Flexibility for Highland schools as pupils set to return to the classroom in August

Schools like Portree have been closed to almost all pupils since 20th March

Highland schools should re-open on 11th August, but there will be “flexibility” afforded to take into account local circumstances, the chair of the region’s education committee has said.

Scotland’s deputy First Minister John Swinney confirmed last week that, subject to scientific advice that it was safe to do so, pupils should prepare for a return to school at the end of the summer.

The 11th August date is a week earlier than previously scheduled for the 2020-2021 Highland school term.

Early Learning and childcare settings will open over the summer, while teachers – currently delivering lessons from home – will from June be allowed into schools to prepare and plan for the new way of working and welcoming pupils back.

While the school gates will open again, parents have been told to expect a mix of classroom and home learning to continue.

The agreement reached between councils, professional associations and parent representatives means:

  • Schools will implement physical distancing measures, such as providing seating that is two metres apart and staggering arrival, departure and break times.
  • There will be increased hand-washing or use of hand sanitisers, enhanced cleaning, robust protocols for suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases and ongoing risk assessments will be implemented.
  • Class sizes will be significantly reduced as a result of the new way of working, with most pupils spending around half their time in class and half learning at home. Time in school will increase further as soon as it is safe to do so
  • Existing ‘hubs’ will continue to run to provide vulnerable children and those of key workers with childcare over the summer months.

Skye councillor John Finlayson, who chairs Highland Council’s education committee, said Mr Swinney’s announcement was broadly in line with the expectations of the authority’s education recovery group.

Different challenge for rural areas, says John Finlayson

However, he said he was pleased that local authorities would be given flexibility in their approach.

He said: “Clearly the challenges each authority faces will be significantly different and within Highland itself we will have different challenges in urban and rural areas.

“Local authorities have been given the flexibility to plan and deliver a return to education in a manner that suits local circumstances and the council’s education improvement team, supported by other officers, in consultation with school leaders and school staff, will look to implement approaches that enable pupils to get back to school.

“A blended approach to learning will continue for a while yet. Whatever is implemented will put the wellbeing of our children at its heart.”

Schools closed on 20th March and since then pupils have been learning at home, through lessons delivered online by teachers.

Other pledges made by Mr Swinney included one to expand the school estate, using libraries, community halls, leisure centres, conference venues or taking short-term leases of vacant business accommodation to increase the time children can spend with their teachers.

He also suggested that retired teachers could return to school as part of plans to limit class sizes.

To support digital home learning, the Scottish Government is to invest £9 million for 25,000 laptops or tablets – with internet access provided – for disadvantaged children

Mr Swinney added; “This is not, however, a return to schooling as we knew it – schools are not returning to normal at this stage.

“To keep our pupils and staff safe we will implement physical distancing, staggered arrival and departure times, staggered break times, increased hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning regimes and a range of other measures.

“That means a new model of teaching, learning and support will have to be delivered. Precise details will vary from school to school but for the vast majority, classes are going to be much smaller to allow physical distancing and, as a result, children are likely to spend about half their time learning at home.”