Niall Houston has the latest on the educational developments in Scotland.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt and alter daily life, more questions are being asked of the Scottish Government regarding the return to schools and the wider education system.

Universities
The higher education sector has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. Much of the income of Scottish universities is funded by foreign students outside the EU, with some charging upwards of £30k to attend. However, uncertainty for university income has grown, as many foreign students are unlikely to return if the pandemic continues into the university term. Under serious threat, annual income could drop as much as £500m. Some universities may be likely to refuse deferrals and instead upload all content online, which has been met with backlash by the NUS. Measures are being put in place to create a blended approach to allow universities to return, with split face-to-face teaching alongside online teaching. There has been calls by Reform Scotland for all graduates, including EU and Scottish students, to pay for their education once earning a living wage, as universities look to source income for the coming year.

Re-opening of Schools
The Scottish Government announced that schools are set to return by August 2020, but under a blended model of in-school and in-home learning with enforced physical distancing for extended periods. This includes consideration of the specific needs of children and young people with additional support needs, and other families most in need of support. The Scottish Government has pledged £30m to help families, with £9m set aside for laptops for students. Teachers and other school staff are set to return to schools today and onwards, in order to plan and prepare for the new system. The EIS has warned of the health risks that teachers and pupils still face, and called for a “crystal clear” programme on how to manage in-school social distancing. According to an EIS study, 93% of teachers believed that clarity over how teaching and learning will be delivered in the next academic year was crucial. 77% believed that there was a critical need for adequate time to prepare. But teachers also warned the Scottish Government of the difficulty with home-teaching for pupils living in poverty, with 63% citing the lack of access to suitable technology and 57% with the lack of internet access at home.

Exams
With school exams cancelled this year, it has been a turbulent few months for teachers and pupils alike – with questions already being asked regarding next year’s exams. The end of this year saw pupil results based on teacher grading. At the moment, the SQA is developing plans for the 2020-21 exam diet but will also provide guidance to schools which may be used if next year’s exam diet cannot go ahead. There has been opposition to this, as children who will spend significant periods of time at home may suffer “compound inequality” with an end of year exam. Therefore, in place of National 5 and Higher exams, there have been calls for continuous assessments throughout the year, which would result in fairer grades for pupils. The Scottish Conservatives have published their own raft of policies for education, with help for parents who work. The examination process for schools next year is still being heatedly discussed within the Scottish Parliament.

Transport
Transport to schools has been a major talking point in Holyrood, with Ministers discussing what the safest option could be to get children to school if COVID-19 is still prevalent when term begins. Following the publication of the Transport Transition Plan, many have called on the government to invest heavily in buses and cycling routes in order to make them as safe as possible for children returning. Physical distancing on buses is challenging, especially in more rural areas where buses may be smaller. Questions have been raised about the standard wearing of facemasks – like in public transport – to be applied to school transport. The Greens have proposed a £100 grant per child to be issued to the 120,000 families who are eligible for a school uniform grant, which could be used to invest in bikes. The rate of infection is lower when outside, so the government has been urged to encourage and invest in, wherever possible, outdoor transport to schools.

Early Learning and Childcare
Plans have been announced, in accordance with scientific evidence, about the re-opening of early learning and childcare (ELC) settings to more than children of key workers and vulnerable children. Data suggests the positivity rate of tests for COVID-19 carried out in children has been far lower than in other age groups – with less than 1% of positive tests in Scotland accounted for by people aged under 15. Influenzas Group Modelling reported that reopening of ELC in full had a lower impact on reproduction rates of the virus than in primary schools, and both had lower impacts than reopening secondary schools in full. Reopening secondary schools was shown to account for around half of the total impact of reopening all schools and settings. It was also reported the severity of disease in children is lower than in adults. Therefore, early learning and childcare settings will remain open over summer with more provision for vulnerable children from Wednesday 3 June. Childminders and fully outdoor nurseries are returning on Wednesday 3 June, but there will be a restriction on the number of children allowed to attend.