Covid: School pupils should not be forced to repeat a year – John McLellan

Schools remain close as the Covid crisis continues, prompting suggestions that senior pupils should repeat a year (Picture: Scott Merrylees)Schools remain close as the Covid crisis continues, prompting suggestions that senior pupils should repeat a year (Picture: Scott Merrylees)
Schools remain close as the Covid crisis continues, prompting suggestions that senior pupils should repeat a year (Picture: Scott Merrylees)
The problem with worst-case scenarios in the Covid age is they have a nasty habit of becoming the only scenario, particularly when it comes to education; the cancellation of exams and the second closure of schools were supposed to be last resorts which came painfully true.

We’ve had the fair system of assessment which wasn’t, the classrooms which were supposed to be safe but weren’t, the return to school after Christmas which didn’t happen, and the closure til February which looks like being after the Easter break.

Then there is online learning which, for too many Scottish schoolchildren, isn’t learning at all because they either don’t have kit or connectivity.

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Worst-case scenarios might not transpire but can’t be ruled out entirely, and into that category falls the backstop considered by the National Qualifications 2021 Group for all assessments to be cancelled and senior pupils to repeat the current year.

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After it was revealed by the Mail on Sunday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We have no plans at the moment to ask young people to repeat a year.” At the moment? This can only mean the possibility is still very much alive.

With widely differing teaching experiences across Scotland, it’s not difficult to see that if the goal is absolute equality for all pupils regardless of circumstances then cancellation and re-setting exam programmes from zero may well be the only way of achieving it.

But how fair would it be on senior pupils forced to repeat a year of their educational lives through no fault of their own? How unfair would it be on those pupils who have accessed the relevant materials, done the work and are on course to complete the syllabus?

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Then there are the practical considerations, like how on Earth can schools already well beyond capacity like Royal High, Boroughmuir, Firrhill, Portobello, St Thomas of Aquins, and James Gillespie’s, accommodate what would effectively be a seventh Year? No first-year intake and the feeder primaries then say there will be no primary one?

Admirers of the Finnish system, where formal comprehensive education doesn’t start until seven, might view this as an opportunity, but it is not the expectation of thousands of Scottish families or of hundreds of primary one and two teachers.

Education Secretary John Swinney is said to want to avoid repeating at all costs, but rather than a worst-case option, both he and the First Minister must clearly rule it out or risk the Scottish Qualifications Authority seeing it as an easier option that lets the rest of the sector sort it out as the foundations for assessment deteriorate.

The potential impact was spelt out by Edinburgh University’s education expert Professor Lindsay Paterson on the BBC. “You are a young person, who's life has been turned upside down by this and then finally you are told you are not even going to be allowed to leave school to start the next stage of your life. That would be very, very demoralising and I think a majority of young people would resent it very, very deeply.”

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Prof Paterson has called for a national plan involving further and higher education, but the urgency of vaccinating teachers in an already flagging Scottish programme should be part of the response too. Repeat: worst case or otherwise, repeating isn’t an option.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston

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