Teachers demand major changes ahead of Scottish schools reopening

Dan Sanderson
·3-min read
Larry Flanagan, of the EIS, wrote to John Swinney, the education secretary, with a litany of concerns - pool/Getty Images Europe
Larry Flanagan, of the EIS, wrote to John Swinney, the education secretary, with a litany of concerns - pool/Getty Images Europe

Scotland’s largest teaching union has warned that reopening schools could lead to a resurgence of coronavirus if urgent new safety measures are not brought in within days.

The EIS said that it had “significant concerns” about guidelines for reopening schools, which are set to reopen next week, pointing to “contradictions” between rules drawn up for classrooms and wider society.

The Scottish Government has ordered schools to reopen full time by August 18 “at the latest” after initial plans to have all pupils observe two-metre distancing were abandoned, following a backlash from parents. Schools have been told distancing between pupils, which would have severely limited school capacity, is now no longer required.

However, the EIS, which has significant influence over Scottish education, has told education secretary John Swinney that urgent changes are needed, including strengthening a testing regime for schools and revisiting the rules around distancing.

The union also complained that the government had called for a move to smaller class sizes, without setting out how this could be achieved, and said it was not convinced that opening without distancing between pupils was safe.

It also said it was concerned that teachers who had been shielding due to their increased risk if they caught Covid-19 would be expected to lead classes, and questioned why face coverings and plastic screens had become mandatory in settings such as shops but were not required in schools.

In a letter to Mr Swinney, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS, said: “We would not wish to see the reopening of schools act as a catalyst to a resurgence.

“That means we must ensure that school buildings are Covid-secure environments. Across the globe we are witnessing how quickly things can deteriorate.

“Teachers, pupils, and parents have every reason to be anxious about schools reopening. Addressing the concerns raised... would go some way to offering reassurance.”

While the EIS is set to conduct a survey of teachers ahead of schools reopening, a formal ballot for industrial action would be needed if it was to instruct teachers not to go back to work and it is understood this is not currently under consideration.

Meanwhile, pupils across Scotland are set to receive qualification results on Tuesday, after not taking exams due to the pandemic.

There has been criticism of the Scottish Qualifications Agency for the way it has handled the process, with some results expected to be downgraded without consultation with teachers, who provided estimates for the grades they believed their pupils would have achieved.

A flood of appeals are expected, with opposition MSPs accusing the body of a lack of transparency over how grades would be decided.

Jamie Greene, education spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: "Whilst we supported the decision in March to close schools and cancel exams, there are still many unanswered questions over the specific methodology the SQA is using to award these grades and how national averages impact that process.

"The appeals process must be fair, transparent and equipped to deal with potentially thousands of cases in the coming days, to help minimise disruption for the many students hoping to attend college and university in September.”

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In response to the EIS letter, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ensuring the highest quality education for our young people, in a safe environment, is our absolute priority, and we also want to make sure teaching staff feel supported.

"Our guidance clearly sets out the approach that must be taken, including a number of specific risk-mitigation measures that will need to be introduced in all schools in order that they provide a safe environment for staff and pupils.

“Individual schools will carry out risk assessments on their estate, as they will know how to apply the guidance in a way that works best to ensure the safety of their setting.”