Scottish Government accused of ‘mother and father of all climbdowns’ on schools

Scottish pupils could now be set to make a “full-time” return to schools when they go back after the summer holidays.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney announces plans for  the 100% return of pupils to Scottish schoolsDeputy First Minister John Swinney announces plans for  the 100% return of pupils to Scottish schools
Deputy First Minister John Swinney announces plans for the 100% return of pupils to Scottish schools

Controversial plans for a “blended” learning approach would have seen children in school for just half the week or less. But Education Secretary John Swinney announced 100% reopening may now go-ahead after the dramatic progress in driving down cases of Coronavirus in Scotland.

Next year’s exams will also now proceed after having been previously cast into doubt as a result of the virus.

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The news was hailed as a “relief” for parents and businesses.

But Mr Swinney was accused of the “mother and father of all climbdowns” by opponents after indicating earlier this month that the “blended” approach may be in place for a year. Councils have spent recent weeks drawing up plans for pupils to be in place for one, two or three days a week and it may yet be implemented if there is another flare-up in Covid cases.

Teaching unions also warned that safeguards such as face coverings. perspex shields and enhanced testing will need to be in place to protect teachers.

But the Education Secretary told MSPs at Holyrood yesterday that the picture looks “more positive” than when the blended learning plan was drawn up in mid-May.

“We have seen Scotland make significant progress,” he said.

“There are now only 2,000 infectious people in Scotland - a reduction of around 90% 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 this trajectory, which cannot be taken for granted, by August the position will be even better. That is the good news. That means we are now 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 children to be able to return to school full-time in August.

“I must stress that this is the aim that the Government is now working towards.”

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But he insisted this remains “conditional” on ongoing scientific and health advice. The full-time return depends on the continued progress in bringing down cases of the virus and blended learning may yet be adopted if there is flare-up in cases.

Scientific advisors are also assessing whether any changes can be made to social distancing in schools. It was recently announced that schools will return full-time in Northern Ireland after the Summer with a one metre distancing rule in place.

Scotland’s national exams diet - Highers and nationals - were cancelled this year as a result of the schools closure, with pupils to be awarded a grade based on class work and teacher assessments. Mr Swinney had previously warned that there could be a repeat next year, but the Education Secretary insisted yesterday that he now expects that exams will take place.

“The planning intention is that the 2021 exam diet will take place and the planning is being put in place for that.

“My expectation is that it will take place.”

But they may be delayed by a “matter a weeks” to provide pupils with extra teaching that they will have effectively missed in the final weeks of the 2019/20 terms when the courses for the following year get underway.

“If there is an opportunity, because young people have lost a period of learning, they would normally have started classes at the latest probably in early June, some would have started them in June for national 5s, so there may be a slight delay to the timetable but the planning assumption is that the 2021 exam diet will go ahead.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union accepted that as cases of the virus fall, then guidance in relation to schools is likely to change. But he warned that “appropriate mitigations” must be in place to guard against any local “resurgence” of the virus.

“In terms of schools, this means looking at measures already being used elsewhere such as mandatory face coverings, protective perspex shields, proactive testing of teachers and an appropriate level of physical distancing between pupils and most certainly between pupils and staff, alongside continued protections for vulnerable groups,” he said.

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“A great deal of work at school level has already gone into planning for a blended learning model from August 11th, so any change to that will require time to adjust plans and conduct revised risk assessments. Again, this will need to be subject to discussion and agreement.

“Everyone wishes to see schools operate as normal, but this should be done in a way which is demonstrably safe for students and staff.”

But opponents slammed Mr Swinney’s approach, which met with criticism from parents who feared they could not return to work if their children were being taught form home.

Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene said; “Recent events have exposed nothing but a complete vacuum of leadership in the handling of this issue.

“The reality is that today’s u-turn, and it is that, has been forced upon the Government after relentless campaigning from all quarters - political, academic, charitable and most importantly by parents themselves to whom we owe the most credit in all of this.”

Labour’s Iain Gray described the announcement by Mr Swinney as the “mother and father” of all ministerial climbdowns.

“All of those occasions when he has spoken to Parliament about this plan, it has been clear that blended learning is the only possibility for August. Ten days ago, Mr Swinney said it might last a year. On Friday, his co-chair of the education recovery group confirmed that blended learning was the only plan.

“Now at the last possible moment we have a completely new plan.

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“We asked for a route map back to schools. It turns out, we’ve been on a mystery tour.”

Mr Swinney that Ministers could only be criticised for “erring on the side of caution” in regards to children’s health.

Scots pupils are scheduled to return for the 2020/21 term in mid-August.

The decision to go back full-time will come as a relief to parents, according to small business chiefs.

Colin Borland, the Federation of Small Business’ director of devolved nations said: “The Education Secretary has made the right call by ensuring that schools will offer full-time education after the summer holidays. Employers and working parents will breathe a sigh of relief, given the significant economic consequences and practical difficulties of a part-time school system.

“The small business community would urge the Scottish Government to use this momentum and back day nurseries and other childcare providers so they can also open full-time on August 11, or earlier, as recommended in our recent FSB report.”

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