There’s barely a day goes by when I don’t offer thanks that I’m not required to home school. I am reliably informed by my sons that the feeling is mutual.
The current volume of casework coming into my office may be off the scale, but I need only reflect on those parents trying to juggle jolly phonics, biology and algebra, after a full Joe Wicks workout, to realise how lucky am I.
Of course, the opportunity to spend quality time with your children, particularly at a young age, is priceless and should be cherished. Over a prolonged period, however, even with online support, parents have been growing increasingly anxious about the educational and developmental impact on their children. For those expected to work, and without access to the usual family support network, the challenge has been greater still.
As a result, pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government. To date, the First Minister has earned plaudits for what is seen as her cautious approach and the way she has communicated this to the public. Yet on education, she has looked decidedly less confident of late. Her Education Secretary, John Swinney, generally a ‘safe pair of hands’, managed to drop the ball spectacularly a fortnight ago when unveiling plans for so-called ‘blended learning’. As a result, the First Minister spent much of last week trying to explain the Scottish Government out of the hole that Mr Swinney had dug.
On the face of it, ‘blended learning’ sounds quite positive: melding together the best of different approaches. In reality, it is anything but, with pupils across Scotland expected to spend half the week in classes and half studying at home. It was all too much for former SNP Minister, Alex Neil, who told Holyrood’s Education Committee, “it’s not blending education, it’s bleeding education”.
Mr Neil was right and far from alone. Parents across the country are furious, as I know from my own mailbag. With lockdown restrictions easing, and more people expected to return to work, the lack of available childcare and the prospect of part-time schooling from August have come as a double whammy.
Locally, Orkney Islands Council called for a regionalised approach that might allow Orkney to “return to full in-school teaching” more quickly. Without the buses, teachers or even digital connectivity needed to deliver Mr Swinney’s ‘blended learning’ model, OIC rightly concluded the plans would be ruinously expensive, educationally calamitous and potentially both.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the practicalities of actually enforcing social distancing in schools, as well as the extent of the risk being managed. Given the impact on the ability of schools to function, those are questions that deserve more open discussion.
Keir Bloomer, Chair of the Commission on Education Reform, wrote recently, “We know that continued school closure will damage the educational prospects of young people, that the already disadvantaged will suffer most and that the attainment gap is widening. We know that children’s socialisation is being set back and that an increasing number will suffer mental health problems. We know that domestic abuse is increasing. The list goes on. These are not reasons for ignoring risks of a resurgence of the epidemic, but they are reasons to compare the various kinds of risk and engage in an adult dialogue with the public on the merits and demerits of different courses of action. This is not currently much in evidence”.
So it is that Mr Swinney found himself back before parliament this week with one of the hastiest – albeit very welcome – u-turns on record. According to the Education Secretary, schools in Scotland will now be expected to return full time from August. This move is made possible by the Scottish Government’s abandonment of social distancing rules in schools.
This, of course, begs the question why the two-metre rule is still necessary in other areas, including on our ferries, where capacity has been reduced by up to 80%. With no such rule applying on flights, the inconsistencies in the way restrictions are being eased are becoming more obvious, difficult to justify and therefore tricky to enforce.
For now, though, let’s just give thanks that Mr Swinney’s plans for part-time education have been stuck to the political blender.