Scotland’s secondary headteachers' organisation says the government’s own education recovery group received “no hint” that the first minister's statement on Tuesday would include "a return for young people in BGE [broad general education] from 15 March”.
On Tuesday first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the second phase of the return to school in Scotland, due to take place from 15 March, would include not just P4-7 and senior phase students but also S1-3, who would receive in-school learning at least once a week. Previously, it was planned that S1-3 would not return until April, after the Easter holidays.
Ms Sturgeon said the decision followed consultation and discussion with a number of partners, including the government’s own Covid-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG), which is chaired by deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney.
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However, School Leaders Scotland sits on that group and, in an email to members yesterday afternoon, SLS general secretary Jim Thewliss said: “The content of the first minister’s statement to Parliament yesterday came as a shock to us all and was as unforeseen as it was unwelcome.”
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He added: “The CERG Working Group on the Phased Return to In-Person Learning met on 24 February to discuss the next phase of the return...There was no hint at CERG that the 2 March statement would include a return for young people in BGE from 15 March.”
The meeting papers state that – while the government’s Covid-19 strategic framework for emerging from the pandemic “leaves flexibility for phase 2 to go further” – the “core position” is that “[only] the remainder of primary pupils and the remainder of the senior phase would feature in phase 2”. It adds that “this core position is consistent with previous CERG discussions”.
The papers show that three options for the phase 2 return were explored in detail by the working group: S1-6 blended learning; S4-6 blended learning; and S4-6 full-time return.
However, the papers state: “Feedback on the respective merits of these included the need to protect the quality of the current remote learning offer and the importance of prioritising in-person provision for the senior phase this side of Easter. Concerns were flagged regarding the operational challenges of returning all secondary pupils, particularly if it was only for a limited period of time (ie, two to three weeks before Easter).”
Mr Thewliss sent his email to members in response to “the volume of incoming mail” from school leaders expressing “anger and concern” in the wake of Ms Sturgeon’s statement.
Mr Thewliss said he had “expressed SLS' concerns to the Scottish government that morning” and would “do so again” at today’s CERG meeting.
Immediately after the announcement, one secondary school leader, writing for Tes Scotland, described the plans for phase 2 as the “worst-case scenario” for secondary schools.
Another school leader – Joe Kane, headteacher of St Joseph’s Academy in Kilmarnock – said in a post on his school’s Facebook page that a timetable usually took five weeks to construct when there were no Covid restrictions to consider, and lasted an entire school year; the Scottish government was asking schools to create a timetable for a 14-day period with two-metre social distancing in place and “little or no time for adequate planning”.
He told parents that “any perceived limitations when comparing the announcement to what can actually be delivered” were the fault of the Scottish government, not local authorities, headteachers or schools.
The news that CERG was blindsided by Tuesday’s announcement comes as the scientific and public health experts who sit on the Scottish government’s advisory sub-group on education published their guidance yesterday on the return to school.
They give the green light for “a mixture of limited part-time return and remote learning for all secondary-age pupils” but say masks must “be worn throughout the day by all secondary-aged pupils” and two-metre distancing should be in place in secondary.
However, the group reiterates its position that three weeks of data is required to adequately assess the impact of the first phase of the return to school. On Monday 22 February P1-3 returned full time and some senior-phase students were able to return on a limited basis to complete practical work for their qualifications.
The group says: “It is too soon to say anything about the impact that the phase 1 return (from 22 February) will have on case numbers and transmission.”
It recommends “a final decision checkpoint as close to the indicative date of 15 March as is feasible”.
Ms Sturgeon has said that the wider opening plans would go ahead “unless new evidence or new circumstances force us to reconsider”.