A series of emails written by the education secretary and some of his key advisers – including the head of the schools inspectorate – lay bare the frustration felt by the Scottish government about plans for "blended learning" that were emerging from councils in June.
Initially, the government intended a mix of school-based and home learning in schools after the summer, until it announced on 23 June that there would be a full return of pupils from 11 August.
In one email before that decision, Colin McAllister, head of policy at the Scottish government and a special adviser to first minister Nicola Sturgeon, says the government is “facing a lot of fires across the country”, when referring to school plans that involved some pupils being in school for just one day a week.
The emails – published after a freedom of information request – show that the education secretary John Swinney sought legal advice over whether he could force councils to provide pupils with a minimum amount of time in school when it looked like the return would be part-time in order maximise social distancing.
In an email – sent on Sunday 14 June – Mr Swinney says he is “very concerned” about the plans being put in place by councils for blended learning and criticises them for publishing plans “without coming to us for a discussion on resources”.
The education secretary, who is also deputy first minister, concludes his email by saying “local government is looking like it is not focusing on the interests of children and young people”. He calls for “clear and emphatic leadership” from the director general for education, communities and justice, Paul Johnston; Gayle Gorman, Scotland’s chief inspector of education; and Graeme Logan, the Scottish government’s director of learning.
In June, the Scottish government and councils were at loggerheads over blended learning, with councils such as Edinburgh saying pupils would only be able to attend for perhaps a third of the time. Mr Swinney, however, said Edinburgh’s plans were not “strong enough” and argued children should be in school at least half the week.
Ultimately, with the full-time return of school in August, the plans for blended learning were never put in place. However, the Scottish government has made it clear they remain a back-up should Covid-19 levels rise further. Today, Scotland recorded 558 new positive coronavirus tests – the biggest single day's number since the Covid-19 outbreak began.
In his email, Mr Swinney outlines four actions he wants to be taken. As well as seeking legal advice on his “ability to specify a minimum requirement in a Ministerial Direction”, Mr Swinney instructs the schools inspectorate to have “a challenging conversation” with each local authority and produce a report on all 32 plans.
Mr Swinney asks for discussions to be “opened up with DG [director general] Exchequer” – who is responsible for the overall Scottish budget – “on the question of funding to help us incentive (sic) this”. And he demands and “an urgent report on the ES/eSgoil digital delivery model for the Senior Phase”, adding “it will have to be very ambitious and comprehensive”.
In particular, City of Edinburgh Council comes under fire in the email exchanges. Mr Logan asks Ms Gorman for an update on how “local phasing plans” are being challenged and supported, saying that the council should not be taking “a blanket approach” and that “the calculation on capacity” should be done “school-by-school” .
He adds: “I heard a much more encouraging example from South Ayrshire today who have made the calculation on capacity at individual school level. As a result, some schools will return full time for all children, some will be 50 per cent and a few over-subscribed schools will be 33 per cent in-school time.”
Meanwhile, special adviser to the first minister, Colin McAllister, writes in an email on 12 June that he has heard Blairgowrie High in Perth and Kinross Council “talking about one day per week for every secondary pupil other than those in S5 and S6”.
He adds: “So, we are facing a lot of fires across the country. I am also not picking up much activity seeking to expand the estate. So, I suspect this is actually about money.”
Responding to Mr McAllister, Ms Gorman agrees the issue is funding, saying: “I agree – the money is becoming the issue – both for extra teachers and for estate – working with partners to stress importance and maximum approach.”
Scottish government guidance published on 21 May suggested that councils should look to turn community centres and even empty business premises into classrooms, in order to increase the number of children receiving face-to-face instruction while physical distancing – the official term preferred to social distancing – of two metres was in place.
However, in an interview with Tes Scotland, Stephen McCabe – Cosla’s spokesperson for children and young people, as well as the leader of Inverclyde Council – said that repurposing buildings would cost a lot and that affordability was “absolutely a factor” in working out what blended learning would look like.
The emails show, however, that later in June the focus quickly shifted to the two-metre social distancing rule.
In an email on 14 June, Mr Johnston says: “The root of the limited nature of return to school is in large part due to the need for physical distancing that has been set out in light of scientific advice.”
Then, after Northern Ireland announced physical distancing of one metre in schools, there was an email on 19 June which states that Mr Swinney has requested “an urgent note on the science that lies behind the Northern Ireland decisions on schools returning which is very much at odds with our advice”.
In an email sent later that day, Sam Anson – head of improvement, attainment and wellbeing at the Scottish government – writes that “it looks to me like they have drawn from the same science but applied a different level of risk appetite to it”.
Also that day, deputy director of education analysis Mick Wilson writes: “As I have mentioned a few times, the decision on what distance 'rule' to put in place is a risk-based judgement not a hard-and-fast, scientifically determined position.”
On 22 June Mr Wilson writes in an email: “We are drafting an urgent statement for [the first minister/depute first minister] on schools (essentially rowing back from the blended learning plan).”