Scottish schools back to normal 'as soon as possible' and exams will go ahead next year, says Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon has said blended learning in schools will not last a year and that next year’s exams will go ahead, as she attempted to reassure parents’ after rising concerns about the long-term impact of a lack of formal schooling on children.

The First Minister said that schools will return to normal as soon as it is safe, and that the Scottish Government was committed to holding the normal examination diet next year.

Her comments came a day after parents raised concerns about the future of education, after the Education Secretary John Swinney said schools were unlikely to return to normal in the next academic year and exams in 2021 could be pushed later into the summer.

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Scottish schools ‘unlikely’ to return to normal next year, John Swinney says
Nicola Sturgeon has said exams will take place next year

At the government’s daily coronavirus briefing, she said: “From August 11 our aim will be to return to normal schooling as quickly as we possibly can, recognising of course, that we must build the confidence of parents, young people and teachers that schools are safe.

“While we have a duty to be open with parents, none of us have a crystal ball and the path this pandemic will take in the months ahead remains uncertain, but it’s absolutely not the case that we are planning for blended learning to last a year or anything like it.

“We do not want blended learning to last a single moment longer than is absolutely necessary so we will be working with councils to return schools to normal as quickly as we can. We want young people to be back to having face-to-face teaching for 100 per cent of the school week as soon as it is feasible.”

Ms Sturgeon said that the three-weekly reviews of the emergency coronavirus regulations by government and the Scottish Parliament, would also now “include specific consideration” of how the virus was being transmitted in schools and among young people. “Where that suggests that safety restrictions can be lifted or eased without putting young people and teachers at undue risk then we will do so,” she said.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said schools will be 100% operational as soon as it is feasibile.

The government’s International Council of Education Advisors was also being consulted to take a view of how schools were returning to full operation in other countries.

She added: We will also be working with councils to ensure ongoing and enhanced support for any time young people spend learning at home, and let me be clear, it is our firm intention as things stand right now, that next year’s exam diet will go ahead.”

Echoing Mr Swinney’s pledge that the government would scrutinise all councils plans for blended learning, she said that if it was concluded “not all possible steps have been taken to maximise face-to-face teaching and learning we will ask councils to revise their plans.”

She added: “Innovation and creativity will be required here, but let me also be clear, where there are genuine issues of resources, the Scottish Government will work with councils to address those and the quality of your children’s education will be the absolute priority in those discussions.We will also be considering carefully how we work to address the impact of this crisis period on young people’s learning.

“Ensuring that our children and young people have the highest quality education and their life chances are not impacted negatively by what we’re living through right now is absolutely critical. I want to give a categoric assurance that is essential to my, and the whole government’s thinking, as we plan and steer the country through our emergence from lockdown.”

Earlier, the issue of this year’s exams was raised in a letter from Holyrood's Education Committee to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which warned that secondary school teachers could be forced to choose between appealing their pupils' grades and preparing for reopening schools.

The SQA's exam replacement plans mean the appeals process for challenging lower than expected results could open from August 4 - the week before schools are expected to start their phased reopening.

But the Education Committee “continues to have concerns” about the SQA's grading system following the cancellation of this year's exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. In its letter to the exams board, committee convener Clare Adamson says the timescale will cause “a capacity issue for secondary school teachers” who will also be making “intensive preparations” to reopen classrooms safely from August 14.

Ms Adamson added that the large number of appeals challenging grades through the proposed system could lead to a delay for pupils confirming places on university and college courses.

The letter also expresses concern about the balance between evidence to back up a grade and a teacher's judgment, pointing out the SQA's recent guidance states “evidence to substantiate an appeal is required.”

It calls for more information about how the appeals process will work “for those young people where teachers' inferred attainment has relied more on the understanding of the pupil than tangible evidence.

“The committee understood from the SQA that where the evidence may be lacking that a young person will achieve a certain level based on their performance before the coronavirus outbreak, but a teacher's judgment was that they had the capacity to achieve a particular level, then an estimate could be based on this teacher judgment,” the letter adds.

The committee also asks the SQA for more information about potential plans for next year's exams, amid concern about them going ahead and the impact of the blended learning situation on pupils' attainment.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told MSPs there should be a plan in place in case next year's exam diet does not go ahead. Giving evidence to the committee last week Mr Swinney had said the SQA was contacting schools to make staff aware of the need to gather information and evidence on pupils' performance throughout the forthcoming academic year.

The Education Secretary added: “Although we are planning for an exam diet I cannot say with absolute certainty that it will be able to take place. So we are asking schools to gather evidence on an ongoing basis to support judgments that may be required to be made in the spring of 2021.”

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