Education in Scotland: here’s a five-point plan to fix schools crisis – Alex Cole-Hamilton

Controlling coronavirus must be the priority, but schools can’t re-open in August based on the infection rate in early May, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.
How much classroom time will kids get when they return to school in August?How much classroom time will kids get when they return to school in August?
How much classroom time will kids get when they return to school in August?

The proposals by Edinburgh Council to reopen schools in August on a ‘blended basis’ fail both pupils and working parents. They leave mums and dads, many of whom may be coming to the end of furlough, with massive doubts about whether they will have the child care cover they need to get back to work. They’re also anxious about the long-term impacts all this will have on learning.

The city’s plans are flawed, but that’s largely in response to guidance (or lack thereof) from Education Secretary John Swinney. He may have thundered in at the start of the week demanding education authorities rub it out and start again, but in fairness to them they were working from directions from his office that were vague, unfunded and wholly disconnected to what’s happening with the move back to work.

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Alex Salmond used to call Swinney the magician. Before he was promoted to Deputy First Minister, Swinney had held the post of Finance Secretary and would always find a cheeky wee £500 million down the back of the sofa. He would pull that same rabbit out of the hat year after year. No surprise then that, after a decade of SNP failure on Scottish education, Nicola Sturgeon called on Salmond’s Merlin to turn things around. But something’s happened to the pixie dust – he didn’t turn things around and the magic seems to have deserted him once again in the context of the pandemic.

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Parents reacted in horror when it was revealed on Friday that their children might only be in the classroom once a week. To have such limited in-school learning, over what could be the whole academic year risks jeopardising the education of thousands of children across the city when they return in August. It also undermines the ability of parents who need to work, particularly as furlough arrangements come to an end. I’ve already heard from mothers and fathers who fear losing their jobs because these planned schooling arrangements won’t allow them to work when they need to.

It’s easy to complain when you’re in opposition, so I always like to offer solutions. That’s why my Liberal Democrat colleagues on the council and I have now published a five-point plan which would boost in-person teaching and also better support parents to get back to work. That plan is a follows:

1, Open up community centres, church halls and other safe spaces for extra classroom capacity.

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2, Speed up teacher recruitment and incentivise retired and other former teachers to return to the classroom.

3, Allow families of children from the same class to ‘bubble up’ to share childcare so that kids could move between two homes during the day and parents can share the childcare/home school strain.

4, Some schools in Edinburgh are less full than others, we could partner up our schools to share capacity and stop a postcode lottery on the teaching our children.

5, Allow grandparents and other close family members to help with childcare and home learning. From 15 July, if Phase 3 of easing lockdown kicks in as planned, people will be allowed to visit each other in their homes. We should allow grandparents who keep fit and well to resume child-caring duties on that basis.

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We need to be driven by the science and controlling the virus must remain our number one priority. The plans for schools must always keep this in perspective. But just as other sectors are being permitted to respond to the thankfully falling infection rates, schools can’t have their arrangements for mid-August fixed by the infection rates of early May so options need to be constantly reviewed.

I appreciate the huge challenges being faced by council officials, especially given current social distancing requirements. However, this is a moment which demands creative thinking and imaginative solutions. We need to box clever around the virus to help both pupils and working parents. That starts with Swinney the Magician setting an emergency standard for learning and childcare in the Covid-world and funding it accordingly.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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