Imagine if the First Minister and Health Secretary had announced in March, in response to covid-19, that they would allocate some extra money over the next couple of years, local Health Boards should discuss how best to treat some patients for some days of the week, and it will all work out ok over time. There would have been an outcry, maybe even riots in the streets. So why is this the response to the crisis facing our children and their education? And why does anyone think it is acceptable?
I taught high school Mathematics in the 1980s when Scotland’s industrial base collapsed and the economy changed. That generation of children was left to hang and we still live with the consequences today. Many found it hard to keep down a proper job, addiction rates increased, health declined, and these problems were then passed on generation to generation. Their lives were damaged and that impacted the lives of their children and grandchildren, and of course wider society. We must not allow this to happen again.
Governments in Holyrood and Westminster have mobilised a phenomenal national effort to protect health and save jobs over the past 3 months, but just weeks away from Scotland’s traditional school holidays the ambition for education coming out of lockdown is woeful.
Home based learning has widened the gaps between those who have and those who do not. Despite the hard work of those teachers who have been working, thousands have missed out completely and most others have had only a small sample of their normal learning experience. Children and young people have been separated from their peers and from other adults beyond their parents or carers. For 12 weeks, there have been no sports clubs or organised group activities. The impact on mental health and educational development will be felt for many years to come.
Mobilising the resources, people, facilities and equipment required is not easy. But it was done for health and jobs in a few weeks. It should have been in place for education as lockdown started to ease, but it is not too late. Part time learning starting 8 weeks from now is just not good enough. The time for leadership on this has come.
We need a national plan of action. We need the Education Secretary and First Minister to lead, with the Scottish Government and 32 Education Authorities working flat out towards the same goals. The objective should be to have every Scottish child in an organised learning environment every day by mid August. And the ambition should be to have closed the gaps for the most vulnerable created by lockdown before the end of the year.
The educational gaps that were already in place have been exacerbated by the lockdown. I salute the work done by teachers and heads to address this – and I have spoken to dozens about the issue in recent weeks – but those gaps have increased and current plans do not provide enough answers to tackle this.
Unless action is taken right now, mobilising resources in the same way that they were mobilised for health and mobilised to save jobs, then these children will come back to school months behind their classmates in curriculum alone. They will find it harder to reintegrate, and will slip even further behind.
To protect health and save jobs, new facilities have been created or converted and staff have been transferred from other duties. Clear priorities have been set. By waiting until August, we will have missed the best chance to use outdoor spaces in the better weather, and I still hope that decision can be reversed. But other options will still exist, and surely having children in an organised safe environment every school day, all day, is better than leaving them to study or stagnate at home. Teachers could target their time on those who have fallen behind and managing the weekly learning plan; and a combination of staff transferred from other areas, retired teachers, volunteers and students in training could supervise and support those learning on-line in an organised site rather than at home. It is not ‘too difficult’ as I was told this week. It needs imagination, determination and political will. Not only would such a plan, delivered with clarity and urgency, avoid a generation of ‘Covid kids’ falling further behind, but it would help tackle the significant mental health problems that are developing, and help parents get back to work. It would be win, win, win. But most of all, it is the least our children deserve.
Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell was MSP for Motherwell & Wishaw 1999-2011 and First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007