Scottish education in the Covid pandemic: to be forewarned is to be forearmed

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With so much still unknown, Bill Ramsay says the rush to return to school is ill-advised and dangerous

When considering Scottish education at this time, it must be borne in mind that the tension between health and economic factors, what I will call the ‘Covid calculus’, is constantly changing. As the ‘Covid calculus’ changes so do the expectations and demands on all in Scottish education. The current positive downward trajectory of Covid-19 may continue and much of the discourse and political aspiration is focusing on that. Yet, this downward trajectory may stall. And in amongst all this, we have science as ‘truth’, science as ‘conjecture’ and now, dangerously, ‘inconvenient’ science. Some climatologists must be thinking, ‘welcome to my world!’.

The politeness and patience of some child poverty champions when confronted by the crocodile tears of some on the right is commendable. We can only hope that these new political champions and their ‘born again’ support for programmes of educational equity is sustained into the longer term. Certainly, teacher trade unionists in Scotland will do their bit to hold them to their pledges of support.

What we can all agree on, though, is that Covid-19 has forced a new discourse around education. Within this, Covid-19 has highlighted the centrality of the teacher, the classroom and the school. These are three components that, because they have been around ‘forever’, so-to-speak, tend to be taken for granted. In, and of themselves, they are the most critical components that any education system can bring to bear on educational inequity after, of course, the socio-economic settings in which young people find themselves.

At this time, some in the political community and in the media seem to have an expectation for teachers to plan for a wide range of contingencies, but then switch from any one of them to any other almost immediately on the 11 August this year.

We should remember that last year in Scotland there were 697,989 pupils and 52,247 teachers working for over thirty different employers. Even an organisation in uniform of that size would not be expected to flip from plan A to plan B to plan C and, if circumstances change, back to plan A with the flip of a switch.

As school buildings closed, teachers continued to work – though in different ways. Also, the response to the call for teachers to staff hubs was met swiftly. From the start, many teachers, often using their own or borrowed equipment, started to provide work and reassurance to their pupils. It should be remembered that many teachers have their own families to look after during lockdown. Most teachers are in the 25 to 40 age range and across the whole teacher workforce 77% are women, many of them carers. Then the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group was convened to work up a plan in response to our public health crisis.

At the time of writing, we have had some statements from the Scottish Government concerning the 2021 exam diet. Some, with a more progressive perspective, hoped that the educational storm clouds of Covid-19 might lead to a silver lining where one of the original visions of the Curriculum for Excellence, a single exit exam, might somehow emerge.

At least there appears to be a consensus, in the educational community, around the need for more teachers to deliver a blended learning approach. However, in the political community there seems to be no equivalent consensus around funding. Some local authorities were preparing, due to historical budgetary legacies, to pare down their teacher workforces while at the same time the General Teaching Council was issuing a plea to retired teachers to step up to the plate.

Delivering teaching and learning for 700,000 pupils in a school estate, straight jacketed by the ‘efficiencies’ of the Public Finance Initiative (PFI), was challenging enough. In my view, the death- avoiding strategy of physical distancing cannot be ignored.

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We still do not know when we will have a vaccine; we still cannot with certainty know that we will have a vaccine. We still not know how many in the wider population have the virus. We still do not know how many children have the virus without any symptoms. We still do not know with any certainty whether children transmit the virus. We still do not know when we will have a testing and tracing regime that is as comprehensive as those in some other countries.

Given these many unknowns, the loud demands from some politicians, and somewhat simplistic assertions made in sections of the media, for a swift return to normality in Scotland’s schools is, at this time, premature. In order for schools to open safely for everyone, more teachers are required and, if the best of the digital learning experiences are to be sustained in the future, that will require central and local government to provide significant additional resources.

Bill Ramsay was the 2019-2020 President of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union

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