FM Nicola Sturgeon, Holyrood parliament, Schools and Jackson Carlaw.
By Bill Heaney
“What I will not do, and what we have not had to do, is cancel plans to bring schools back this month because we had not thought through and worked through the practicalities and difficult issues, as the UK Government had to do just last week. We will continue to work through difficult issues.
“The approach that Jackson Carlaw is taking perhaps reveals more about him and his party—their character and ability—than it does about me. I am not sure that people who look at that now will see a particularly appealing picture.”
Carlaw replied: “The country is looking at the First Minister impatiently.. There have been soft words, matched by a record of non-delivery, with months of dithering on education. We must not put a price tag on our children’s future.
“So far, we have seen half-measures and buck passing, and parents are rightly furious. I ask the First Minister for a commitment today: will she promise to commit the funds that are required, whatever it takes, to underpin a national endeavour to help councils get schools back in place and to give this generation of children the start in life that they deserve?”
Carlaw said he welcomed the sustained fall in the number of fatalities from Covid-19, “although, obviously, those fatalities are still distressing”.
“Professor Sridhar’s point is that a community-based testing regime that helps to see exactly where the disease is spreading would clearly give teachers and parents reassurance that schools are safe to return to normal.
“The question is obvious, and it brings us back to the testing issue that we have raised for several months. Will the First Minister commit today to ramping up our testing capacity and—this is important—our usage of that capacity during the summer so that, by August, opening schools full time, if it is safe to do so, is a realistic and achievable option?”
The FM doesn’t like Jackson Carlaw. She replied: “For the record, I do not deprecate anybody who asks questions; I deprecate people who cast aspersions on the integrity of an expert. It is really important to be clear about that.
“I have given a commitment, and I will do so again today. I will move heaven and earth with my ministerial colleagues to get this country back to normal in every aspect of our lives as quickly as possible.
“Nothing is more important in all of that than getting our children’s education back to normal and, of course, ensuring that we put in place plans to allow children to catch up on missed education.
“I take that responsibility very seriously. I also take seriously my responsibility to ensure that we get through the crisis as safely as possible.”
She added that in common with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, “we are having to contingency plan to bring schools back with physical distancing in place, because that is what the evidence tells us right now is required.
“Within that, of course, our challenge is to maximise the time that children can spend in schools. That is why we are scrutinising councils’ plans so carefully.
“We have to consider and take advice on the alternative measures that we might be able to put in place to allow schools to operate, safely, as normal. That involves continuing to suppress the virus and having in place a robust and reliable test and protect system, and that is exactly what we have put in place.
“Over the weeks to come, we will assure ourselves that that system is working as robustly as it needs to. I say to parents who are watching—they are the most important people of all, next to the young people, of course—that that has my total commitment.
“I sincerely say to members across the chamber that anybody in the chamber who suggests that these issues are simple is perhaps showing that they are not interested in sufficiently understanding them.
“We must proceed cautiously and carefully, and we must do nothing that compromises the safety of our young people and the safety of the country overall.
“I will continue to operate each and every day in a way that focuses not on the politics of these issues but on my responsibility to get the country through this crisis as safely as I possibly can.”
Carlaw was unimpressed. He told MSPs: “France, Germany, Denmark and Ireland are moving heaven and earth; the Scottish Government is not. If alternatives have to be found, let us turn to them.
“If it does not prove possible to open schools fully in August, the Government needs to be far more creative than it has been so far. It needs to start with an open mind and to be open to radical proposals.
“Parents are now suggesting ideas, and we need the Government to be open to those ideas, too.”
He asked the government to commit to “contacting all newly qualified teachers and supply teachers to boost teacher numbers, and will it intervene if any council seeks to reduce teacher numbers or cancel any probationary teacher opportunities?
“Secondly, will the Government state clearly today that it will support local councils with the additional funding that they require so that buildings—both public and private—where children could spend some of the week being taught can be made available?”
Sturgeon hit back: “The point about other countries is an important one, and we will be looking to learn from other countries, as we have been doing. Our international council of education advisers has a critical role to play in that work, as does the Covid-19 advisory group.
“Jackson Carlaw mentioned a number of countries. He will find that, in many of those countries, if not all of them, children are not back to school full time yet. Very few countries in the world operate completely normal school education.
“I was reading a piece yesterday about Korea, where the test and trace capacity has been lauded as one of the best in the world, but the Koreans still have children in school only part time.
“The approach that we have decided that we must have in place as a contingency, with blended learning, is exactly what the United Kingdom Government is doing for England and what the Welsh Government is doing for Wales.
“These are not straightforward issues. In the first strand, if we have to have a blended model of education for a period—which I hope would be as short as possible—I absolutely give the commitment that, if that involves additional resources to maximise school time, the Government will step in.
“We expect—as I would think everybody expects—councils to be creative and innovative in how they use the resources that they have. We will look into additional teaching capacity, whether it comes from retired teachers or other sources that we can get that capacity from.
“We will scrutinise those plans to ensure that, if we have to have a model of education that is less than full time for safety reasons, for any period of time, we absolutely maximise that, and that we take steps to provide additional support to parents and young people for the periods that they spend out of school.”