Education in Scotland: Debate over getting children back to school is being dominated by some loud voices – Martyn McLaughlin

The row over the reopening of schools is intensifying, but it is being skewed by sweeping assumptions and a lack of transparency, writes Martyn McLaughlin

The debate around reopening schools in Scotland is intensifying, but it is not as nuanced or inclusive as it could be. Picture: David Jones/PA Wire
The debate around reopening schools in Scotland is intensifying, but it is not as nuanced or inclusive as it could be. Picture: David Jones/PA Wire

The list of acronyms which populates Scottish education is near endless, a slew of unintelligible blue sky thoughts workshopped by disruptive idea champions which signify a great deal but say very little, and leave you wondering if anyone involved in their creation has ever seen a child, let alone taught one.

At the top of the tree, one acronym presides over all others; Girfec, which stands for Getting It Right For Every Child, is the Scottish Government’s model for improving the lot of the nation’s youngsters. There exists a slew of Powerpoint presentations and sub-par Ted Talks which elaborate on its principles, but to summarise, it aspires to place children, young people and their families at the centre of decision-making, and ensure that their well-being is paramount.

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These are sound foundations and it is hard to disagree with either their purpose or prominence. But if the creeping jargon of managerialism in education rang hollow prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been diminished even further since.

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Impatience with the sticking plaster approach is at breaking point, and anger and anxiety are mounting over the blended learning system earmarked for August. The debate has intensified dramatically in recent days, assuming the scale and momentum of a fully fledged campaign.

I empathise with those who point out that the reliance on home-schooling has a detrimental impact on children, and places wildly unrealistic expectations on parents and carers. My wife and I have been working throughout lockdown while looking after our children. It quickly became apparent the only way to make it work was not to try and make the impossible happen, but to embrace what is practicable.

That has meant little in the way of prescribed curricular lessons, but a good deal of creative, expressive learning, crafting, and rambling nature walks. Is that ideal? Far from it. But then, what the new normal looks like for my family is not the same as it does for yours.

That is why I struggle to get on board with the Us For Them Scotland movement, which has attracted more than 3,000 supporters behind its goal of convincing the Scottish Government to “get our children back to school full-time and as normal as schools were before they were closed”.

The group’s misgivings are well-founded. The blended model is an inelegant fix which will exert extraordinary pressures on children and families, and it will widen an already stubborn attainment gap. But the proposed solution of doing away with social distancing altogether makes sweeping assumptions. Yes, there is a body of evidence to show children are less likely to become infected, but it is perilously slim, and there is nothing close to a scientific consensus on how likely it is that they can spread the virus to others.

The group asserts a moral argument which insists children should not be exposed to further disruption or harm. Simply stating that this should take primacy over the emerging science does not make it so. Parental exceptionalism is a powerful force, though not always the most cogent one.

Striking a balance between mitigating those health risks and the educational rights of children is a near-impossible feat, but it is misguided and disingenuous to claim, as Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale has done, that achieving normalcy is a matter of political will or “can do” attitudes,

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In any case, restoring routine in the lives of children, some of whom will have experienced devastating trauma, cannot be achieved by fully reopening schools alone. The world will be a strange and unwelcoming place for some time. It is a fallacy to presume that if familiar routines are restored in classrooms, it will do much more than blunt the sharpest edges of the pandemic’s impact.

Difficult conversations and fraught decisions lie ahead. Education and childcare are integral to the well-being of families and the recovery of an embattled economy, but we must not conflate the two. Even if a return to Monday to Friday classroom learning becomes a reality, we should ask what that learning will look like, and whether enough is being done to value emotional literacy alongside academic attainment

What is needed is a nuanced, inclusive debate which addresses those core principles of Girfec. That means ensuring we do not just listen to those able to speak the loudest, such as Lord McConnell, who proposes full-time in-school teaching or, at the very least, “organised sites” where children can learn online under supervision.

The former First Minister has been keen to remind the public of his credentials as a mathematics teacher. It is just one of several avenues he has explored either side of his time at Holyrood. Nowadays, he is also a global advisor for PwC, where he has advised on education reform in Australia.

One the Big Four accountancy firms, PwC has branching out in recent years into schools, perhaps the final frontier of privatisation. As recently as 2016, its education and skills lead even suggested that online teaching tools such as Tute “could be used to support regions of the UK where recruiting from a dwindling pool of teachers is becoming increasingly challenging”.

None of which should necessarily preclude Lord McConnell from the current debate. Nor should it be mistaken for his personal views. It would, however, make for a better-informed contribution were he to explain how his interests ally with an accounting giant which has a clear interest in the rapidly growing global education technology market.

A similar level of transparency would be helpful from Reform Scotland, a prominent think tank and lobbying body which receives the majority of its voluntary donations from the business community. Such organisations can call on expertise and experience. Yet they should not dominate the political and media discourse. All it takes is a pandemic to remind you that Scotland can be a suffocatingly cosy wee country.

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So yes, let’s all try and get things right for our children. They deserve nothing more. But we must not pretend that such a thing as uniform normality will exist for some considerable time, and let’s ask those who bark the loudest what dogs they have in this fight.

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