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Alex Bell: Swinney needs to learn leadership lesson and stop letting down Scotland’s children

John Swinney.
John Swinney.

Where is the anger, where is the opposition? Our children are to be deprived of an education for the sake of a spineless politician. It isn’t fair and it isn’t right.

Already our young have been deprived of three months of education and this year’s exams. The Scottish Government dithers, saying education could be patchy for the year to come. They still won’t commit to next year’s exams.

Alex Bell

Half a million children have been schooled at home, something the Children’s Commissioner says “just doesn’t work”. Some children don’t concentrate, some need more guidance than a working-from-home parent can give, all need the structure that school brings.

Bruce Adamson goes on: “The proposals for what has been described as ‘blended learning’ unfortunately still seem to be heavily based on home learning. That’s a problem because it’s going to have a real impact on children’s right to education. We need to do so much better.”

Commissioner Adamson said what many already thought on hearing the feeble plans from government. Two days at school a week, maybe, with no exams. How was any child to learn? How could any parent teach and go to work?

Only wealthy officials and ministers could do this, able to afford childcare, to work flexible hours and, whisper it, probably send their kid to private school in the first place. It is a plan born from comfortable bureaucracy, not political leadership.

Most importantly, where’s the need for it? Look across the continent and children are going back to school as normal.

Early years support is up and running, nursery back to the crayons, primary back to the bright colours, secondary to the classroom.

A conference of EU education ministers on May 18 heard how 22 countries had reopened schools, to varying degrees, and none reported spikes in Covid-19 infection.

A month on, with near to full-time schooling resumed, none of our European neighbours has seen a link between attendance and virus spread.

National Records Scotland’s figures show that Covid-19 kills the elderly. That is tragic, hugely upsetting and demands a sensible policy response. Of the 4,000 total deaths recorded by NRS, the vast majority have been people aged over 65. Roughly 3,640 deaths have been in the upper age bracket. In contrast, 334 have died in the age range of 45-64, while only 26 people have died under the age of 45.

Ministers across all countries have made mistakes. It’s been exhausting and horrifying in equal measure for those meant to guide us through the threat. No one is saying this is easy. But Scotland looks set to punish its young for the policy mistakes it made before.

It’s too late for the care homes but that’s no reason to close schools. Yet again, Scotland is left looking at the education secretary and despairing.

Where is John Swinney’s leadership, where is his vision? Where, for that matter, is Oliver Hardy, as Swinney is surely our Stan Laurel.

A hapless man in a serious job. But for the politburo-like endurance of SNP ministers, he should have been gone long ago. Instead he reminds us that a nationalist government scared of independence but without opposition is part of Scotland’s problem, not its solution.

Remember, since Derek Mackay left amid a scandal over his online contact with a teenage boy, the SNP leadership have looked to Swinney as the heir apparent to Sturgeon. Various media puffs and profiles point to honest John as the candidate being polished for office.

That may account for Sturgeon’s anger on hearing of his blended learning approach. She publicly slapped him down, saying part-time schooling would end as soon as possible.

How could a man with expectations to lead be so weak, so beholden to his cautious officials and the structures of unions and local government? In truth, the idea of Swinney as leader was always daft. For Scotland’s sake, this latest blunder must have damaged the wheeze beyond repair.

What Scotland needs is an education minister prepared to host the daily Covid-19 briefing to the public and able to set out the risks and realities. Parents and pupils need to be engaged.

A consensus needs to be built. We need a minister who can encourage the same kind of love and regard for teaching as enjoyed by the NHS. A politician who can inspire rainbows and clapping.

Instead, the hapless Swinney chose this week to boast that the attainment gap was coming down. He thought now was the time for spin? And spin which was to all intents false, as the data showed educational metrics falling.

Schools provide so much more than textbooks and homework.

Bruce Adamson notes that “we have seen increases in Childline calls and an increase in child protection orders”, adding: “What we are talking about is a risk of long-term impact on emotional and psychological impact on children (sic).”

Adamson says: “One of the most concerning things in Scotland is that we have hungry children.

“It is a political failure.”

John Swinney has been education minister for six years. Enough is enough. Someone take charge and give our children a chance.