Scottish Government’s school return plans are failing youngsters - Susan Dalgety
He grunted in reply. There were a few bangs and crashes and our FaceTime session resumed. “Now, let’s look at poetry techniques,” I said in my best Jean Brodie voice. “What was Edwin Morgan trying to make us think when he used words like “spurt” and “arterial blood.”
For the last few weeks I have been helping our grandson with his school work. English is my best subject. His grandad is the supply Maths teacher and we still have to decide who is going to supervise his Travel and Tourism project that has a 30th June deadline. I am hoping I get that job.
His parents are busy with their eight-year old twins. The girl is a joy to teach, eager to please mummy and her teacher, who calls once a week to say hello. Her brother sees his morning lessons as the terrible price he has to pay for an afternoon session of Minecraft.
A few miles down the road, their 6-year-old cousin looks forward to her weekly Zoom sessions with the Edinburgh Youth Theatre and Rainbows.
These extra-curricular activities, run by people who had no experience on digital learning before April, are her lifeline, more meaningful to her than the school exercises dumped on Microsoft Teams once a week.
All four miss their friends terribly, are falling behind in their academic work and are fearful for their future, even at eight years old.
They are not alone. There are around 700,000 school pupils in Scotland whose lives were turned upside down on March 23 when Scotland’s schools closed their doors.
By the time they go back to school on 11 August, and then only part time, they will have been out of education for nearly five months.
Even those young people with the most supportive of families will struggle to make up for lost time. It is a disaster for our most vulnerable children.
A 2015 report by What Works Scotland, a public sector research body, shows that the traditional summer holidays are a time of “great stress and impoverishment” for thousands of pupils.
And it quotes one study that claims half the achievement gap between lower and higher income young people can be explained by “unequal access to summer learning opportunities.”
Imagine then, the impact of the Covid-19 hiatus on the life chances of thousands of young Scots.
School plays another vital role in the lives of vulnerable children, as lawyer and former President of the Law Society of Scotland, Ian Smart, wrote earlier this week in his blog.
“In my work, I do a fair bit of child protection work, and very commonly children…are first flagged up by the school because their attendance, hygiene, nutrition or behaviour has caused their teachers’ concern.
“Sometimes the teacher has been the only person the child has felt confident to confide in.”
Parents too are suffering as they struggle to support their children. Social media is awash with parents, mostly mothers, screaming into the void about their fears for their children.
“They are becoming fat and feral,” says one.
“All our children are suffering,” says another. “I am feeling absolutely drained,” chimes in one woman who reflects the view of the majority.
And novelist Polly Clark sums up every parent and carer in the land when she tweeted, “The state must step up and prioritise education. Find a way.”
The Scottish Government’s “way” is a 23-page “strategic framework” for re-opening schools, published last month and written in partnership with “key partners across the education system”.
It boasts on the title page that “Equity and Excellence” are its guiding principles, but nowhere in the jargon-laden document can I find practical measures for rebuilding Scotland’s education system.
It is heavy on public health messages – highlighting the need for increased hand-washing in schools, and stressing that its first objective and “absolute necessity” is to contain and suppress the virus.
But it gives little practical guidance as to how local authorities and schools, working with parents, can make up for the lost months.
Should some children repeat a year? Could catch-up classes work for those who fallen badly behind? What about asking retired teachers to volunteer for a few months to help their colleagues. Why not ditch the October holidays? Will children be tested on their return to gauge where they need support? The strategic framework is silent.
Nor does it properly address the fears of working parents. Part-time schools, with childcare apparently reserved only for key workers, will force many to make an impossible choice between a job and at-home learning. Just how will families survive?
Scotland’s children need a champion. Someone who will stand up and fight for them, who will lead a national campaign to save the Covid generation of children from a lifetime of failure.
One former maths teacher, who was also Scotland’s First Minister for six years and Education minister before that, says we need a plan of action, urgently.
Jack McConnell acknowledges that mobilising the resources, people, facilities and equipment required is not easy. “But it was done for health and jobs in a few weeks,” he points out.
“It should have been in place for education as lockdown started to ease, but it is not too late. Part time learning starting eight weeks from now is just not good enough. The time for leadership on this has come.”
Scotland has long boasted of its world-beating education system.
Four hundred years ago, starting in 1616, Scotland’s Privy Council and Parliament introduced a series of tax laws that forced landowners to pay for parish schools and a teacher.
The final act, in 1696, confirmed Scotland’s position as the first country in the world to provide a legislative framework for a public education system for all.
Sadly, the members of today’s Scottish Government and Parliament have not yet shown the same drive and imagination as their 17th century peers.
Governing is hard. Governing during a pandemic must be gruelling.
But that is the job. And the first task on our ministers’ and MSPs’ “to-do list” must be to protect the future of Scotland’s young people.
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