The Covid19 crisis has been the challenge of a lifetime for our children, as we approach relaxing lockdown we must do right by them
The announcement in March that schools would close from the 23rd was one of the starkest indications that the action forced on government by Covid-19 is unprecedented. That was underlined by the consequent cancellation of this year’s exams, something which has not happened in over a century, even in wartime.
Scotland’s teachers worked a miracle, moving learning into the home through the production and delivery of home learning packs, and the creation and dissemination of online resources. They have continued to create work for pupils in lockdown, as well as using platforms like google hangout to keep in touch with them.
Meanwhile others in the profession have stepped up to the frontline by staffing Hubs providing childcare and learning for the children of key workers and other vulnerable children, underpinning the response from the NHS and other services.
Parents too have had to respond, reinventing themselves as home educators while in many cases trying to also do their own job from home.There have been problems though. Closure was foreseen, as it had already happened in other countries, and so we could have been better prepared, for example, plans for exam cancellation should have been ready for that announcement. There was significant confusion about whether senior pupils should continue to attend school and whether they had to complete coursework, leading to some being presented with snap “prelims” on their last day in school.
We had to wait far too long to hear from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) on how pupils grades would be awarded, although it seemed clear that this would have to be based on teacher judgement. Now that we have a scheme, many teachers believe that the requirement on them to rank pupils within bands within grades is impossible. Meanwhile there is concern that teacher awarded grades may be marked down, or up on the basis of a schools previous attainment, to the detriment of pupils from more deprived communities and the advantage of those attending schools where attainment is traditionally high.
In a virtual meeting of the Scottish Parliament Education Committee last week the Chief Executive of the SQA struggled to allay any of these concerns, and failed to engender the confidence pupils, parents and teachers must have in these arrangements.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s other national education body, Education Scotland has failed to step up to the home-schooling plate.
In one example, some local authorities have encouraged “live” online teaching for pupils, while others have discouraged or even banned it in response to fears about online safety. Education Scotland’s response was to simply say it is up to local councils.
Overall then, our school system has responded incredibly well to this crisis. It is not too late for Education Scotland to show more leadership, or for the SQA to trust teacher judgement in grades and pull back on plans for heavy handed moderation based on previous years’ results.
Nonetheless, as thoughts turn towards how schools might go back, we cannot pretend that the past few weeks has been “normal” schooling. Parents are not teachers, nor can they be expected to be. Levels of engagement with school work by children has been variable, for many reasons. Above all, everyone believes that it is the pupils from our deprived communities, already facing the greatest barriers to learning who will have suffered most. Well established research shows that the poverty related attainment gap widens every year over the long summer holiday, so it is safe to assume it will have got worse during lockdown too.
Closing schools was the right thing to do, in fact they probably should have closed sooner. It is not yet time to open them up again. That certainly is the message from the First Minister in her latest framework document. For one thing, that probably requires the test trace and isolate strategy to be in place, not just a plan. Teacher Unions across the UK are certainly of the view that reopening schools soon would not be safe.
It looks likely that a safe return cannot happen before the summer holidays, which of course come earlier in Scotland than in England.
Yet we must use this time to be better prepared for a return than we were for lockdown. There are big questions about which pupils should go back first, about how we maintain some social distancing through part time returns, and serious negotiations required with teacher and other staff unions to ensure confidence in their safety.
The Education Secretary has started a group to consider this plan, which is welcome. Some initial ideas have been floated, about a phased return, blending blocks of physical attendance with online learning.
That is a start, but it will create huge issues around childcare for teachers and parents of their pupils. There also has to be serious engagement with parents and the public. If parents do not have confidence that their children are safe at school, they will not let them attend. That has been the experience of those countries, like Denmark, who have moved quickly to reopen schools.
These plans will also need someone to come up with national measures to ensure access to online materials for all, if that is to be core to this new “normal”. Some councils, like Aberdeen City Council, have provided 4g connected chromebooks to pupils, but that certainly has not happened everywhere. It cannot be simply left to cash strapped councils to do their best.
Any reopening plan will also have to include new measures to support those children at the wrong end of the attainment gap. It is not enough for ministers to say, as they have so far, that they will continue with initiatives such as pupil equity funding. They were doing that already – we need something new and very focussed to mitigate the damage being done daily to the education and life chances of those pupils from deprived communities. For these pupils it is teacher support, guidance and encouragement which can really make the difference, exactly what they are not getting right now. Additional personal or small group tutoring for such children is one idea suggested by Labour MPs in North East England, and that is the kind of idea we must consider.
Finally, when we do reopen schools, we cannot hide or forget the challenges they were already facing. A narrowing of the curriculum, systematic use of multilevel classes, falling support for pupils with additional support needs, and a four year downward trend in pass rates. These were all to be considered by a major review – now delayed until after the next election. The impact of the shutdown will only be exacerbated if we simply allow these systemic problems to re-establish themselves while we wait for the OECD.
Our children and grandchildren will remember this Covid-19 crisis for the rest of their lives. We have to ensure that they do not suffer the consequences of an interrupted education for the rest of their lives too.