Coronavirus: Sturgeon wants ‘normal’ schooling back ‘as quickly as possible’

John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon and Jonathan McColl – SNP has big decisions to make on education of local pupils.

By Bill Heaney

Pupils should get back to “normal” schooling “as quickly as possible”, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said. And most parents, teachers and the pupils themselves would agree with her.

Local schools are due to re-open from 11 August, but will initially have a “blended” approach involving face-to-face teaching and at-home learning.

The Deputy FM John Swinney said at the weekend that exams in 2021 could be delayed and that “blended” learning could last for a year.

But Mr Swinney was made to stand in a corner for that while the first minister said pupils must be back in the classroom full-time “as quickly as is safe and feasible”.

She said it was her government’s “firm intention” that next year’s exams would go ahead – and that there were no plans for blended learning to last a year.

No gold stars on his jotter then for Big John, but if bookmakers were taking bets on it, the money would most likely be on Swinney.

The EIS union said pupils would have to be taught in “significantly smaller” groups and that it was unlikely that classrooms could accommodate “even 50%” of normal pupil numbers.

At Our Lady and St Patrick’s Secondary and Bellsmyre, Dumbarton, for example, one of the main criticisms of the school building is that it is too “tight” to accommodate the number of pupils who need to squeeze into a classroom.

Councils have been drawing up their proposals for how schools will operate when they return after the summer holidays.

But here in West Dunbartonshire, the local branch of the EIS, the teachers’ union, and three other trade unions have said that won’t happen until they have an assurance that their demands are met in regard to safety.

Puzzlingly, Cllr Jonathan McColl, who leads the SNP administration, has been saying publicly it will be all systems go come August, but he has been singing from a different hymn sheet from the unions who say it won’t be unless their demands are met.

Worryingly for parents, City of Edinburgh Council has told parents that only 33% of the 55,000 children who attend State schools would be in school at any time when its autumn term starts on 12 August.

Ms Sturgeon said this amount of classroom time was “not good enough”, and parents are likely to be in full agreement with her about that.

“We have to start from a point of seeking to maximise the amount of time children will spend in a school environment having face-to-face learning with teachers,” she said.

The expectation in West Dunbartonshire is that parents expect their children to be in school for an amount of hours to justify them wearing the full school uniform.

One Dumbarton primary school has contacted parents about this telling them where to buy blazers, which are expensive, and were expected to be far down the list of purchasers for “back to school” items for children in an area which is amongst the poorest and most deprived in Scotland.

And where the axe of unemployment is precariously above the necks of wage earners on Universal Credit and included in furlough salary schemes, which are due to be adjusted in August and ended in October..

The first minister said local authorities should be “creative and innovative” about how they use “all the resources at their disposal”, and that the government would work to address any “genuine issues” which arise.

At her daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Ms Sturgeon said education was of “absolutely critical importance” and was “central to my thinking as we plan and steer our country through the emergence from lockdown”.

She said: “It is absolutely not the case that we are planning for blended learning to last a year, or anything like it.

“On the contrary we don’t want blended learning to last a single minute longer than is necessary.

“We want young people to be back having face-to-face teaching for 100% of the school week as soon as feasible.”

‘Build confidence’

She said the government would study data about transmission of coronavirus in schools and evidence from other countries, and would seek to ease restrictions where possible.

She added: “One of the things that is inescapable right now is that we don’t have a crystal ball that allows us to know with certainty how this pandemic will develop over the months ahead.

“We know there is a risk of the virus resurging, so we can’t stand here and be absolutely clear we won’t face renewed risks from the virus come the tail end of this year.

“But we will be doing everything in our power to keep it suppressed and getting it as close to elimination levels as possible.

“Our planning assumption is to get back to normal schooling as quickly as possible, and that means firstly maximising the degree of normality by 11 August, and then as we build confidence and an evidence base and get more assurance about the risks in schools and among young people, then we can build on that as fast as possible.

“I do not want the situation to exist for a minute longer than necessary where children have anything other than a normal school experience.”

Earlier, Education Secretary John Swinney said that an education recovery group had been working with local authorities to develop plans for the reopening of schools.

“We agreed to work together to maximise the amount of time that children and young people could spend in schools,” he added.

“I’ve made it clear that I believe that trying to get to 50% of the time being able to be spent by a young person in school should be our objective to maximise that participation.”

‘Temporary classrooms’

Sectarianism schools against it gather for a service on Dumbatrton Rock. Children from schools across Dumbarton who some years ago attended an anti-sectarianism rally at Dumbarton Castle. Picture by Bill Heaney

Asked about Edinburgh’s plans , which could see pupils in school for just one day a week, Mr Swinney replied: “I accept that and I don’t think that’s strong enough.”

He said authorities should be looking at how they could use leisure facilities or public buildings to increase the amount of classroom space.

Larry Flanagan of the EIS union said most schools would need to have “significantly smaller teaching groups to allow for physical distancing”, with other pupils learning from home.

He said: “It is unlikely that schools will be able to accommodate even 50% of normal pupil numbers in classrooms at any one time, and certainly significantly fewer than that in smaller classrooms.

“For the rest of the school week, the expectation is that pupils will continue to learn from home as part of the blended learning approach.”

Mr Flanagan said there were “clearly challenges” to creating temporary classrooms, including funding to pay for extra space and teachers needed, adding: “If we are serious about minimising the damage to children’s education, these costs and challenges need to be met.”

None of the politicians has so far not had the courage to raise the issue of segregated schools, which might have spare capacity and could possibly accommodate over-spill from non denominational schools.  One politician I spoke with said: “That would be political suicide for any party. You could kiss your career goodbye.”

Which only goes to show that sectarianism,  like racism, which has had so much publicity following the George Floyd murder in the US and the ongoing mass demonstrations has not gone away and is the one “ism” that dare not speak its name in Scotland.



  1. I may be mistaken but I think there may be an element of the unions playing politics.

    Nicola Sturgeon is right. Schools need to maximise the time that children spend at school. Teaching time is essential for their education.

    Quite how this is done is best left to the individual local authorities. Local authorities know their school estate, know what public buildings they have, know the pupil ratios within their schools, have direct control over social work, have directors and chiefs of education. Central government can only set policies, provide support, but it is the local education authorities that have to deliver.

    So in our case, over to West Dunbartonshire Council. They have to date been strangely silent. But now they have the mandate to deliver. They have been told to deliver. Told to consult. So let them do it. That is their job. No shilly shallying, no obfuscation.

    Time to come up with a plan!

  2. Churches, church halls, community halls, empty office space, gymnasia, assembly areas, cafeteria, marquees even – just a few option to increase teaching space.

    With more space as aforesaid, with bigger sized classrooms, which classrooms could be readily screened and portioned to suit different class requirements and desk configurations, with maybe the teacher located in the middle as opposed to the front, spacing needs could potentially be met.

    And what about increasing supply teachers or bringing back retired teachers as another option. That is another. Or Saturday mornings for certain classes. Or increasing the working day by say 45 minutes and shortening periods by say 5 to ten minutes to increase the number of subject periods.

    So yes, Nicola Sturgeon is absolutely right. Maximise school time.and time for the Councils to step up to with a plan. They have the resources, are already being given extra support, and here in WDC the Council leader should make it a priority to issue a statement on this very important matter.

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