John Swinney SNP Cabinet: The challenging in-tray on education, health, transport, and arts and culture

A series of decisions must be announced in next few weeks to end education’s paralysis

John Swinney has unveiled his Cabinet – and despite containing a swathe of familiar faces on the same briefs, some of the challenges that face ministers will take on a new perspective under Scotland’s seventh First Minister.

Here our specialist correspondents Calum Ross, Joseph Anderson, Alastair Dalton and Brian Ferguson take a look at the in-trays on the key portfolios of education, health, transport, and arts and culture.

In-tray: Education

Newly appointed First Minister John Swinney (bottom, centre-right) and Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes (bottom, centre-left pose for a photo with their new Cabinet. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Newly appointed First Minister John Swinney (bottom, centre-right) and Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes (bottom, centre-left pose for a photo with their new Cabinet. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Newly appointed First Minister John Swinney (bottom, centre-right) and Deputy First Minister Kate Forbes (bottom, centre-left pose for a photo with their new Cabinet. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

By Calum Ross

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Jenny Gilruth’s top priority, now she has been reappointed Cabinet secretary for education and skills, must be to end the paralysis gripping Scottish education.

The impasse has seemingly been caused, in part, by the dozens of recommendations on the future of schools, colleges and universities that have been made in a series of reports, some of which were commissioned by Mr Swinney, the new First Minister, in his time as education secretary.

Decisions on these recommendations – on the likes of overhauling school qualifications and the way skills are delivered – were previously pushed back by Ms Gilruth, as was legislation on replacing the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland.

She said she wanted the time to “knit together a narrative linking” the “plethora of different reports”, while she has also indicated she did not want to foist change on schools and education bodies while they were still dealing with the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, including rising school violence and falling pupil attendance.

At the same time, concerns have been growing about the future of both the university and college sectors, in the wake of ongoing budget cuts.

Ms Gilruth has spoken of the need to prioritise tight resources towards early years and younger generations, but also has to defend a £900 million annual spend on free university tuition. The debate over the funding of further and higher education will continue. However, a series of key decisions are required in the next few weeks, focused on schools.

Ms Gilruth was already due to unveil details of the successors to the SQA and Education Scotland before the end of June.

She was also expected to give her response to the Hayward review on the future of exams and assessments, as well as producing an action plan to tackle school violence.

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The Cabinet secretary was always well placed to keep her job, because a change at the top could have led to further delays to these pieces of work, which would have been exasperating for everyone who has been left in limbo as they awaited decisions.

Now she has been reappointed, Ms Gilruth must finally show the narrative she has been knitting, and start delivering it as a matter of urgency.

In-tray: Health

By Joseph Anderson

Incumbent health secretary Neil Gray faces an overflowing in-tray of problems, grievances and impending crises – but what are the priorities they must tackle first?

Bluntly, Scotland’s biggest problem can’t really be fixed – the health secretary can’t make Scotland young again. Scotland’s population is skewing towards old. There are now far more people over 65 than under 15.

With a 22.5 per cent increase in over-65s since 2011, Scotland’s tax-paying population is struggling to properly fund the healthcare of more economically-inactive older people.

While older people have been paying tax their entire lives before retirement, the majority of people have taken more from the state than they have paid in – only the top 40 per cent of tax payers in the UK are net contributors.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the older generations had at least replaced themselves, but falling birth rates have left Scotland with fewer young people to pay for the care of older people. Secondly, NHS Scotland is buckling under an increasingly desperate recruitment and retention crisis.

There are limited care placements due to staffing shortages, so vulnerable patients cannot be discharged from wards. Care workers can earn more and work in a much less demanding environment, such as in supermarkets, and are leaving in their droves.

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The hospital wards themselves are staffed by a minimal number of exhausted, overworked and, in their opinion, underpaid staff. There are around 5,000 nursing vacancies in Scotland. The vulnerable patients who are fit enough to leave have nowhere to go.

The pressure in hospital wards is in turn causing congestion in A&E, where patients cannot be admitted to hospital beds that do not exist. Here too, staff are burned out and looking for the exit.

People are dying needlessly in overcrowded emergency departments. Public Health Scotland (PHS) figures show that in 2023, 117,741 show patients waited over eight hours in Scotland’s A&E departments, despite a maximum of four hours being the standard set by the Scottish Government.

Scotland’s NHS is on life support – and the health minister has an unenviable task ahead of them.

In-tray: Transport

By Alastair Dalton

The transport sector will have heaved a huge sigh of relief that Fiona Hyslop will continue as transport secretary – and they won’t have to start again with a new minister at the helm.

Ferries have loomed large among her responsibilities since becoming transport minister in June last year before being promoted to Cabinet rank in February. Finally getting the first of two hugely-delayed CalMac vessels in service will be a significant political milestone.

But the pressure to have Glen Sannox carrying passengers, now expected in October, could yet build further if more ships in the Scottish Government-owned operator’s ageing fleet develop faults over the busy summer period.

Ms Hyslop will also have to decide on the fate of CalMac’s itself – whether to award the UK’s biggest ferry firm a new contract when the existing one runs out this autumn. However, an even more pressing decision will be over the future of ScotRail’s peak fares suspension pilot, which finishes at the end of next month.

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Ms Hyslop told The Scotsman in April she would like to extend it further if funding was available and the nine-month experiment persuaded people to switch from cars to trains.

Senior rail industry sources expect it to be continued, but the move costs the equivalent of £30m a year – money that other Scottish Government departments will look at enviously.

An update over Scottish Government-owned ScotRail phasing out its remaining diesel trains is awaited, with train drivers union Aslef agitating for early replacement of the 40-year-old high speed trains over safety concerns following the fatal derailment near Stonehaven in 2020.

The trains are due to be decommissioned by 2030 and ScotRail operating a zero-emission fleet by 2035, with the latter likely to be put back.

But perhaps Ms Hyslop’s biggest challenge will be setting out a credible path to achieving the Scottish Government’s ambitious target of reducing road traffic by 20 per cent by 2030, which is still awaited more than three years after it was announced.

Paradoxically, ministers’ revised commitment to completing dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2035 is likely to make this even more difficult – while also maintaining the project’s momentum after failing to complete the job by 2025.

In-tray: Arts and Culture

By Brian Ferguson

For those trying to balance the books and keep the lights on, Scotland’s arts scene has been in a state of crisis for four pretty bleak years now.

John Swinney’s decision to retain Angus Robertson as culture secretary may disappoint some who felt a new approach was needed to reset the Scottish Government’s frayed relations with the culture sector.

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But there is a strong argument that the last thing the troubled industry needed was any more unnecessary upheaval.

Stability is a long-forgotten concept for most arts organisations as costs have risen while funding has remained standstill, with many workers moving on for better pay and conditions.

The next few months are the most crucial period for the cultural sector for six years, when Creative Scotland last announced a long-term funding programme.

Its next round, delayed by several years by the pandemic, will play a huge part in shaping the cultural landscape in the near future.

Given the importance of the programme, which is meant to fund work from April 2025, and a promise of decisions in October, it is astonishing that Creative Scotland has no real indication of its future budgets.

The government recently suggested it will have to wait until its overall budget is set in December, potentially pushing back decisions on theatres, festivals and arts organisations until January.

Sorting this mess out is by far the most pressing issue for Mr Robertson to make swift progress on with John Swinney and Kate Forbes.

Forced to prepare for another year of standstill funding, Creative Scotland is looking at a potential gap of around £47.4m to meet the current level of demand, without any clear guidance, as yet, on who or what to prioritise or protect.

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Chief executive Iain Munro has spent months trying to persuade the government to set out its share of the overall arts funding pot for future years after repeated pledges that the industry would see culture spending “more than double” by 2028.

An initial announcement, which described the restoration of Creative Scotland’s funding after a 10 per cent cut as the “first step” to delivering on those promises, was an embarrassing let-down from the government.

Although the prospect of an additional £25m in the next financial year has been dangled, Creative Scotland still has no idea if or when it might see any of that.

But given its willingness to highlight its funding gap, Mr Robertson has a very good idea of what will be needed to secure the future of the sector.

The key question is whether he is able to persuade Mr Swinney and Ms Forbes to loosen the purse strings in enough time to avoid a cultural catastrophe.



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