What to do about schools is becoming a big problem for the Scottish Government, with no clear solution yet in sight and significant confusion about what the Scottish Government is trying to achieve. The problem is three dimensional: 1) how to stop pupils spreading the virus by being in close contact with one another, as they would be in full classrooms. 2) How to allow parents to get back to work permanently, which would mean pupils not having to stay at home. 3) How to ensure pupils get the best education possible in the circumstances.
This is the sort of issue – one that requires compromise and creativity – that a citizens’ assembly is made for, so that different stakeholders (teachers, parents, pupils, education experts, public health experts) are brought together to deliberate and work out the best solution possible. Possibly there is no time to construct such a body at short notice, with decisions needed to be made quite quickly.
Let’s start from the assumption that full classrooms are not feasible in the foreseeable future. There are then two options as to where pupils go: they either stay at home part of the week, or other venues are found. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked local authorities to look at church halls and other venues for pupils, saying the idea some pupils might be in school for as little as one day a week is “not good enough”. We should be clear about the consequences of home learning even for a small part of the week: the disruption to the working lives of many parents is significant enough that it would require changes to the social security system to compensate them for lost hours, regardless of whether they can work at home or have to go into a physical place of work. Perhaps a scheme could be looked at whereby parents who can stay part of the week at home could apply and receive additional social security support, but it would be costly and would see highly uneven take-up in different parts of the country and among different socio-economic groups.
Of course anything which includes teaching in church halls or partial home learning then has a knock-on impact on the education school students receive, with the Scottish Government aiming for full exams in 2021. This is the part of the problem which is most easily resolvable, but which there appears to be the most stubborn attachment to. As Education journalist James McEnaney has put it, either “the goal is to try to replicate ‘normal’ as far as possible” or “the goal is to provide the best possible education in the existing circumstances using available tools”. McEnaney says that most teachers he knows are focusing on the latter, while most of the public debate is about the former.
“There’s an opportunity here to really transform Scottish education and we’re going to miss it because people are desperate to get back to a “normal” that failed thousands of kids every year,” McEnaney adds. “That’s not something worth fighting for.”
This gets to the crux of the issue. Education experts are absolutely right to say it will be working class kids that suffer most from blended learning as it will exacerbate the poverty-related attainment gap, but that’s only inevitable if they try to fit new circumstances into the old system of exams. If teachers were allowed to fully adapt to the new circumstances by throwing out exams for 2021 and concentrating on maximising the educational experience of their students, something good could come from this. Imagine a year of project-based learning, where problem-solving, multi-disciplinary thinking, pupils developing social skills requiring empathy and compromise, was the aim of being at school, rather than additional extras to the rote learning of exam preparation. Skills that actually prepare you for life – to be an actively engaged citizen capable of critical thought – those are the ones pupils need to learn.
The key to solving the schools conundrum is to realise that exams are the expendable element. Once that mental barrier is overcome, the problem suddenly looks less daunting.
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