Scottish schools shut until at least August; Wales and Northern Ireland taking similar paths

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Scottish government and teachers do not expect schools to re-open before the start of the new academic year in August, while concerns also mount over the way exams will be graded during the coronavirus shutdown.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said Scotland would not be returning to “full-time, in-school learning for the foreseeable future”.

The union also said it would oppose any moves to bring forward the summer holiday dates so that schools could re-open earlier in August than normal.

“August seems to us to be the best date to ensure an ordered approach and to secure parent, pupil and staff confidence that schools are safe,” an EIS spokesman said.

In a statement made after British prime minister Boris Johnson announced that he wants schools in England to re-open to some year groups from June 1, Mr Flanagan also said that class sizes would have to be cut dramatically to comply with social distancing and other health guidelines.

“The EIS is clear that schools, and indeed colleges and universities, should not be physically re-opening until a comprehensive ‘test trace and isolate’ capacity is in place to prevent a spike in infection,” Mr Flanagan said, adding that strategies had to be in place to ensure schools were safe for staff and pupils.

The EIS is represented on the Scottish government’s new Covid-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG) and is “working at pace” over these issues, he said.

“A blended approach, with some continuation of remote learning being in place, is inevitable. How this might work is precisely what is under discussion.”

For its part, the Scottish government says it is considering a phased approach to returning pupils to school, “when it is safe to do so” but does not expect this to start soon.

Scotland's education secretary John Swinney said there was a need to build confidence among schools, teachers and parents before any return to the classroom. He gave no indication of when this might be possible.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, has rejected the June 1 date and said that a phased re-opening before the summer holidays, which in Scotland begins in June, “might not be possible”.

A document published by the Scottish government last week (2020) said that the government could develop a chronological list of priority groups who would return to school in an agreed order, while also modelling a new approach whereby most pupils are likely to have a blend of in-school and in-home learning for the “foreseeable future”.

The document adds: “This would include attending school part-time in blocks of a few days or even a week at a time, to enable deep cleaning of schools between groups. Learning at home will be supported by consistent, high-quality online materials which will be developed to support the curriculum.”

It echoes plans in Northern Ireland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the partial re-opening of schools has been included as part of step 3 of a five-step plan unveiled on Tuesday (May 12). The Northern Ireland Executive has not set out a timetable, but first minister Arlene Foster said she hoped to reach the final stage by December and progression would depend on health-related criteria.

For schools, it states under step 3: “Schools expand provision for priority groups on a part-time basis, using a combination of in-school and remote learning.” And under step 4, it adds: “Schools expand provision to accommodate all pupils on part-time basis with combination of in-school and remote learning.”

In Wales, it has been confirmed that schools will not re-open from June 1. Education minister Kirsty Williams said: “The situation for schools in Wales will not change on June 1. You have my guarantee that we will give everyone time to plan ahead of a next phase starting. Any decision to increase the operation of schools will be communicated well in advance. We will continue to be guided by the very latest scientific advice and will only look to have more pupils and staff in schools when it is safe to do so.”

Back in Scotland, many teachers have voiced concerns about low attendance of online lessons and a failure by the government or local authorities to require a daily register. Less than half of children were “engaging” with teachers – i.e. logging in and participating – according to one survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association in April. Many young people are reported to be completely “off radar”.

Others have pointed to a widening disparity on this front between the independent and state sectors, with private schools said to be experiencing better participation and fewer problems over access to technology in families.

Meanwhile, MSPs have written to the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) voicing “deep unease” among teachers at plans to overhaul exams amid the pandemic.

Holyrood’s Education Committee has written to Fiona Robertson about the decision to use a school’s past performance to help determine the grades of pupils this year – teachers say the process could negatively affect those from more deprived backgrounds.

As in the rest of the UK, Scotland cancelled this year's exam schedule, with teachers told to submit predicted grades and rankings for pupils instead.

Following an appearance by Ms Robertson, the committee has demanded more clarity on the moderation of the new system, as well as on an equalities impact assessment and the appeals process.

In the letter, committee convener Clare Adamson told Ms Robertson that the confidence of the public was based on transparency.

“Only by being able to understand the detail of the processes to be followed can the public be assured that the system for arriving at grades will be consistent and fair. On that basis the detail of processes being followed need to be published in full as quickly as possible."

The committee also asked for full details on the moderation process, including how much weight would be given to teachers’ predictions, past coursework, mapping of estimates on a curve and the school’s past performance.

The convener also said there had been “deep unease" among teachers who were part of three focus group sessions held by the committee at the end of April over the need to rank students.

She wrote: “The concerns include that ranking goes against the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence and that assessing students to within a fraction of a percentage point is, as one teacher in our focus groups put it, ‘conflating precision with accuracy’.

“This is of particular concern in ‘high-stakes’ subjects where a large proportion of the final grade is usually exam-based.”

As well as asking for clarification, the convener also laid out the committee’s position on some of the issues around the new system, recommending that an equalities impact assessment is published, which Ms Robertson told the committee during her evidence was being undertaken.

The committee has also recommended the publication of details around the appeals process and the methodology put forward for the moderation of grades before teachers are expected to submit estimates.

A spokesman for the SQA said it would “respond robustly and in full" to the committee’s letter, adding: “SQA made clear its commitment to transparency and fairness in its evidence to the committee.”

Further information

Scottish Government: Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making - further information, May 5, 2020: https://bit.ly/2SWLw6k


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