Coronavirus (COVID-19) - education sector: Deputy First Minister statement 8 December 2020

Ministerial Statement by the Deputy First Minister John Swinney in the Scottish Parliament, on the education sector on Tuesday 8 December 2020.

Presiding Officer,

Throughout this school year the government has sought to safeguard the health and wellbeing of everyone, pupils, teachers, staff and students in the education system.

And, we have sought to protect the importance of learning, recognising the benefit that lies in teaching and the harm that can come from its withdrawal.

That approach has been led by the public health advice and science, but, despite the clarity and strength of that advice, it inevitably remains a judgement that must be made as to the best way forward.

Today I want to provide an update on the judgements we have made across a range

I confirmed last week no change to Christmas school holidays. That decision was driven by the expert public health advice I received – and published alongside my decision – and will ensure greater continuity of learning.

The evidence makes clear that school closures result in significant harms to our children and young people.

That is why we want to keep our schools, colleges and universities open.

But we must also keep people safe. That is why we keep our safety guidance under close review, to ensure that measures remain robust and effective.

In schools, recent ONS data shows no evidence of any difference between the positivity rates of teachers and other school staff, relative to other worker groups of a similar age.

And, there is no current direct evidence that transmission within schools plays a significant contributory role in driving increased rates of infection among children, although we continue to scrutinise all such evidence carefully.

That is reassuring news, and it is down in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of teachers and staff in keeping our schools safe.

I reiterate our thanks for that work but I am also conscious that many staff still have understandable anxiety.

To address this, we have already put in place arrangements to allow members of school staff to get a coronavirus test whether or not they have symptoms – we are currently the only part of the UK that provides this routine access.

We will now go further. As set out by the Cabinet Secretary for Health last week, after schools return in January, we will begin piloting routine asymptomatic testing of school staff.

Details are currently under discussion with interested local authorities, and I will provide further details on this to the Parliament in due course.

Presiding Officer, I would now like to turn to our colleges and universities.

For many students, particularly those living away from home for the first time, I know that this year will have been incredibly tough and I express my thanks to students and staff for their resilience.

Last month, the Higher Education Minister set out our plans for ensuring the safe return home of students who wish to do so at the end of term.

Our universities and colleges have already delivered over 20,000 rapid-result tests to students looking to return home.

I now want to update Parliament on our plans for ensuring the safe return of students following the winter break.

College students – who largely do not move away from home to go to education - should return as planned, in line with the protection level for the area their college is in at that time.

Universities are, however, in a different position.

As a result of the high number of people moving around the country, changing household and mixing as they return to university, we have to take a different approach.

At the start of the new term, universities’ return will be staggered over at least 6 weeks.

With some limited exceptions, undergraduate students will restart their studies at home, at the normal beginning of term, and should only return to campus and their term-time accommodation when asked to do so by their university.

We will keep our approach under review to ensure that it remains in line with the most up-to-date scientific advice.

As with our guidance for the end of term, we are also asking students to voluntarily restrict their social interaction for two weeks before they return to university and for two weeks following their return.

And we will build on our experience of offering asymptomatic testing to students before the end of term.

Students will again be offered lateral flow testing as part of their return and we are working with universities and student representatives to build on the systems already established to deliver this second phase of testing.

Presiding Officer, these arrangements will carry Scotland’s education system safely into the New Year. The challenge after that is the exams.

When I addressed Parliament on 7 October I said that cancelling the N5 diet was a way to secure more time and so enhance the chances of a Higher and Advanced Higher diet proceeding. We had dual priorities of safety and fairness.

If exams were to take place, these had to be made safe and fair to all pupils.

The prospects for public health have been improved immeasurably due to the development of a vaccine but we know that it will unavoidably take time to be rolled out. And, already, pupils have lost significant learning time.

First, they lost weeks of teaching time at the end of last year – time when pupils normally start to study for the following year’s qualifications.

That has now been compounded by the disruption many have suffered as they were obliged to self-isolate, had to learn from home or even saw their school closed.

And, we know that the level of disruption to learners has not been equal.

Almost 40% of those who were not in school for  more than one fifth of school openings for a COVID-related reason in S4 are from our poorest communities.

In S5 it is 33%, and in S6 it is 26%. 

And, while we hope that public health will improve in the coming months, we cannot guarantee that there will be no further disruption to pupils’ learning.

In light of this, the question is less whether we can hold the exams safely in the spring and more whether we can do so fairly.

There is no getting around the fact that a significant percentage of our poorest pupils have lost significantly more teaching time than other pupils.

Changing the exams for all does not – and cannot - address that.

Instead, we need a model that is more flexible to the specific circumstances of the individual pupil.

That model exists. It is the model we plan to use to award qualification this year for National 5s.

A group led by the SQA, and involving directors of education from our councils, members of the EIS, Colleges Scotland and others has been working to develop this model.

Under this plan, all schools and colleges are working with SQA to understand the standards required for qualifications.

They will then apply this to specified pieces of evidence, such as course work.

Provisional results for individual pupils will be submitted to the SQA by 28 May before certificates are awarded on 10 August.

Details of the model for N5 will be published by th National Qualifications 2021 Group today, a model that  focuses on the work and performance of young people during the year.  Let me be clear that no algorithm will be used.

It is a model that will be based on learner evidence, subject to quality assurance at local and national level, to deliver a credible and fair set of results.

It is a model that has achieved a broad level of support across Scotland’s education professionals.

I am therefore announcing today that there will be no Higher or Advanced Higher exams in 2021.

Instead we will adopt the new model that has been developed and base awards on teacher judgement of evidence of learner attainment.

This is safe. It is fair. And it better recognises the reality of the disruption so many pupils have already had to their learning in the course of the last few months.

I have taken action previously to support schools to respond to COVID with additional investment of £135 million, which includes the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers, and temporarily suspended inspections.

However, in acknowledgement of the additional workload of assessment of national qualifications in this unique academic year in the absence of exams I intend to make an exceptional one-off payment to teachers and lecturers who are critical to assessing  and marking N5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses this year. We will progress this urgently with partners and employers, including discussing when and how the payment will be delivered.

In addition, I would ask that secondary schools prioritise all remaining in-service day time to work together on this alternative model of certification for national qualifications. Many schools still have 2 or 3 of the 5 annual in-service days left.

Presiding Officer, I will not stake the future of our Higher pupils – whether they get a place at college, university, training or work – on a lottery of whether their school was hit by Covid.

Exams cannot account for differential loss of learning and could lead to unfair results for our poorest pupils.

This could lead to pupils’ futures being blighted through no fault of their own.

That is simply not fair.

Education is the greatest antidote to poverty we have. That is why we have sought to protect learning even in the midst of a pandemic. We pledged to keep people safe. We pledged to protect schools, colleges and universities and keep them open. And we pledged to fairly recognise the hard work and achievement of all.

I believe the measures I have announced today make good on all those pledges.


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