborative, your local authority and your school.

My message to parents is to reiterate that you are not expected to be teachers. Your child’s school is here for you now and will be here for you when schools return.

I do not want the current situation to continue any longer than it must in order to allow us to arrest the spread of this terrible virus. We have committed to a fortnightly review process, with the aim of maximising the numbers receiving in-person learning, provided that it is safe to do so. The Cabinet will consider the output from that first review on Tuesday and we will communicate our decision thereafter.

As the First Minister has made clear, this is not a simple choice between opening and closing schools; if the evidence tells us that we can get some pupils back safely, we will maximise the numbers who are able to benefit. We will ensure that all appropriate mitigations are in place to support a safe return, which includes exploring the role that enhanced testing of school staff could play. Pilots of two different models—one using in-school testing with lateral flow devices and another involving at-home testing using polymerase chain reaction tests—are planned to begin in a number of schools from next week.

While this situation lasts, I am determined to ensure that we deliver remote learning well across all local authorities and schools. I am also determined to make sure that the interventions that we put in place are positive additions to the education system of the future, as remote learning offers opportunities like the chance to diversify subject choices, support rural communities and provide a robust offer for children whose schooling has been interrupted.

The virus will be beaten and schools will return fully to intensify our efforts to achieve excellence and equity for all of Scotland’s children.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you. The cabinet secretary will now take questions on his statement. We must conclude around 12.30 for First Minister’s question time, so I ask members for succinct questions.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

Conservative members, too, thank everyone in education who is delivering learning and childcare in these difficult circumstances. The move to remote learning has added to the pressures on teachers, on working parents and, more important, on young people. The move has been the Government’s contingency plan—its plan B—for quite some time, so why, 10 months into the pandemic, are there still so many uncertainties, such as about why access to meaningful remote learning has become a postcode lottery and whether teachers are supposed to give live lessons? In addition, many questions still remain about this year’s qualifications model.

I therefore have some direct questions for the Deputy First Minister. Why are young people being asked to use games consoles to access learning? Why does not every pupil who needs a device to learn on have one? When will the additional funding that has been announced today actually hit the pockets of local authorities so that they can put new staff in place, given that we are already halfway through January?

When will we finally see the full detail of and guidance on the alternative certification model? Many people are still completely in the dark about the plans.

Finally, will the Government commit to doing what we are calling for, which is to double financial support for online learning if schools remain closed beyond the end of January?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was a lot of questions, cabinet secretary, but please be succinct in your response.

John Swinney

I do not accept that characterisation by Jamie Greene. He does a disservice to education professionals the length and breadth of the country who are, at this moment, working really hard to deliver remote learning and to give live lessons and have live interactions with pupils. That is all going on today and has been going on all this week.

On the specifics, I recounted that we did a data collection exercise that identified that 70,000 young people who needed devices were without them. We have put in place the resources that have enabled 70,000 devices and connectivity packages to be put in place, and I have put new money on the table today for local authorities to fill any gaps that they still face. I have committed that money, so local authorities know that it is coming to them and can commit to the expenditure that is required.

All the detail on the alternative certification model has been published. What the national qualifications group is wrestling with is the implications of the move to remote learning that was announced a week ago. All the detail was published before that, so the group is simply responding to the changes that were announced just a week ago. The group is taking care to consult the education system, as the Priestley review asked it to do, and it is doing that very well and to my satisfaction. Details were published yesterday on the steps that have been taken, and further details will be published shortly.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. It is clear that teachers in difficult circumstances have worked hard over recent months in preparation for a sudden shift to remote learning and that they were ready with materials and programmes for their pupils to continue learning at home.

However, many will feel that they have been let down by the national platforms on which they thought they could rely—most notably through a widespread software failure. There have also been problems with the flagship e-Sgoil platform. One headteacher told me that pupils logging in did not get the licence that was advertised, that links have not worked and that, in any case, most subjects are still not covered.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority then lived down to expectations by publishing an assessment update on its update, promising another update to come. It is still looking for two to four assessments to be done, and is even suggesting that teachers might invigilate them remotely using—I presume—the information technology that was not working at that point.

Why did Education Scotland not fully stress test well in advance the IT that it was recommending for schools? Is the e-Sgoil offer fixed today? Will it be extended to all subjects? Is not it time to accept that trusting teacher assessments is the only viable alternative to exams, in the current circumstances? We need to give teachers, pupils and parents clarity now.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind members who are frowning that front-bench spokespeople have a given amount of time to ask their questions—so you can cheer up, Mr Coffey.

John Swinney

I welcome Iain Gray’s recognition of the good work that teachers have done. They have made a superb effort in order to be ready for the circumstances in which we are. I appreciate his acknowledgement of that, and I deprecate the Conservatives, who are unable to reflect that.

On IT, the Glow Connect system accesses Teams, which is delivered by Microsoft—it is the product supplier that delivers the platform on which Glow Connect is based. We look to Microsoft to fulfil its obligation, as the technology provider, to ensure that that is in place.

On Monday, there was a widespread problem that was not unique to Glow Connect—it affected a wide range of organisations that use Microsoft Teams. I suspect that it was probably to do with so many people accessing Microsoft Teams at one time. Microsoft has addressed the issues to our satisfaction—the system operated well yesterday and I am informed that it is working well today.

In relation to the national e-learning offer, there are more than 500 recorded lessons available, and e-Sgoil is providing coverage across a range of courses.

Finally, on assessment, teacher estimates will underpin the alternative certification model. It has been agreed with the national qualifications group that a number of different elements of in-school assessments will form that teacher judgment. The model was put in place prior to the move to remote learning. The national qualifications group—which is, I stress, led by the SQA, and is representative of and involves a range of interested parties, including our professional associations—is looking at how the move to remote learning affects delivery of the alternative certification model. I am keen to give the system some time, so that the implications of the issues can be thought through and for those to be communicated directly, which will be done in short order.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have 20 minutes, and 14 members want to ask questions. You do the arithmetic—it is important that you do so, given that the statement was on education.

I will take Claire Adamson, to be followed by Oliver Mundell. I ask for succinct questions, please.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

We know that many parents and carers are concerned for young people. Although schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, there are pupils with additional support needs who are, for whatever reason, not attending school. What support will be available to them to ensure that they are not disadvantaged while they are unable to attend school and are working from home?

John Swinney

It is important that schools make individual judgments about the needs of pupils who have additional support needs. For some of those young people it can be argued that they should be in school, but others might be better supported at home.

Individual judgments are made by schools. I discussed the issue extensively with headteachers on Friday. I spoke to a number of headteachers of special schools who are making such judgments, who made precisely the point that some young people are better supported at home, in an environment in which their learning and support can be delivered, tailored very much to the needs of each individual pupil. I hope that that gives Clare Adamson the reassurance that she seeks.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Is it acceptable that some parents in my constituency are reporting that their children are being offered no live element of home learning? What is the cabinet secretary doing to make sure that there is consistency across the country?

John Swinney

I set out in my statement that guidance has been issued by Education Scotland on the expectations on remote learning. That guidance was published on Friday and has been communicated to every teacher in the country by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

Education Scotland inspectors will review delivery of remote learning around the country to assess the degree to which expectations are being fulfilled, and we will work with local authorities through the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to ensure that schools in all circumstances are delivering what we expect in remote learning.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Remote learning is key to ensuring that pupils continue their education. Can the Deputy First Minister confirm the minimum number of remote-learning hours that pupils will receive each week? Are enough supply teachers trained to deliver remote learning if they are required in the event of teacher illness? How will pupils with additional support needs be supported to learn remotely?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was three questions.

John Swinney

As I said in my answer to Mr Mundell, guidance has been published on the expectations on remote learning, which will be a mixture of direct live lessons and other learning tasks that can be carried out independently by pupils, as would be the case in school.

The needs of pupils with additional support needs will be assessed individually by schools, and appropriate delivery mechanisms will be put in place to support those young people.

Finally, because of remote learning, staff who are, for example, self-isolating and who would not ordinarily be able to attend school, will still be able to teach from home, provided that they are well. I am confident, particularly given the investment that the Government has made in additional teaching staff, that we have in place enough teaching staff to deliver the learning that is expected.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I will ask the cabinet secretary about the national qualifications group. The document on teacher assessment for national awards was published in October, and assumed a high degree of classroom learning. Teachers will, I presume, be expected to submit their estimates and other evidence in the coming weeks. When, therefore, will the revised guidance be published by the national qualifications group and/or the SQA?

John Swinney

It is important to stress that the guidance will be published by the national qualifications group and not exclusively by the SQA. The SQA is working collaboratively with professional associations, directors of education in local authorities and Colleges Scotland to make sure that we have system-wide buy-in to the approach that we take. I expect that guidance to be published very shortly, but it is dependent on the time for which remote learning will have to operate. As I have said, I want to keep that to a minimum.

The guidance will be published shortly in order that the system is clear about expectations on assessment. The key point in the guidance that was issued yesterday was that the system should focus on learning and teaching at this time, because it will be possible to fully deploy certification only if all the learning and teaching for qualifications have been completed during the year. I encourage schools to concentrate on delivery of learning and teaching. Assessment issues, for example, which might involve changes to the timetable for submission of estimates, will be clarified by the national qualifications group.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

On the issue of key workers, I have been contacted by some parents in my constituency who are a bit confused about the position that is being adopted by Fife Council. Although I understand that the specific definition of “key workers” is a matter for local authorities, can the Deputy First Minister say whether anything can be done to ensure greater clarity and transparency, so that parents know exactly where they stand as far as in-school and nursery education provision is concerned?

John Swinney

We have set out three categories of key workers. Category 1 includes, essentially, health and social care workers who are critically important to the Covid emergency; category 2 includes wider emergency staffing across a range of sectors; and category 3 includes a group of workers who are critical to the functioning of the Scottish economy.

We have left flexibility for local authorities to interpret that guidance and to apply it more specifically because, in some parts of the country, there are different factors to consider. For example, a part of the country that is more dependent on food processing for the Scottish economy will have greater considerations in that respect.

There is flexibility for local authorities, but the key point that I have to make in response to Annabelle Ewing’s question is that we must keep to a minimum the number of key worker children who present at school, because only by that mechanism can we contribute to the national effort to reduce human interaction and therefore stop the circulation of the virus. We have to keep those numbers to an absolute minimum in the steps that we take.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

What discussions has the cabinet secretary or Education Scotland had with BBC Scotland and other television channels about additional support for pupils whose first language is not English and who are, obviously, under considerable pressure during this pandemic?

John Swinney

There has been good discussion between Education Scotland and BBC Scotland, and I spoke to the director of BBC Scotland about all of those issues last week.

Specific measures will be put in place by individual schools to ensure that the learning of young people who do not have English as their first language is supported. Obviously, schools know those pupils well, and that work must be finely targeted. That is a big challenge for our schools, because a broad range of languages is spoken in them, as Liz Smith knows. Fundamentally, the responsibility to establish that dialogue will be a school-based one.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Families’ lives and livelihoods revolve around their childcare arrangements. The Government cannot simply gamble on employers being understanding and flexible, so there needs to be a robust system. Families need to make safe arrangements without putting themselves at risk or sacrificing their careers, and, of course, those decisions will impact women the most. What should families without a childcare place or an informal option do?

John Swinney

We are in quite exceptional circumstances just now, and I am afraid that we have to ask employers to work with us in this respect. We have put into law a requirement for people to stay at home unless they have a reasonable justification for leaving home—that is now the law of Scotland. We do that not because we are keen to do that but because we have to do that, and we have to have employers working with us and supporting us in enabling employees to stay at home in order to minimise the number of children who are in school, so that we can reduce the human interaction in our society and reduce the spread of the virus. I am afraid that those are the hard consequences of trying to tackle Covid.

We are putting in place as much flexibility as we can around the provision of childcare. There is more in place than was the case last March, but we have to be robust in ensuring that we reduce the level of human interaction in our society or the virus will overwhelm our national health service.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

I am delighted to hear of the considerable efforts that are being made by my former colleagues in Education Scotland to support learning and teaching at this time.

In relation to online learning, is the Deputy First Minister able to provide an update on the Scottish Government guidance that will be published requiring daily interaction with young people in a live-learning context, which he mentioned in his answer to me at last week’s meeting of the COVID-19 Committee?

John Swinney

Education Scotland published that detail on Friday and, as I indicated in one of my earlier answers, directly communicated it to all members of the General Teaching Council for Scotland. The communication links directly to a helpful page on the Education Scotland website that relates all the guidance and sources of remote learning materials, which is a convenient and helpful way of presenting information to members of the teaching profession.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Some special schools are operating as normal, having designated all pupils as vulnerable. The complex needs of their pupils might justify that decision, but a number of teachers and staff have contacted me with concerns for their health as a result, because it is impossible to socially distance in a special school setting when teachers also fulfil a personal care role, similar to that of a care worker. Are staff in the unique setting of special schools being considered for priority access to vaccinations?

John Swinney

The point that Mr Greer makes about some staff—it will not be all—who attend to the personal care needs of young people in special schools raises significant issues about whether those staff members are part of the education workforce or the health and social care workforce. The fact that staff deliver their work in a school setting should not determine whether they are school or health and social care staff—their functions might be those of the latter—so we are actively exploring that issue at the moment.

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I appreciate that the cabinet secretary is making temporary financial support available to the providers of day care for children. He says that he is considering further support to childminders. When will that support be available for them?

John Swinney

We are looking directly at our approach to that. As Alison Harris appreciates, some childminders might be able to operate in the present environment almost on the same basis as they would operate normally. We have to ensure that our approach directly supports individuals in the fashion that all our business support is designed to do, so that individuals or businesses can make it to the other side of the pandemic—if I can put it as colloquially as that. We have to consider the approach with care, because some childminders might be able to operate almost normally. We will come to those conclusions as early as possible, because I am anxious to ensure that there is no uncertainty for childminders in this process.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I want to follow on from Ross Greer’s question and ask about the definition of vulnerability. In the first lockdown, a hub model was operated with restricted attendance. This time, the guidance is resulting in the widespread reopening of additional support needs settings and departments of additional support, which is putting staff and pupils at increased risk. Will the cabinet secretary review the criteria to encourage and support restricted attendance and blended learning?

John Swinney

There is a judgment to be made by schools—particularly special schools and those that support young people with additional support needs—as to whether it would be better for a young person to be educated in school or supported at home. Schools are making those judgments.

We will be looking carefully at the data that emerges about the number of pupils who are presenting at schools. I have to be mindful of the number of pupils and staff who are in our schools, because if we do not reduce it, moving to a remote learning platform will not benefit the wider suppression of the virus in Scotland.

I am looking at that data daily, but it is early days for me to see any patterns in it. I will update Parliament on whether we need to take any other action in that respect, to ensure that we reduce the numbers of young people and staff in our schools.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

It seems that there have been problems in England with the free school meal parcels that children have been getting if they are not in the school building, and there has been an apology from the supplier. Can the Deputy First Minister assure us that low-income families in Scotland are getting sufficient nutritious food?

John Swinney

The overwhelming majority of local authorities in Scotland have decided to offer families not food parcels, but direct financial support. If my recollection is correct, all local authorities but one now offer families vouchers or cash payments to enable them to choose how to utilise their resources.

A key point that underpins the Scottish Government’s policies on family support is the recognition that direct financial assistance and control for families is one of the strongest mechanisms that can be deployed to tackle poverty and ensure that families can make their own judgments.

I hope that that addresses Mr Mason’s point. The quality of support is essential to ensure that children are supported with nutritious food at this time.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On Monday, I asked families that did not have a computer or broadband access to enable children to take part in online learning to get in touch with me and detail their problems. Within 24 hours, 100 families had made contact, which is very worrying. If 100 families contacted me as a result of a single social media post, in the limited area that my social media account reaches, what is the situation across the country with regard to families who cannot access online learning? What is the Government doing to quantify and address the issue?

John Swinney

We did a data collection exercise last year with local authorities, which identified that 70,000 young people needed devices or connectivity packages to help them to access learning. The Government put in place resources, through either the direct provision of Chromebooks or direct funding to local authorities, that enabled needs to be met in approximately 70,000 cases.

I accept that it is a moving picture, and that other cases may emerge. That is why I have, today, put more resources on the table to support local authorities in that endeavour, should families experience circumstances of the type that Mr Findlay has raised with me today.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Is the Deputy First Minister able to provide an update on the discussions that are taking place with local authorities and teaching unions on the testing pilot for school staff, so that those who work in our schools feel reassured about returning to work when it is safe for them to do so?

John Swinney

I think that I heard the core point of Dr Allan’s question, which was on testing arrangements in schools. A number of pilot studies are now under way and will be commencing next week.

In addition, teaching staff have available to them the facility to request at any time, through their employer, a polymerase chain reaction test if they are concerned about the virus. They do not need to be symptomatic—they can secure a test at any time should they wish to have one. That facility is not available to many groups of employees, but it is available to members of teaching staff. We are working to build that testing capacity to enable us to be confident about a return to face-to-face learning.

Of course, the best way for us to secure a return to face-to-face learning is through a massive reduction in the prevalence of the coronavirus in our communities. That is the most assured route by which we will see a return to face-to-face learning, which is why it is important that everybody complies with the measures that the Government has put in place, which merit compliance, to ensure that we reduce the prevalence of the virus and get young people back into schools.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. I thank the cabinet secretary and members, as everyone managed to get their question in.