Scotland needs a ‘virtual school’ – Jenifer Johnston

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The author Damien Barr’s coronavirus analogy has really stuck on me: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” Your boat might be a luxury cruiser with the mortgage paid off, all mod cons. The next door neighbour’s might be a dinghy seeping with leaks of grief and poverty, being tossed from side to side with great uncertainty and not enough lifejackets. Down the street there is a yacht bobbing away but completely isolated and lonely with a one-person crew, trying to signal to others that they still exist.

My boat is far, far better than most, with a garden and the ability to purchase protection and food and skills to advocate for what we need to keep sailing, but the loud creaks began on Monday 23 March, the first day of no school in Scotland, with a simultaneous full day of work to do. At the bow are my children, 6 and 3, beautiful and largely unaware of the storm, safe in their lifejackets of Amazon Prime, plenty of books and felt tips and two parents who love them unendingly. At the stern is my job, important and needed, essential to keep up the next 15 years of payments on the good boat. And I am balancing in the middle maintaining 14 hours of childcare intermingled with 8 hours of work that I want badly to do, and do well. I am not alone in my boat – single parents are in much worse craft than I – but like most mothers I also carry the weight of family labour: the housekeeping, the birthdays, the food planning, medications, direct debit payments, the organising of all the things, and all the other things. We are not unusual in that my husband makes most of the money, and I make things nice. Ever tried securing a canister of helium and a pink inflatable number 6 balloon in a pandemic? It takes time away from rowing to shore for sure. 

The best estimate is that there are 40,000 parents in Scotland now working at home with around 60,000 children to keep safe, homeschool, protect and enjoy. The UK Government on 4 April quietly changed their furlough advice to allow employers to furlough staff who have childcare responsibilities, a change still unpromoted widely. This is not a button employees can push – the approval to furlough lies solely with employers. And furlough as a scheme only exists for private sector employers: public sector and third sector staff whose organisations receive money from the public purse are ineligible. Households with sympathetic employers like mine might decide to use dribbled-out annual leave to cope with the sudden and draining tasks in front of them, keeping in mind that the advice from Scottish Government and indeed basic common sense is that children babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone. The STUC and the Scottish Government have explicitly referenced caring responsibilities in their updated Fair Work statement

My personal experience of trying to do both at once has been really mixed and as time goes on the kids are clearly getting worn down by my inability to engage with them properly at times through the day, which makes me feel guilty and unhappy, a bit hollow somehow because I’m present but not available. We’ve also have had new moments of pure joy as a family that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. Other families have lost their income completely, or are at home all day without money for heating or lighting, or have lost someone they love deeply to this virus, and are having a much worse time than us. I’m acutely aware of our health and good luck and nice bosses when all around us inequality is laid bare.

But still, the maths will still not add up. If you want an adult to be with a child for a full day, a two-adult household with 25 days each of annual leave from the day the schools closed can make that stretch to Friday 29 May. A single-adult household going into lockdown with 25 days of annual leave to take and who uses half days also runs out of that option on 29 May. And thereafter there are harder choices, as noted by the excellent employment lawyer Debbie Fellows at Thorntons Law – sick lines, emergency unpaid leave, parental leave, an unpaid leave of absence. There are no grandparents. There are no childminders. We have to stay in our boats by ourselves. 

What would make this easier for working parents? All around us friends are being plunged into sudden unemployment that will last for years – so if we have a job it is precious and we have to do everything we can to keep it. But we are currently making decisions about hard-earned and much needed employment in the dark, asking employers for scattered flexible working because we don’t know what we need. So firstly, quick confirmation from the Cabinet Secretary for Education that schools are not going to return before August or September, and clear, national guidance about which classes, when, and for how long, would help keep people, especially women, in employment, as then we can plan either to keep going, reduce hours permanently, or quit. If you have a P1 and a P4 child, and the P1 will be phased into school say three mornings a week for six weeks, that is a lot of missed Zoom calls on a half day getting them there and back and settled once home. The P4 is unlikely to be going to school in the first phase of return so will need some entertaining and homeschooling across the whole day. This is of course if parents are confident about their children entering a classroom at all, and a new survey suggests that richer households are happier to send kids back than poorer households: school return reality may be very different to what Ministers are planning for it to be. Keyworkers are so important and if Hubs close in favour of asking nurses, social workers, refuse collectors and doctors to try to accommodate half days here and there, instead of full days that are regular and cover school holidays, this will create a really complicated system and an added mental strain on already badly stressed out essential workers. Scotland will need Hubs for a while.

The second issue is the wide and varied offering that Scotland has presented to children, young people and parents in terms of home learning, and there is an easy solution to this. For the past nine weeks, 32 local authorities, hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers have been quickly staging a schoolbag of paper work, digital learning, and virtual face-to-face contact with teachers in some places. Private schools are ahead of the digital game, providing their pupils with double the amount of online learning of state pupils. 

I asked parents about this on Twitter on 4 May – in replies from people across 11 local authorities there is evidence of no online “face-to-face” lessons (either live or recorded), no or seldom visibility of much needed faces, no marking of work, the functionality of Glow being a daily struggle, and the use of a huge variety of teaching methods – Microsoft Teams, SeeSaw, Zoom, YouTube, ShowMyHomework, Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, emails, printables, and hard copy work were all mentioned. There were also some absolutely lovely messages about individual teachers who are keeping in touch with their kids by phone, daily video lessons, and schools who have found creative workarounds to the inflexibility of what is “allowed” so that teachers can see, speak and listen to their class. Teachers are also producing these solutions from home with young children and all the other challenges this pandemic brings.

My ask of the Scottish Government is that there is a national online curriculum developed and delivered digitally in really simple, open-access websites, no passwords, no gatekeeping, just lessons broadcast daily on a website, join in if you can. Scotland has many superstar teachers who could deliver classes to the nation’s kids in a virtual school – we could get to know them as well as our own fantastic class teachers. Lessons could be live and recorded to watch later if children can’t get to them right away. The content could dovetail into what is already out there through BBC Bitesize and other trusted teaching and wellbeing materials (and Joe Wicks!). I know some local authorities and schools are culturally against a national curriculum but until there is a vaccine this will be needed by kids who cannot return to school if their parents are shielding, to bridge the half-day phased-return offering that kids will get, and to let teachers truly be present for their class: they could support a national curriculum with additional material, by marking nationally-set work, and to be there for their kids virtually or by phone. And for families without internet access or devices it will be a small investment to bring them online and to connect by paying their WiFi bill and supplying a tablet. In the scheme of what is being spent, after healthcare, if a virtual school is the only reliable and available school that there is then we should pay for everyone to access it equally – no child left behind, getting it right for every child. 

If Scotland truly is a “world leading digital nation” then this could be staged in a week. It would free up tens of thousands of hours of preparation and mixed methods of delivery that teachers and schools are trying to undertake in 32 different ways across a small country, an Occam’s Razor to deliver one thing – simple, open access websites – that delivers one thing – education.

So please, give me sail for my boat. We are so lucky, and will keep working with our kids at home for many weeks and months to come, and thank you to our school and their staff for what they’ve done. I want to keep my children safe and educated, and I want to work. Please make this easier than it has been as we start to see the reassurance of the shoreline on the horizon.

Jenifer Johnston works in communications and public affairs. @TheLastGoodGirl