Neil Mackay’s Big Read: Inside Scotland’s education wars where parents, teachers and government are at daggers drawn

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The row over school closures during the pandemic has exploded into full blown conflict this weekend, with teachers putting Nicola Sturgeon in the firing line, and turning on a hardline parent group which wants kids back in class no matter what. Writer at Large Neil Mackay reports

The teachers

SCOTLAND’S teachers have had enough. Firstly, teachers say, they’ve had enough of Nicola Sturgeon putting her electoral fortunes ahead of education.

Secondly, they’ve had enough of being bullied, harassed and attacked by what they see as a highly politicised mob on social media employing Trump-style tactics against them, and demanding schools stay open even in the most dangerous of circumstances.

Larry Flanagan, head of Scotland’s largest teaching union the EIS, deals with the Scottish Government every day as the nation’s schools struggle to make it through lockdown. Ask him about Sturgeon’s handling of Covid and schools and he pointedly says: “I think the First Minister is very focused on the election.”

Privately, senior Scottish teachers who work with the Government on the pandemic aren’t so diplomatic. “John Swinney [Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary] has his eye firmly fixed on the educational challenges,” one said. “The First Minister has her eye firmly fixed on the election. There’s a tension in Government there.”

Flanagan feels that “Nicola Sturgeon and her Government are as focused on the politics of the situation as they are on the educational issues – whereas our focus is entirely educational”. The SNP administration “has an eye on the political optics as much as anything else”.

Sturgeon is sensitive to criticism that she’s putting politics before education. Flanagan says he doesn’t understand why “as it’s in their DNA”. Flanagan also feels that “the general message of the Government has been less than empathetic to teachers”. The experience of teachers has been “harrowing, high stress … Most have been living on the edge and torn between the desire to do their best for students but also knowing they’re at risk on a daily basis … A lot feel undervalued, particularly by Government and the political class.”

He adds: “It can be a demoralising experience. We’ve said directly to Government … that it’s shown a distant lack of empathy with the challenges that have existed in schools, as if there are no issues to be concerned about. They’ve underplayed teacher concerns.”

On the First Minister, Flanagan says: “If you were to analyse most of her comments she rarely says very much about teachers, her focus is on parents and pupils, and that’s legitimate … for her to be concerned about, but I think a lot of teachers feel she’s just dismissive of their concerns.”

Although schools are now closed, many teachers feel they had to battle to get this far against a government which wanted to put the wishes of parents before safety. Although teachers obviously worry for themselves and their families, many also felt that keeping schools open endangered pupils, pupils’ families and the wider community.

Teachers haven’t forgotten the period before Christmas when they clamoured for school closures as the new Covid variant started to hit but the Government remained intransigent, insisting schools were safe and should remain open. Teachers were horrified that schools remained opened as level four restrictions were introduced. “That’s when the political debate became sharper,” Flanagan said, adding: “All we wanted was at level four, each council should look at the potential for blended or remote learning if it was required.”

He references cases such as one Scottish school which “had over 400 pupils off with Covid-related illnesses and self-isolation … and they still weren’t closing the school … We were saying there’s clearly a huge community outbreak in this area – closing the school makes sense, going to remote learning is a better educational position and it’ll drive down infection levels, but at that point it had become a kind of totem for the Government that they weren’t going to close schools”.

Flanagan told Swinney that he thought the Education Secretary was “frightened to close schools in case you get a backlash”.

Nor have teachers forgotten that the Government backtracked on plans for blended learning and suddenly switched, opting for a full reopening of schools last summer. “That was just a straight political decision as the FM was concerned at the backlash … the FM realised that having blended learning for a year was unlikely to do her party’s election chances any good so she wanted a different message.”

Referencing the past debate around closing schools, Flanagan highlighted what he calls “the sophistry you get from the Scottish Government. They said ‘the risk to teenagers is no greater than to adults’. Well, that’s fine, but there’s quite a high risk to adults. You’re downplaying it by saying ‘it’s not greater than’ … John Swinney kept saying schools were safe environments. I kept saying they’re not … that’s why teachers were getting annoyed as they downplayed the risk.”

Claims over the safety benefits of pupils social distancing incense teachers. “It’s not possible,” says Flanagan. No teacher spoken to said it was possible to keep a class of 30 pupils socially distanced.

Teachers have also expressed concerns over Government use of data. Flanagan says that in November, data was used to claim schools were safe but statistics covered just the first six weeks of schools being reopened. “There was political sleight of hand to reference a retrospective report as being immediately applicable to the current situation,” he says.

The EIS leader, who sits on the Government’s Covid Education Recovery Group, also raised concerns about the circumstances surrounding schools staying open at the end of last year.

“At the time we were calling for a ‘firebreak’ while the Government and local authorities were saying ‘no’, but looking back at the data for the period it shows that school infections had reached their highest peak in all age groups since the pandemic started.”

Flanagan added: “I think the Government and the First Minister have got a political objective around schools being open. They’d say that’s because, like us, they understand the importance of schools to young people’s wellbeing. We’re not going to disagree on that but I think they also have quite a political agenda. They’re potentially open to attack from other parties if they’re seen to be closing schools – and getting parental backlash.”

In comparison to the UK Government, however, Flanagan is clear that “by and large the Scottish Government’s default position is to seek partnership and collaboration”. The EIS is fully involved in discussions about decision-making. In England, teacher groups “struggle just to get dialogue”.

The Scottish Government, he stresses, “is not as unreasonable as the UK Government”.

Flanagan is conscious of the fact that he has to keep Government onside. “I need to be able to persuade Government to do the right thing,” he says. Many members, however, are keen to strike if pushed too far. “Ultimately, we’re trying to get a reasonable response from Government … it would be failure of the partnership approach if we had to ballot for industrial action.”

Sturgeon said this week that schools will remain shut until at least the middle of February. Teachers, though, fear a rush to reopen before its safe. Flanagan points to the new variant’s “transmissability among young people”. There are fears over reopening schools without properly enforced social distancing among pupils. “All that will happen is the R figure will go up,” Flanagan says.

In terms of discussions around the future of reopening schools, he adds: “There’s a lot of unknowns and they’re all contingent on the control of the virus and the impact of the vaccine.” The vast majority of teachers want schools open but they want them reopened safely.

“Teachers absolutely know that schools being open is the best thing possible for kids, it’s the easiest option for teachers when it comes to learning as remote learning is a huge challenge.”

There is a worry among rank-and-file teachers that Government decisions are taken by civil servants and other experts who know little about life inside schools and so lack “empathy”. Flanagan says that when it comes to Covid, there have been “more fights with individual councils than we’ve had with Government”. There are sometimes different approaches taken to schools across different council areas.

“Teachers who were shielding before we moved to lockdown, in a number of areas they were allowed to work from home,” Flanagan says. “In Glasgow, they said ‘no, you can’t, teachers are frontline, they have to be in school or off sick’. This was even for people with medical letters. Glasgow said ‘no’ – so Glasgow can be very hardline.”

Teachers also worry that their safety comes secondary to the economy and allowing parents to work. “There’s an element around why schools need to open which isn’t about the needs of children, but the needs of the economy,” says Flanagan, though he adds: “I don’t think it’s writ as large in Scotland as it is in England … by and large Scotland has benefited from a more cautious approach to the virus.”

Although teachers are sympathetic to parents, there is a limit to sympathy. “Some of the emails I’m getting … about having to support their child with home learning – I do have to temper my replies … They’re your children – the idea that the school should be there to provide childcare is an unwelcome thread.”

Flanagan also feels that “the discourse around lost learning has to be challenged. What we have is interrupted learning, nothing is lost or irretrievable. There are kids every year who miss a whole year because they’re ill and you wouldn’t say about those kids ‘that’s it, you’ve missed your chance’. It’s nihilistic. To say your future is gone is just rubbish. Politicians fall into this trap far too easily.”

Teachers are critical of Government failure to prepare for this new lockdown when it comes to remote learning and “digital inequality” – the lack of computers, and wi-fi, for poor children. The EIS says not enough equipment has been distributed. “In Glasgow, some iPads issued have protocols which don’t allow kids to access videos.”

Flanagan urged the Government to follow a cautious approach to reopening schools. “The key issue now is, with potentially only a few months to go until the vaccine impacts, why would you run a high-risk strategy?”

The parents

Speak to most teachers, and they’ll tell you that they believe a new online group is twisting the national conversation around schools during Covid. Us For Them – which styles itself as a “grass-roots” parent lobby group – has too much influence in the thinking of the Scottish Government, teachers feel.

UFT exists primarily on Facebook and sprang to life during lockdown. Flanagan calls them “the parents from nowhere” – although some figures such as Lord Jack McConnell, former Labour First Minister, has offered them support online.

Certainly, UFT doesn’t take the constructive approach to parent-teacher relations of established groups like the National Parent Forum of Scotland. Teachers have accused UFT of undisclosed political connections. There have been claims of an anti-SNP agenda.

Flanagan accused the organisation of having a “strong core of Covid deniers”. The EIS and UFT have been engaged in a war of words over claims that teachers were being recorded. Many teachers, Flanagan says, “feel they’re in state of siege”. He claims UFT is a “platform for self-promotion … some of them have political ambitions”.

Flanagan says he doesn’t in any way “dismiss the concerns of parents around blended and remote learning” but UFT has “an anti-teacher agenda”. He worries that the organisation is “manipulating the concerns of parents”, and that “their language and attitude [is]intimidating”.

Teachers are “concerned that Government pays too much attention” to the group, Flanagan says. He speculated that Sturgeon was not “immune” to the organisation “as she reacted to them very quickly last lockdown”.

Jo Bisset is the face of UFT in Scotland. She won’t offer any solutions to help make schools safer. “Schools are safe,” Bisset claims, adding: “We don’t see ourselves as having to solve a problem as it’s not a problem we acknowledge.”

“We don’t see there’s any need for social distancing in schools … it isn’t a dangerous environment,” she says. Bisset claims that “face masks in schools are really inappropriate”, and references children with autism, hearing impairment and “selective mutism”.

She claims “there’s a huge amount of harm from this enforcement of masks” and “having a mask on children in schools doesn’t make any sense”.

Nor does Bisset support teachers wearing masks. “If there are vulnerable teachers in schools and they feel they need to wear masks I think my first question would be ‘should that teacher really be in school if they’re so vulnerable’? … Perhaps, they should be furloughed.”

Bisset insists that UFT isn’t anti-teacher. “We’re incredibly in favour of teachers,” she claims. Teachers, though, recount incidents of being abused on social media by people connected to UFT. Bisset says this could be people who’ve had “a bad day … and just spill their guts – people often don’t think that closely about what they’re writing on social media and quite frankly why should they?”

On the group’s campaign against Government closure of schools, she says: “We’re not going to stop. There may or may not be an election coming up and we think that education is the issue of the election … if political parties aren’t listening to parents now, then they really need to, otherwise they’re going to lose votes.”

Bisset says claims that “we’re funded by dark money and we’re all failed Tory candidates and we’ve some big political agenda is completely wrong”. She insists all funding is from the public through sites like GoFundMe.

On political connections, she says: “Well, there’s this one guy, but he’s secret, he’s not actually an active politician now but he has been.” She later adds: “He was a Labour MP.”

UFT praises MSPs like Alex Neil of the SNP, who has criticised blended learning as “absolutely unacceptable”, and Michelle Ballantyne, tje former Conservative now leading Nigel Farage’s Reform Party in Scotland. Ballantyne was accused a few days ago of “an anti-lockdown rant”.

Bisset accused the EIS of “concerted smear attempts”. When asked if UFT could have handled debate better, she replied: “I don’t care. I’m not in politics … I’m not responsible for what nameless people write on the internet.” Teachers say that as UFT frontwoman she must take responsibility.

Bisset claimed she’d “love” to work in a classroom unmasked, and doesn’t believe teachers need to socially distance from children. Asked whether this posed a wider infection risk, she claimed: “Coronavirus is principally transmitted adult to adult, so as long as adults are socially distancing then you’re massively reducing your risk – so you can socially distance adults … in schools far more easily than you can do in many other sectors. So for me, if I was a teacher in a school, my key goal would be to socially distance from adults.”

Several teachers were asked to comment on this. All dismissed it as “dangerous” or “nonsense”.

Bisset, who is from Edinburgh and works in the oil and gas sector, has two teenage children in a private school. When asked if it was unfair of her to comment on state education, she replied: “I don’t know why I’d have to have my children in state school in order to be able to point out a fact that children in the state sector will be getting worse … education typically.” She said “private schools will be delivering a much more comprehensive level of education”.

The Government’s response

Responding to EIS comments, a government spokeswoman said: “Our top priority is the health and safety of pupils, staff and teachers. The current lockdown demonstrates that commitment to keeping people safe. While decisions to move to remote learning are hard, they have been taken in a timely manner in light of the developing public heath position. While we acknowledge the long-standing campaign by Mr Flanagan to have schools closed, we believe that shift came at the right time.

“Overall, we believe that the support in place for pupils learning remotely has been well-received. This includes, by the end of December, almost 59,000 devices such as laptops and over 10,000 connectivity packages distributed to learners. In total, the programme, supported by a £25 million investment, is expected to deliver over 70,000 devices for disadvantaged children and young people. A new package of £45 million, announced last week, means councils can supply additional devices or family support to those who need it most. That is substantial and is making a significant difference to the learning that pupils are receiving.”

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