Attendees and apologies
- Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Chair)
- Councillor Stephen McCabe, Children and Young People spokesperson, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) (co-Chair)
- Clare Haughey, Minister for Children and Young People
- Sam Anson, Deputy Director, COVID Education Strategy and Recovery, Scottish Government
- Jane Brumpton, Chief Executive, Early Years Scotland
- Laura Caven, CoSLA
- Chelsey Clay, Scottish Youth Parliament
- Craig Clement, Education Scotland
- Alison Cumming, Director, Early Learning and Childcare, SG
- Greg Dempster, Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS)
- Sheena Devlin, ADES
- Andy Drought, Deputy Director, Workforce and Infrastructure, Learning Directorate, SG
- Larry Flanagan, Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)
- Liam Fowley MSYP, Scottish Youth Parliament
- Gayle Gorman, Chief Executive and Chief Inspector, Education Scotland
- Clare Hicks, Director for Education Reform, SG
- Douglas Hutchison, President, Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES)
- Andrew Kerr, SOLACE
- Graeme Logan, Director for Learning, Scottish Government
- Janie McManus, Education Scotland
- Jane Moffat, Strategy, GIRFEC and The Promise Division
- Eleanor Passmore, Deputy Director, Early Learning and Childcare, SG
- Fiona Robertson, SQA
- Maria Rossi, Public Health Scotland
- Kay Sillars, UNISON
- Pauline Stephen, GTCS
- Diane Stockton, Public Health Scotland
- Matthew Sweeney, CoSLA
- Jim Thewliss, General Secretary, School Leaders Scotland (SLS)
Apologies were received from:
- Gillian Hamilton, Education Scotland
- Margaret Wilson, National Parent Forum of Scotland (NPFS)
- Grace Vickers, SoLACE (Andrew Kerr attending)
Items and actions
Ms Somerville thanked members for attending this meeting, which was called at short notice due to the emerging situation with the new variant.
Councillor McCabe welcomed the opportunity for discussion this week given the speed of developments.
Minutes of previous meeting
Minutes of the last meeting were agreed.
Diane Stockton from PHS gave an overview of the current data. Uptake of the vaccine booster programme has accelerated, which is welcome as this is likely to afford the greatest protection against the omicron variant. There is reasonably high coverage of the over-60s, with around 50% of the 50 to 59 age group also having had boosters.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) related hospital admissions continue to decline, though it is not yet clear how omicron will impact on the hospitalisation picture. Admissions for children have been stable for several weeks. Deaths are also declining currently. There has been a slight increase in case rates overall in the under-60s, with slight rises in many age groups.
The characteristics of the omicron variant mean that it can be reliably identified at PCR test. Omicron cases are predominantly in the 30 to 49 age range at present. Current, limited data shows cases have tended to be either mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic. It is likely that omicron will overtake delta as the predominant variant, with the doubling rate currently at around two days.
General data on cases in schools will be in the PHS public dashboard from next week, there has been a slight increase in the number of schools with six or more cases.
The uptick in staff absences was noted. A CoSLA led meeting is planned for next week to consider the availability of differentiated staff absence data by sector. If available, it may aid consideration of possible differentiation of approach between primary/secondary/ELC settings.
Contact tracing and self-isolation policy
PHS colleagues summarised their letter to Directors of Education, issued on 8 December, which set out the enhanced/temporary approaches to contact tracing for the omicron variant. These arrangements will remain under review. It was recognised that more stringent isolation requirements may impact on staffing pressures and educational outcomes.
PHS confirmed that contact tracing capacity has been stepped back up to maximum capacity. As the understanding of omicron develops, local arrangements may need to be changed. PHS, Chief Medical Officer and officials will continue to work together to take a balanced view on omicron.
Omicron appears to be more transmissible than delta, and as such, adherence to the existing mitigations in place is key, particularly in common areas such as staff rooms and car sharing. The social nature of activities at this time of year will also be a factor.
The Cabinet Secretary acknowledged this is a time of difficult decisions and that protecting continuity of education remains a priority for the Scottish Government. Given the need to support outcomes for children and young people, school closures would only be considered as a last resort.
Adherence to and reinforcement of current mitigations will be critical, and consideration should be given to what other mitigations might be put in place. There was discussion of possible measures and the importance of communication with partners to maximise compliance. There was general agreement that reinforcing existing mitigations is a vital first step.
Sam Anson noted that this may lead to updated guidance and that discussions would commence immediately. Key areas for discussion should be those mitigations that were previously in place but phased out earlier in the year, including groupings, adult school visitors, and expressive arts, alongside enhancing approaches to ventilation and CO2 monitoring, self-isolation policy and asymptomatic testing.
Members broadly agreed that a return to mitigations that were previously in place would be the most straightforward to reinstate, there was not much by way of additional mitigations that could be put in place in any case given that only very few mitigations were previously removed.
Officials confirmed that detailed consideration of the balance of harms associated with any mitigations would be undertaken. The impact of any changes on young people in the Senior Phase, and resulting impact on qualifications, was emphasised and the importance of clearly communicating plans and contingencies to young people was particularly stressed. The meeting of the NQ22 group on 10 December would be an important part of this ask. The Cabinet Secretary confirmed that SQA and SG are working closely together on this.
The requirement for clear communication was recognised, in respect of the proximity to Christmas. Revised guidance will be developed on a precautionary basis, including engagement with partners over the course of the next week.
AOB and next meeting
In response to a query the Cabinet Secretary asked officials to provide advice on whether inspections will be paused in ELC settings as they have been done by HMIE in schools.
The Cabinet Secretary thanked everyone for their contributions and closed the meeting. Next meeting 16 December.
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