Back to school plan: Government has listened, but teachers have a right to feel aggrieved

John Swinney and Kate Forbes, helping open Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Phort Rìgh in 2018

WHFP Editorial 26.06.20

Thanks to the onset of Covid-19 the past three months have been an education for us all, though for school children the world as they knew it has been turned upside down.

Home schooling, with all it has entailed for youngsters, parents and teachers, has been a remarkable challenge of imagination, improvisation and patience.

For the most part people have adapted well, though there was never a question this could be a model for the long term.

So as thoughts turn to the autumn and a new school year, this week’s announcement that pupils will be back full time from August will have come as a relief to thousands.

Playgrounds, like this one in Dunvegan, Skye, have been empty since March

The change of tack from the Scottish Government – who had previously proposed a phased return during which children would have continued to learn at home for around half the week – should be welcomed for two main reasons.

Firstly, it suggests the virus is being brought under control.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney was at pains to say that the full-time return was conditional on infection rates being sufficiently low, public health and testing systems being in place and protective measures and risk assessments being carried out in all schools.

Secondly, it should allay the educational fears of many parents.

The prospect of restrictions on full-time classroom education stretching beyond six months had sparked major concerns – particularly for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

One day a week

In Skye, parents were told last week that two-metre social distancing guidelines and the resulting school transport constraints meant most Portree High pupils would only be able to attend classes for one day a week.

It was a proposal that many tired and anxious families viewed as unacceptable.

The safety reasons were perhaps easier to understand. More perplexing was the apparent lack of imagination or government will to procure the extra resources, staff, transport and buildings that may have allowed more children to return while observing physical distancing.

Eventually, political and parental pressure – combined with more encouraging news on the suppression of the virus – led to this week’s climbdown.

Council need funds

But questions remain as to how the revised arrangements will work.

In a week where it emerged that Covid-19 could cost Highland Council nearly £97 million, it is understandable that education chair John Finlayson is frustrated over the allocation of resources.

As opposed to every request having first to be evaluated in Edinburgh, he urged the Scottish Government to “give the local authorities the additional funding so they can get on with things”.

“Time is short,” the former headmaster added.

We should also recognise that teachers will have every right to feel aggrieved.

For weeks they and other education colleagues have been preparing plans, liaising with parents and helping to kit out classrooms to ready themselves for a socially distant re-opening in August.

Yet days before the end of term, they are now heading for a summer of uncertainty and face having to come up with a new set of operating guidelines.

At a time when measures have still to be reduced for the wider public, teachers have been told that social distancing in schools will not apply at all.

Key workers

As EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan pointed out this week: “Why would it be mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport but not in a classroom?

“Why would a till assistant be protected by a Perspex sheet but not a teacher?

“There cannot be a social distancing rule for outside of schools and a different one for inside classrooms.”

In some quarters the teachers’ unions have been accused of being obstructive to the prospect of schools re-opening.

But in the face of a virus which has shown just how much society depends on these key workers, they are right to stand up for the interests of their members.

The trade union faced similar criticism the last time they called for a teachers’ pay-rise.

Would anyone, especially parents after more than three months of classes at the kitchen table, argue against that now?