Local schools and hard working pupils. Nicola Sturgeon, Richard Leonard, Willie Rennie and John Swinney were all part of the big schools debate at Holyrood.
He told parliament that just two days ago, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Bruce Adamson, declared: “The State has an obligation to ensure that children can access their human right to education.
“This is an education emergency and resources must be moved [made available] by the Scottish Government if necessary.”
Richard Leonard said: “He is right; we are in an education emergency. Children have a right to education, so we need to pull out all the stops to make sure that our children return to school safely and full time as soon as possible. What additional resources will the First Minister give councils to make that happen?”
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s response was not encouraging, however.
She said: “We are in a health emergency right now that has caused an economic emergency and it has created an education emergency. We have to tackle them all simultaneously, which is what the Government seeks to do. I agree with the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland: young people have a basic human right to education, but they also have a basic human right not to be put at risk of a deadly virus and we have to make sure that we do not inadvertently do that.
“Thankfully, most of the evidence so far suggests that children may be less susceptible to this virus, but the evidence is not conclusive. This is a virus that we still know far too little about, because it has not yet been around for long enough. We also know that a tiny minority of children—so far, and I hope that it will stay like that—may suffer an inflammatory disease complication, Kawasaki disease, so we cannot play fast and loose with the safety of children.
“We have already given councils significant additional resources and we are working with them now to look at the plans that they can put in place for blended learning, if that is what is required.
“We will then scrutinise those plans and, if they have to go further, we will have a conversation with councils about the resources that are required. That is the proper way to go about those things. We have also asked for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to have a role in scrutiny as well.
“The other strand of work is to look at whether we can get the virus levels low enough and then rely on test and protect, and perhaps other hygiene measures in schools, to allow a full-time return in which children can operate normally.
“Those issues are all really important but they are not simple or straightforward—no aspect of this virus is. I will continue to get on with the hard work of trying to get through them and to steer the best course through them, working with those with whom we need to work. That is my responsibility as First Minister, frankly, and it is one that I will continue to focus on.”
But the Labour leader persisted: “It is also the First Minister’s responsibility to give local councils the resources that they need to restart our education system. Scotland’s teachers, parents and young people also want clarity, and this week they have had nothing but mixed messages.
“Anxious parents are writing to me about the impact that schools being closed is having on their children and the impact that the Government’s mixed messages are having as well. One mum told me: “It’s just adding more stress to an already stressful situation”.
Back to school? When are we going back, pupils are asking.
He added: “It is not just parents. A survey of headteachers and deputy headteachers by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that more than 90 per cent needed greater clarity over how the next academic year of teaching will be delivered.
“Instead of clarity, we have seen the First Minister contradict her deputy, contradict her advisers and then contradict herself. That is not clarity; it is chaos.
“The First Minister produced a four-phase route map for opening up the economy. Why can she not publish a detailed route map and timetable for a return to full-time, face-to-face schooling?
“Will she provide the national leadership and the resources that our councils need to give parents, teachers and pupils the clarity that they demand and deserve to get their lives back on track?”
The FM countered: “Let us work our way through this—I mean that absolutely genuinely—but let us be consistent in the arguments that we are making. Our first priority is to beat this virus so that we can bring the country back to normality safely. Anybody who argues simplistically that there is some kind of magic shortcut to that is not putting the interests of this country first.”
Mr Leonard however refused to back off. He said: “I am not asking for a shortcut. I am simply asking for a route map. All that the Government has produced so far is a starting point for blended learning. It is not a way back to full-time schooling.
“Children have already been failed by the Government’s response to their educational needs during this crisis. Indeed, as many as 62 per cent of parents who took part in a question-and-answer session with the education secretary last night said that their children have had no access to online lessons while schools have been closed.
“The one additional resource that the Government promised was 25,000 laptops for those children who need them most for home learning. Four weeks on, not one single device has been issued.”
West Dunbartonshire Council claimed this week not only that all their pupils had access to laptops but that they could actually use them, but they refused to clarify that with The Democrat.
The Labour leader pleaded: “We have one of the world’s worst records on tackling Covid-19, so we should be making sure that we have one of the world’s best records on supporting our children as we come out of it.
“Parents across Scotland are crying out for a clear plan to get their children back into the classroom. One parent told us that there seems to be a lack of ambition and investment in overcoming the challenges.
“Where is the commitment? Where is the energy? Where is the drive? Where is the conviction? Where is the national plan and the national leadership? Where is the ambition to tackle this schools crisis with the same urgency, to pull out all the stops, to make the resources available, to get our schools safely reopened and to uphold our children’s right to an education?”
LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “Thousands of parents will be returning to work in businesses and shops in June and July. However, normal summer childcare—from childminders, private nurseries, family and friends—is still restricted by the Government. When schools open in August, children will be at home for up to four days a week. It does not add up. The First Minister asks parents to go back to work—but who will look after the children? What are parents supposed to do?”
The FM said she didn’t have a magic wand for that. She told MSPs: “None of this is easy for parents. This is, and has been, incredibly difficult. I wish that I could make all those difficulties disappear overnight, but I cannot wave a magic wand. We have to work to a plan to allow us to suppress the virus, keep it suppressed, and bring all aspects of life back to normal with as much alignment as possible.
“Willie Rennie’s question is legitimate and important. We have to bring the economy back carefully. Understandably, issues of economic challenge have encouraged people to think that we should do it more quickly. We have to continue to be cautious about that, and do things according to the plan that we set.
“We want more key workers to have access to critical childcare hubs, which have been in place throughout the crisis, and to have those running throughout the summer so that there is more access—albeit that that will not be possible for everyone.
“This week, we have published guidance for early learning and childcare, so that we can begin preparations to get early learning and childcare facilities back, in recognition that some of the issues that we talk about for school—in particular on physical distancing—are even more difficult in those settings.
“Thirdly—and lastly—what Willie Rennie described, with regard to schools coming back on 11 August, is what we are working to change, so that children will be in school, even if that is under the contingency blended model, for more time than parents are perhaps looking at as a possibility right now; and to get back to a normal schooling week as quickly as we can.
“All those bits of this complex jigsaw need to be in place, and we have to work methodically and very hard to get them in place as quickly, but also—I will keep on saying this—as safely as possible.”
“I understand that, as we see the [virus] numbers that we report every day going downwards, there is sometimes a tendency to think, ‘Let’s just get back to normal immediately’.
“However, the virus is dangerous, it is potentially deadly and it is still out there. Anybody in Scotland who doubts that just has to look at the fact that we still have people dying, but also at what China is grappling with again, what some parts of America are still grappling with and at what even some of the countries that are said to have done best in tackling the virus are still facing on almost a weekly basis.
“We have to do this properly, we have to do it right and we have to do it with public health and safety at the forefront of our thinking.”
Willie Rennie replied: “The First Minister knows that I share her caution. I have been constructive throughout the pandemic.
“However, yesterday, the education secretary [John Swinney] said that, if people criticise the policy, they are criticising the teachers. I think that that is a shameful insult to thousands of parents who have genuine concerns.
“The problem for the FM is that this issue is coming up next week. People will be going back to work next week and they will need the support next week. The Government has put parents in an impossible position because they cannot choose between their job and their children.
“The Scottish Government ramped up national health service capacity and pumped billions of pounds into businesses to keep them alive, but on education, our children and their parents are being left behind.
“Why does the First Minister not accept that, if she is asking parents to return to work, she has an obligation to work out who is going to care for their children?”
STOP PRESS: West Dunbartonshire Council today (Thursday) told BBC Scotland that the council is currently developing models for each sector, early years, primary and secondary, in consultation with staff, trade unions and parent representatives.
It plans to have staggered lunches and breaks, as well as start and finish times, to reduce the number of children in and around buildings at any time. Details will be shared with parents and carers before the end of term, they say.