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Scotland’s Education Secretary said schools have made few major changes to improve ventilation in classrooms because councils “have been reassured that what is in place is adequate”.
Shirley-Anne Somerville told Holyrood’s Education Committee there has been “limited action” required to increase air flow in classrooms so far, and she was not aware of any cases where councils were unable to make improvements because of a lack of money.
It follows an announcement from Nicola Sturgeon of extra capital funding for “any remedial work that councils need to do to improve air flow and comply with the new guidance”.
The latest Scottish Government guidance recommends teachers rely primarily on opening external doors and windows for fresh air but should “balance requirements for ventilation with internal temperatures and conditions” during the winter.
There's been a limited action because local authorities have been reassured that what is in place is adequate for what needs to happen
Shirley-Anne Somerville, Education Secretary
Ms Somerville told the committee: “The action that has been taken by local authorities is what local authorities have deemed necessary to deal with the challenges.
“So there’s been a limited action because local authorities have been reassured that what is in place is adequate for what needs to happen and I am not aware of any local authority that has been held back from any action because of a limitation of funds.”
Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, Michael Marra, reiterated the party’s calls for £30 million to provide two high-efficiency particulate absorbing (Hepa) filters in every classroom.
Ms Somerville insisted the £5 million fund announced by the First Minister on Tuesday could be used in any way councils wanted – including air filters “if they were identified as the only appropriate solution for particular spaces”.
The Education Sec denied that active ventilation in schools was needed. Today we have a token £5m announced for air purifiers.
So far paint has been chipped off a few windows.
A real programme would fit two air filters in each class. The SNP/Greens voted against it.
— Michael Marra MSP (@michaeljmarra) January 11, 2022
“It will help support any remedial action that is required,” Ms Somerville said, while she stressed that scientific guidance indicated natural ventilation should be the priority.
She added: “From the feedback we’re getting from local authorities, a very small amount of remedial action has been required for a small minority of spaces, but what I wanted to ensure is that funding was not a blockage to this.”
During the evidence session, Scottish Conservative MSP, Oliver Mundell, challenged the minister over whether the Scottish Government would be providing money to help ensure exams could go ahead later in the year, suggesting that community halls could be hired out and more invigilators recruited to enable greater social distancing.
Ms Somerville refused to answer whether any additional funding was available, and said the Government was working on the assumption exams would go ahead, with the existing budget to cover that.
She added: “The only reason that exams will not take place is because of public health guidance around the prevention of gatherings.
The £5m of funding announced for air filters yesterday isn't the reality
The difference between the First Minister, and the Cabinet Secretary under questioning from me minutes ago is astonishing
Teachers are at their wits end with this situation
— Michael Marra MSP (@michaeljmarra) January 12, 2022
“So clearly, if that happens, then I think it would be irresponsible for the Government to say exams should take place if there’s public health advice saying gatherings shouldn’t happen.
“What the SQA (Scottish Qualification Authority) is continuing to work on is an insurance that exams can take place safely and they will continue to do that.”
Ms Somerville said there were ongoing discussions about additional revision during the Easter holiday, but added: “The reason why I’ve not made an announcement on that to date is because we need to know what the local authorities will be doing to make sure that what we are doing is in addition to what already happens.”
Ms Somerville also bemoaned opposition MSPs asking for more spending on education, calling for them to specify where the funding should come from.
It follows Budget analysis from the independent Scottish Parliament Information Centre (Spice) that there has been a £268 million cut to local authority core budgets.
The Edu CabSec should be spitting mad about ScotGov's £100M cut to school budgets. I'm angry, so are many of my colleagues in other parties. It's the minister's job to defend the school budget but she won't even acknowledge the situation, pupils and staff have been badly let down pic.twitter.com/VkgdXcqWnh
— Willie Rennie (@willie_rennie) January 12, 2022
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, Willie Rennie, said the cut amounted to approximately £100 million less for education spending, although Ms Somerville claimed to not “”recognise or accept” the figure.
She said: “I would put it to Mr Rennie that if he wishes to see more money going into local government or elsewhere, I’m sure he will tell me, or perhaps Kate Forbes later on in the budget process, where that money should be cut from to allow that to happen.”
Mr Rennie retorted: “I might have to, because it’s quite clear that the Cabinet Secretary is not going to make any efforts to argue for more funding for school core budgets.
“It’s your job to stand up for education and you’re not making that case.
“Why on earth are you sitting here today complacently accepting the fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance is effectively cutting £100 million from your core budget?
“It’s undermining the work that you’re doing, why are you not making the case for this?”
Ms Somerville added: “I think the Government overall has a fair settlement for education and for local government.”