Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has made a pledge that if the SNP is re-elected, every pupil will be given an internet-enabled device. I co-host a Scottish teachers support and wellbeing group on Facebook, so I decided to gauge the reaction.
Covid-19 has laid bare the inequalities within our society in many ways but especially with regards to the access of education through remote learning for our students.
In the first lockdown, there was an emphasis on encouraging learners and families to do the best they could under the circumstances. By the next lockdown, a number of councils had provided devices to many of the learners who needed them and the expectation this time was to continue with new learning. The lack of equity was still, however, a large concern.
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Although very few people would argue that each child having access to a device is unnecessary, I wondered: is this pledge really what our schools, families and education system need as a priority?
I decided to turn to more than 2,000 of my colleagues on the support group to ask them to share their priorities for Scottish education. I posed three questions of members, and here are the results.
1.What are the advantages of the first minister’s offer of devices for all learners?
The overwhelming response from members was that, of course, in order to make progress in a digital world, it is rapidly becoming a human right to have access to the internet and devices to allow access and enhance learning experiences.
Digital devices within the classroom can cut down on paper, making our systems more sustainable and allowing better access to resources. In addition, they reduce barriers with regards to equity among all learners and help to better prepare our young people and staff for the future.
2. What are the disadvantages of the first minister's offer of devices for all learners?
Many members raised concerns about existing infrastructure in schools that cannot adequately support our current digital needs and so would need to be upgraded for devices to work properly. In addition, it was suggested that many locations across the country were also suffering from poor connectivity, hence a national broadband rollout should be a priority.
A very important point made by a member concerned the question of a long-term plan. This pledge seems to be a sticking plaster on a creaking system.
3. What are your five priorities to better resource and improve Scottish education?
This year has seen much frustration expressed by teachers about their voices not being included in the decision-making processes. Nobody knows better than teachers the needs and challenges of their pupils and colleagues, yet we seem to be so far down the list when it comes to consultation ahead of policymaking.
Priority 1: 66 per cent of our members who responded cited the need for smaller class sizes as their number one priority to help meet needs, offer quality teaching and learning experiences, raise attainment and manage workload.
Priority 2: 44 per cent of our members who responded cited an increase in pupil support staff as an immediate priority to help manage the inclusion of multiple needs in the mainstream classroom, to help raise attainment and improve the learning experience.
Priority 3: 44 per cent of our members who responded also felt that increasing the number of teachers was an immediate priority, to manage smaller classes and also to aid in our recovery processes. Here, the need to fill vacancies promptly was also cited as important, with permanent staff to fully meet the needs of schools and learners. Furthermore, the need for specialist teachers was raised here, both as subject specialists but also to better meet the needs of our learners with additional support needs.
Priority 4: 32 per cent of our members who responded cited the growing emergency being created because of lack of access to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) and other specialist services. Much has been said regarding children and young people’s mental health, and the services available for them and families are woefully inadequate. Members suggested access to a Camhs specialist as a vital priority moving forward.
Priority 5: 6 per cent of members who responded suggested that investment in outdoor learning provision, extracurricular activities and residential experiences should be made a priority to help nurture positive social relationships, build resilience and grow confidence in learners.
Other suggestions made by our members included the need for investment in nurture spaces with trained staff, free music tuition for all learners and the end of the postcode lottery of provision across our different local authorities.
Overall, what was glaringly apparent was the degree of consensus among colleagues about what the priorities for Scottish education should be. That’s because we know what is needed – just ask us.
Nuzhat Uthmani is a primary teacher and trade union representative in Scotland