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Scottish Government accused of ‘chronic lack of leadership’ over schools returning to normal

Deputy First Minister and education secretary John Swinney remotely joining topical questions at the Scottish Parliament.
Deputy First Minister and education secretary John Swinney remotely joining topical questions at the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland is receiving “competing messages” on how long blended learning might last from government’s two most senior ministers, an opposition MSP has claimed.

Education Secretary John Swinney said on Sunday that schools across Scotland are “unlikely” to return to normality for the duration of the 2020-21 academic year.

However, speaking during her daily briefing on Monday, the First Minister later said her government was determined to maximise face-to-face teaching time and stressed it was “absolutely not the case” ministers were planning to have pupils stay at home part-time for the full academic year “or anything like it”.

During topical questions in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Conservative MSP Jamie Greene said his inbox has been “full” as a result of Mr Swinney’s remarks, adding parents were “angry that no one in the government can give them clear answers to fundamental questions about their child’s education next year”.

Conservative MSP Jamie Greene.

He added: “Instead we see mixed messages, confusion and a chronic lack of leadership on this.

“Parents and pupils need more detail and we are getting two competing messages from government’s two most senior ministers on this.”

Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston also quizzed Mr Swinney on a recent interview by Children’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson in which he said home-based learning “just doesn’t work” and is “no substitute” for school-based education.

Mr Swinney said the government has formulated a framework for the resumption of full-time schooling, in partnership with local councils, teaching professionals and parents, which it seeks to reintroduce as “early as we possibly can do”.

He added: “The blended learning model is not as good a model as the model of delivery of education we had in place before Covid-19 and we have to resume full-time education as soon as we possibly can do.

“But I have to deal with the reality that the scientific and clinical advice to me just now does not enable us to restore full-time learning in schools.

“We will do that at the earliest possible opportunity.”

On school occupancy, the education secretary said some schools operate “significantly under occupancy” and in “many cases” will be able to deliver a full timetable.

But others that may be close or over capacity will have to have their accommodation managed “very carefully”.

The blended learning model is not as good a model as the model of delivery of education we had in place before Covid-19 and we have to resume full-time education as soon as we possibly can do.”

Education secretary John Swinney.

The Deputy First Minister said the plans that come forward from local authorities should detail how they will maximise the use of school buildings and the recruitment of staff.

He added that the General Teaching Council is in the process of contacting staff who are not currently teaching or registered teachers who are not currently teaching to assess whether they can come back to work in schools across the country.

Mr Swinney said: “I acknowledge that this is a challenging time for parents but I also have communication from very many parents on the importance of ensuring our schools are safe places for our children and young people to go to.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said if parents are being asked to return to work then the Scottish Government has an “obligation” to make provisions for full-time childcare, adding that school hours have been cut in half, childminders have been cut back and grandparents are not allowed to help.

However, the education secretary said Mr Rennie does a “disservice” to the significant amount of work by educators the length and breadth of the country in “extremely challenging circumstances”.

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