For the last three months the nation’s health, and specifically the well-being of the NHS has rightly been at the forefront of everyone’s mind. These times are unique – this is certainly the weirdest thing ever to happen to me – and we have all recalibrated our thinking. We have a new form of criminality, with the threat of a mugging from each passing jogger’s breath and, for the last time on Thursday past, a new ritual of clapping which, at least down here in sunny (and busy) Portobello, has its quasi-religious nature reinforced by the church bells ringing.
The Scottish Government – and, let’s be honest, no-one really knows if they are right or wrong – has decreed that some semblance of ‘normal’ life can begin, and the bowlers and golfers and gardeners and sun-lovers are all a bit happier. But while we all embrace (metaphorically) our friends and loved ones again, we need to steel ourselves for the next big crisis, and that’s in the nation’s education.
I can’t believe that there are earnest discussions going on about the possibility of cancelling the SQA exams in 2021. Surely, surely, it cannot be beyond the wit of Education Scotland and the SQA to work out the mechanisms necessary to ensure that exam candidates – certainly those in S5 and S6 – can, if necessary, sit socially-distanced exams twelve months from now. The cancellation of this year’s exams was, of course, both inevitable and correct. It has led to terrible uncertainty among the young people due to sit them, particularly those dependent on results to progress to the next stage of their life. It has been ghastly for teachers who, as usual, responded with professionalism and fairness as they put together the evidence, the rank orders, the spreadsheets which will, in time, become these results for this cohort. For the sake of everyone involved, however, it is vital that the Gold Standard of the SQA exams returns in a year. Otherwise another significant group of students will be landed with exam results put together from classwork and continuous assessments, when the courses are, of course, designed to be assessed by final exams, done at the same time all over the nation, and marked with scrupulous accuracy and scrutiny.
Of course, as things stand, these courses will be the product – at least for a while – of Mr Swinney’s ‘blended education’, a mix of lessons in school, online teaching and homework. Even if the doctors deem this necessary, it must be done for as little time as possible and the objective should be to get all pupils and all teachers back into actual classrooms in actual schools as quickly as possible, apart from the very small minority of both pupils and staff who are particularly vulnerable. If this does not happen, the inevitable consequence is that the poverty- related attainment gap, which we all want to see closing, will widen further than ever before and we will have lost the battle to try to improve the educational chances – and the lives – of our poorest and most vulnerable children.
I was a secondary school teacher, so I’m most attuned to thinking about older kids. The cliched reputation of teenagers has taken a massive shift in the past while. Of course, many many of them are very conscientious about their schoolwork, and that hard-working and positive attitude is reinforced by many many parents. Adolescents, however, are not university students, who have chosen what they study, who can – in lots of instances – see where it’s going to lead, and who are that much older anyhow. It stretches credibility to think that Jimmy (14) is going to think (of his S3 ‘Broad General Education’), ‘Well I don’t like Geography and I’m not very keen on that old boot Mrs Smith because she really makes me work, but, now I can do it at home, unsupervised, I’ll do it a lot better.’ Teachers tell of the frustration of preparing online work and finding that lots of kids are simply not engaging with it. Let’s also remember – and I make no apology for repeating this – that teachers are not trained to provide online courses. If they were surgeons and it was suggested that, instead of doing an operation themselves they should, in the national interest, do it by programming a robot to do it for them, people would screw up their faces in disbelief. Some teachers (let’s be honest, mainly young teachers) can produce lessons with flair and enthusiasm, but they aren’t in the house to make sure that Jimmy does them. That’s left to mum, or dad, who, at the same time, may be doing their own jobs or minding other children.
The new national priority should be to maximise the time young people are learning on school premises, and we need to do it imaginatively and we need to do it soon, while at the same time assessing the efficacy of the online offer in Scotland – the initial UK research makes frightening reading. This needs to be the first step in a National Conversation about education, which needs to extend well beyond the timelines of this current crisis lest, years from now, several school year groups are known as the ‘Covid Generation’, and are, educationally, left blighted by the disease.