Lockdown lottery in education is failing Scottish children
CALL it cheating, but on Friday I was home-schooling and decided to phone a friend who’s a former teacher.
Well, Zoomed him in more accurately, and he provided a philosophy lesson.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and he was kind enough to oblige, bailing me out.
For the kids, it was a bit different to the usual dose of arithmetic and spelling – and it gave my wife a much-needed break from teaching duty.
All of us are having to make do and mend, and for many home learning simply isn’t happening – parents are too busy working from home.
More than half of secondary pupils have logged out permanently from their schooling, in every sense, failing to turn up to online lessons.
How much longer can this makeshift virtual education system endure?
The signals are mixed and confusing – south of the Border, it could end relatively soon; here, it probably won’t happen before summer.
John Swinney raised the idea that the schools might stay shut even after the summer – a suggestion swiftly shot down by Nicola Sturgeon.
Now he’s proposing a shorter summer holiday to make up for lost time, sparking predictable outrage from the unions.
For Larry Flanagan, boss of the EIS, re-opening schools in August ‘remains a significant challenge, let alone unhelpful speculation about earlier dates’.
There’s vague talk of pupils attending on a rota system, but not much flesh on the bone.
It’s not only parents who are struggling – for pupils, particularly those preparing to go to secondary, the uncertainty is also corrosive.
Ministers and the EIS are singing from the same hymn sheet and, as ever, the words are written by the union barons.
There’s no doubt teachers need to be protected when they get back to work.
Some will be sick or have family members struck down by coronavirus – staff numbers will be depleted.
But Mr Swinney can’t let the union bosses call all the shots.
That’s his usual style – early rhetoric about taking on vested interests to reform state education has proved hollow.
A big pay rise was agreed when strike action loomed, but the system remains sclerotic and pathologically opposed to change.
If the union mindset is that no-one’s going back to the chalkface anytime soon, that doesn’t bode well for any prospect of an imminent return to some form of normality.
The SNP hierarchy are used to passing the buck and on this occasion they’ve passed it in the general direction of local authorities.
That’s led to a lockdown lottery: some schools hatched clever schemes to keep educating kids, with the private sector doing the best job.
It faces an existential threat if parents no longer have faith in them – in state schools there’s no such commercial imperative.
The extraordinary scale of upheaval caused by the lockdown wasn’t easily foreseen.
Teachers have had to juggle their own family lives with getting together lesson packs to be sent home, and many of them did a heroic job.
But if actual classrooms are to be out of bounds for months to come, a better plan has to be put in place.
My philosopher friend can’t be Zoomed into every home.
But there’s scant evidence of any more concerted effort to set up large-scale online tuition.
Think-tank Reform Scotland suggested enlisting an army of tutors including retired teachers to deliver lessons via the web.
But the idea ran foul of the authorities who warned they wouldn’t be properly registered.
Times of crisis aren’t about box-ticking – but that’s where education excels.
The priority should be those kids who have slipped from the radar.
Some will be in homes where there aren’t available laptops, tablets or even broadband connections.
If this limbo is to drag on, hardware has to be shipped to those children most in need.
It’s inconsistent with the government’s central objective of closing the ‘attainment gap’ to leave these youngsters to their own devices (or lack of them).
Younger children who can’t be expected to organise their own learning are losing out when both parents are too busy working to teach them.
Older children spared the ordeal of exams now depend on teacher assessments for their final grades.
Teenagers are able to get on with their work but many of them, cut off from friends, are sinking into something of a demotivated torpor.
(Remote learning: but many children have skipped online lessons)
The psychological toll all of this is placing on children (and adults) will be the subject of learned theses for years to come.
The reality of socially distanced classrooms and pupil rotas is a sobering one.
But it’s a step up from the current hotchpotch that means a whole generation risks being cut adrift and saddled with a substandard education.
Smaller class sizes – a long-standing demand of unions – is now within their grasp, albeit for reasons they couldn’t have predicted.
Schools will need extensive support from councils and central government to engineer the changes needed to get out of lockdown purgatory.
But is Mr Swinney the minister to steer us back to sanity?
Even his most ardent supporters must have their doubts about a man whose biggest contribution so far has been to fuel parental confusion.
The day he suggested schools might not reopen even after the summer was a blow to the morale of the home-school workforce.
But he was taking his cue from the unions – and now he’s likely to cave in when they refuse to cut short their summer break.
The Campaign for Real Education suggested a couple of weeks ago that summer holidays should have started back then.
Let’s face it: none of us are going abroad this summer, or indeed autumn.
And even if the airports do become fully functioning again, how many of us want to stand in a boarding queue more than half a mile long?
The idea of designating lockdown as the summer holiday is far too rational ever to gain any purchase among ministers and union chiefs.
But it would allow pupils to make up for lost time.
Meanwhile the SSTA teaching union, representing secondary teachers, has warned next year’s exams may be off.
The Covid-19 disruption and its knock-on effects mean a shorter academic year, so study time will be limited.
The union insists this isn’t all bad news – teachers would use their judgment to come up with grades.
For the SSTA, this is good news: teachers should be trusted more anyway.
Maybe – but it does sound defeatist, and certain to prompt another slide in standards unless there was rigorous external inspection.
Using lockdown pressures to scrap the concept of exams is a risky strategy.
What will employers and universities make of universal in-house examination?
It’s certainly possible to bounce back from this period of huge turmoil, and our teaching workforce is more than capable of rising to the challenge.
But it won’t happen unless Mr Swinney and the unions recognise that exceptional times demand radical solutions.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 5, 2020.