April 21, 2020 Blog

Scotland’s education system needs a better plan for Covid-19 and beyond

We are in unprecedented times as we adjust to the “new normal” forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the biggest decisions of all, to close schools was the right one, but the long-term consequences are still to be realised. For parents and carers, teaching their children at home has been very challenging – and more so because many of them are also having to balance alternative working patterns at home.

It is important now to make sure all pupils in Scotland have access to appropriate learning materials at home, to minimise differences in the standard of their continued education because of where they live or their parents’ ability to support their learning. Teachers have done a remarkable job of moving education online and otherwise into the home, but now more than ever, it is essential that the Scottish Government plays its part. Some schools have provided tablets for pupils who do not have them, but not all homes have broadband, and there could be a role for government in providing 4G routers to pupils who need them.

Before the crisis, the Government’s stated priority was closing the poverty related attainment gap, and it must now do all it can to mitigate the worsening of that gap by Covid-19. Only this week we have seen data showing just how wide that gap is, going into this crisis.

We need a plan now from Ministers and Education Scotland on how they will address this.

Meanwhile we have had to wait weeks for pupils in their final years of school, and their teachers, to find out how their results will be graded without formal examinations. That has been too long, and now that the process has been produced it still begs many questions. Some teachers have complained that it is not clear, and there are concerns that results will in the end be based on a school’s performance in previous years, rather than the assessment by teachers of their pupils’ performance.

If that means that a pupil who was assessed, as likely to pass by their teachers can then be subsequently failed by the SQA, then the Education Secretary’s claim to trust teacher judgement will ring hollow for many. The Scottish Government must think carefully about how this system institutionalises long standing differences in attainment, and in particular, it must ensure such a system does not negatively impact measures to widen access to university, where fragile progress has been made in recent years.

Teachers and pupils have had to wait too long for clarity from the SQA, Scotland’s exam body, and Government and the SQA have a big job now to ensure that pupils, parents and teachers trust the system they have finally come up with.

This is an unprecedented and challenging time for Scotland’s educators and pupils, and we understand that addressing current issues within our school system will involve difficult decisions and inevitable scrutiny. Scottish Labour is fully prepared to work with the Scottish Government and other parties at Holyrood to make sure all of our young people are protected, both in health and in their continuing education, but we will continue to scrutinise government as appropriate.

That applies to plans for coming out of these restrictions too. Ministers are right to resist demands that they reopen schools before they can do so safely. However, that does mean planning now for how such a reopening can happen, how it should be phased, what safety precautions will be required, and which pupils should be the priority for return. It will require careful consultation and negotiation with parents, teachers, trade unions and local authorities. It probably needs a significant increase in testing for Covid-19 before it becomes even a possibility.

It is understandable that Ministers cannot say when such a return to schools will become possible, but we cannot arrive at that point unprepared as we were for closure – we need to see and hear evidence that the planning for how, not when is happening now.