Must Do Better

BY EFFIE DEANS

We have learned this year about what is essential and what is inessential. Everything that is truly essential has remained open, everything that is not completely essential has at times been shut. We found that we did not really need to go to restaurants and pubs. We could watch films on Netflix. But strangely we have discovered that schools are not really essential either. Exams could be cancelled, and schools could be shut.

From March to the summer, schools were shut and pupils in state schools rarely even heard the voices of their teachers. They were given work to do and it may have been marked, but few pupils did more than a minimum of schoolwork. Since August pupils have been back at school in Scotland. But with Covid increasing and lockdown returning like a March wind in January we find once more that schools are not being treated as essential services that must be kept open no matter what, but rather as buildings that can be closed like pubs, restaurants or cinemas.

Previously I would have considered a doctor’s surgery and a hospital to be essential services that would never close, but access to both has been limited this year, but schools if anything are even more important to society.

Schools are essential not merely because children learn there, but perhaps more importantly they learn to socialise with other children and adults. Much of what we learn in school is forgotten, but the social lessons stay with us throughout life. Schools are also essential for a reason that has nothing to do with education. They enable parents to go to work. Schools are a vital component of an economy that is based on both parents going to work. Without them we go back to the 1950s, with men earning more so that they can afford to buy a house and look after housewives who look after children and keep things tidy.

We should be very reluctant indeed to shut schools. School children in Scotland learned far less from March to the summer than they would have done if schools had been open. What’s more the failure to allow school pupils to sit exams has done lasting damage to them by preventing the most able from distinguishing themselves from the moderately able. Not only have pupils learned less, but they haven’t been properly tested on what they have learned. Worse, this situation will continue into next year and probably forever.

It’s a matter of medical judgement whether schools should be shut because of the present escalation in Covid. Although school pupils are very unlikely to die from Covid, they can catch the illness and pass it on to their friends and families. But it is not a matter for teaching unions. Supermarket workers don’t get to stay home, because society needs them to keep working. They continue working cheerfully and get paid rather less than teachers do.   

It may be that pupils going to school has contributed to the increase in Covid cases. But people going to supermarkets has also contributed to the increase. No one has seriously suggested shutting supermarkets because how else would we be able to feed ourselves? We keep supermarkets open because we deem them to be essential. We shut schools because we think they are inessential. It’s a value judgement as much as a judgement about epidemiology.

But given that we have decided that schools are expendable and not as essential as supermarkets and given we decided this last March, what plans have schools made for the possibility that they will be closed again?

Apart from the role of babysitter, schools could if they wanted almost exactly replicate the school experience online. But while business has adapted to the changing circumstances this year, state schools have made minimal effort to move beyond the black board and duster.

Decades ago, in Australia virtual learning was provided for children in the outback too far away from a conventional school. With the technological improvements the Internet has given us, teaching over the Internet could be almost as good as teaching in a school classroom. But schools, teaching unions and individual teachers have shown minimal interest in providing a quality online learning experience for pupils.

With imagination and effort in Scotland there is no reason why pupils could not have learned almost as much this year as any other year. They could have sat exams online. There would have been failures. Some pupils would not have had access to equipment. Some attempts at teaching would have run into difficulties. But we have not even tried to replicate the school room online. We have not learned to make the experience better because we gave up before beginning, because it was too hard, too unfair and anyway we could not be bothered.

This year I have been massively impressed by supermarkets. The staff have been uncomplaining and more important to most of us than the emergency services. Only very briefly were there shortages due to panic buying last March. Even that problem was solved quickly. So too if I want to buy something from Amazon for a small amount of money per year, I get free shipping and it arrives the next day. If I want to return what I buy I take it to a local shop, scan the barcode and I get my money back.

If the Scottish education profession had the same attitude to problem solving and achievement we would not once more have Scottish school children being sent home again to be taught by harassed parents who are supposed to be working. We should at the very least have full time online teaching. After all we’ve had since March to get it up and running. But no, in SNPland neither schools, nor pupils nor parents going to work are essential. All that matters is Nicola Sturgeon on TV every day telling us what a wonderful job she is doing. Perhaps if she spent just a little less time obsessing about independence and the EU, which are not devolved issues, she could think about health and education which are.

The reason Scotland is slipping down the international educational league tables, is not because either pupils or teachers are any more stupid than anywhere else, it’s because when faced with a challenge that requires innovation, adaptability and willingness to change, we find we can’t even be bothered to try. No wonder we want to give up testing pupils when the main lesson they learn from their teachers is to give up before you start.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.