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Parent power: Activists force the Scottish government's hand over full schools return

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Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.   -   Copyright  Eric Risberg/Associated Press
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“We are very afraid for our children,” says Jo Bisset. She is not alone. Like her, many parents across Scotland are experiencing similar anxieties about how the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted their children's learning.

Theirs, though, has quickly become the dominant voice in the current debate raging on education, becoming so vocal that Bisset and a small band of parents have been heard in the corridors of power and defied the odds, forcing the Scottish Government to dramatically change course this week on its post-lockdown plans for school openings.

'Blending learning' concerns

Over 8,000 parents (at the time of publication) joined the Us for Them Scotland group she set up on Facebook - an off-shoot of a similar campaign group started in England - nearly two weeks ago. Their aim was simple: to lobby the Scottish Government to announce a full return of schools with no social distancing measures.

Like many parents in countries around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, the mother of two and businesswoman from Edinburgh juggled homeschooling with work as best she could during the lockdown.

“Remote schooling has been very challenging for both my kids and myself," said Bisset. "My husband and I both work full time running our business which has remained operational throughout the pandemic.

“While we are grateful to have been able to work when so many have not, I have found managing the homeschooling very challenging.”

Like the thousands who have joined her Facebook group, Bisset sees a plethora of potential pitfalls if children weren’t allowed back into classrooms full-time; from parents - particularly women - having to give up work to look after their children, to a widening attainment gap and increasingly negative impact on children’s mental health.

“The UsForThem Scotland Facebook page is filled with a huge variety of stories from our members - the uniting thread is that they and their families are really struggling,” she explains. “Somehow, they have found a way to make things just about work over the last 12 weeks but the expectation that this will last for an as-yet-unspecified amount of time into the future is the last straw.”

Be in no doubt. I want to see young people back at school, normal and full-time, just as quickly as is possible to do. But underpinning all of this has to be safety and I think everybody - every parent - will agree with that.
Nicola Sturgeon
First minister of Scotland

The Scottish Government’s original plans for the re-opening of schools, in the wake of the receding threat of COVID-19, envisaged having students spend at least half of their time in a social-distanced, physical classroom combined with online “blended learning” at home. In practice, for a lot of local authorities, this meant much less than 50 per cent with some schools only able to offer a day or two a week due to lack of space.

It was these plans that provoked consternation across the country as parents faced a prolonged period of working without adequate childcare and, what they saw, sub-standard levels of education for their children.

“’Blended learning’ is an entirely untested teaching method,” Bisset adds. “We have no idea what the outcomes of this new teaching method are going to be. ‘Blended Learning’ is basically homeschooling rebranded. It is homeschooling, which we know has been unsuccessful, coupled with a day or two of classroom learning per week. In the words of many of our members, it is a ‘part-time education’.”

High profile backing

The opinions of the group’s members have been echoed by Scottish politicians of all hues who have lent their support to the grassroots campaign to change the SNP government’s course, including most notably former first minister of Scotland, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.

“On education, they’ve taken their eye off the ball,” McConnell said of the current administration in an interview with Euronews.

“In March and April, that was understandable given the need to focus on the health service and jobs. But in May, the focus should have been on coming out of lockdown and getting the schools properly reopen again."

For McConnell, who was a maths teacher in Scottish schools in the 1980s before becoming first minister in 2001, the issue of education is an a-political one.

“I’m not too interested in blaming anyone,” he said. “What I want to do is get the decisions changed. Plan A, option one, should be full-time schools with more buildings, more staff and more equipment. And plan B should be what they were planning as a fall-back position in a local area if there is an outbreak or a problem.”

After a two-week lobbying campaign, which included parents writing emails and letters to ministers, MSPs, local authorities and schools, education minister John Swinney announced on Tuesday that the government would now be aiming for a full-scale return of schools in August.

The move mirrors what has already happened in schools in other coronavirus-hit countries on the continent. In France, all children up to the age of 15 returned to schools on Monday following a gradual re-opening that began in mid-May.

Elsewhere, in Denmark, schools went back to normal hours from May 18 but with social distancing measures in place, including reduced numbers in classrooms, a regular handwashing regimen and staggered meeting and break times.

Scottish government U-turn

With news last week that Northern Ireland had issued new guidance for schools re-opening in September, which included the reduction of social distancing between pupils to one metre, the Scottish Government faced considerable pressure to address parents’ concerns.

In her televised daily briefing on Friday, Nicola Sturgeon said that getting schools back to normal was “an issue of huge importance” to her personally.

“The scientific advice we have right now says two-metre distancing is required,” she said, “So we’re having to plan with councils how we’re going to get schools back on that basis and how we can maximise the time young people spend in school.

“Be in no doubt. I want to see young people back at school, normal and full-time, just as quickly as is possible to do. But underpinning all of this has to be safety and I think everybody - every parent - will agree with that.”

The messaging from the Scottish Government has meant that rather than painting this as a major U-turn in policy, as opposition parties suggest, the new plans are simply a progression along the path to a degree of normalcy aided by a COVID-19 infection rate in swift retreat.

"It would be a grave mistake… to believe that the virus has gone away and, therefore, in the event of schools reopening more fully than currently planned, appropriate mitigations must be in place to protect staff and pupils and prevent flare-ups..."
Larry Flanagan
Secretary General of the EIS Scotland union

In his statement to parliament, Swinney said: “When we prepared our plans back in May I frankly would not have imagined we would have made as much progress in virus suppression as we have.

"It is this more positive outlook that allows the Scottish Government to make this change in planning for schools."

Nevertheless, the Us for Them Scotland campaign hailed a significant victory following Tuesday’s announcement by the education minister in the Scottish Parliament.

“It is so amazing to see how the power of parents fighting for all the children has moved the Scottish Government. It is deeply encouraging to know that politicians have listened and responded,” said Bisset.

Dissenting voices

However, in a statement issued in the wake of the announcement in Holyrood, the group said they would be keeping the government’s toes to the fire in seeking clarifications on certain issues, including the need for an “explicit statement” confirming that there would be no social distancing measures in place in schools.

Swinney’s announcement has not been roundly applauded. Larry Flanagan, the General Secretary of the EIS Scotland teaching union, intimated that not all issues surrounding a full opening of schools were resolved.

"It would be a grave mistake… to believe that the virus has gone away and, therefore, in the event of schools reopening more fully than currently planned, appropriate mitigations must be in place to protect staff and pupils and prevent flare-ups either in terms of localised resurgence in infection or even a full second wave,” he said.

"In terms of schools, this means looking at measures already being used elsewhere such as mandatory face coverings, protective perspex shields, proactive testing of teachers and an appropriate level of physical distancing between pupils and most certainly between pupils and staff, alongside continued protections for vulnerable groups. The EIS would expect these issues to be agreed within CERG [the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group] before schools could reopen more fully.”

Of course, Jo Bisset and the Us for Them Scotland group by no means speak for all parents in Scotland, either. There are some who are more cautiously optimistic about the return to school, like *Fiona, a mother of three and a primary school teacher from Edinburgh.

“Surely caution is the only way to go when you’re talking about people’s lives? How could our government be reckless when the stakes are so high?” she says.

Having already prepared for “blended learning” in a socially-distanced classroom, she is all too aware of the competing anxieties of being a parent and being a teacher wanting the best for her pupils.

“Even if it was safe to return fully, I don’t think you can chuck all children back into full-time schooling. There will be children with anxiety and who don’t want to leave parents, there will be parents suffering anxiety too, there will be some who are grieving loved ones, there will be some who have done no school work for months, there will be children without the stamina to do full days at school and those who just don’t want to and will rebel.”

“If I was off work for a long period of time,” she adds, “I would get a transition into work to allow it to be as stress-free as possible. I feel we need to do the same for the children returning to school.”

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.