The return of home schooling is a shoddy betrayal of children

THE nightmare of lockdown home learning was only just beginning to recede – but now the horror movie has a sequel.

Just when you thought Covid was relaxing its grip on our lives, a new mutant strain threatens to cause yet more havoc.

That means uncertainty over the start of the term after Christmas: pupils won’t go back to school until January 18 at the earliest.

In the meantime, there will be a spell of online education – a prospect sufficient to spark painful flashbacks to the dark days of early lockdown.

Back then, of course, remote classes were somewhere between patchy and non-existent, and exasperated parents took on much of the burden.

Clustered round kitchen tables with their children, they became involuntary teachers overnight, grappling with everything from basic spelling to algebra.

This time around, there’s more confidence that online lessons will work, or at least that they will happen – it won’t be as chaotic as it was at the height of the pandemic.

Quite what that’s based on is anyone’s guess, particularly when teaching staff will be looking after the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters – schools will re-open for them.

It’s a juggling act that will require maximum dexterity, though the truth is, as we all know, it’s unworkable, making the start of the year a write-off.

That matters, because kids have lost out on so much already after schools were shut for five months in 2020, while tens of thousands have missed classes due to Covid – either after contracting it or as a result of self-isolation.

Large numbers of pupils logged out of virtual classrooms completely back in March, meaning any hope of closing the ‘attainment gap’ was dashed.

Worryingly, experts warn we’re still unprepared for online learning, nine months on, with Professor Lindsay Paterson, of the University of Edinburgh, condemning a ‘scandalous’ lack of preparation.

Not unreasonably, he said Nicola Sturgeon should have spelt out the ‘specific steps that teachers should take’ when she made her announcement on Saturday evening that classrooms will not re-open after the festive break.

Instead, he said that teachers had been left to ‘scrabble around’ to find teaching materials that had been prepared in England and abroad.

His warning was echoed by Scotland’s children’s commissioner Bruce Adamson, who said he was ‘deeply concerned’ that online learning was being provided ‘inconsistently’, with not enough guidance or support provided to schools.

Ministers say they’re investing £25million to address ‘digital exclusion’ in schools, and that ‘funding allocations for…devices and connectivity solutions have now been made to all 32 local authorities’.

More pupils should have tablets now than back in March and April, but there are bound to be kids left to their own devices – or lack of them – next month.

With working from home encouraged wherever possible, pupils may also be sharing computers and broadband connections with parents who are trying to keep an eye on their children’s learning while holding down their jobs.

At the weekend, the First Minister said she was determined to keep schools open, at exactly the same time as she ordered them to shut for most children for about a month – and let’s face it, they could stay closed to the majority of pupils beyond December 18.

But her bombshell for pupils and their families was snuck in after the news which ruined so many Christmases – tacked on as a postscript.

Clearly, the hope was we’d all miss it as we rang round relatives telling them to cancel flights or rail journeys, or wondered what on earth we’d do with all the food and drink we’d bought in for guests who can now only join us by FaceTime or Zoom.

A decision to close nurseries until January 18 was posted on a government Twitter account with fewer than 10,000 followers.

It was all a bit of a mess, but that’s fitting, because education has been an afterthought throughout the coronavirus crisis – and for the SNP for the last 13 years it was a priority that lagged far behind independence.

Yet it’s shameful that after a year of setbacks, schoolkids are likely to be lockdown losers yet again.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has kept track of teaching unions applying pressure on government to shut schools down – a process that began soon after they re-opened in August.

They are right to highlight the importance of health and safety, but it does seem they’ve been champing at the bit to shut the school gates from day one.

For pupils expecting to go back to sit preliminary exams, the changes to the start of term will only add to their anxieties.

(John Swinney: masterminding chaos?)

Schools have been told prelims aren’t necessary, given that formal exams have been ditched this spring in favour of teachers using their ‘holistic’ judgment.

Covid mutation means this decision may seem prescient, even if it was taken later than it should have been, though some countries such as Germany managed to hold exams this year in the midst of the first wave of coronavirus.

The cancellation of exams is a tacit admission that remote education doesn’t really work – if it did, exams might be going ahead.

There’s no evidence that the new Covid variant is more transmissible among children than it is for the wider population, so schools will remain shut until beyond mid-January on what Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith described as a ‘precautionary’ principle.

Miss Sturgeon insisted yesterday that she was ‘determined if at all possible to get schools back to normal’ after January 18.

But how many of us would shocked if the closures dragged on, given the possibility that the toughest lockdown restrictions could remain in place until Easter – a prospect raised by Imperial College epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson?

‘Blended learning’ will be back on the table – a euphemism for part-time schooling – a plan that was dropped earlier this year when it became clear some kids would be in physical classrooms for just one or two days a week.

This is another seismic shift in education policy, introduced with no prior parliamentary debate, on the back of mounting concern over the new Covid strain.

But the argument that schools are part of our critical infrastructure hasn’t gone away, and nor has the legitimate concern about thousands of kids switching off their laptops or iPads, if they’re lucky enough to have them.

Meanwhile, John Swinney found time to retweet Miss Sturgeon’s apparently straight-faced pronouncement about the urgent need for extending the Brexit transition period – while continuing to agitate for another independent referendum.

Precious little else was posted on his account about the looming turmoil for schools – but then serially incompetent Mr Swinney has had a year of abrupt U-turns; could we really trust anything he says anyway?

An administration that has failed to deliver on promise after promise can’t be trusted to mastermind the transition back to a prolonged period of school closures, if that’s what we’re facing – and it looks likely.

It’s an appalling betrayal of children after months of disappointment and uncertainty – and one that will only swell the ranks of digital dropouts whose life chances have been drastically reduced.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 22, 2020.