Lockdown: SNP should talk to teachers, not unions, about return to school – Cameron Wyllie

Some teachers may be willing to return to the classroom sooner rather than later, writes Cameron Wyllie
Socially distanced classes have continued at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh for children of key workers (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Socially distanced classes have continued at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh for children of key workers (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Socially distanced classes have continued at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh for children of key workers (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

I loved my career, but I am very glad I am not a teacher just now, particularly that I am not a Head. I am also grateful that I am not a pupil, particularly one in P7 or in S6, missing their special summer terms, or indeed in any exam year, sitting wondering – in between bouts on Xbox – how exactly their results will be worked out.

And I’m glad I’m not a parent, trying to make my children learn, probably while working myself, or looking after the baby, and worrying about the grandparents. But most of all I’m glad I’m not John Swinney.

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No one who watched the First Minister delivering yesterday’s statement about lockdown can fail to be impressed by her statesmanship and clarity, but I wonder how Mr Swinney is feeling. He is a good man, clever and honest and seasoned, but even a politician of his calibre and experience must be losing sleep.

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Forget the general state of Scottish schools before lockdown, forget the poor international rankings in maths and science, forget the contradiction in terms that is ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, all of that paled beside the issue of whether and when the schools would go back. Now we have been told that teachers will return in mid-June, but only to prepare classrooms for a partial return in August. Essentially John Swinney was damned whatever he decided, in circumstances over which he has very little control, and which are unique and very complex indeed.

Scottish strategy is cautious and clear

The Government, like all governments, says it must follow the science, but in calculating the particular parameters of the vexed issue of returning to school, the ‘scientists’ need to be a varied bunch, not just epidemiologists and statisticians, but also psychiatrists, social workers, designers, teachers and yes, perhaps even educationalists. Mr Swinney – on behalf of the Scottish Government – needs to take the responsibility, being absolutely confident that the opposition, and the press, will scrutinise every step.

Yesterday’s strategy is admirably cautious and, indeed, clear. That fudge shop on the Royal Mile – tasty samples – seems to have relocated to Westminster, whereas here, well, a return to school is just not happening.

If the schools had gone back then some children would get infected, and some teachers and classroom assistants and janitors and catering staff, and some parents and grandparents. Mr Swinney would have had to bear the awful burden of that decision. So the lucid message that schools won’t open until the new session, appears to be a moral, medical and indeed a political no-brainer.

However, it’s not that simple. There is quite a weight on the other side of the scales, maybe enough even to have warranted the return of some children to some schools with some teaching, before the holidays, and I think that scenario is still worth discussing for a number of reasons and, because I’m no economist, I’m not even going to touch on the issue of parents, freed up, being able to return to full-time work where that is possible.

Nobody’s fault

School is about a lot more than learning and teaching, but let’s start there. The current situation is that the vast majority of teachers are trying very hard to provide a partial service for their students. However, it’s not what they are trained to do. The outcome of this online ‘learning’ must be patchy, with some parents saying that their kids are inundated with work, and some saying they aren’t getting much.

Sometimes, it’s assessed and sometimes it’s not. Of course, all parties involved lose the dynamic of the classroom. Anyone who has parented or taught, say, an average 13-year-old boy has to ask will he retain anything at all of second-year learning, if he misses school for five months?

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So, I think a lot of teachers are heroically battling their own doubts about the value of the educational experience that’s on offer. I worry in particular about S4 pupils, disincentivised from study by the necessary disappearance of this month’s exams and half-heartedly starting Higher courses, possibly without much advice as to course choice. None of this is anybody’s fault; it’s an inevitable product of the lockdown scenario.

Additionally, this educational provision is only available to young people who can access the technology, with parents who are willing and/or able to help them and chide them and praise them. I fear there are households where not much learning will be happening and I was pleased by the pledge to spend money on technology for the pupils.

But add to that the astonishing difficulties of practising pastoral care virtually and of helping parents whose children are anorexic, self-harming, depressed; and added to that is friendship. At the end of the great film Stand By Me, the narrator says: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”. Those friendships are most important to young people without strong supportive families or the capacity to chat endlessly on their phones or screens.

Vulnerable kids with no gardens

I think there’s a significant group of young people who are being particularly affected by lockdown. Many children are having an enriched time, baking, going on nature trails, moving between stop action movies with their dad the designer and acting out Shakespeare with mum, the lawyer, and the twins. That is great and they are very lucky.

But I fear for the vulnerable kids with no gardens, maybe one struggling parent, little or no IT, who have the telly and food and their bed as the most pleasing options. We know that domestic abuse has escalated, and some children aren’t getting away from that to school.

It’s back to the poverty-related attainment gap which everyone agrees needs to be closed; I just fear that these disastrous times will set that commendable project back for a long, long time.

So, Mr Swinney, all of us in education, past or present, are thinking of you at this hard time. May I suggest that you speak directly to teachers, not the unions, about their thoughts and fears in these historic times, and about what is actually happening in terms of educational provision.

I think you might find that some of them, frustrated beyond distraction by what they are doing just now, might well be willing to volunteer to return to work in an actual classroom, providing all the necessary measures were in place to maximise the safety of their pupils and themselves. And if they did that, the nation would happily clap for them too, in that new religion so joyfully celebrated on Thursday nights.

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Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa

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