By Bill Heaney
The Scottish Government was today forced to U-turn on its plans to have pupils receiving part time blended learning when schools return in August.
West Dunbartonshire Council had already set out its plans, but they will have to be scrapped as the schools return to normality.
Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney, announced that – providing the rate of infection and the state of public health continues to improve – schools will return to normal, full-time, face to face learning in August.
Jackie Baillie, MSP for Dumbarton, the Vale of Leven, Helensburgh and Lomond, had previously written to the Scottish Government, as well as West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute Councils, to raise serious concerns about the effect that part-time learning would have on the attainment and well-being of pupils.
Her worry was that pupils – at every stage of their education – would not be able to receive the support that they needed within this model of teaching and that the attainment gap was at risk of widening further.
Ms Baillie also raised serious concerns regarding the lack of structure that these plans gave to parents and teachers.
Parents were unable to forward plan or to return to work themselves due to “a complete lack of continuity” within the local authority plans.
She has not just welcomed this U-turn but has written to West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute councils, asking them to revise their plans as a result of today’s announcement.
The MSP said: “I certainly welcome the much needed U-turn made by John Swinney today.
“The previous guidance that the Scottish Government had issued to local authorities – and the plans that were formulated by West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute as a result – were just not good enough for local children.
“These plans left parents wondering what the coming months would look like for themselves and their children.
“Teachers were put in the difficult position of not being able to deliver the level of teaching and support that they know their pupils need and pupils were being forced to continue to fend for themselves.
“I have written to both local authorities in our area asking them to immediately revise and re-issue guidance to parents following today’s announcement.
“It’s not the fault of Councils – there has been little leadership, guidance and money provided to them by the Scottish Government.
“But it really is time now that pupils, parents and teachers get the support and education that they deserve.”
Responding to the Education Secretary’s statement which confirms that a full time return to schooling will be planned for August, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Parents will be relieved by this change of heart as it means that children will get the education they deserve and we can start to catch up on the lost months during which the inequality gap has grown.
“It stretches credibility for the Deputy First Minister to claim the decline of the virus was a surprise which led to this sudden change by the government.
“The next challenge for the government is to fix the childcare availability for parents returning to work over the summer when. Normal childcare arrangements are closed off to them such as families or childminders. It is an urgent matter that needs fixed now.”
Statement to Parliament. The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney):
When I addressed the Parliament on 19 March, I said that the decision to close schools was one of the very toughest that we had needed to take during this crisis. My engagement with teachers, children and parents since then has only served to reinforce that view. For that reason, while it has been critical to suppress the virus, we have been clear that the closures cannot go on for a minute longer than necessary.
We want Scotland’s children to be back in school full time as soon as possible and as soon as it is safe. That ambition is shared in the education recovery group, which is our partnership with local government, unions that represent teachers and other school staff, and parent representatives. I want to set out the Government’s ambitions for when that full-time return to school might be.
When I published the report on the strategic framework from the education recovery group on 21 May, we had a clear expectation that the outlook on coronavirus was bleak. At that point, there were around 20,000 people in Scotland who could transmit the infection. On 21 May, 1,318 people were in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, including 51 in intensive care. Tragically, over the course of that week, 230 people passed away from the virus.
Not only was that position bleak, at that time the majority view of our scientific advisers was that physical distancing would be necessary if schools were to reopen. Blended learning was developed, therefore, to restore some form of face-to-face education against that outlook.
Working through the education recovery group, we built a plan, which was based on making the best of the very difficult circumstances that we expected to face. It was a contingency plan, which was—and is—necessary, and, for the past month, councils and teachers have been working hard to enact that contingency. Even while we took that work forward, we continued to make the point that we did not want to see blended learning implemented for a moment longer than necessary.
Now, thankfully, the picture looks more positive. Since May, because of the efforts of our fellow citizens to stay at home, we have seen Scotland make significant progress. There are now only 2,000 infectious people in Scotland—a reduction of around 90 per cent since May. There has been a sustained downward trend in Covid-19 deaths. Intensive care cases now stand at a fraction of what they were.
If we stay on that trajectory, which cannot be taken for granted, the position will be even better by August. That is good news. It means that we are able to update our planning assumptions. If we stay on track, if we all continue to do what is right and if we can further suppress this terrible virus, the Government believes that we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full time in August.
I must stress that the Government is working towards that aim. However, because it has to be achieved safely, it inevitably remains conditional and dependent on on-going scientific and health advice. It will be part of a wider approach. If we continue to make progress at the rate that we envisage, it is possible—though, of course, by no means certain—that, by August, we may have successfully achieved, or be well on the way to, phase 4 of the Scottish Government route map.
I have to be honest with Parliament and admit frankly that, when we prepared our plans back in May, I could not have imagined that we would have made as much progress in virus suppression as we have. It is that more positive outlook that allows the Scottish Government to make this change of planning assumption for schools, but it is a change that is born out of the hard work and sacrifice of people in every part of the country in sticking to the guidance, staying at home and suppressing the virus. In particular, we should highlight the many parents who have supported their children while continuing to hold down jobs and caring commitments.
It is a change that is born of the actions of our citizens; they delivered it. Now it falls to the Scottish Government, our local government colleagues, teachers and school staff to build on it. I commend local authorities, school and early learning and childcare staff and, in particular, headteachers across Scotland for the way in which they have responded to this emergency. They have worked tirelessly to protect the interests of our children and young people, through our childcare hubs and by ensuring on-going provision of free school meals, delivering remote learning and planning for the next term. I know that they will continue to rise to the challenge as we get ready for the next school year.
That is the good news, but I must emphasise the importance of Scotland staying on track if we are to make this a reality. We must be clear that blended learning is a contingency that we might still need to enact. Although the outlook is more positive now, there are no certainties with this virus. If there is an increase in infection rates and if there are outbreaks that require to be controlled through action, the contingency plan could still be required.
Equally, we still need to protect those in our society who might not be able to attend school for health reasons. All the work that has gone into preparing blended learning models for every locality across the country has been essential preparation. It is vital that we have those models ready, because we might need to turn to them.
We must continue to ensure the safety of pupils, teachers and staff by engaging in such contingency planning. That is why Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education will continue with its scrutiny of the plans when local authorities submit the latest versions on Wednesday.
Similarly, we can move away from blended learning only if we stay on track and can command the confidence of parents, teachers and children on safety.
There are important benefits of such a move. A return to full-time schooling would enhance the life chances of our children and young people and start to reverse any damaging impacts of recent months. We know from the lockdown lowdown survey, for example, that young people are concerned about school closures and about their mental wellbeing.
If we are in a position to ease public health measures in early learning and childcare, particularly for small-group working, more children and families will be able to benefit from an expanded offer in the year ahead. In parallel, we continue to work in partnership with local authorities to agree a new timetable for delivery of the 1,140 hours entitlement to all eligible children.
We are seeing some countries begin to relax their physical distancing restrictions in schools for younger children in particular; others are starting to plan for a more normal return after the summer break.
The First Minister confirmed on 15 June that we will now review the scientific assumptions that underpin education recovery as part of our statutory three-weekly review process. That will include, for example, reviewing our approach to physical distancing in schools and equivalent measures in early learning and childcare. As part of the review process, I have established a new sub-group of the Scottish Government Covid-19 advisory group to specialise on education and children’s issues. We will get the first review of that material later this week.
I would not want to pre-empt that advice, but I expect that, for us to realise our aim to resume full-time schooling, various conditions will need to be in place. First, infection rates must be at a level that is sufficiently low to provide assurance that we can continue to control the virus. Secondly, we must ensure that we make use of our full public health infrastructure, locally and nationally, to get early warning of issues and rapid local action, including test and protect. Thirdly, the right protective measures and risk assessments must be in place in schools to keep everyone with higher risk factors, including teachers and staff, safe at all times.
In addition to those measures, the Covid-19 advisory group and the new sub-group have been asked for further advice on tests or indicators that would show whether we are on track.
In all that, I will work closely with the education recovery group. Given the change in our central planning assumption to work towards a full-time return to schools in August, we will continue to work together over the summer. In due course, local authorities will communicate arrangements for the return to school with families.
Over the next year, we will need all possible education resources at our disposal, in order to compensate for the loss of learning that pupils have faced, as well as to help us, should we need to switch to a blended model at any stage. Even with a return to full-time education, it is imperative that we increase levels of digital inclusion, which is why we have already committed to a huge digital boost through the investment of £30 million to provide laptops for disadvantaged children and young people. That will include £25 million of funding for a roll-out of digital devices to school pupils to enable them to study online. Although the figures are the subject of on-going work, initial estimates from local authorities are that that funding will be required to provide digital devices to around 70,000 pupils, with up to 40,000 connectivity solutions also needed. We will also provide a further £100 million over the next two years to support the return to school and help children recover any lost ground. With that new funding, we will invest to tackle the impact of coronavirus in our schools and ensure that children get the support that they need.
We will start with teacher recruitment. Many of this year’s probationer teachers have already secured teaching posts with local authorities. We will now work with local authorities with the objective of ensuring that every probationer teacher who has reached the standard for full registration is able to secure a teaching post for the next school year. Of course, we will still look to encourage retired teachers and those who are not currently teaching back into the profession wherever that proves necessary.
I have asked Education Scotland to expand its partnership offer with the e-Sgoil digital learning platform to develop a strong national e-learning provision. That represents an opportunity to enable all pupils to access high-quality lessons—by qualified teachers who are trained in offering online learning—across as broad a range of subjects and qualification levels as possible.
Finally, although we want to support the wellbeing of all our children and young people, lockdown has been particularly difficult for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Reducing the poverty-related attainment gap is a defining mission for this Government. Therefore, we will work alongside partners to increase support to those families and communities who need it most. We will also seek the involvement of the youth work sector to assist us in that challenge.
Coronavirus has had a massive impact on our education system. It will take a collective endeavour to overcome that, but we have a duty to our children and young people to come together to do just that. They have played their part in protecting this country from the worst of the pandemic, and we must repay them that faith by serving their needs at this critical time.