Scotland's education secretary says he is “nervous about the concept of education catch-up” and has warned that “we have to be careful about the language we use” to describe pupils' experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Swinney said that the feedback from teachers was that “young people have actually learned a great deal” during the disruption caused by the coronavirus, and have also become more resilient.
Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee this morning – in its final meeting of the five-year parliamentary session – Mr Swinney acknowledged that individualised support would be necessary for some pupils, but rejected the idea that a blanket approach such as extending the school day is needed.
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He said increasing time in class “could well be counterproductive” and there was not support for such a move in the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group.
The Commission on School Reform recommended last month that there should be an eight-hour extension to the school week to make up for “massive loss of learning”.
Covid catch-up: Pupils' resilience 'has been strengthened'
Mr Swinney said: “I am nervous about the concept of education catch-up because I listen to teachers who tell me – I participated in two calls over the last two weeks with over about 1,000 teachers facilitated by [the] chief inspector of education – and I would say there was a lot of feedback on those calls about the fact that, despite the...disruption to learning, young people have actually learned a great deal.
“Now, I think we have to be careful about the language we use here about what has happened to young people. Teachers were offering on that call to me a lot of evidence about the fact that the resilience of young people has been greatly strengthened by what they have had to adapt to as a consequence of lockdown.
“Now, that is not to say in any way that there isn’t a necessity to focus individually on how we support the learning of young people to make sure they are able to accomplish the kind of learning outcomes we would expect them to achieve on an ongoing basis. But I think that’s quite a different concept from the notion of...'catch-up'.
“I think young people have actually been learning a lot during lockdown – they have been learning a lot through remote learning led by their educators but they have been learning a lot outwith that formal education and I think we should recognise there are benefits and advantages in all of that, but, crucially, we have to focus on the need of individual young people in supporting their learning outcomes.”
He said a strategy for supporting pupils going forward would be developed with the profession in the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group.
During the meeting, Mr Swinney also confirmed that the government still intended for all pupils to return to school full-time after the Easter break, and that the final date for confirming that the final phase of the return to school would go ahead was 6 April.
Participation rates in school-based Covid testing 'really quite extraordinary'
And he said that, since the asymptomatic testing regime in schools began five weeks ago, “0.1% of cases have been positive after confirmatory PCR testing”.
While the checks, on school staff and senior students are carried out using lateral flow testing, any positive results are then confirmed with a PCR test.
He told the committee that testing for pupils, currently carried out on S4-6 students, would be extended to include all younger secondary students after the Easter holidays.
In the week ending 7 March, more than 56,000 school staff and 12,000 pupils were tested for coronavirus, Mr Swinney said.
He added: “This programme is helping to break chains of transmission as early as possible, and I would encourage all those who are eligible to make use of the offer to do so when they return to school.”
With no date set for when children could be vaccinated against coronavirus, Mr Swinney later told Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens' education spokesperson, that he expected the testing programme in schools would continue at the start of the new academic year in August.
Speaking about school testing, he said: “This has been a really welcome development, and a welcome level of participation by senior pupils and staff. The levels of participation have been really quite extraordinary to be honest.
“And I am optimistic that will be carried on with S1 to S3 pupils when it is rolled out after the Easter holidays.”
Mr Greer said it was “extremely reassuring to see high numbers of both school staff and senior pupils making use of the new voluntary Covid tests”.
He said: “Green MSPs first pushed for this testing last summer, eventually forcing its introduction this spring.
“If social distancing is to be relaxed in schools, it is essential that even more effort is made to persuade both staff and pupils to take regular tests.
“With a huge amount of work still required of senior pupils in particular, we must do all we can to avoid outbreaks causing thousands of them to miss the critical final weeks before SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) deadlines. The scenes of last autumn cannot be repeated.”