EDUCATION: JOHN SWINNEY TAKES US THROUGH THE LESSONS FOR COPING DURING COVID

By John Swinney, Education Secretary

Scottish education is today focused on ensuring that our children receive the high-quality learning to which they are entitled despite the current challenging circumstances.

I want to set out what remote learning means for young people, teachers and parents, what our young people are entitled to expect, and the measures that are being put in place to make sure that they receive that support.

As we consider the educational provision that is available, it is vital that we acknowledge the importance of ensuring that our children’s health and well-being is supported during the pandemic. That has been a fundamental priority of the education system since schools returned in August, and it will remain a fundamental priority during this period of remote learning. Children can learn well only if they feel well.

At the outset, I reiterate my firm view that the best place for young people to learn is in school. We are doing everything that we can to allow them to return safely as soon as possible but, in the meantime, their learning must be sustained and as rich and rewarding as possible.

Remote learning is learning that is directed by teachers and undertaken by young people who are not physically with the teacher while instruction is taking place. Remote learning will not replicate in-school teaching in style, approach or hours of delivery, but what constituted high-quality learning, teaching and assessment prior to the pandemic is what constitutes high-quality learning, teaching and assessment now. It remains the responsibility of Scotland’s dedicated teaching professionals to plan, organise and deliver that learning. I know that our teachers are deploying their professional skills and are rising to the challenges that have been posed by the current situation.

Remote learning involves a combination of live interactions between teachers and learners, and learning that takes place away from the direct presence of the teacher. Online learning is important, but it is not the only aspect. Education Scotland has published guidance explaining the definition and principles that govern remote learning, together with clarity on what young people and their families are entitled to expect while it is not possible for all pupils to be in school.

Remote learning activities will offer pupils opportunities to develop and progress, to be assessed and receive feedback, to engage with age and stage-appropriate activities and to receive opportunities that account for additional needs, disadvantage or vulnerability. Good communication between home and school is fundamental to ensuring a shared understanding of the approach and of everyone’s responsibilities.

Young people should have access to appropriate physical resources where needed—examples might include learning materials or digital devices. They are entitled to access high-quality, interactive remote learning and teaching using technology or other methods, with an appropriate balance of live learning and independent activity, and on-going dialogue with teachers. The available support includes access to online resources to aid interaction, assessment and feedback. Each learner is entitled to a daily check-in that is appropriate to age, stage and need, and they will have regular opportunities for engagement with other pupils.

All of that must, as ever, be underpinned by due regard for young people’s well-being and safeguarding. It is right that schools and teachers make the appropriate decisions for the young people they know while delivering the entitlements that are set out in guidance to ensure that everyone receives a consistently high-quality experience.

I will now outline the resources that have been developed for remote learning and teaching. We have significantly enhanced the national e-learning offer by growing the provision for live remote learning, recorded lessons and supported learning.

The expanded offer includes e-Sgoil, which currently encompasses 27 courses ranging from national 5 to advanced higher, including live webinar lessons for advanced higher pupils. It includes a bank of online recorded lessons and 14,000 items of supported online learning and teaching materials, including resources for teachers to use in planning and delivery.

Access to that work is made possible for learners across Scotland through the Glow platform—our national online learning environment. Indeed, our commitment to Glow over many years demonstrates Scotland’s long recognition that digital technology can enhance learning and teaching. Other parts of the United Kingdom have sought to learn from our experiences in the field of online learning. Through their local authority Glow login, every learner and teacher in Scotland has access to a comprehensive range of digital tools, including Microsoft Office 365 and Google Classroom.

I can confirm that the problems that were experienced by some schools with Microsoft Teams on Monday have been resolved by Microsoft and the service is now operating as expected. Those problems were not related to Glow; they were experienced by Microsoft users across the UK and parts of Europe. We continue to work with Microsoft to keep the service under constant review.

In November 2020, more than 420,000 users logged on to Glow more than 7.6 million times, compared with approximately 260,000 users logging on to the platform around 3.7 million times during the same month in 2019.

After the last period of school building closures, we commissioned an equity audit, which was published today, to better understand the impact on children’s learning, health and well-being, particularly those experiencing disadvantage. The equity audit provides important evidence to help us target mitigations effectively during this period of remote learning.

We have taken action to ensure that disadvantaged children and young people have access to the devices and connectivity that are needed to engage in education. The £25 million that was provided in the summer will deliver well over 70,000 devices for learners across Scotland. By the end of December 2020, almost 59,000 devices had been distributed and connectivity had been provided to more than 10,000 learners, with more dispatched since then.

In many households, families will not have a dedicated device for each learner. To ensure that families have flexibility, Glow can already be accessed on digital devices with modern browsers, and many elements can be accessed on consoles such as Xbox or PlayStation.

The BBC Scotland television channel is providing content that is bench-marked to Scotland’s curriculum starting this week. Education Scotland and the BBC are working to make it easy for teachers, learners and parents to navigate what is available and understand how it aligns with wider learning.

For all learners—particularly the very youngest children—some of the best learning already takes place through play in the home with parents or carers. I am mindful that working parents of very young children are finding it particularly difficult to balance childcare and work at the moment. Resources are available via the Parent Club website to support parents in engaging children of all ages in meaningful activities.

Teachers need support to feel confident that they can do the best for their students, and Education Scotland continues to provide a range of professional learning on digital learning and teaching via the digilearn.scot website.

I am conscious of the impact that the move to home learning will have for learners who are studying for national qualifications. On 8 December, I confirmed the cancellation of higher and advanced higher exams in addition to national 5 exams. I also confirmed that an alternative model for certification that was based on learner evidence and subject to quality assurance would be developed to deliver credible and fair results.

Communications were issued yesterday by the national qualifications 2021 group that set out the priorities that schools and learners should focus on now—essentially, learning and teaching—while consideration is given to the implications of the move to remote learning and the length of time the arrangements will be in place for the new assessment model. I discussed that with the chief examining officer yesterday, and the education recovery group will consider it in more detail tomorrow.

Everything that I have set out on principles and entitlements is published online for all to refer to. We have worked with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to write to every registered teacher to make certain that everyone who delivers education is clear about our remote learning expectations and the resources that are available. Last Friday, I spoke with around 800 headteachers to discuss our expectations, and I will continue to engage directly with teachers as we deliver remote learning.

I know that schools are already doing their utmost for their pupils. They have responsibility for the quality of the education that they provide and for ensuring continuous improvement. They will improve their offers and reflect on their experiences and on the feedback from parents and learners.

Local authorities have statutory responsibility for ensuring the quality of education that is provided by their schools, including remote learning. That is emphasised in the educational continuity direction that was issued on Friday, which states:

“Each education authority is required to provide education by way of remote learning to pupils who normally attend schools … under the management of the education authority from 11 to 29 January 2021.”

Education Scotland has already gathered evidence on our system’s readiness for remote learning, including by reviewing local authority plans for blended learning in the summer.

The quality and effectiveness of remote learning across the country will be reviewed by Her Majesty’s inspectors of education. A programme of national overviews will commence immediately and will last for the duration of remote learning. They will evaluate what is working well and where further improvement is required, based on information that is collected from varied sources, including engagement with schools and local authorities. This week, Her Majesty’s inspectors of education are evaluating the first focus area, which is local authority planning and guidance on remote learning. Those overviews will be published weekly, and the first report will be published on Friday 22 January.

Schools are, rightly, deeply focused on delivering quality remote education now. We will make sure that those reviews do not distract or burden them while providing important assurance to parents and ensuring further improvement in the remote learning offer where needed.

I appreciate only too well the additional burden that home learning is placing on many of our children and their families, and I know that the best place for our children is in their schools, with their teachers and their friends. Schools remain open for the most vulnerable children, as identified by teachers. For children of key workers who have no viable alternatives, schools are open on an exceptional basis. However, to ensure that we reduce the interactions around schools and therefore contribute to the of the virus, we have to keep the numbers of key worker children to the absolute minimum required. We need employers to support employees in taking up in-school learning only where there is no alternative, only on the days on which they need it and for the minimum amount of time.

More childcare options exist during this lockdown. Childminders remain open, and informal childcare is an option for some families. We have set out three categories of key workers to support local authorities in keeping numbers to a minimum. I am aware that remaining open for very small numbers of children creates pressure for some childcare providers. I can therefore confirm that we will make available temporary financial support of up to £3.8 million for each four-week period of restrictions to providers of day care of children that are open during the restrictions. We will confirm those details shortly, and we are considering further support to childminders.

Against that background, I know that many families are struggling and that we need to make sure that they get the support that they need. I can also announce today a package of £45 million of new funding to allow local authorities to deploy more support to their schools and families. The money will allow local authorities to prioritise the purchase of additional devices for children who still need them, recruit additional staff and provide support to parents and families to engage with home learning. That responds to the First Minister’s commitment to members last week. Local authorities will have flexibility to use their allocation within parameters, including those elements. That money is additional to the £160 million that I have already committed for education recovery since the start of the pandemic.

The funding is sufficient in principle to support the recruitment of an additional 2,000 teaching staff up until the end of the financial year. However, local authorities have the option to use it for other vital staffing needs, including classroom assistants, administrative staff to support contact tracing, and facilities management staff. Since the start of the pandemic, our additional funding has led to an additional 1,400 teachers and more than 200 support staff being appointed.

My messages to learners, teachers and parents are as follows. My message to learners, for whom this school year is like no other, is that we will ensure that you receive the support that you need just now. I am committed to keeping the voice of young people central, as we navigate the current challenges, through the Scottish Youth Parliament and our new youth education recovery group.

My message to teachers is that I am deeply grateful for the work that you have done to make remote learning work. Please to access the advice, support and professional learning options through Education Scotland, your regional improvement collaborative, your local authority and your school.

My message to parents is to reiterate that you are not expected to be teachers. Your child’s school is here for you now and will be here for you when schools return.

I do not want the current situation to continue any longer than it must in order to allow us to arrest the spread of this terrible virus. We have committed to a fortnightly review process, with the aim of maximising the numbers receiving in-person learning, provided that it is safe to do so. The Cabinet will consider the output from that first review on Tuesday and we will communicate our decision thereafter.

As the First Minister has made clear, this is not a simple choice between opening and closing schools; if the evidence tells us that we can get some pupils back safely, we will maximise the numbers who are able to benefit. We will ensure that all appropriate mitigations are in place to support a safe return, which includes exploring the role that enhanced testing of school staff could play. Pilots of two different models—one using in-school testing with lateral flow devices and another involving at-home testing using polymerase chain reaction tests—are planned to begin in a number of schools from next week.

While this situation lasts, I am determined to ensure that we deliver remote learning well across all local authorities and schools. I am also determined to make sure that the interventions that we put in place are positive additions to the education system of the future, as remote learning offers opportunities like the chance to diversify subject choices, support rural communities and provide a robust offer for children whose schooling has been interrupted.

The virus will be beaten and schools will return fully to intensify our efforts to achieve excellence and equity for all of Scotland’s children.

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