3. We all know how important it is that we prioritise the needs of children and young people but do so as safely as possible for them, school staff and the wider community. Yesterday’s announcement posed significant challenges for school staff. Yesterday, the First Minister said of senior pupils who will be physically present in schools to complete coursework:
“Initially ... it is intended that there will be no more than around 5 to 8 per cent of a secondary school roll physically present at any one time”.—[
, 2 February 2021; c 15.]
We now know that that is in addition to the vulnerable young people and those from families of key workers who are already attending school. That will make adequate social distancing difficult or impossible. Occupational priority groups for the vaccine programme will be considered only in the next phase. The Greens have long said that we want school staff to be included in the programme, but that is still some time away.
The First Minister is no doubt aware that many teachers continue to be extremely concerned at the prospect of a return to in-person teaching. Will she at least give them an assurance that vulnerable teachers will not be expected to return to class before they are vaccinated?
Yes. I would expect local authorities, which are the employers of teachers, to make sure that they put the safety of vulnerable teachers at the top of their agenda. We will not compromise the safety of teachers, other school staff or young people in schools. All the steps that we are taking to get children back to school—I make no apology for doing that, as I think that it is important to get children back to school as quickly as possible—and all the decisions that we have taken so far and will continue to take are informed by the advice of our expert advisers after looking at the data on the state of the epidemic and the scientific information. We make careful and cautious decisions.
What I announced yesterday for senior-phase pupils in secondary schools is important because, without that access for some of those pupils to in-school, face-to-face practical learning, there will be a question mark over the certification of their national qualifications. That would not be fair to the young people concerned, so we must avoid it.
Taking what we set out yesterday regarding a maximum of 5 to 8 per cent and combining that with the young people who already have access to school premises, we are talking about in the region of 11 to 12 per cent of the school roll in mainly large secondary schools being present. That is a reasonably cautious way to approach getting older pupils back to school.
We continue to listen to teachers and I understand their concerns. That is why we set out the plans for twice-weekly testing for school staff as well as senior-phase pupils, as I spoke about yesterday, and why we will continue to look at all possible ways to ensure that schooling is as safe as possible. However, we know the increasing impact that being out of school is having on our young people, which is why getting them back as quickly as possible is such a priority.
I think that we all recognise the difficulty of making decisions in this area, but teaching unions continued to urge caution yesterday in reaction to the First Minister’s announcements.
Teachers will face workload challenges because of dealing with a mix of pupils in school and pupils staying at home, with unpredictable numbers needing to self-isolate—as well as teachers’ additional workload for test and trace. Teachers cannot reasonably be expected to teach some pupils in person and others online at the same time, so they need to know what arrangements will be put in place. That challenge is exacerbated by unequal access to home learning among pupils for whom digital access is a challenge and among pupils who have had issues with accessing resources.
How many children and young people still do not have access to remote learning because they do not have a laptop or other device, or because they have an insufficient broadband connection?
We work with local authorities on an on-going basis, as I said in response to a question yesterday, to ensure that they are identifying them—and we are helping them to fill those gaps. We did a data analysis at an earlier stage of the pandemic, which showed, from memory, that about 70,000 families across the country did not have that access. We have therefore made funding available to make 70,000 devices and internet connections available. We will continue with local authorities to ensure that any young person or family who does not have that is catered for.
On the overall thrust of the question, I genuinely recognise how difficult the situation is for teachers; that is why we have funded 1,400 extra teachers to help with the workload issues. That is why, not long ago, the Deputy First Minister announced an additional £45 million for local authorities, enabling them to provide resources to help further, as they see fit.
I have huge sympathy on the difficulties that teachers face, just as I do for people who are working in other roles during this pandemic, but all of us have a duty to operate and take decisions to get through the pandemic in a way that prioritises the health, wellbeing and development of our young people, which have been hugely impacted. In the midst of the pandemic, I do not think that there is a greater priority than getting young people back into face-to-face education in schools and operating normally with their peer group and their friends. That is why the Scottish Government will do everything that we can to accelerate that as fast as safety—I emphasise that point—allows.