“Astonishing incompetence” from education bodies and political leaders has left Scottish schools woefully unprepared for a return to online learning and could cause chaos for future grades, says a leading expert.
Professor Lindsay Paterson, one of the country’s preeminent voices on education, said the Scottish Government and its agencies had failed to use nine months since the first coronavirus lockdown to make proper contingency plans, despite repeated warnings.
Nicola Sturgeon announced on Monday that schools will remain closed to most pupils until at least February, with the first minister admitting transmission of the virus needs to be reduced before classrooms can fully reopen.
Prof Paterson said he had seen “absolutely no evidence” of policy leaders using the time since children first returned to face-to-face learning to prepare improvements for blended or fully virtual classes, despite months of warnings of a winter surge.
The Edinburgh University expert accused Ms Sturgeon of having “no answer” as she was grilled by opposition leaders on what extra resources had been prepared and described the lack of pre-emptive action from education agencies as a “scandal”.
No contingency plan
“The body that has failed most spectacularly here is the Scottish Qualifications Authority,” Prof Paterson said. “They had no contingency planning for when the exams were cancelled so they’ve been forced into emergency alternative arrangements.
“But these alternative arrangements assume pupils will be in school because they tell schools that the assignments children do need to be done in conditions as close as possible to normal exams. They have no plan for how to produce these assessments for children who are working at home.
“It is absolutely astonishing that they are so incompetent as to have produced nothing whatsoever given all the shenanigans of last spring, the scandal of the algorithm in August, and the repeated warnings that this situation could arise again.”
Teachers raised concerns about online materials last month, after the Scottish Government initially confirmed schools would not reopen until January 18, and Prof Paterson said this is evidence of education agencies failing to prepare in advance.
He said the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils has grown during the pandemic and will now be exacerbated by an ill-prepared return to online learning.
His concerns were echoed by Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson, who called for the Scottish Government to “radically increase” the level of support available for home learning.
It comes after the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson, warned closing schools poses a “serious risk of harm to the wellbeing of children and young people” and online learning is being provided “inconsistently” across Scotland.
Warnings go unheeded
Ms Davidson said: “SNP complacency over support and learning will not only cost pupils the next few weeks of schooling, it will potentially hinder their future progress and cause the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils to stretch even wider.
“The stark warnings from education experts, opposition parties and even the Children and Young People’s Commissioner have gone unheeded for too long.
“The government has had months to prepare for this possibility and instead, schools are facing a return almost to square one and without the necessary guidance and resources they need to provide equal access to high-quality education.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard also insisted teachers and working parents need support to make the remote learning system work.
Ms Sturgeon said it remains her government’s priority to reopen schools as quickly as possible and she is considering whether teachers could be given the Covid-19 vaccine as a priority to make it happen.
The first minister said she had “agonised” over the decision on schools and understands remote learning will present “significant challenges” for parents, teachers and pupils.
She added: “Just as the last places we ever want to close are schools and nurseries so it is the case that schools and nurseries will be the first places we want to reopen as we re-emerge from this latest lockdown.”
Schools will remain open for the children of key workers who cannot work from home and for vulnerable youngsters.
The National Parent Forum of Scotland said it was important to ensure parents know they can ask schools for help.
‘A challenge to all parents and carers’
The forum’s chairwoman, Margaret Wilson, said: “There is no decision today that is going to please everyone in this situation.
“The pressures faced by families, living with restricted measures, coping with stress created by the pandemic, supporting remote learning while balancing many other issues, will be a challenge to all parents and carers.
“Our young people have already been through a significantly stressful time. However, the safety of our children and young people is paramount.
“Most importantly, we must ensure parents are aware that their school is available for support and to make contact with them as soon as possible.”