Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged Scotland was facing an “education emergency” as she was accused of creating more confusion over how exactly schools will reopen on August 11.
Ms Sturgeon made the admission as she came under attack from opposition politicians as they criticised plans for restarting schools later this summer.
Anger over the way the Scottish Government had handled the return of children’s education during the coronavirus pandemic dominated First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood.
Ms Sturgeon was told parents were being put in “an impossible position” by the Scottish Government because they were being asked to go back to work next week without the support to look after their children.
Controversy over the return of schooling
The first minister also faced criticism for the conflicting messages coming from government about the form that children’s education takes when schools reopen towards for the next academic year.
Ms Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney have come up with a controversial “blended learning” model that will combine home schooling with more conventional classroom teaching. The model has been devised to reduce numbers at school so the two-metre physical distancing rule can be observed.
But “blended learning” has been criticised by parents, who claim teaching children at home will be impossible to juggle for those who are working.
At First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon raised the possibility of a more conventional education returning in August when she gave her support to a statement by a member of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Advisory Group.
2/ We’ll be guided by evidence & won’t compromise safety (we still don’t know everything about this virus). And we’ll work with parents, young people & teachers to build confidence. All countries grappling with these tough issues – @scotgov determined to do right for children
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) June 17, 2020
Ms Sturgeon said she agreed with Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, who had tweeted that schools should reopen “as normally as possible” on August 11, assuming coronavirus numbers were low enough.
But the first minister’s agreement with her adviser appeared at odds with statements by Mr Swinney. A few hours earlier the deputy first minister and education secretary told the National Parent Forum of Scotland during a zoom call that the two-metre rule would probably be in place when schools return on that date.
Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “The confusing and contradictory messages from the First Minister and her deputy are deeply counterproductive.
“It’s particularly relevant that Professor Sridhar had the courage to come out with such ambitious views, despite being a close adviser to the SNP government.
“The First Minister says she wants to be led by the experts, now is the time to do just that and listen to her own close advisers. John Swinney must be told that the return to full-time schooling has to be the top priority of this SNP government, anything less is a complete dereliction of duty.”
In the Holyrood chamber, Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw called on Ms Sturgeon to “ramp up” the coronavirus testing regime to make opening schools full time a reasonable option.
He also suggested all newly qualified teachers should be contacted to help out and said the government should intervene when councils sought to reduce staff numbers.
More funding should be devoted to converting private and public buildings into classrooms, the Tory leader said.
I will move heaven and earth to get this country and every aspect of our lives back to normal and nothing is more important in all of that than getting our children’s education back to normal and making sure plans are in place to catch up on missed education.”
Ms Sturgeon gave a commitment to providing extra cash to maximise school time.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I will move heaven and earth to get this country and every aspect of our lives back to normal and nothing is more important in all of that than getting our children’s education back to normal and making sure plans are in place to catch up on missed education. I take that responsibility very, very seriously indeed.”
She described blended learning as a “contingency plan” to maximise the amount of time children spent at school while maintaining physical distancing. She added that the time children spent being educated in that format was as short as possible.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie raised the problems faced by working parents as lockdown eases while schools are not operating at full capacity.
Mr Rennie said: “People will be going back to work next week and they will need the support next week. The Government has put parents in an impossible position because they cannot choose between their job and their children.
“The Scottish Government ramped up National Health Service capacity and pumped billions of pounds into businesses to keep them alive but, on education, our children and their parents are being left behind.”
Responding to Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, Ms Sturgeon agreed that children had the right to an education.
She added: “We are in a health emergency right now that has caused an economic emergency and has also created an education emergency and we have to tackle all of them simultaneously, which is what the government is seeking to do.”