“The idea that we can give kids a proper education, that we can stretch the brightest and improve those performing less well, is a joke,” a headteacher told me recently. “Right now it’s about getting from one end of the week to the other. It’s about surviving.”
The story of what’s happening in Scotland’s schools is a dark and alarming one, a tale of daily, still quiet, but growing crisis. Much of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to SNP conference on 29 November may have focused on an exciting new campaign to win independence, but the experience of teachers, pupils and parents suggests a more immediate and important direction for the First Minister’s energy.
After a prolonged period of lockdown and home-learning, pupils are said to be restless in class and unable or unwilling to settle, especially at the start of lessons. Teachers must ask them repeatedly to be quiet and pay attention. There is constant talking – one teacher says that it feels like the children are making up for all the lost months of socialising. The work ethic has been damaged by months away from school and the scrapping of exams for the past two years has affected motivation.
Standards are “unbelievably low”, according to one educationalist who has visited a number of Scottish schools recently. Teachers are stripping out anything challenging to try to keep classes on side. Pupils in the first year of secondary school are said to be unusually immature and classes are consequently operating like a primary school – smiley faces stamped on jotters, bronze, silver and gold questions to try to motivate them to work, the most minimal levels of effort being praised. “It is extremely wearing for teachers and totally hinders learning and teaching,” I’m told. “The more able, motivated kids must feel really insulted by all this childish stuff.”
I have been told of serious mental health problems, of children as old as nine who have begun to wear nappies again, and of some who simply haven’t returned to school after lockdown – kids who to have to all intents and purposes vanished.
The Covid hangover is being felt everywhere. Staff absence is at horrendous levels so heads must perform an ongoing juggling act to find a teacher for every class. Sometimes senior management absence ensures that even organising this basic provision is impossible. The staffing gap means class sizes are at maximum, thus exacerbating the discipline problem. Some classes have been merged since the start of term in an attempt to cope.
Teachers are also forced to take time off when their own school-age children have to isolate due to a Covid outbreak, and even sending them to school with a cold or cough is frowned upon. Then there are mental health absences, and tension between colleagues where some teachers are felt to be “gaming” the pandemic.
Pupils, too, are frequently absent, so teachers must try to keep their classes moving forward while simultaneously helping children catch up. The result is that everyone falls behind.
“I can sit at the back of the class watching a student, with a permanent member of staff in the room, and the pupils chat and waste time for the entire period,” says the educationalist. “Classroom doors are open so you can clearly hear the noise level in classes and the difficulties teachers are experiencing. Pupils are observing teachers in survival mode and are simply replicating that.” “There’s a cynicism and a nihilism that’s horrible to see in young people,” adds a teacher.
The immediate and longer-term impact of all this is predictable and threatens to intensify the current crisis. More teachers than usual are off with stress and some are retiring early, while others are seriously considering doing so or leaving the profession. It is, according to one teacher, “a miserable job. We’re trying to squeeze a massive square peg into a round hole, grinding through school in the same way, with the same lessons and approaches but less well and to the same timeframe, as if this pandemic had never happened. It is madness.”
Much of this may be unavoidable, and it would not be fair to blame ministers for every consequence of a global pandemic or every incident in every school. But the Scottish government has hardly covered itself in glory in its approach to the education system since Covid struck. It has lacked agility and organisation, leaving schools to fend for themselves when it came to providing home-schooling, creating huge differences in quality of provision across the country. Parents have felt abandoned and out of their depth while trying to balance their own work with educating their offspring.
The education authorities have been slow-moving too – there has been no real innovation, say, in bringing in recently retired teachers, new graduates and former academics to lighten the workload. Mental health provision remains pathetically poor given the scale of the problem among both adults and children.
It cannot but be the case that the current school experience is storing up trouble for this generation of children, who are potentially being put off learning for life. There are different but equally impactful challenges facing young children who have just started school, children who have recently moved from primary to secondary, and those who are entering the senior stage. There is little sign that ministers recognise the emergency, that it is increasing in scale, and that some kind of plan is needed.
First, we need to understand what the reality is – a straight assessment of the full consequences of Covid in our schools, based on data and consultation, both for pupils and teachers. Then we need to figure out how to improve the situation and act upon it. It also seems obvious that any bigger education reforms should be put on hold for now, until some kind of order can be restored. Schools lack the capacity to cope with change.
One might think it strange that all this hasn’t happened yet – not for the first time, the question arises as to what education ministers, civil servants and the various schools agencies have been doing for the past two years other than hiding from what is a gruesomely difficult set of circumstances. At no point has it felt like they have taken a grip of the situation.
This is one test Scotland cannot afford the SNP to fail.