Henry Hepburn

Catastrophising about Covid catch-up doesn’t help

The tendency to view education as either a huge success or a dismal failure is damaging to Covid recovery, writes Henry Hepburn

Covid catch-up: First minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has made education her number one priority

I have worked for Tes since 2006, and for a number of years it often felt as if education was largely off the political radar in Scotland. Then Nicola Sturgeon became first minister in 2014 and, after she made it clear that education was her number-one priority, the whole dynamic changed.

For better or worse, education instantly moved into the political limelight. On the government’s side, Sturgeon said that her record as FM should hinge on ministers’ promise to close the “poverty-related attainment gap” (as policymakers dubbed it). And before too long, one of the first minister’s big beasts, John Swinney, had taken over as education secretary after a decade heading up finance. The government, it seemed, really was taking education seriously.

Meanwhile, political opponents licked their lips at the prospect of a first minister promising more than she could deliver. Time and again, they found reason to hold her education record against her: think of the brickbats for Mr Swinney after the Education Bill was abandoned in 2019; or of the denunciation of Scotland’s performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (even if the data presents a less clear-cut picture); or of all the evidence that teaching was a profession groaning under the weight of unnecessary workload.

Then came Covid.

The (widely predicted) SQA results debacle in August was not only a procedural mess – it also laid bare structural inequality and bias that showed just how much work was left to close the attainment gap, however you choose to define it. And, after nearly a year of school staff and pupils stressing over when and whether they will actually be in school, and the uncertainty over how learning is organised and assessed in lockdown, this week has had them all playing the waiting game once again: ministers deliberated down to the wire before providing the latest update on how and when pupils might return to school.

Covid catch-up: Teachers have gone above and beyond

In all of the above, opposition politicians have had an important role in highlighting failures in the government’s response – but they have a tricky balancing act to perform. Before March 2020, politicians already had to decide how far they could go in denouncing a government’s education record without making it seem like they were taking potshots at those who work in education settings. Amid the anxiety of Covid, however, politicians must be even more careful not to get so carried away in kicking a government’s education record that it feels like they are also aiming a kidney punch at teachers.

It was a lesson Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross learned last week, when he tweeted his criticism of the “poor and patchy” school education offered during the pandemic and his assessment that “a significant long-term catch-up effort is required to avoid creating a lost generation”. Despite Mr Ross’ protestations that his criticism was aimed squarely at the SNP government, he riled many teachers, who took it as an attack on a profession that has gone to huge lengths to keep formal education going over the past year.

This, however, was emblematic of a problem that goes beyond the shortcomings of party politics. The portrayal of education in binary terms – as either a resounding success or (more usually) a dismal failure – is far from limited to politicians. We have seen it often from some of the more frenzied corners of the internet during Covid, and the constant diagnoses of doom obscure the far more complex, nuanced reality of education.

Yes, Scottish education had serious problems to grapple with before Covid, and, yes, we still remain a long way from knowing the full extent of the damage the pandemic has wreaked. But if forensic criticism of education tips over into blunderbuss catastrophising, you’re more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 19 February 2021 issue under the headline “Catastrophising about catch-up makes recovery more difficult”

Other articles in this issue