Scotland’s return to school has been branded a “shambles” after a week of flip flops and furious run-ins with parents that has seen Nicola Sturgeon’s education plans blasted by one of her own senior MSPs.
The first minister said on Friday local authorities could be encouraged to commandeer control of public buildings in a bid to increase face-to-face teaching time, while shrinking the distance between pupils was also under consideration.
Ms Sturgeon said expanding the school estate by having councils look again at their resources, assets and buildings was one of the “important strands of work” going on to have children return to classes as quickly as possible.
Officials were also looking at the possibility of alternative classroom set ups, such as teachers being told to stay two metres away from pupils but the space for children being reduced to one metre.
It came as the controversial “blending learning” method – which would see children study part-time at home and at school – was blasted as “absolutely unacceptable” and “not good-quality education” by former SNP health secretary Alex Neil.
Ms Sturgeon recently softened her stance on using the method when schools reopen on August 11, stating it will now be used only as a “contingency”.
However, Cosla’s children and young people spokesman, Stephen McCabe, said it would be “impossible” to return to full capacity under current social distancing rules.
Speaking at Holyrood’s education committee, he said government advice suggests blended learning is not just a contingency, but rather the only plan for a school return in August under current guidance.
“I simply don’t think it’s realistic if we maintain two-metre social distance to get anywhere near 100% – and it’s not just about money,” Mr McCabe said.
“What we are engaged in at this point in time, within the constraints of two-metre social distancing is to try to see if we can, at the margins, increase the amount of face-to-face learning. Simply going to 100% based on two-metre distancing, I think is impossible.”
Mr Neil questioned why councils cannot “take a leaf out of the NHS’s book”, after the health service took on more staff and saw an emergency facility set up in Glasgow in case the extra capacity was needed.
He said: “What they did was, they requisitioned the buildings they needed, they recruited the additional staff they needed.”
At the daily coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said the government is considering evidence on the safety of reducing distancing in schools.
Asked about the potential for relaxing the two-metre rule, she said ministers are looking at options “that don’t involve the same degree of social distancing”.
“I want to see if we can get that different model that I think will make it easier to get children back to school full-time as normal, but we’ve got to work through these things in order to satisfy ourselves that is safe,” Ms Sturgeon said.
But the education committee also heard from Carrie Lindsay, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, who insisted schools will need significant time to adapt their plans if the coronavirus guidance changes.
She said: “It takes quite a long time to develop a plan like this. It’s not something you can change quickly, so there does need to be a space for us to make those changes.”
Ms Sturgeon has been forced this week to wrestle back control of the agenda from her own education secretary, following outrage over his statements that schools were “unlikely” to return to normal this academic year and exams may not go ahead.
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray accused the first minister of “clearly trying to deceive parents” by stating blended learning is only a contingency.
He said: “In the course of this week, the education secretary has said blended learning might last for a year, while the first minister called it a contingency.
“Mr McCabe has made it clear: blended learning is not a contingency plan, it is the only plan for August. He also told the committee of a loss of morale among teachers and councils preparing for blended learning, only to hear it called a contingency.
“The first minister is clearly trying to deceive parents by pretending these plans are only a contingency. The Scottish Government has turned a return to schools into a shambles, and it is not good enough.”
Scottish Conservative shadow education spokesman Jamie Greene welcomed Mr Neil’s suggestion that blended education was more like “bleeding education”.
He said the comments were a “serious intervention from a former SNP cabinet secretary, who is now saying publicly what many SNP MSPs are thinking privately.”
The furore comes just days after Alex Bell, a former top Scottish Government adviser, wrote that John Swinney is a “weak” and “hapless” education secretary who urgently needs replaced.
Mr Greene said: “Current plans for part-time learning are unworkable and potentially a disaster for children.
“At least Alex Neil has the guts to tell Nicola Sturgeon and his front bench ministers some difficult truths about their lack of ambition and incompetence, adding his name to a growing list of SNP advisers and politicians expressing anger at this shambolic handling of schools.”