By Bill Heaney

MSPs were queuing up to quiz deputy First Minister John Swinney, pictured right, about schools – should they be shut and when will they open again?

West of Scotland Tory Jamie Greene asked: “The move to remote learning has added to the pressures on teachers, on working parents and, more important, on young people. The move has been the Government’s contingency plan—its plan B—for quite some time, so why, 10 months into the pandemic, are there still so many uncertainties, such as about why access to meaningful remote learning has become a postcode lottery and whether teachers are supposed to give live lessons? In addition, many questions still remain about this year’s qualifications model.

“Why are young people being asked to use games consoles to access learning? Why does not every pupil who needs a device to learn on have one? When will the additional funding that has been announced today actually hit the pockets of local authorities so that they can put new staff in place, given that we are already halfway through January?

“When will we finally see the full detail of and guidance on the alternative certification model? Many people are still completely in the dark about the plans.

“Will the Government commit to doing what we are calling for, which is to double financial support for online learning if schools remain closed beyond the end of January?”

John Swinney replied that he did not “accept that characterisation” and accused Jamie Greene of doing “a disservice to education professionals the length and breadth of the country who are, at this moment, working really hard to deliver remote learning and to give live lessons and have live interactions with pupils. That is all going on today and has been going on all this week.”

He added: “On the specifics, I recounted that we did a data collection exercise that identified that 70,000 young people who needed devices were without them. We have put in place the resources that have enabled 70,000 devices and connectivity packages to be put in place, and I have put new money on the table today for local authorities to fill any gaps that they still face. I have committed that money, so local authorities know that it is coming to them and can commit to the expenditure that is required.

“All the detail on the alternative certification model has been published. What the national qualifications group is wrestling with is the implications of the move to remote learning that was announced a week ago. All the detail was published before that, so the group is simply responding to the changes that were announced just a week ago. The group is taking care to consult the education system, as the Priestley review asked it to do, and it is doing that very well and to my satisfaction. Details were published yesterday on the steps that have been taken, and further details will be published shortly.”

Labour’s Iain Gray said: “It is clear that teachers in difficult circumstances have worked hard over recent months in preparation for a sudden shift to remote learning and that they were ready with materials and programmes for their pupils to continue learning at home.

“However, many will feel that they have been let down by the national platforms on which they thought they could rely—most notably through a widespread software failure. There have also been problems with the flagship e-Sgoil platform. One headteacher told me that pupils logging in did not get the licence that was advertised, that links have not worked and that, in any case, most subjects are still not covered.

“The Scottish Qualifications Authority then lived down to expectations by publishing an assessment update on its update, promising another update to come. It is still looking for two to four assessments to be done, and is even suggesting that teachers might invigilate them remotely using—I presume—the information technology that was not working at that point.

“Why did Education Scotland not fully stress test well in advance the IT that it was recommending for schools? Is the e-Sgoil offer fixed today? Will it be extended to all subjects? Is not it time to accept that trusting teacher assessments is the only viable alternative to exams, in the current circumstances? We need to give teachers, pupils and parents clarity now.”

John Swinney replied: “On IT, the Glow Connect system accesses Teams, which is delivered by Microsoft—it is the product supplier that delivers the platform on which Glow Connect is based. We look to Microsoft to fulfil its obligation, as the technology provider, to ensure that that is in place.

“On Monday, there was a widespread problem that was not unique to Glow Connect—it affected a wide range of organisations that use Microsoft Teams. I suspect that it was probably to do with so many people accessing Microsoft Teams at one time. Microsoft has addressed the issues to our satisfaction—the system operated well yesterday and I am informed that it is working well today.

“In relation to the national e-learning offer, there are more than 500 recorded lessons available, and e-Sgoil is providing coverage across a range of courses.

“Finally, on assessment, teacher estimates will underpin the alternative certification model. It has been agreed with the national qualifications group that a number of different elements of in-school assessments will form that teacher judgment. The model was put in place prior to the move to remote learning.

“The national qualifications group—which is, I stress, led by the SQA, and is representative of and involves a range of interested parties, including our professional associations—is looking at how the move to remote learning affects delivery of the alternative certification model. I am keen to give the system some time, so that the implications of the issues can be thought through and for those to be communicated directly, which will be done in short order.”

Tory Liz Smith asked: “What discussions has the cabinet secretary or Education Scotland had with BBC Scotland and other television channels about additional support for pupils whose first language is not English and who are, obviously, under considerable pressure during this pandemic?”

Mr Swinney replied: “There has been good discussion between Education Scotland and BBC Scotland, and I spoke to the director of BBC Scotland about all of those issues last week.

“Specific measures will be put in place by individual schools to ensure that the learning of young people who do not have English as their first language is supported. Obviously, schools know those pupils well, and that work must be finely targeted.

“That is a big challenge for our schools, because a broad range of languages is spoken in them, as Liz Smith knows. Fundamentally, the responsibility to establish that dialogue will be a school-based one.”

LibDem Beatrice Wishart said: “Families’ lives and livelihoods revolve around their childcare arrangements. The Government cannot simply gamble on employers being understanding and flexible, so there needs to be a robust system.

“Families need to make safe arrangements without putting themselves at risk or sacrificing their careers, and, of course, those decisions will impact women the most. What should families without a childcare place or an informal option do?”

The Education Secretary replied: “We are in quite exceptional circumstances just now, and I am afraid that we have to ask employers to work with us in this respect. We have put into law a requirement for people to stay at home unless they have a reasonable justification for leaving home—that is now the law of Scotland.

“We do that not because we are keen to do that but because we have to do that, and we have to have employers working with us and supporting us in enabling employees to stay at home in order to minimise the number of children who are in school, so that we can reduce the human interaction in our society and reduce the spread of the virus. I am afraid that those are the hard consequences of trying to tackle Covid.

“We are putting in place as much flexibility as we can around the provision of childcare. There is more in place than was the case last March, but we have to be robust in ensuring that we reduce the level of human interaction in our society or the virus will overwhelm our national health service.”

Tory Jamie Greene; Green Party MSP Ross Greer and LibDem Beatrice Wishart.

Green Party MSP Ross Greer raised the question of special schools – “Some special schools are operating as normal, having designated all pupils as vulnerable. The complex needs of their pupils might justify that decision, but a number of teachers and staff have contacted me with concerns for their health as a result, because it is impossible to socially distance in a special school setting when teachers also fulfil a personal care role, similar to that of a care worker. Are staff in the unique setting of special schools being considered for priority access to vaccinations?

Mr Swinney said this raised significant issues “about whether those staff members are part of the education workforce or the health and social care workforce. The fact that staff deliver their work in a school setting should not determine whether they are school or health and social care staff—their functions might be those of the latter—so we are actively exploring that issue at the moment.

Labour’s Claire Baker said: “I want to follow on from Ross Greer’s question and ask about the definition of vulnerability. In the first lockdown, a hub model was operated with restricted attendance.

“This time, the guidance is resulting in the widespread reopening of additional support needs settings and departments of additional support, which is putting staff and pupils at increased risk.

“Will the cabinet secretary review the criteria to encourage and support restricted attendance and blended learning?”

John Swinney replied: “There is a judgment to be made by schools—particularly special schools and those that support young people with additional support needs—as to whether it would be better for a young person to be educated in school or supported at home. Schools are making those judgments.

“We will be looking carefully at the data that emerges about the number of pupils who are presenting at schools. I have to be mindful of the number of pupils and staff who are in our schools, because if we do not reduce it, moving to a remote learning platform will not benefit the wider suppression of the virus in Scotland.

“I am looking at that data daily, but it is early days for me to see any patterns in it. I will update Parliament on whether we need to take any other action in that respect, to ensure that we reduce the numbers of young people and staff in our schools.”

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