The Scottish Government has been urged to act on concerns that “confusion” in schools over Covid-19 restrictions could leave pupils disadvantaged if exams go ahead in 2021.
Fears have been raised that the “inconsistent” way Tier 4 restrictions are interpreted in schools will widen the attainment gap, with the government’s approach labelled “irresponsible”.
A Ferret investigation found some councils under level 4 restrictions have decided to continue with face-to-face supported study classes for senior students after school hours, while others moved them online or suspended the classes altogether.
Supported study classes are provided in order to help prepare senior phase students for end of year exams. They are optional for both students and staff but some consider them crucial in terms of raising exam grades.
The disparity in exam prep support is one of a number of concerns that have been raised about the educational experiences of Scottish pupils during “lockdown 2” .
Although schools have remained open, recent data has shown that attendance rates have varied significantly across different parts of the country.
On Friday it emerged that discussions have been taking place at the Scottish government’s education recovery group, about whether to extend school Christmas holidays.
It has been suggested that the dates could be standardised across the country, with all schools closing on 18 December and reopening on 11 January.
Inconsistent guidance in schools
Teachers have also told The Ferret of differing approaches to Covid-19 regulations across local authorities – and even individual schools – have been impacting the way subjects with practical elements, such as science, music and P.E are taught.
Scotland’s largest teaching union criticised the “inconsistencies in Covid-19 guidelines related to schools” and, alongside the Scottish Greens, called on the Scottish Government to cancel Higher and Advanced Higher exam diets.
Critics, including prominent academics, also called for the Scottish Government to offer leadership on how the guidance should be implemented.
Eleven Scottish local authorities were placed into level 4 restrictions this month. Although schools are expected to remain open under these restrictions, the government issued information on “enhanced and targeted protection” to reduce the risk of increased infections.
The final part of these recommendations requires the “pausing of the provision of non-essential activities or clubs outside the usual school timetable”. However, no definition is provided to clarify which activities are “non-essential”, and councils have interpreted the rules in different ways.
In East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, face-to-face supported study classes have continued during level 4 restrictions.
East Dunbartonshire council told The Ferret that supported study is “deemed essential as it addresses learning loss for senior phase pupils and there is a comprehensive risk assessment in place”.
East Renfrewshire council also considers supported study to be “an essential part of the school curriculum” and said that such sessions are continuing “with appropriate risk assessments in place”.
South Lanarkshire Council also described supported study classes as “essential” and, like Renfrewshire Council, insisted that their continued delivery is happening “in line with government guidelines”.
A spokeswoman for Glasgow City Council said that “schools are best placed to decide what’s essential” and that ongoing supported study “could be online, in person or a mixture depending on what meets the needs of their young people”.
However, schools in other council areas have either suspended supported study classes or moved them online, with authorities citing Scottish Government guidance as the reason for their decision.
A spokesperson for East Ayrshire council told The Ferret: “The Scottish Government has advised that local authorities within Level 4 cannot run after-school activities.
“This does not mean that supported study has been cancelled, it means that schools will be using digital solutions over the three week period. Some of our schools have already gotten around the issue and are also providing lunchtime support.”
Stirling Council also confirmed that supported study classes are “temporarily paused at our schools in line with national guidance”.
Meanwhile, supported study classes have continued in West Lothian, but “this is only done in physical classes with existing timetabled grouping of pupils and staff to prevent additional mixing”, with online options provided where physical classes cannot go ahead.
This means that a single class could receive supported study from their own teacher, but that mixed groups would have to be supported using online sessions.
‘Widening’ attainment gap
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, argued that many young people depend on additional study support and that current disparities provoked “real concerns”.
“It is simply unfair that some schools are offering study support whereas others are not,” he told The Ferret.
“The students who most need study support from the school are those whose parents are least able to provide it, for example because the parents are working full-time in a shift pattern that reduces their time with their children.
“Not providing study support would exacerbate all the usual ways in which children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds fall behind unless they get help from the school.”
Professor Paterson also criticised the government’s refusal to offer clearer guidelines to schools. He added: “It seems to me to be rather irresponsible of the government to say that this is solely a matter for local authorities.
“The government is very willing to provide leadership – indeed to provide instructions – on many aspects of the present health emergency. Why not on schooling?”
University of Glasgow researcher Barry Black, who is also a potential candidate for Scottish Labour in the upcoming Holyrood election, warned that pupils across the country have experienced “vastly different issues” through the year so far. He claims this undermines the fairness of national examinations.
“What this [The Ferret’s findings] shows is that the education experience of Covid-19 has not been equitable,” he said.
“Based on their place and level of deprivation, young people have had vastly different issues to contend with as part of their studies.
“Further, we know that it is poorer, older pupils who are the most likely to be missing school. This makes it incredibly difficult to justify how a ‘normal’ exam diet can be fair to all pupils.
“It seems inevitable that the pandemic has, and will continue to, widen the attainment gap.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said the issue was indicative of the current inconsistencies in Covid-19 guidelines issued to schools.
However he claimed that supported study was not essential and should not be running in tier 4 areas.
“The evidence from our recent survey of members confirms teachers’ very valid concerns over the safety of schools at the present time,” he said.
“Whilst supported study is an important activity, it is a voluntary duty for staff, rather than a contractual obligation. The EIS believes that any supported study class in a tier 4 area should be conducted remotely and we would advise members accordingly.”
However he acknowledged the “equality issues” that cancelling additional study support posed, claiming that it was further evidence that switching to alternatives to the Higher and Advanced Higher exams would be “prudent”.
Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer, pictured left, agreed with the EIS position. He said: “In the lead-up to what will be a very difficult Christmas and New Year its essential that we do everything we can to suppress the virus.
“That means avoiding all non-essential physical gatherings, including supported study classes. Teachers should be credited for going the extra mile to support their students but this is exactly the kind of thing that can and should be done online, making use of the Scottish Government’s promised laptops and broadband support for those who need it.”
He claimed the government should cancel and replace the exam diet with an agreed programme of continuous assessment “leaving young people confident that they will only be graded on the work they’ve been able to do”.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Local authorities are best placed to make informed decisions about which activities are essential based on local circumstances, taking appropriate account of the safety and well-being of staff, children and young people.”
They insisted schools remained safe, claiming as of 24 November, only 0.9 per cent of total absences are due to pupils who had a Covid-19 related sickness, which represents 0.09 per cent of pupils.
“The rise in overall Covid-related absences has been very substantially driven by pupils who are isolating, which demonstrates that caution is being applied where we know there are enhanced risks of transmission,” they added.
“There is no current direct evidence that transmission within schools plays a significant contributory role in driving increased rates of infection among children.”
“We are keeping the way guidance is being implemented in schools under close review, along with emerging scientific evidence to help us to protect our school community. Where there is a need to take action, we will work with teachers, parents, trades unions, local authorities and young people’s representatives to do so.”
This article was published in tandem with the Sunday National on 29 November.