I know that I speak on behalf of us all when I say thank you to every teacher, member of school staff, pupil, parent and carer for their efforts over the past eight months. Our young people’s education has unquestionably been damaged, but disruptions and closures have far wider impacts on mental health and social development and, for some, the loss of the stability and security of school has been a direct risk to their health and wellbeing.
The decisions that are made here cannot be binary choices between total closure and just pretending that schools can go back to normal. Everyone in our schools—staff and pupils—deserves a safe environment. The Greens have brought the proposals in the motion to Parliament today because that is simply not the case across Scotland.
It is clear that schools are struggling. Several have had to partially close already in the past week, such as Aboyne primary school and Milne’s high school. Although I do not believe that a significant gulf exists between the Government and Opposition parties on the issues, I have to be blunt with the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and say that the descriptions that he and other ministers have given in recent days of life in our schools just do not match the reality that hundreds of teachers describe.
I raise with genuine regret the specific issue with which I start. I can no longer totally believe the official statistics on self-isolation and transmission in our schools. I do not say that lightly; I say it based on what school staff have told me. Multiple teachers have described how senior managers prevented them from fully listing the number of their pupils who were considered close contacts, because the school wanted to keep self-isolation numbers low. In one case, a teacher who tested positive followed the guidance, listed their whole primary class as close contacts and was then told that they could pick no more than a third of the children in the class.
In other cases, teachers were not consulted at all when one of their pupils tested positive, and were unable to identify either themselves or other pupils as close contacts. A number of teachers reported that pupils who were not asked to isolate subsequently became ill. One teacher told me that the pupils at their school, who were identified as close contacts in the morning, were told to attend class for the rest of the day and not to tell their teachers that they had been confirmed as close contacts.
Some cases appear to be due to rigid systems of decisions around close contacts, based on limited information such as fixed seating plans. In other cases, schools fear parental backlash if they ask large numbers of pupils to isolate or if they do so in the middle of the day, when a parent would need to collect them.
In a number of instances, staff should isolate but have been prevented from doing so because the school is worried about staffing pressures. A consistent theme on track and trace was that of teachers who felt that they, or the school, were doing it alone—without support from, or connection to, local public health teams and the wider track and trace system.
I am not here to tell the education secretary why that is the case, but I tell him that it is happening. I urge the Government to urgently review whether track and trace is working in schools, and to do so by speaking directly to the overworked teachers who have to take on the role of public health officials, on top of delivering in-person and remote learning.
If councils and school management are telling Mr Swinney that the system is working, I must urge him to hear the reality from the front lines. Across the country, more than 2,500 school staff are off due to Covid, alongside roughly 26,000 pupils; however, from what I have been told, that is an undercount. Pupils and staff who should be isolating are not doing so, which is driving transmission. In at least one case, teachers have told me of their school marking some self-isolating pupils as being absent for other reasons. Although I do not understand why, it is happening, and the correspondence that I am getting is too widespread and too consistent to write off as being about isolated incidents.
We are all aware that teachers in a number of areas were told to switch off the protect Scotland app, even when their phone was with them all day. Multiple members of staff have reported to me that they have even been told to ignore notifications from the app to self-isolate if they think that they were sufficiently protected. Given that the app does not tell people who they came into close contact with, that is a frankly dangerous suggestion. I urge the Government to review every council’s guidance. In at least one case, that guidance suggests that staff do not need to self-isolate if they were wearing a mask while in close contact with a positive case. I can find nothing in the Scottish Government’s guidance or clinical advice to support that, and the equivalent guidance in England suggests—correctly—the opposite.
The motion calls for urgent action to protect vulnerable teachers in particular. I am aware that at least 1,000 teachers have had requests to work from home rejected in recent weeks. Following the education secretary’s invitation, I have raised the cases of two constituents with him in the past couple of days. It is clear that a number of councils are insisting that extremely vulnerable teachers and other staff continue to teach in classrooms or to use up their sick leave entitlement.
I have been contacted by teachers with vastly reduced lung capacity due to conditions such as cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart conditions, and severe asthma. They were all previously shielding and all of their general practitioners recommended that they work from home, as do specialists, occupational health officials and others. Every one of their requests to do so was rejected. Those teachers are terrified—with justification—that going to work right now could kill them. In an increasing number of cases, the behaviour of their employers has escalated to bullying, and unions are now involved.
The Government must act to ensure that clinically vulnerable staff are supported. That means ensuring that they can work from home or in a safer alternative environment; where that is not possible, they should be supported to go on leave without loss of income. I urge the education secretary to immediately clarify the guidance for previously shielding staff in level 4 areas. The First Minister announced yesterday that shielding pupils should not attend school in person in those areas, but a number of staff immediately got in touch with me as a result of that to ask about the circumstances for them.
Some councils have been quite open about the reason why they are preventing staff from working from home or self-isolating: there are not enough other staff available to keep schools open. Not only is that grossly irresponsible towards those who are clinically vulnerable—who, frankly, feel that it has been decided that they are expendable—it is short sighted and dangerous when it simply leads to infectious individuals staying in school and transmitting the virus.
The Educational Institute for Scotland wrote to the First Minister over the summer, calling for 3,500 additional teachers to reduce class sizes and increase social distancing. Around 1,400 posts were funded and recruited; the motion therefore calls for an additional 2,000 teachers to be urgently recruited. Given the current staff absence rates, which is before flu season begins, additional staff will be critical to simply keeping schools open, never mind reducing class sizes.
The final proposal in the motion is for regular testing to be available to all staff and senior pupils. At present, it is not available to asymptomatic pupils, and staff must actively seek it out. That simply is not delivering the scale of testing that we know, from international evidence, can be effective.
Vulnerable teachers and support staff across the country are watching this debate, expecting that Parliament will step up to protect them this winter. I hope that colleagues will agree that, between the motion and the Opposition amendments, we are able to do so.
That the Parliament believes that education is best delivered in the classroom, but that making schools safe for pupils, teachers and staff must be a top priority of government during the pandemic; notes that, as of 10 November 2020, 29,486 pupils and 2,615 staff were absent from Scottish schools for COVID-19-related reasons, with absence rates affecting areas with higher levels of deprivation more; expresses concern regarding reports that some school staff have been instructed to turn off the Protect Scotland app when in school and may have felt under pressure to continue to attend schools even when notified by the app of a potential exposure risk; considers it unacceptable that some clinically vulnerable teachers have felt pressured to return to in-person teaching against specific advice from their GPs to the contrary and in the absence of an overall national strategy on how to deal with school staff with chronic or underlying health conditions; calls on the Scottish Government to work with local authorities to ensure that any vulnerable school staff member who is medically unable to attend school in person without being placed at unacceptable risk is better supported to either work from home or in a safer alternative setting, or, if this is not possible, to potentially be placed on leave without loss of income; expresses disappointment in government efforts to adequately prepare resource levels for COVID-19-related staff absences; calls on the Scottish Government to deliver funding for the purpose of recruiting at least an additional 2,000 full-time teachers to ensure that all schools can maintain safe staffing levels while managing absences due to COVID-19, and further calls on the Scottish Government to make regular voluntary COVID-19 testing widely available for asymptomatic staff and senior pupils across all of Scotland’s schools.
I welcome the debate. I whole-heartedly agree with the point in the motion that
“education is best delivered in the classroom”.
I also agree that keeping our schools safe for pupils, teachers and staff must remain a central priority for us all. Ensuring that has been the key consideration in the work of the education recovery group, which has drawn together Government, local authorities, professional associations, parents groups and education advisers. The original guidance in August, supplemented by further measures, was designed to ensure that we do all that we can to keep schools safe. I confirm to Parliament my clear commitment to continue with that approach.
One of my priorities has been to ensure that high-quality information is available to inform debate and provide assurance to all concerned. Today, the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues published an updated evidence paper on many questions in relation to school safety and the prevalence of the virus in schools. Public Health Scotland has published new summary statistics that provide extensive detail on the issue.
The evidence shows no difference between the positivity rates of pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers and staff relative to other worker groups of a similar age. I hope that that finding provides reassurance that, with the right protective measures in place—as required in the guidance that was set out in August and updated in October—schools are safe places to be for children and staff.
In addressing the risks of children and young people being in school, the reports make clear that children and younger people are much less susceptible to severe clinical disease arising from coronavirus, that there is no direct evidence that transmission in schools plays a significant contributory role in rates of infection among children and that time out of school has a detrimental effect, particularly on vulnerable children. The evidence weighs clearly in favour of children attending school whenever it is safe to do so, which is why the Government has made that a priority.
On the cabinet secretary’s point about data suggesting that there is no significant transmission between pupils in schools, will he respond to the issues that I raised about schools not reporting? There is a potential undercount, because schools are instructing teachers not to identify pupils as close contacts of those who have tested positive. Some pupils are falling ill as a result of that.
The point that I was making was about the evidence that has emerged from the PCR—polymerase chain reaction—testing that is undertaken on children. It is indisputable evidence in relation to the way in which the testing regime operates and what it indicates about the prevalence of Covid among children and, as a consequence, the transmissibility of Covid to other children in a school context.
Pupil attendance data shows that just 1.2 per cent of the total number of absences are due to Covid-19-related sickness, which represents just 0.1 per cent of all pupils. The rate of Covid-related sickness among pupils is low around the country, including in the 11 local authorities that will move into level 4 on Friday. That data, alongside the fact that the proportion of positive test cases from people aged over 18 who reported an occupation in education and childcare has remained largely constant since late August, helps to demonstrate why it remains safe to keep schools open in level 4 areas, except where public health advice that is relevant to a specific school dictates otherwise, as is the current provision in law.
The rise in the overall number of Covid-related absences has been substantially driven by pupils who are isolating, which demonstrates that caution is being applied with regard to the self-isolation requirements for schools.
My amendment explicitly recognises—it is important that Parliament explicitly supports this and puts it on the record—the extraordinary efforts that councils and school staff are making to keep schools safe. I do not for a moment underestimate the challenge that that represents for individual schools and school leaders. Indeed, this morning, I spoke to school leaders around the country about that very question.
I take the opportunity to once again place on record my deep gratitude—it is implicit in my amendment—for the dedication that has been shown by school leaders, teachers and school support staff over the past few months, because they have rescued many children in our country who are better served by being in school rather than not.
Our updated school guidance was published on 30 October. It sets out detailed guidance on most of the issues that were covered by Ross Greer’s motion, including on clinically vulnerable staff, making it clear that councils should take clinical advice fully into account when agreeing appropriate mitigations with employees and whether it is appropriate for employees to remain in school.
On testing, we have already put in place arrangements to allow members of school staff who are concerned to get a test whether or not they have symptoms. In line with my amendment, we will make plans, in the near term, informed by clinical advice, to build on that. That will potentially include piloting and rolling out in-school rapid testing of staff. We will bring more detail on those plans to Parliament in the coming weeks, and the health secretary will make a statement to Parliament on that question.
Our guidance is backed by an investment of £135 million for local authorities, which includes £80 million for additional staff. Councils have already recruited 1,250 additional teachers and 155 support staff, with an estimated 200 further teachers and 100 support staff in the pipeline. That is, of course, in addition to the normal capability of local authorities to recruit supply staff to provide any replacement cover that is required.
We cannot look at schools in isolation from the rest of society. The approach that we set out in our strategic framework is designed to drive down overall virus levels. In effect, we are asking wider Scottish society to shoulder a greater burden of restrictions so that we can prioritise Scotland’s children and keep our schools open. That is the choice that we have made.
However, none of that discounts the understandable anxiety that is felt by school staff. Where there is a need to take further action, either by updating our guidance or ensuring that it is being given practical effect, we will work with partners to do so. We want schools to be safe, and we want teachers and staff to feel safe. I am committed to achieving both.
I move amendment S5M-23385.3, to leave out from second “expresses” to end and insert:
“commends the work of local government and the Scottish Government in the recruitment of an additional 1,250 teachers and 155 support staff, with an estimated 200 further teachers and 100 support staff in the pipeline; further commends COSLA and the Scottish Government for continuing to work in partnership to ensure sufficient teaching and support staff in schools; recognises the Scottish Government’s commitment to provide an additional £155 million for the COVID response in school education while awaiting the outcome of a COSLA-led exercise on additional costs incurred by local authorities in relation to school safety; notes that testing is available for asymptomatic teachers who have concerns, and commits to exploring how to expand testing further for teachers and other school staff; expresses its gratitude to teachers and other school staff for the professionalism and dedication they have shown to keep schools open safely, and thereby continuing to protect the development, wellbeing and educational progress of children and young people; welcomes the Health and Safety Executive’s very positive feedback about the work done by school staff to implement the school safety guidance, following a programme of independent spot-checks and inspections, and further welcomes the findings of the Connect parent/carer ‘back at school survey’ where 70% of respondents feel school is going well for their child.”
I thank Ross Greer for using his party’s time for this debate. We disagree on many things, but on education we share a passion to get it right for every child—indeed, not only for every child but for every teacher, too.
The issue of keeping schools open is one of the most challenging conundrums that all Governments face. It is also one of the most divisive. On one side are those who advocate complete closure and blanket online learning, and on the other are those who demand that schools stay open at all costs.
The opening line of the motion sums up this debate perfectly. It says that the best place for learning is in the classroom but that those classrooms must be safe for everyone.
Teachers and school staff have truly risen to the challenge in doing what they love most: teaching, and doing so face-to-face where possible. However, eight months into this pandemic, the very fact that teachers are talking about strikes should ring loud alarm bells.
My views on school strikes are no secret—I think that they are unnecessary, damaging for pupils and should be ruled out. However, too often teachers’ concerns have been ignored.
If it is true that teachers have been encouraged to turn off the Protect Scotland app or asked to come to school against explicit medical advice, that is simply not on. One teacher told me yesterday that pupils in her class were repeatedly allowed to continue classes until the end of the day despite being contacted by trace and protect. That is not on, either.
The Government has a duty to step up and make schools safe. It is not good enough to say that that is only the responsibility of local councils, because they have used up attainment funding to make schools safe—which begs the question how they can now properly tackle attainment.
The Government’s amendment typifies its intransigent approach to any form of critique. It implies that criticism of the Government is somehow criticism of those on the front line. That could not be further from the truth, which is why I support the motion and all the Opposition amendments. The Government’s disappointing attempt to delete the bulk of our concerns is a tell-tale sign of its now default position: entrenched defence. It is not ready to listen or act.
Yes, more teachers are welcome, but we called for at least 3,000 new teachers to alleviate the stresses and strains in the classroom. We also called for a national tutoring scheme, similar to the ones in other parts of the UK. We did not call for that for the sake of it, but because so many have fallen so far behind, despite the best efforts of parents and teachers. There are people out there who can and will help.
We also called for greater infrastructure to bridge the digital divide and ensure that no pupil is left behind. The percentage of pupils off school for Covid-related reasons in our most deprived areas is double that in our least deprived areas. Why is that, and what will be done about it? Figures also show that the number of pupils absent from school for more than half the time has increased by nearly a fifth in just two years. That was before Covid. Not only are those pupils absent from school, they are absent from learning.
“Getting it right for every child” means absolutely nothing if there are young people sitting at home, sharing a laptop with their siblings or parents and not engaging fully in the learning process. Lindsay Paterson described the online and home learning provision in some parts of this country as “depressing”. That is an understatement. It is not the word that I would necessarily use, but he is right in that we find that provision has been variable and, for some, non-existent, depending on who we ask. The inability to learn online will not just exacerbate social divisions; it will do absolutely nothing to help us to reach that holy grail of education—closing the attainment gap.
I have only a short time, and I must close. If some teachers feel under pressure to go to work when they have serious underlying health conditions, we need more teachers. It is as simple as that. We knew that months ago. Where is the army of newly and recently qualified teachers and classroom assistants and retired teachers? How many were contacted? How many are on stand-by to backfill absences? I suspect that the answer is not enough. The Government needs to get its head out of the sand. Let us keep our schools open but keep them safe.
I move amendment S5M-23385.2, to insert at end:
“; notes that participation rates in online learning during the pandemic have been variable across the country, with some pupils and teachers left without access to adequate digital infrastructure or devices to fully facilitate online learning; further notes that, in the absence of nationally co-ordinated online learning materials to support the curriculum, many young people in Scotland missed out on valuable education despite the best efforts and endeavours of their parents and teachers, and calls on the Scottish Government and its agencies to ensure that no child is left behind if required to study from home.”
I support the motion and I associate myself with the remarks of Ross Greer and the Deputy First Minister, in particular, about the efforts of local authorities, teachers and pupils over recent months.
Yesterday, the First Minister made two things very clear. First, she is willing to impose severe restrictions on life in general, to reduce levels of infection. Secondly, she is determined to keep schools open, even in those circumstances. She was at pains to say that those were difficult decisions for her, but she has to understand that they are difficult decisions for the public to accept and understand, too.
No one wants to see young people’s education interrupted again as it was earlier this year. Indeed, the motion accepts the objective of keeping schools open. However, people see that many young people’s schooling is being disrupted by periods—sometimes consecutive—of self-isolation and the absence of teaching staff. They hear the Deputy First Minister say that there is little infection in schools and that a teacher has no more chance of becoming infected than anyone else in the community has, but they find that hard to believe.
Today’s evidence paper, to which the Deputy First Minister referred, is very much a step in the right direction, in sharing the evidence that underpins those assertions, but such sharing must happen more regularly and transparently and not just occasionally when a parliamentary debate demands it.
I want to make explicit that the papers were prepared to inform the debate and not because the debate was happening; the statistics were pre-scheduled to be issued.
I take that point and accept it absolutely. However, concerns about whether schools should remain open are not new and it would have been helpful if the statistics had been issued earlier.
Every possible mitigation must be put in place to make our schools as safe as possible. We were promised smaller class sizes and additional cleaning, but the evidence is that class sizes have not changed, and although additional teachers have been recruited, unions and local authorities have made clear that not enough have been recruited to reduce class sizes or support the blended learning that is required for pupils who are self-isolating.
For example, as far as we know, none of the retired teachers who responded to the General Teaching Council for Scotland to say that they were willing to step up has been asked to do so. Similarly, we need all councils—not just some—to employ additional cleaning staff, and not just extend the hours of existing staff, to provide the additional cleaning that is required.
We also need to look to other countries for examples of what we could do. In Germany, the Government is investing €500 million in enhanced ventilation in public buildings, including schools. It cannot be right that all we can do is suggest that windows be kept open in the middle of a Scottish winter.
There can be no compromise on the measures that we have in place. Teachers should not be told that they should turn off the test and trace app that everyone else is encouraged to use, and teachers who should be shielding should be supported and encouraged to work from home and not pressured into going into school.
Promises on routine regular asymptomatic testing must be delivered now—not just promised, caveated or piloted but universally implemented now, eight months into the pandemic. That should be the foundation of teachers’ confidence in their safety as they go about their critical work. The desirability of keeping schools open is not being debated here, but what is being debated is that the Government has to do much better, and can do much better, on transparency, mitigation, resources and, critically, on testing to make it possible to keep the schools open.
I move amendment S5M-23385.1, to insert at end:
“, as well as investigating the possibility of resourcing improvements to ventilation in the school estate and producing a report based on Test and Protect that examines infection patterns within school settings.”
I, too, echo what others have said about the hard work of teachers, pupils and local authorities in the recent challenging months. I am pleased that safe schools has been chosen as the subject of debate today; as Ross Greer knows, I have been calling for these issues to be addressed for some time.
There are many difficult realities in the pandemic, and none of this is easy. Many plans have had to change and there are risks in the world that did not exist a year ago—risks that people need to be shielded from. I have been astonished at the blunt dismissal that some teachers have received in response to legitimate and serious safety concerns. It is welcome that schools have been open since August; school is so important for young people’s long-term wellbeing and nobody wants to see schools’ doors shut again. Some young people have already faced repeated periods of self-isolation, and it is entirely possible that they will face more as the academic year goes on, which will impact their ability to develop their learning and cover the coursework needed for exams. That must be at the forefront of Government thinking.
Although schools are open, it is essential that teachers and school support staff are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Forcing vulnerable teachers to expose themselves and their families to needless danger simply because their roles are normally on the front line is not an acceptable policy in any circumstance. One teacher shared with me the response that she received from her local authority:
“Teaching is a front-line role. We need teachers to lead learning with children. We are not able to provide full-time teaching roles from home.”
What, then, should a teacher who is concerned about their health do? Should they suck it up, stay at home without pay or, worse still, find another career altogether? That is not good enough; nobody should have to choose between their health security and their job security. This is all the more frustrating because I and others have been sounding the alarm about it for months.
In October, I wrote to the cabinet secretary to ask for improvements to be made. I suggested that he import the framework that is used in Denmark, where schools have to follow doctors’ orders on working arrangements. I am grateful to Ross Greer for including that in his motion and I look forward to hearing what the cabinet secretary has to say about that option, as I have yet to receive a response to my letter. Statistics show that, since then, risk levels have gone up, but, at the same time, teachers’ trust in the Government’s handling of the issue has gone down. I am not the only one who has been asking the cabinet secretary to address that. Tes reported that a group of 300 clinically vulnerable teachers wrote to the education recovery group to ask for
“clearer and consistent guidelines across all regions.”
“In some cases, medical advice to remain working from home has been overruled by HR/headteachers, whilst in other regions, working from home agreements have been reached. Why is there not a consistent approach offered to all staff? Why would medical recommendations be overruled by non-medically qualified people?”
I hope that the cabinet secretary will answer those questions today, because fair treatment needs to be Scotland wide. Since August, many teachers have felt that they are expected to just get on with it; they have been telling the Government that the guidance does not reflect the realities of teaching. The cabinet secretary needs to listen to what teachers are telling him.
Like many members, I represent constituents who will be moved into level 4 restrictions from Friday. The prevalence of Covid in Glasgow remains, as the First Minister said, stubbornly high, and that is having an impact on our schools as well as on the wider community. School absences—of staff and of pupils—are widespread. Last week, hundreds of children were absent due to Covid in one Glasgow secondary school, and most schools in the city have now been affected by positive cases. Children’s learning is, inevitably, being disrupted, and many teachers and support staff have well-founded concerns about their own safety, as well as that of the wider community. It is right that we listen to them.
I have heard those concerns from teachers across Glasgow and beyond. They have reported pupils being told to attend school while awaiting test results and they have reported inconsistent approaches to other essential safety and hygiene measures. Further, when it comes to social distancing, every constituent who has contacted me about school safety has said quite simply that it is impossible to socially distance in school classrooms and schools, irrespective of pupil age.
Medically at-risk teachers, such as those who were previously shielding, have an even greater sense of fear for their health. They are committed to their jobs, and many of them are highly experienced teachers, but their safety must not simply be set aside. Despite repeated calls for local authorities to allow home working or safer alternative working arrangements, the director of education at Glasgow City Council maintains that it is not possible to undertake the role of teacher at home. One medically at-risk teacher wrote to me to explain how they provided their local authority with an occupational health report, two consultant letters and evidence from their GP saying that they should work from home but that that request was refused on the basis that teachers should not be working from home. Another constituent, who was previously shielding, said:
“I have repeatedly been told that my only option is to ‘go on the sick’. However, as I just completed my probation year with GCC, I am not entitled to sick pay. My options are therefore to continue working and risking my life or apply for benefits. I am a trained teacher, who is capable of working.”
Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland in Glasgow are now having to consider taking collective grievances to address their health and safety concerns for pregnant and vulnerable staff. That is a situation that everybody, including the cabinet secretary, should find unacceptable.
There are, clearly, questions that Glasgow City Council and other local authorities need to address but, right now, they are acting in a vacuum, given the absence of a clear, consistent national strategy from the Government on this issue. Everybody wants to keep schools open, but the precondition for that is to keep them safe, and, for that to happen, the Scottish Government must provide better guidance and more resources. I hope that that is the clear direction that will be given by the Parliament today.
I thank Ross Greer for securing the debate and I echo his and other members’ praise for the efforts of our teachers and our school communities at this time. It is, indeed, a deeply worrying situation for us all. Like Patrick Harvie, my area is going into level 4, and I have numerous pieces of correspondence from people with concerns around that.
However, I have some issues with the way in which things are being presented today. The education recovery group is not just the Government; it is the Government in co-operation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the unions. They came up with guidance, agreed by all, in order that our schools could open up—and open up fully, as was required. However, the implementation of that guidance and what happens in terms of the relations with the teachers is a matter for the employer, which is the local authority. If there are breaches such as those that have been described in the chamber this afternoon, we have to say that the guidelines are not being followed to the letter, as they were intended to be followed, because the information is there to allow our schools to operate and continue to be a safe environment for our pupils and their teachers.
We have been discussing the issue for a long time—I remember blended learning being discussed before the schools re-opened. At that point, the Conservatives’ position was all about the parents’ wishes and the demands to get the schools open. The Government’s plans were discounted as a “screeching U-turn”, but we did what was expected at the time to get the schools open and to have face-to-face education going on, wherever possible.
I must take issue with the idea that being absent from school means being absent from education. There has been great investment in digital learning, and funds have been provided to local authorities. However, it is down to leadership in individual schools, and the local authorities, to make sure that pupils have access to those digital learning opportunities.
Is Clare Adamson absolutely sure that there are not children and young people who have been missing out at school because they do not have the technology or the broadband that is required? Can she tell me how many such children there are, because I have struggled to get that information from the cabinet secretary?
I think that the issue is about local implementation. I have examples from one local authority area, where one school is ensuring that home support, digital or otherwise, is there for pupils, but where, unfortunately, there are other schools where that is not happening. It is for the local authorities to ensure that the proper support is there for pupils who are having to self-isolate at home.
I know that concerns have been raised about considerations such as the appropriateness of sitting exams, and I look forward to the cabinet secretary explaining how multiple absences will be considered when the appropriateness of sitting exams is assessed. [
I am sorry—I have already taken an intervention, and I am in my final few seconds.
It is a fact that 1,250 new teachers and support staff have been recruited and £80 million of support has been put in place. We must come together and work together to ensure that the implementation of the guidelines is consistent across Scotland to ensure the best outcome for our pupils.
When future generations come to study the Covid era, I am certain that two things will stand out: first, the extraordinarily difficult decisions that all Governments across the world have faced in battling a virus about which, remarkably—despite all our modern medicine—so little was known; and secondly, the very difficult balance that has had to be struck between safeguarding health and keeping the economy and our major institutions working. Education—schools, in particular—has been right in middle of that dilemma.
That dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that schools are far more than just the bricks and mortar to house classroom learning; they are institutions that reach well beyond educational purpose and which are so vital for social wellbeing. They matter hugely in complementing the work of parents; that they also matter to the pupils has been well exemplified by the comments of many young people and by their concerns about mental health when they have had to endure enforced absence from their school community. Schools bring a structure not only to learning but to extracurricular activity, which is so difficult at present, and to the social intercourse of the school day, as well as being a forum for all sorts of advice and guidance.
Therefore, anything that we can do to ensure that schools stay open is to be warmly welcomed, most especially because the medical evidence suggests that schools are places of relatively low transmission, provided that all the necessary precautions are taken—although that will definitely not necessarily be the case in the future, as today’s news from Fife schools witnesses.
Notwithstanding that, I sympathise with teachers. Their job is tough enough at the best of times, and I think that the pressure that they are under at the moment is, in many cases, hard to bear. I could never agree that strike action would help—indeed, I think that that would be quite the worst message to send to young people and their parents—but there is no doubt that teachers need support.
John Swinney has announced increased recruitment of teachers. That is very welcome, but I return to the question that I asked him several months ago about how many retired qualified teachers have been asked whether they could help out on a short-term basis. I think that a good number would be willing to assist, even if only by tutoring from home. It is surely important to address the high number of school absentees.
That also raises the issue of the very variable rates of online activity across our schools. Some are definitely disadvantaged by a lack of adequate digital infrastructure. That can, obviously, impact much more heavily on pupils in our poorer areas, where schools have fewer resources than some of their counterparts and those in the independent sector. In those schools, resources are much less of a problem and schools have therefore supported more concentrated online learning, especially for those with additional support needs—pupils that we must never forget.
One of the main issues has to be the pursuit of more frequent and rigorous Covid testing, not only to help to track the disease, but also to bring much-needed confidence to our schools. I understand and sympathise with those teachers who have chronic symptoms, who, however willing they may be, are simply not in a position to work safely in a school environment. That raises questions about their income and, in the longer term, their pension.
It was disappointing indeed to hear that, in one council area, teachers have been instructed not to use the NHS app. That does not seem to be best practice, nor does it demonstrate the consistency of messaging that is so crucial if we are to ensure that there is public understanding and compliance with the necessary guidelines.
Presiding Officer, 2020 has been a very grim experience for our schools. We should commend them for the way in which they have handled the exceptionally difficult circumstances, but it is our duty to support them in whatever way we can, and that is why the debate is so important, given the strength of feeling among parents and teachers that we can still do more.
I declare an interest in the debate as the parent of a 14-year-old daughter. She is in S3 and she is enjoying being back at school, largely, I suspect, because she is getting to spend time with her friends.
Young people have missed out on so much during the pandemic, and they have not escaped the pain that has been caused by the virus—especially those who have been affected by close family bereavements. As the motion states, almost 30,000 pupils and more than 2,600 staff have been absent from school for Covid reasons. Those figures are one week old, but they are worrying.
Absence rates are affecting areas with higher levels of deprivation more, and the impacts are uneven across Scotland. I note from the Public Health Scotland report that was published today that the proportion of schools with pupils who have tested positive is highest in the NHS Lanarkshire and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde areas. We need to understand better the link between self-isolation cases and deprivation, because parents in such areas will be the least likely to be able to afford private tuition to top up their children’s education, and we are just going to see a further increase in the attainment gap.
As one teacher put it to me, schools are open full time, but they are not providing full-time education. We have to be honest about the experience of young people in schools. I can think of one young person who has not played her instrument in school since March, and others have not been able to fully participate in physical education. What more can we do to make sure that young people get the full education experience?
Ross Greer is absolutely right. Schools are struggling, and it is partly about resources. I hear what Clare Adamson says about the need for councils to interpret the guidance properly, but teachers and school staff are drowning in emails and instructions. This week, we have had headteachers saying in the media that they are up until 2 o’clock in the morning dealing with contact tracing issues. I have constituents telling me that they are going through closed-circuit television footage to work out who was standing next to who in break-out areas. We are giving school staff a very difficult task.
We also need to be honest about the fact that, as Iain Gray said, there has already been a lot of disruption. Some young people have had to isolate more than once. Last night, I read that a school in Glenrothes has 400 pupils self-isolating, which is half of the school roll, and a small number of them have Covid, as do a small number of teachers.
We should not easily dismiss the number of young people who are getting Covid, because we do not yet know enough about the virus to fully understand the long-term health impacts for young people.
I am pleased that other speakers have mentioned pregnancy. I have a constituent in Lanarkshire who should be working at home, and she is getting very different advice from colleagues in other parts of the country. I say to the cabinet secretary that we cannot have a postcode lottery on health and safety.
I have an interest as a Lanarkshire resident: we are going to level 4 on Friday. Eleven local authorities in total are, so I understand why the EIS is calling for blended or remote learning in those areas.
This morning, Professor Leitch told the COVID-19 Committee that it is impossible to know where people are catching Covid. I understand why he is saying that, but we also keep hearing that it is not coming from schools. It is fair to say that people are losing a bit of confidence. We need more transparency and we need to see more data. As colleagues have said, we need more resources and support for our teachers, our young people and our families.
As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, which is on such an important topic.
There are points in the Green motion with which I agree whole-heartedly. Schools are the best place for teaching, and they must be safe for pupils and teachers during this horrible pandemic. That is an absolute priority of this Government.
Absence rates of pupils and teachers should always be taken seriously. Disadvantaged areas are being harder hit, which is, sadly, an all-too-familiar fact during this pandemic.
It is absolutely unacceptable for any teacher to feel pressured to return to school when they have been notified by the Protect Scotland app of a potential exposure risk, and it is absolutely unacceptable for clinically vulnerable teachers to be pressured into returning against the specific advice of their general practitioners
However, I do not accept the premise that the Government has not prepared adequately for the impact of Covid-19 on schools, or that those issues have not been addressed.
More than 1,250 new teachers and support staff have been recruited as a result of the £80 million of ring-fenced support that was announced in June. Plans are under way to recruit another 200 teachers. An additional 155 support staff have also been hired, with a further 100 expected to follow.
The Scottish Government’s updated guidance on reducing the risks in schools has detailed information on all aspects of learning and working in schools during Covid-19. Crucially, arrangements are in place for staff who are concerned that they might have been at risk of infection to have informed access to testing through their employer, the local authority.
Of course, staffing arrangements are a matter for local authorities as employers, as others have said, and they have been doing an excellent job of coping with the challenges that Covid-19 has brought this year. The guidance makes it clear that councils and schools should ensure that risk assessments are in place, including for those who are at the highest risk.
T he decisions on where teachers and school staff who have previously been shielding are deployed are for individual schools and local authorities. As the guidance outlines, risk assessments should consider measures that can be taken to lower the risk of transmission among staff and pupils in all parts of the school. Among a raft of safety advice, the guidance makes it clear that altering class size and composition is one option that schools can consider to help to maintain distancing.
My local authority area, East Dunbartonshire, is, like many others in the west of Scotland, currently at level 4. It is understandable that anxiety rates are high. As the First Minister outlined in her briefing today, the chief medical officer will issue a letter, similar to a fit note, that can be used in the few cases in which, following updating of risk assessments and discussions with employers, it is not possible to make a workplace safe for staff. That will last for as long as the local area is under level 4 restrictions. Staff should use the period that is covered by the letter to discuss further any concerns with their employer—the local authority, in this instance—or an occupational health adviser. If, following individualised risk assessments, action results in adequate protection in the workplace, they will be able to continue to attend work.
The Green motion is well intentioned, but I ask that the Greens take on board the measures that the Scottish Government has put in place to keep pupils and staff safe.
Our children and our amazing hard-working teachers should have all the support that they need during this extraordinary time.
As we face the crisis that is caused by the Covid pandemic, it is incumbent on us to continue to question and challenge, and to continue to ask ourselves whether our approach is the very best that we can take. In some ways, the debate has been best encapsulated by the combination of Ross Greer’s and Jamie Greene’s opening speeches.
Of course, we must thank teachers and all the other staff in our schools for the efforts that they have undertaken. They are absolutely admirable, and they are a credit to themselves and our children.
However, we must also ensure that we are absolutely minimising the undoubted damage that is occurring to our children’s education. That is the frame of reference for this debate, and that is right and proper.
I will try to cover a number of key themes, although I do not have much time.
On transparency, like Iain Gray, I welcome the paper that the Government has released. I have had criticisms of the Government’s information in the past, but that paper is well referenced and useful. However, we must take care, because an article in
, which is the key article that that paper uses to point to the lack of evidence on transmission, admits that there is a dearth of evidence and that much of the evidence that it relies on is from studies of middle east respiratory syndrome, severe acute respiratory syndrome and the flu.
I agree with the conclusions, but we must have clarity, because, as Monica Lennon and others have pointed out, with rising absences from schools, there are a growing number of questions out there. Therefore, we must be calm and clear in the way that we use the information, if we are to maintain trust in the advice that is provided. That is absolutely key.
It is clear that there are questions around the mitigation steps that have been taken. Those questions have been well outlined by a number of members. Patrick Harvie made a very useful contribution in which he questioned the consistency in how mitigation steps have been implemented.
Clare Adamson is right that it is up to local authorities to implement measures, but the key issue that they face is that, before the crisis, many schools lacked the support staff that they needed to allow teachers to do anything other than teach. If that was a problem before the crisis, it is absolutely a problem during it. We are asking our teachers not just to teach our pupils, but to keep them safe and to implement track and trace—Ross Greer referred to that—and many other public safety measures. Schools simply need more staff, including cleaners and classroom assistants.
On an increase in teacher numbers, there are questions about whether teachers have arrived in schools. That does not even bring us back to the number of teachers that we had in 2007. We have to ask those questions.
We must also ensure that there is investment in school buildings and other mitigation steps that we have seen in other countries. Ultimately, that should be our benchmark. Other countries have, as a result of experience of SARS in Asia or, simply, better planning, implemented more effective steps. Iain Gray outlined the investment in ventilation in Germany. We must challenge ourselves to do better and to meet the standards and examples of the very best leading countries.
Perhaps testing is ultimately the most important issue. Liz Smith made that case very well. Until there is regular testing of asymptomatic individuals in schools so that we get an accurate picture of what is going on, questions will continue to be asked—not least because of the issues that Ross Greer outlined. There will be questions because of stories and issues that are raised.
I will sum up by asking the Government some simple questions. Can it improve the clarity and robustness of its scientific briefings? Can we continue to question and improve the mitigation steps, as well as the investments in our buildings and structures? Can there be additional staff so that there are smaller class sizes, and can there be more people to clean our school buildings? Can we roll out regular asymptomatic testing, using lateral flow tests, within our school estate? Ultimately, answers to those questions will enable people to have trust in the Government’s response.
I welcome the recognition around the chamber that the pandemic has been difficult for pupils and teachers across our schools. It is right that we are able to show our gratitude for the work that they have done in carrying on, and often in going the extra mile, when faced with such tough circumstances.
The main topic of the Greens’ motion is the safety of staff and pupils. Safety must always be paramount in our minds, and it should be consistent. Teachers who are in the vulnerable category should not be expected to take different risks, depending on the council that employs them. Their employer should not tell them to turn off their test and protect apps when the First Minister tells them the opposite.
In the past couple of weeks, we have heard encouraging news about the development of vaccines. However, as we have seen from the announcements in several local authority areas in the central belt yesterday, we are a long way from having the pandemic under control.
I want to highlight the issue of mental health. It is likely that this period will have a continuing impact on pupils and staff alike. The consequences for mental health must be given equal importance to that which is given to the impact of the virus on physical health.
However, it is clear that there is broad frustration about transparency and clarity in the Scottish Government’s guidance and direction. Ministers have continued to flirt with the idea of school closures, despite the guidance that was set down only a few short weeks ago, which envisaged that schools in level 4 areas would remain open with additional safety measures. As I have argued in the chamber, I believe that we must work hard to keep schools open safely, as far as that is possible. If there is a threat to that, parents and teachers should be made aware of how decisions will be made, rather than being left to rely on the judgment of the First Minister or the education secretary.
We know all too well that remote learning did not work effectively, and I have seen little evidence to suggest that it will improve if it is attempted for a second time. When I questioned ministers on making information technology equipment available to pupils who need it, that was repeatedly kicked down the line until schools had returned. Even now, it remains far from clear how that equipment has been allocated and how many pupils would be able to access a blended or remote learning approach. Education Scotland, which could have co-ordinated and driven remote learning, took a back seat.
After the return to schools, the Government was again painfully slow to respond when the need for additional teachers and support staff became obvious. Teachers who were entering the profession were left to question whether they would find employment, despite ministers’ assurances. Inevitably, those who suffered most from all those cases were pupils from the most deprived backgrounds.
We have heard many positive contributions from around the chamber, and I welcome the Greens’ approach to the debate. I do not have a huge amount of time, so I will focus on two of my colleagues’ contributions. Jamie Greene highlighted the variable engagement with and by pupils across the country while schools were closed. It was clear and apparent to us all that good initiatives were offered for some, but that next to no education was offered to others during that time.
Liz Smith remarked on schools’ broader role and their importance for social wellbeing, the structure that they provide for many pupils who attend them and the role of testing not only in tracking the disease, but in restoring confidence that the Government is listening and is addressing risks in schools.
We are at a crucial time in the course of the pandemic. As the Green Party’s motion recognises, education is best delivered in the classroom. However, to continue to deliver it safely will require the sort of direction, support and leadership that has been so sadly lacking from the central Government since March.
I agree with a lot of what has been discussed in the debate. I think that Mr Greer characterised it fairly when he said that there is not an awful lot of difference or debate between political parties. However, this is one of those Opposition day afternoons.
Iain Gray raised the point that the desirability of having schools open is not being debated. I take the emphatic message from the Parliament that it wants schools to remain open and that schooling should be delivered full time. I take that message very seriously and, in representing what the Parliament wants to see, I will do everything that is in my power to make sure that that happens.
Daniel Johnson raised the need to continue to challenge mitigations. I respectfully say to him that that is precisely what the changes to the guidance have been all about. We have not stood still with the August guidance. We have enhanced the guidance to strengthen it on two separate occasions, and we will continue to do so, based on the clinical evidence that we are provided with.
Patrick Harvie, Clare Adamson and Rona Mackay all touched on the requirement on staff to participate in schooling when they had worries about their health. There are two key points in that regard. First, in contrast to the point that Mr Halcro Johnston made, the guidance is crystal clear: local authority employers must ensure that clinical advice is taken into account when agreeing appropriate mitigations with employees. There is no debate about that, and the guidance should be followed. It comes down to Clare Adamson’s point that local authorities have a duty of care to their employees to decide exactly how an individual should be handled. In those circumstances, it is important that clinical input is taken into account.
I do not think that that is a fair point: if a member of staff is judged clinically not fit to be at school, they should not be at school, and there should be no debate about that. Local authorities should backfill from supply lists or other available resources.
Yesterday, Mr Rowley put a question to the First Minister about a Unison survey on the lack of supplementary cleaning in schools. I am bewildered by that point, because the Government has put in place additional resources of £50 million to pay for exactly the issue that Mr Rowley raised yesterday in his fair question to the First Minister. It is important that we implement the details in the guidance to make sure that schools are properly and fully cleaned.
Liz Smith said that it is important that we take forward education issues because of the strength of parental views. That is absolutely right. The Connect Research survey, which was published yesterday, shows that 70 per cent of parents are happy with the return to school and nursery. That did not feel like the feedback that I was getting from the points that members presented this afternoon.
Jamie Greene raised the issue of tutoring and mentoring, and Mr Halcro Johnson said that Education Scotland has not been co-ordinating anything. If they look at the e-Sgoil Twitter feed, they will find on offer for next week study support live webinar lessons for national 5 maths, advanced higher English, higher human biology, higher business management, national 5 physics, advanced higher physics, higher physics, national 5 computing science—
I will take the cabinet secretary away from Twitter for once.
My concern is about disadvantaged young people who are not engaging with education at all. What work is being done to reach out to their families? Those young people did not engage during lockdown, disproportionate numbers of them have not come back to school and, should there be blended learning, they will not be able to take advantage of it. What work is being done to direct much-needed resources into those communities?
Given what Johann Lamont spends her time on Twitter doing, I do not think that she is in a position to tell me to spend less time on Twitter.
However, let me set that little, jocular, friendly remark aside, because Johann Lamont is right: schools being back is crucial to reaching those families and engaging them. Over the summer and the period of lockdown, schools did a phenomenal job of reaching young people in disadvantaged circumstances to try to ensure that they were well supported.
The Government is wholly committed to ensuring that we do all that we can to work with local authorities. Local authorities have worked immensely hard. They worked with others on the guidance—as Clare Adamson set out, producing that guidance has been a joint venture. It has to be—and will be—applied in full. Interestingly, the Health and Safety Executive, which looked at the safety of school staff, gave a very positive assessment of the way in which the guidance has been applied at a local level within schools. We should take confidence and encouragement from that independent assessment of the performance of schools, and we should give thanks to our teachers.
I point out that my amendment actually does thank teachers, and I encourage members not to vote against it, because they would be voting against words that thank teachers for their contributions, which enable us to build on achievements, ensure that we keep our schools safe and deliver education for children and young people the length and breadth of our country.
I will reflect on a couple of points that were raised in the debate. Jamie Greene and Clare Adamson both addressed the issue of councils’ responsibility, although they came at it from opposite directions. To Clare Adamson and the Government, I say that the local authorities might be the employer, but teachers’ terms and conditions are agreed on a tripartite basis that includes the Scottish Government, and that, ultimately, matters of public health are the Government’s responsibility. It cannot simply pass that issue over to local authorities and assign any blame to them.
I hear what Mr Greer is saying, but the guidance is crystal clear that clinical information must be taken into account in the risk assessment of an individual member of staff. I am not empowered to take that decision, because I am not the employer of a single teacher in the country; that is the responsibility of local authorities.
The cabinet secretary is right to say that he cannot make an intervention in the case of individual staff members where there is an issue with their employer, but the Government has overall enforcement powers when it comes to issues of public health.
That is the issue that the Opposition is raising.
I will come back to that point in a moment, but I want the cabinet secretary to bear it in mind. He made some remarks about the Health and Safety Executive, but what he has been told by Parliament today is something quite different. That is what we are being told by teachers, support staff, pupils and parents, and it is a point that the Government needs to take on board.
Iain Gray talked about the need for updated guidance and advice to be published regularly to give staff, pupils and everyone else involved confidence in the system. That is absolutely key, particularly when we raise issues, as Jamie Halcro Johnston did, about the mental health impact of the situation. There is a huge amount of anxiety, even among those who are not clinically vulnerable.
Iain Gray’s amendment talks about ventilation. An article in the English-language version of the Spanish newspaper
El País has been cited regularly by Government ministers and Scottish Government health officials. The article demonstrates the problem with a lack of ventilation in the classroom and how that aids transmission of the virus. I hope that the Government can bring itself to support the Labour amendment today.
Issues around additional cleaning staff were raised by, I think, Iain Gray, and by the cabinet secretary when he talked about the question that Alex Rowley raised with the First Minister yesterday. I know that additional money has been allocated for cleaning staff, but it clearly does not go far enough and there is an issue with where it is being deployed.
Yesterday, I was contacted by the head of an early years centre. She informed me that additional cleaning staff in her school were being deployed to all the primary school classrooms and, as well as taking on front-line delivery responsibilities—she has staff who are self-isolating—and test-and-protect responsibilities, she is now also the person who is primarily responsible for cleaning her nursery every single day. We are all well aware of bodily fluids being more of a problem in nurseries than they are in primary school classrooms. That is a huge burden for anyone.
Patrick Harvie talked specifically about Glasgow and mentioned comments from council staff that teachers cannot possibly teach from home. I am not saying that there is a simple solution but, given that substantial numbers of young people in areas such as Glasgow that are in level 4 have to learn remotely because they are shielding, could shielding staff not be given the responsibility of working with them on a remote learning basis? Would it not make sense to at least try to explore that option, which I believe a number of councils have not explored?
Liz Smith and Daniel Johnson talked about testing bringing confidence. We know that mass, regular testing is key to suppressing the virus, but it is also key to giving people the confidence to go to work believing that they are safe. The mental health issues that Jamie Halcro Johnston raised are again relevant here.
During the past few years, the Education and Skills Committee has repeatedly taken evidence on the mental health strain on teachers. Before the pandemic, 40 per cent of teachers in Scotland were considering leaving the profession. What impact will the pandemic have on teachers? We are talking about vulnerable—extremely vulnerable, in some cases—members of staff. I therefore come back to the point about enforcement. It is fair for the Government to say that the guidance is strong enough if that is what it believes, although I would dispute that, as would teachers, union officials and others I have spoken to—it is too vague in key areas. However, if the guidance is strong enough, the issue becomes one of enforcement, and the Government cannot avoid its responsibility in relation to enforcement.
I will round off the debate by bringing up the cases of two vulnerable members of school staff who got in touch with me. One is a primary teacher who taught the youngest children at a primary school and requested that, from August, in line with the guidance, she be given an older class—primary 6 or 7—because it would be easier to maintain some level of social distancing. That request was denied. At seven or eight months pregnant, she subsequently tested positive after a number of pupils in her class displayed symptoms.
I found the second case extremely distressing. A teacher who had lost a child during a previous pregnancy and whose current pregnancy is considered high risk requested to work from home. Her request, which was supported by all her doctors, occupational health professionals and so on, was rejected out of hand by her employer. That is simply not good enough. Those are not isolated incidents; they are happening across the country.
We all want our young people’s education to suffer as little as possible during the pandemic, but we also all want pupils and staff to be safe, and we all acknowledge that that is quite hard to achieve right now. The proposals that have been laid out today will, I believe, achieve the support of Parliament, and they will get us somewhat closer to that goal. It is clear that there is broad agreement in Parliament about how we can do that, and I close by asking the Government to take that on board and deliver the protection that teachers, school support staff and pupils deserve.