Scottish return to school plan a ‘bleeding’ failure says former SNP minister

Scotland’s return to school plans have been branded “totally unacceptable” by a former SNP minister amid mounting protests about the amount of classroom time pupils will get with teachers.
Scotland's return to school plan has been heavily criticised.Scotland's return to school plan has been heavily criticised.
Scotland's return to school plan has been heavily criticised.

Students will get up to 14 hours a week in class under the plans revealed so far by local authorities – despite growing expectations that ­children will return to school full time in the autumn in other parts of the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said yesterday that he was “sure” full-time classes would be possible in England from September, following an announcement that schools in Northern Ireland would return to a normal timetable after cutting social distancing from 2m to 1m between pupils.

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Students at a number of schools in Glasgow will attend daily from August, but they will be in class only for half-days, while in other parts of the country pupils are due to be in for as little as one day a week.

The growing condemnation of the plans came as Orkney Islands Council said home learning was “undeliverable” in its area and called for “near-­normal” education on the island because of the lower Covid-19 rates there.

Research by The Scotsman shows a varied picture across Scotland, with some pupils at secondaries in Fife, East Ayrshire and West Dunbartonshire only being in school one day a week initially. Edinburgh secondaries may also be only able to host pupils once a week.

By contrast, pupils at some Glasgow secondaries will be in school every morning or afternoon, and in Inverclyde pupils will attend for five days every two weeks.

In Argyll and Bute, pupils will attend secondary schools daily on alternate weeks, or on two full days a week. The latter is planned in several other council areas.

All local authorities which have announced plans for their primary schools said pupils would be in class for two full days a week.

Ministers have said pupils should spend half the week in classes and half studying at home in “blended learning”.

Airdrie and Shotts MSP Alex Neil, a former health secretary, told Holyrood’s education committee that the current proposals - where regional differences could see some pupils returning to school for just one day a week - were “absolutely unacceptable”.

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He said: “That is not good quality education, that is not blending education. It’s bleeding education.

“Surely we can do far better than that for our children?”

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “Current plans for part-time learning are unworkable and potentially a disaster for children. At least Alex Neil has the guts to tell Nicola Sturgeon and his front bench ministers some difficult truths about their lack of ambition and incompetence.”

Parent councils representing 11 schools across Edinburgh have sent a joint letter to the city council voicing “deep concern” about its plans for blended learning.

It included a poll of 1,000 parents that showed nearly nine in ten felt plans to have only a third of pupils in school at a time was inadequate.

Education officials have said the limits on pupils attending school were because of the 2m distancing guidelines.

Mr Johnson has hinted at a possible reduction to 1m in England, saying yesterday “watch this space”.

He said it was “absolutely” his aspiration that pupils of all ages will be back in the classroom for a full five days a week in September.

Most pupils in Northern Ireland are due to return to full-time education after the summer holidays as ministers agreed to cut the social distancing measure to 1m between pupils, though it will remain 2m for teachers.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the results of a Scottish Government review into reducing the 2m rule would be announced in two weeks.

However, council education directors warned that schools would need a significant amount of time to adapt their plans if the guidance changed.

Ms Sturgeon said ministers were looking at options “that don’t involve the same degree of social distancing”.

She said: “I want to see if we can get that different model that I think will make it easier to get children back to school full time as normal, but … we can’t ignore the fact that there is a potentially deadly virus still posing a risk to our ­population.”

National clinical director Professor Jason Leitch said the Scottish Government would “in time” decide what to do about distancing measures.

In Orkney, council leader James Stockan called for a regional approach to re-opening schools depending on virus levels, adding: “We want to see a return to full in-school teaching as early as possible in areas like Orkney.”

Stephen McCabe, education spokesman of local authority umbrella body Cosla, told the education committee: “The best for children is to return to full-time education in school without any requirements for social distancing.

“The reality is we are being advised by the government and by the scientists at this point in time that children can only come to school in August on the basis of a 2m social distance, therefore it’s impossible for us to provide full-time education with that constraint.”

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Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw called for the Scottish Government to “show a bit more ambition and imagination” on the issue.

He said: “It’s simply not acceptable for some children to only be going back to school once or twice a week. That will worsen the already damaging situation of lockdown, and risks leaving Scottish children at a disadvantage compared to their contemporaries across the rest of the UK and Europe.”

A Glasgow City Council spokesman said: “There are different models – some with half the school coming for the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

“Some with full days – half doing Monday, Tuesday and the other half doing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday then the following week they swap.

“The model chosen depends on a variety of factors.”

Meanwhile, the UK government announced £1 billion for a “national catch up plan” to support pupils during the summer, including £350 million towards a national tutoring programme for the most disadvantaged pupils and £650m for schools to spend.

It is expected to lead to tens of millions of pounds coming to the Scottish Government through the Barnett formula.

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