Reform Scotland

‘Blended learning’ or ‘part-time schooling’? – Keir Bloomer

Schools in Scotland are to re-open for pupils in mid-August using ‘blended learning’.  This new piece of jargon is a potentially misleading attempt to suggest that more will be on offer than part-time attendance at school.

There is no suggestion that blended learning is something positive.  It is not, for example, a sign that something has been learned from the period of home-based schooling during lockdown.  Rather, the need for it lies in the government’s decision that schools will re-open with social distancing still in place.  If pupils are to be kept at least two metres apart, the capacity of the classroom will be drastically reduced.  The number of pupils who can be in school at any one time will be limited.  Therefore, the length of time any individual pupil can be in school has to be shorter than would otherwise be the case.  In short, part-time schooling is a consequence of social distancing.

It is, therefore, worth considering whether distancing is either necessary or feasible.

It seems almost self-evident that social distancing in schools cannot be entirely successful.  Small children will forget and will have no clear idea of the distance involved.  Disaffected teenagers are no more likely to obey this rule than any other.  It is likely that distancing measures may reduce the amount of close contact in schools, but they will certainly not totally eliminate it.

Children are apparently not particularly prolific spreaders of the disease.  Those who are infected are overwhelmingly likely to suffer only mild symptoms, if any.  Social distancing is, therefore, about protecting adults rather than children.  This applies most obviously to adults working in schools, particularly teachers.  However, there is also concern about children bringing the disease back home with them or, less probably, spreading it to others with whom they come into contact.

The government has decided that the risks involved in re-opening schools without distancing are unacceptably large.  It may have deluded itself that it is possible to ensure successful distancing in the school setting.  If this is the case, the assessment of the risks involved in re-opening is inaccurate.  Alternatively, government may be aware that distancing will meet with only limited success but have decided that the risk is, nevertheless, acceptable.  If this is the case, I do not think that the information is widely available or understood.

It is understandable that, when the virus first became known, there was panic, even among governments, and a belief that the only risks to be taken seriously into consideration were those relating to the disease.  In other words, decisions had to be taken in the interest of reducing those risks, even if was likely or even certain that other kinds of risk would be incurred.  We are surely past that stage now.  Governments have to be in the business of evaluating and balancing risks.

We know that continued school closure will damage the educational prospects of young people.  We know that the already disadvantaged will suffer most and that the attainment gap is widening.  We know that children’s socialisation is being set back and that an increasing number will suffer mental health problems.  We know that domestic abuse is increasing.  The list goes on.

These are not reasons for ignoring risks of a resurgence of the epidemic, but they are reasons to compare the various kinds of risk and engage in an adult dialogue with the public on the merits and demerits of different courses of action.  This is not currently much in evidence.

Should government decide that schools can re-open only if social distancing is in place, it then has a duty to try to make a success of blended learning.  This will call for much more effective national strategies than have been put in place so far.  Over the past three months many schools have been enterprising in their efforts to support learning at home.  They have not received effective support in turn.  It would be very difficult to portray experience so far as offering an encouraging precedent for the new world of blended learning.

Face-to-face teaching enables interaction which is a vital part of learning.  Good electronic communication can offer interaction too although those of us now accustomed to Zoom are familiar with its limitations.  Nevertheless, it would be possible to imagine an approach using a reduced amount of time in the classroom supported by whole class, small group or even individual teaching through electronic means.  If such an approach were to operate equitably, more would have to be done to ensure the availability of equipment of good quality in homes currently without.  Even this would not overcome such problems as poor wifi connections.

There would also be a huge issue of human resources.  Schools are currently able to put teacher time into contacting pupils, issuing tasks, giving feedback and so forth because little, if any, time is taken up by normal class contact.  That will not be the case after August.  Indeed, very small classes will mean that the teaching resource will be spread even more thinly.  Who, then, is to give the additional support that blended learning will require?  The Commission on School Reform suggested nearly three months ago the recruitment of an army of online tutors from among retired teachers, students and the like.  The idea was predictably dismissed by conservative and self-interested groups within the Scottish educational establishment – but its time may come.

Until and unless these strategic issues are addressed seriously, we may as well give ‘blended learning’ its proper title – part-time schooling.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform