The Covid-19 crisis has all but overwhelmed governments in 2020. In Scotland, nowhere has this been more starkly and damagingly visible than in education.
It has been a confusing and disheartening year for pupils, parents and teachers. The authorities have done little more than muddle through crisis after crisis, almost always responding after the event rather than pre-empting the problem. From exams to attendance to school closures and home-schooling, the process has been blighted by drift, indecision and a puzzling lack of support.
The villains of the piece – and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard them criticised this year – are Education Scotland, the government body that oversees Scottish education, and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which runs exams.
The longer-term consequences of this period of disruption will emerge in due course, but there is a cohort of pupils that will leave school having sat neither Nat 5s (the equivalent of England’s GCSEs) or Highers (the equivalent of A-levels). They will also have missed a large chunk of their senior-phase education due to school closures and Covid-related absence. Some will make this up. Others will not.
John Swinney, the Education Secretary, has cut a forlorn and diminished figure over the past 12 months. Opposition politicians say he has lost the confidence of parliament, and it’s certainly the case that his contribution to the Covid era seems to have been defined by U-turns, apologies and the sense that, in the hands of a more dynamic minister, the situation might have been managed better. The fact that Swinney is a generally well-liked individual has probably shielded him from more savage criticism, but it’s not clear this has been to young people’s benefit. It also seems disappointingly likely that the imminence of May’s Holyrood election has haunted government decisions.
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Many parents have complained about the lack of vision and innovation shown by Education Scotland in this hardest of years. When schools closed for the long lockdown, families were sent spinning into the void. Parents had to juggle their own workload from home with the sudden need to become home educators, create learning structures and ensure progress was being made. Some schools produced regular and useful online learning programmes, but others did not. As ever, the better performing the school, the more likely it was to offer substantial online resources. Private schools leapt into action.
But there seemed a distinct lack of urgency from the ministers, civil servants and experts in charge of the entire system. Parents looked in vain for central provision of digital education tools, or the recruitment of extra online tutors, perhaps from among the recently retired or new graduates. As the weeks stretched on, it inevitably became harder to maintain any sort of discipline and order at home. But they were on their own.
With exams cancelled, the replacement grading process was a fiasco. Each pupil’s performance was decided by teacher estimates, which were then moderated by an SQA algorithm that had the effect in many cases of sharply reducing the grades awarded. It emerged that the Higher pass rate for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds had been reduced by 15.2 percentage points, but only by 6.9 percentage points for the more privileged. Swinney was forced to apologise – it was “deeply regrettable we got this wrong” – and announce that the downgrades would be scrapped and replaced by the original teacher estimates.
When schools finally returned, there was little indication that much would be done to help pupils catch up on the months of education they’d missed. Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged children were on average more than 18 months behind their peers by the end of secondary school. Lockdown hit these pupils hardest – they completed fewer hours of home-schooling, were less likely to have access to online face-to-face teaching, to have laptops and tablets, and to have somewhere quiet to study.
Swinney announced recently that exams will also be abolished in 2021. Grading will be based on teacher assessment – no return for that dreaded algorithm – and it’s hoped the process will run more smoothly and fairly than it did this year.
But some problems are already looming. Absence rates in schools are higher than usual. Some of this is down to illness and self-isolation, some no doubt to fatigue and broken habit.
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As is so often the case with Scottish education, there is a lack of data that would enable a rounded picture to be formed. Anecdotally, however, there are indications of wide variations in attendance. An expert tells me that one secondary school has reported no extra absences at all, while another had 70 S2 (Second Year) pupils off in one day. Others are struggling with half-filled classes of S4 or S5 pupils. The class composition changes every day, with pupils coming and going. And one suspected case of coronavirus can mean an entire class or even a whole year group self-isolating for two weeks. “It is almost impossible for teachers to plan any kind of coherent path through the syllabus,” my source says.
Several schools have moved to mixed ability classes in S1, S2 and even S3, making effective teaching extremely difficult. One educationist says: “There is no differentiation which can cope with trigonometry for some and basic number work for others in the one class. Teachers are talking about day-to-day survival in the classroom, not quality education. At times, they’re pretty much reduced to child-minding.
“Meanwhile, Education Scotland appears to offer absolutely nothing by way of support. What are they doing all day?”
There are other grumbles, too. Some argue for additional catch-up funding, and for it to be targeted at those pupils who need it most. There is undoubtedly a need for better data so that these wild fluctuations can be monitored accurately. And some progressive academics even argue that this period should be used to rethink whether annual, structured exams are the best way to grade children.
How, then, in the absence of exams, should teacher assessment work? Should children who have missed huge chunks of the year be held to the same standard as those with near-full attendance? And if not, what kind of grading method is sensitive to this parlous situation?
Meanwhile, the OECD is carrying out a review of the Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish national curriculum which has grown ever more controversial. International comparator studies suggest the country is slipping down the charts. Swinney has delayed the report until after the election, sparking accusations of politicking. Some educationists I spoke to are also worried by the narrowness of the OECD’s evidence-gathering process, and are concerned that important criticisms will not be taken on board.
If 2020 was a hard year for John Swinney, it was even harder for pupils, parents and teachers, many of whom have felt unsupported and ill-treated. There is much to suggest that 2021 is not going to be an easier ride, either for the minister or the ministered.