John Erskine, Scottish Labour candidate for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and recently appointed to Anas Sarwar’s Campaign Cabinet, says after a tumultuous 12 months for Scotland’s pupils and parents it’s not too late for the Scottish Government to change course and let our young people know that there are more important things than qualifications this year.
Every August, Scottish Government ministers and civic Scotland take to social media to tell young people that there is #NoWrongPath. But this slogan seems to have been completely forgotten by ministers during the pandemic, as young people are bombarded with online learning and coursework at home in order to prepare them for assessments.
A week after the Scottish Parliament declared we are facing a mental health crisis particularly affecting young people, surely we now need to take stock and assess the toll of the additional stress and anxiety that we are piling on to our young people?
Speaking with teachers it is clear that, as the pandemic rolls on, more and more young people are falling behind in the work being assigned to them, for a variety of reasons. Schools and teachers are doing their best, offering learning materials and resources to help keep youngsters engaged and support them, but it’s simply often not enough.
Teachers have risen to the challenge despite being overstretched and under-resourced, and most schools have developed systems to notify parents if a pupil is falling behind or isn’t engaging. This is done with the best of intentions and to keep parents informed, but will undoubtedly be causing friction between some parents and children.
Spend just two minutes talking to parents about the impact of lockdown and you will know that many are battling every day with their kids to encourage them to do schoolwork, and this is increasing anxiety and stress levels for both youngsters and their parents.
One teacher I spoke with said the idea of ‘lost learning’ was a total misnomer. What they see our young people losing out on isn’t necessarily the purely academic side of learning, it’s the social aspects of school – the extra-curricular activities that enhance the learning experience, the school trips, school shows, dances, leaver activities and sports days. We should recognise that these are as important, maybe more important, than what is taught in the classroom.
So it’s deeply concerning that when pupils do return to school, for those in S4 to S6 it won’t be long before they are hit again with assessments for each of their classes, so that schools have evidence to award grades for the SQA.
The anxiety facing many pupils just now is considerable. Many feel that they’re falling behind and they know that they will be facing a further barrage of assessments at an unspecified point in the near future. Their wellbeing is being put second behind them achieving their SQA grades.
The past year has been an incredibly stressful time for everyone and there is concern for many youngsters that in this high-pressure environment with increasing levels of stress some pupils just won’t cope.
The average S4 pupil will studying 6 subjects, in S5 most will be taking 5. Given that most subjects have more than one exam paper, pupils could be facing 12 separate assessments just weeks after returning to school. And to give pupils a fair chance this number of assessments will likely be repeated in May or June.
Of course this isn’t the fault of schools or teachers, many of whom are doing a brilliant job in difficult circumstances. They want to give their pupils the best possible chance at high achievement, but the Scottish Government should now shift the focus away from awards to make sure youngsters’ mental and physical wellbeing is the priority.
When schools reopen we need to ensure that pupils can take part in more than just desk-based learning – that there are activity days to play sports, play music, cook, read or whatever pupils might enjoy. Even online now, schools should be offering pupils options such as music lessons, yoga classes, book clubs, movie clubs and cookery classes. Technical teachers could be offering digital classes on DIY skills. There are a huge number of worthwhile learning activities that could be offered, but the pressure to achieve qualifications is deemed more important.
None of this is to say that qualifications aren’t important – they are – but we aren’t giving the wellbeing of our young people, and those who may be struggling in such a changing learning environment, the same importance.
If we do believe, as John Swinney tells pupils, that there is no wrong path, then we should have trusted teachers to take a holistic view of how pupils had performed this year and award them their grades.
We should have been providing youngsters with a plan of how to get the qualifications they need (or want) to get, encouraging further education to complete Nationals/Highers or HNC/HNDs, before moving on to the next stage of their life.
If there really is no wrong path, the Scottish Government should be putting more money into supporting further education and supporting the idea of going to college for those that want to continue their learning. Instead, they’ve tried to replicate the usual system, which was already littered with problems, in a completely abnormal year.