The return to home learning – Lindsay Paterson

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With schools now closed, pupils and parents again have to make the best of home education. The experience for most children in Scotland last year was not great. Only about one in seven pupils were spending anything like a full day on school work, and a quarter were probably doing no work at all. Sadly, that was partly because they were not being prodded by schools. Seven out of ten pupils received from their schools on average less than one online lesson per day, and only just over a half received per day even as many as three offline lessons such as worksheets. Teachers marked work regularly for only half of pupils. All of these problems were worse for children living in poverty.

Policy drifted, despite the specious rhetoric of the daily press conferences from the Scottish government. Scottish pupils were lucky to have lost fewer hours of school than elsewhere only because the closures last year happened to coincide to a greater extent with normal school holidays. Scotland was less effective at distributing laptops to poor pupils than any of the UK nations. It is still the case that the 50,000 laptops funded by the Scottish government would cover only about 7% of pupils, which is less than a third of pupils living in poverty.

In any case, it turns out that laptops and what schools do explain only at most about a third of the inequality of pupils’ time spent on learning during last year’s closures. The rest is due to pupils’ and parents’ engagement, an intractable challenge even at the best of times. So the most important question now is whether Scottish education is better prepared to support families than it was then.

It is worth reiterating, of course, that if half of pupils were not receiving support from their teachers, the other half were. There are no published case studies in Scotland of what went well, but a combination of surveys of teachers in England and anecdote tends to confirm what might in any case be thought to be obvious. The best teachers and schools were active: in this context, that means lessons taught online, live interaction between the class and the teacher, and also opportunities for individual pupils to have one-to-one conversations with a teacher or a tutor.

All these parents and teachers will be able to do the same again, but with greater weariness and with a growing sense that they have been let down by the official agencies that ought to be supporting them.

The greatest failure is by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. It has done absolutely nothing to prepare for what has now happened. When the school exams were cancelled by Education Secretary John Swinney, the SQA produced what they call alternative arrangements for assessing pupils. The SQA denies that these are intended to be used as exams, with the sort of terminological quibbling that is about the only thing it has excelled at since its foundation quarter of a century ago. These are, in all but name, exam papers. Teachers have to download them from the SQA website. The SQA specifies that they should then be used under conditions as close as possible to normal exams.

Since running exams is impossible remotely – despite some naïve wishful thinking by the SQA – teachers now have nothing to be getting on with. Yet they are still expected to estimate pupils’ grades for awards next summer.

The SQA is truly culpable here. They have let down, not only pupils, teachers and parents, but also the Scottish government, who might reasonably have expected a body that is rightly independent of politics to be able to develop viable plans without direct political instruction. However, the scope for political instruction in an emergency exists (in section 9 of the 1996 Act which set up the SQA). Mr Swinney used that power when he instructed the SQA last August to abandon the infamous algorithm. So he should use it again to instruct the SQA to create genuinely non-exam assessment. Part of the instruction to the SQA should be to provide clear advice to teachers on how to use the assessment online (or by post or other means), how to mark the pupils’ work, and how to ensure that the estimated grades which teachers will then develop will be treated with respect by the SQA, unlike last year.

Almost as deplorable as the SQA’s dereliction is the failure on distance learning, the responsibility (like everything else in the curriculum) of Education Scotland. A large part of its tawdry advice amounts to little more than citing websites where other organisations have done the work. Does any parent really need to be told by Education Scotland that the BBC has a channel called CBeebies?

Education Scotland also boasts about its ‘e-learning offer’. This is a make-over of the Gaelic website eSgoil, which is now mainly in English. (What Gaelic learners must make of this does not seem to have been assessed.) But this comes nowhere near to the active engagement which is required. In reality, what it amounts to is a few live talks online and a brief opportunity to ask questions. Contrast that with the Oak Academy in England, which provides lessons that deal specifically with particular aspects of the syllabus, and that can be viewed at any time.

Oak Academy is not interactive, unlike eSgoil (even if minimally), but a much better source of interactive support is available in England: the National Tutoring Programme. It’s run by the independent Educational Endowment Foundation, with government funding, and is reported to have been taken up by a third of schools. It provides tutoring for children in socially disadvantaged circumstances. It’s not perfect – some of the funding is uncertain, and it may reach only about a fifth of pupils in need – but it’s enormously better than the mini-lectures provided by eSgoil. The key point about it is that the tutoring is one-to-one, which research shows to be the best way of providing support to pupils.

When the Commission on School Reform proposed a programme of such tutoring in Scotland last March, the idea was derided by the Scottish educational establishment as potentially undermining the professionalism of Scottish teachers and even as a threat to the safety of Scottish pupils. Yet the National Tutoring Programme has also drawn on research which shows that tutoring works best when the tutor is under the general supervision of the class teacher. Thus it is no threat to professionalism, but is, rather, its enhancement. The programme in England has been criticised only for what some claim to be its inadequate funding, not for the principle.

Faced with the disappointing state of Scottish policy, what might be done in the short term to mitigate the damage? Here are three suggestions:

Schools need to be actively and regularly engaged with each pupil. It’s not enough to have a few worksheets issued every week, leaving children to get on with it. So one possibility would be that the Scottish government would set minimum entitlements. For example, each pupil should be contacted (preferably by phone, rather than by text or email) at least, say, twice per week. Another minimum would be that each pupil in primary and early secondary should have to submit at least two pieces of written work each week, electronically where possible but, if not, by some other means. This work should be returned, with written feedback, within a week by an appropriate teacher.

The two pieces of written work would not be in every subject, but across all subjects. The aim is simply to keep pupils engaged. So this would be actually quite far below what is required when the schools are open, but it would allow all pupils to make some progress, and would prevent the most vulnerable pupils from dropping out altogether.

Second, children need individual support. The easiest way to do this would be for the Scottish government to buy into the National Tutoring Programme. At short notice, it’s difficult to see what else could be done to provide this kind of help to families, but building up an alternative Scottish model of tutoring could proceed in parallel with giving Scottish pupils access to the English programme.

Above all, parents need advice that is far better than Education Scotland’s patronising homilies. Websites are not enough, nor is indirect advice via material sent by schools directly to pupils. Since the inspectors who make up half of Education Scotland have nothing else to do at the moment, why not get them staffing the phone lines and email links to answer parents’ requests?

The First Minister, announcing the school closures, said that she would not ‘insult the intelligence of any parent in relation to childcare’. Good. So let’s treat parents as proper partners in their children’s schooling, not merely the providers of emergency child-minding that this crisis has yet again imposed on them.

Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy, Edinburgh University