When I was about ten, my mother went through a phase of making chicken liver pate – very tasty and very simple. Cook the chicken livers till soft, then put them in a blender with butter, seasoning and a little bit of chicken stock. Blend. Easy-peasy. However, she tried the same thing with some pieces of cooked venison – in the blender, butter, seasoning, a little beef stock. Blend. The blender whirred for a moment, jammed and blew up.
I know that none of this is easy for Mr Swinney, but, my goodness, which genius at Education Scotland thought of ‘blended education’? Is the Deputy First Minister taking advice from anyone who has actually taught for a whole week in an actual school at any point in the last couple of years? Or are all the advisors who have his ear superannuated heads on lengthy secondments – who, let’s face it, will probably never go back – or SPAD’s with no classroom experience since they were at school? Any practising teacher who hasn’t just sunk into depression over the past two months and given up, could raise their shaky hand and point out why this isn’t going to work, and why it doesn’t have to, given the successful ways other countries are returning their children to school. Yes, for all sorts of reasons of good sense and politics, don’t follow the messy, dangerous English model, but look at Denmark or Germany or New Zealand or….well, more or less anywhere, and take the best bits and get on. But oh no, the new Scottish exceptionalism calls for ‘blended education.’
So, here is Hamish (12), being blended. Currently, he is being given online education. This might be working; it might be enhanced by parental input; he might be doing everything he’s supposed to; his work might be being marked; he might have the equipment necessary or he might not. At least the government has pledged 30 million to give disadvantaged young people laptops – I will be interested to see how they propose to distribute them and service them, but still.
In June, my understanding is that teachers currently slaving away to produce meaningful online work for Hamish are going to be in school preparing their classrooms for August, so presumably the online offer for Hamish is either to cease, or at best be reduced. Well, what must be must be, and no one can doubt that schools will need to be prepared.
On August 11th – with most teachers and pupils having lost a chunk of their holidays, but let’s gloss over that for now – schools will recommence with a ‘blended’ model of classroom teaching, online learning and homework. How is this possibly going to work in practice? Tell me, are parents of primary age children working in this model, or are they looking after their children? With rules on social mixing relaxed, are 15 year olds, who haven’t been in class for five months, really going to just get on with a mass of homework, while alone in the house? When teachers are in the classroom, who is looking after their children at home – or do they become key workers whose children are sent to ‘hub schools’ where it seems that some children simply have to do work they bring with them? The complications of supervision alone seem unsurmountable.
But – and I apologise for saying this again – there’s the question of how effective online education is anyway. I presume some part of Education Scotland is surveying this, and asking teachers, parents and young people what their experience is. Of course, clever, middle-class children will be fine – in fact, given how stretched resources in schools are for differentiated work for academic kids – some of them will be thriving. Not so lucky are the thousands of children who require schools and live teachers to keep them thinking and keep them learning, some of them the very children the Scottish Government was, prior to all this horror, trying to help most.
No, chuck the blender back in the cupboard. There are any number of places children can be taught – and to be fair, in a modest way, the Government has begun to think about that. Yes, let’s open cinemas and theatres and community centres and conference centres and gyms, but also churches and church halls – which lie empty most of the time anyway – and let’s get all young people back to socially-distanced classes in all these places. The government could even pay a modest rental to all these places, many of which are looking imperilled, in order to help them survive. Of course, as is happening in many international models, and is provenly a successful way to educate, some classes could take place outside. Curricula could be looked at imaginatively, with older pupils in particular having longer stretches of the same exam subject rather than changing subjects so often. Priority for lessons in actual schools could, at secondary level, be given to practical subjects, particularly the sciences. There could be a greater emphasis on fitness and health, after months, for some young people of a pretty lethargic and static way of life.
Of course, all this depends of the goodwill of lots of people. I think, despite the risks, most teachers will rejoice in seeing live pupils again – remember, people go into teaching because they like children, not Powerpoints. Yes, as suggested, retired teachers might be paid to help or even volunteer. Students in teacher training could get some experience, and, of course, the qualified staff from Education Scotland could do a day of joyful, three-dimensional teaching, which could only be good for them. Socially distanced, hands washed constantly, masked if necessary, but underneath these masks I predict a lot more smiles. Please tell me why the blender’s better?