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'All hands on deck for education'.

Byline: JACK MCCONNELL FORMER FIRST MINISTER

BACK in March, Governments in all four nations of the UK mobilised on a scale never seen in peacetime before - to save lives and protect jobs.

Ministers in Edinburgh and London may not have got every decision right but no one can question the effort - and the money - spent to try to meet the challenges faced since then.

Alongside that effort, the past 12 weeks should have been used to mobilise in the same way to restart full-time education. But clearly that has not happened.

Twelve weeks on, we are told that children will return to school for a limited number of days every few weeks over the next year - starting not now but in eight weeks time.

Those teachers and headteachers that have been working since March have been trying hard to make distance learning and on-site support for vulnerable children work.

But everyone knows this is not enough and it must not become the norm.

We now face an emergency as dangerous as the pandemic threat in March that led to lockdown or the threat to jobs that provoked government to bring in the furlough scheme.

A few days every few weeks is just not good enough for children who are already suffering educationally and psychologically. And it is a disaster for the most vulnerable who are falling even further behind. We cannot have 12 months of this part-time learning and I welcome the First Minister's statement yesterday that this will not be accepted.

With a reorganisation of the school summer holiday, creative use of outdoor learning and recruitment of additional staff and volunteers, a staged return could have happened in June.

That opportunity has been missed, but it is not too late to save the Covid generation from months of despair. Full-time learning in organised facilities must be in place in August. In March and April, our Scottish Government managed to build a new hospital, equip emergency wards with new staff and supplies, implement their own version of the UK business and jobs support scheme and so much more.

No one called for them to wait until after the Easter break. No one said let's allow hospitals and wards to open part-time with different plans in every local district. No one said don't recruit extra staff, leave students in training to sit at home. So why is education different? We need a can-do attitude to start at the top. No more excuses. A firm decision made today to find the facilities, the equipment, the staff and the volunteers that are needed. Let's use student and retired teachers, and spaces that are closed like theatres and sports centres. And there must be regular report backs nationally and locally against the plan, just as we have seen every day for health.

A clear plan and "all hands on deck" could see all that in place and ready to go by August. If we can do it for health and jobs in eight days, we can do it for children in eight weeks.

And as all children return, we need to organise that learning and support to make sure the most disadvantaged are targeted to catch up with their peers.

Closing the education attainment gap was already a top priority of the First Minister. That gap is now wider than ever after 12 weeks at home. It is clear that thousands will not have used homebased learning and many will have suffered behind closed doors.

I taught Mathematics in Tullibody in the 80s. I watched pupils lose hope as industries closed and education was starved of resources. Our country suffered from writing off that generation, and the impact was felt by their children and grandchildren.

We must not let that happen again.
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Author:JACK MCCONNELL FORMER FIRST MINISTER
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 16, 2020
Words:628
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