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Education secretary refuses to stop plans for more online learning in the Western Isles

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville says she will not intervene to halt proposals to move some children’s classes online in island schools.

Western Isles Council is planning to to make some specialist subjects available remotely across the islands’ four secondary schools at the same time.

Pupils learning remotely would be supervised at school by an adult, but not necessarily a teacher.

Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, wants the education secretary to step in.

He says it could hold back children’s progress and “undermine the role of professional teachers”.

However, Ms Somerville refused, saying it is a matter for the local authority.

Issue a matter for the council

The EIS teaching union has also previously criticised the move over child safety concerns, and for potentially minimising the role of teachers.

In response, Ms Somerville said: “The provision of learning is a matter for individual local authorities.

“They are responsible for ensuring the relevant parties are consulted and the quality of learning and teaching is maintained.

“I do stress the importance of listening to young people, parents and staff to discuss change and if it can be done in a collaborative way, it should be.”

Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Ariane Burgess, wants a government U-turn.

But Ms Somerville again refused, adding the plans will allow pupils to study a broader range of subjects on the islands.

‘An abdication of responsibility’

Speaking after the debate in Holyrood, Mr Cameron said: “There is growing concern among parents in the Western Isles, and the teaching profession itself, about the impact this growing reliance on remote learning is having on their children’s education.

“It is frankly disturbing that the cabinet secretary for education, when confronted with these concerns, simply recommended collaboration between teachers and the community, while offering no input at all from the Scottish Government.

Donald Cameron MSP

“This is just not good enough and smacks of an abdication of responsibility by ministers.

“What is the point of a cabinet secretary for education and an education department if they don’t intervene in circumstances like this?

“Our goal must be a return to face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils regardless of where they live, and we need to see evidence that ministers understand this.

Council says criticism is misleading

In a letter to parents in March 2020, the council said: “Given that many senior phase pupils are old enough to get married, vote, drive, etc., being able to engage in remote learning within the safe confines of a school is a skill and discipline which should not be beyond them.”

Following on from the issue being raised at parliament, a spokesman for the council said: “This move has been largely welcomed by parents as it provides equity for our young people.

“It increases personalisation and choice for young people.

“No pupils will be ‘completely unsupervised’.”

The spokesman added: “It is incorrect and misleading to describe such practices as ‘an absolute disregard for statutory responsibilities and duties towards pupils’.”

Union blasts Western Isles Council over remote learning scheme, threatens industrial action

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