Reopening schools: Scotland vs England

St Peter’s School, Clifton, York
Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash
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A different response to reopening schools in Scotland may bring about more lasting changes and a more balanced experience for pupils north of the border. Will England step up to the mark?

John Swinney, the Scottish government’s education secretary, has said it is “unlikely” that Scottish schools will return to normal next year. With schools in Scotland due to reopen on 11 August Swinney has outlined his government’s plan for “blended” learning, with pupils spending half their time learning from home. Swinney has also warned that the 2021 exams could be pushed to later in the summer to allow pupils to complete courses and get as much face-to-face time with their teachers as possible within the constraints laid down by Public Health considerations in response to the coronavirus. Speaking on Politics Scotland on Sunday, John Swinney stated he could not say how long the blended model would be in place, adding that it would not be “for a minute longer than necessary”.

Scottish councils have been asked to expand their education provision to include community facilities and vacant office accommodation ahead of the 11 August return, to accommodate social distancing while getting as many pupils as possible back to face-to-face learning. Swinney confirmed that £9m had been set aside to buy 25,000 laptops to help with blended learning, to ensure that all pupils have access to online resources from home and support distance learning. Swinney added, “The scientific advice that we have received so far leads us towards taking a cautious approach and we will continue to monitor the evidence and advice to inform decisions”.

Adverts for retired teachers to return to support the work of council schools across Scotland have gone out. A list of willing teachers should be available for schools to call on by 11 August as Scottish schools return.

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Compare this what is happening in England.

Schools have been asked to re-establish contact with Year 10 and Year 12 pupils from this week. The prime minister added, “I acknowledge that the June 15 opening may not be possible for all schools but the government will continue to support and work with the sector so that any schools experiencing difficulties are able to open more widely as soon as possible.”

At the time of writing, more than fifty councils have announced plans to keep schools closed. This can only deepen the education achievement gap that will be with us for years to come. This period of school closures will have widened the gap that many schools have worked hard to close.

In a letter to the education secretary, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, said the union remains “unconvinced” that the wider reopening of schools is either “appropriate or practicable”.

A survey of nearly 29,000 NASUWT members across England, found that more than nine in ten teachers believe that social distancing will be impossible, or will present major issues. A similar number are not confident that the measures in place will protect their health or the health of their pupils. Some 87 per cent of teachers believe that personal protective equipment (PPE) will be essential to protecting staff against the virus, but this will not be provided routinely in most schools.

In England there is no sense of a national education response to the coronavirus crisis. A government response – where people could see their local library opening for lessons for local children, with laptops being handed out to pupils who need them and retired teachers and others being recruited to help teach some of these small groups – would instil confidence that there was indeed a coordinated strategy to address this issue.

We need leadership on this scale to give our young people confidence that the adults in the room have a plan to plot the way forward. Isolating young people at home, with or without IT support is not good for their development. Child psychology experts have emphasised the urgent need to allow young people to meet up with friends and resume a more healthy existence. It is the job of government and all politicians to ‘follow the science’ and do the right thing to ensure the health and wellbeing of our people.

England needs its politicians to step up to the mark and lead from the front. If Gavin Williamson is bereft of ideas he need only pick up the phone and have a conversation with John Swinney. The contrast in their responses so far is incredible.

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