Opening up schools must now be the top priority for ministers

LOCKDOWN has proved a rapid re-education for a lot of parents – from rediscovering vulgar fractions to the joys of long division.

They’re fairly dubious joys, true – and for many of us they may well be accompanied by cold sweats and the odd flashback to double maths.

But at least we had actual teachers standing in front of us, sums chalked out on blackboards, and classmates who, like us, were struggling to make sense of it.

Today children are logged on to virtual classrooms, if they’re lucky enough to have a laptop or tablet; many don’t have livestreamed classes, and use worksheets instead.

Quite how much meaningful education is going on is anyone’s guess, but it’s tough for pupils and indeed parents, juggling jobs with the slog of home-schooling supervision.

The impact on children’s attainment, let alone their mental health (and their parents’) is profound – so too are the economic repercussions, gauged at around £350billion by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Nicola Sturgeon will let us know today what the plan is, if there is one, for getting pupils back into the classroom, and for most of us that can’t come soon enough after almost a year of disruption.

Ministers and council chiefs had months to make sure remote learning would work, and while for many it may be better than last year (the bar was low), it’s still a lottery, and it’s painfully clear that in some cases it’s been an outright disaster.

When schools were open to all, between August and the Christmas break, tens of thousands of pupils were self-isolating, so it was far from plain sailing for pupils and staff.

But that was preferable to the current limbo, which now threatens to drag on for several more weeks – one chilling suggestion in recent days is that home-based learning could continue, at least for some pupils, on an open-ended basis.

It’s more likely that selected cohorts will be allowed back into schools from the middle of this month, particularly those who are in exam years, though exams have been ditched this year – with pupils’ grades based on coursework and their teachers’ judgment.

The youngest kids are thought to be at least risk of getting or spreading Covid, so they too could be in line for a return to school.

But this phased resumption of schooling could create a two-tiered system: large numbers in the middle who aren’t in exam years, or who aren’t young enough to be deemed a low Covid risk, will be stuck at home.

Their dwindling reserves of morale will deplete at a much faster rate when siblings or pals head back to school, while they’re left at the kitchen table trying to figure out algebra on a smartphone.

That’s why the Mail’s Computers for Kids campaign, getting crucial kit to those who need it, is such a brilliant idea, and is already making a huge difference to families who didn’t have the equipment, or didn’t have enough of it to go round.

But the longer-term effects of all this are frankly incalculable – indeed, around the world, nearly half a billion children are thought to be losing out even on remote study.

This is a global crisis, on a mind-boggling scale, and the shockwaves will be severe: the economy, already reeling and set for further trauma, will suffer because of skills shortages.

The legacy of Covid for far too many children will be dramatically narrowed horizons and thwarted ambitions.

That makes it all the more urgent to reopen schools fully as soon as it’s safe to do so, but it’s probable that even those lucky enough to get the green light to go back will do so only on a part-time basis.

This is the compromise arrangement known as ‘blended learning’, where pupils go to school for one or two days a week and study from home for the rest of the time.

Kitchen table learning: the pressure is growing on children and parents

When it was proposed last year, at a time when Covid cases were relatively low, there was a justifiable outcry and the government was forced into a U-turn – schools were reopened to all, for a few months.

Now blended learning, though far from ideal, seems superior to the present set-up, depending on how long it would be in place – for a short spell it would provide some much-needed respite for the ranks of involuntary home educators.

But if blended learning was the big idea in 2020 – for all kids – then why is it only being considered for some age groups (the youngest and the oldest) in 2021?

Part-time schooling was always seen as a viable contingency plan, even if it was one that no one really wanted to activate.

It’s true that case numbers are still worryingly high, but when the time is right, with careful logistical planning, blended tuition could be made to work across the board.

The emergence of new Covid strains that may be more transmissible among the young means parents – though desperate for the restoration of at least some normality – understood the need for schools to shut down for the vast majority of pupils in early 2021.

It’s entirely right that ministers and public health chiefs are cautious, given the possibility of more virulent forms of the virus.

Reopening schools to all inevitably has a knock-on effect for wider community transmission, but the vaccination drive should help to suppress case numbers – though exactly how long this will take is unknown.

The sluggish start to immunisation in Scotland hasn’t helped, or the shifting of goalposts that has accompanied it – by government ministers who insist it’s their sole priority (even as they openly plot a wildcat independence referendum).

Then there’s the clamour for early access to the jabs – teachers and police have staked legitimate claims, and they should be taken seriously.

Protecting teachers isn’t a panacea because kids with Covid who don’t display symptoms can infect their family members.

But remember that ministers maintained for months that the virus spread in schools partly due to staff failing to socially distance.

It’s hard to see how inoculating the teaching workforce could be a retrograde step, even if it isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s far from clear that government is up to the task.

After all, it’s not exactly doing a great job of getting the jabs out to older Scots who are most at risk from Covid – it might well make a mess of vaccination targeted at certain occupations.

At the heart of the strategy for fully reopening schools, assuming there is one, must be an acknowledgement that they are part of the country’s critical infrastructure.

So let’s throw everything at it – masks for all, temperature-checking, Covid testing, teacher vaccination – nothing should be off the table.

That will take a laser-focused government, and it’s obvious that for now we don’t have one (bear that in mind at the election in May, if it goes ahead).

Instead we’ve got leaders with a long track record of letting standards slide, despite a lot of worthless rhetoric about educational reform.

Children can’t be failed again – ministers must get this right, or risk limiting the life chances of an entire generation.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 2, 2021.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper