Sian Gwenllian MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Education Minister
After three months when most pupils have not been going to school, the school gates will open again today. This is just the beginning of the struggle against the negative effects months of lock-down has had on education in Wales.
Firstly, there is no telling how many parents will decide to send their children back to school. Some might not yet feel comfortable with the risk it poses, and some children might be vulnerable to the virus, or live with someone who is vulnerable, and therefore are excluded from the returning cohort.
Others might not be attending school from today because of other impracticalities or issues with logistics as a consequence of the crisis, such as problems with travel or childcare.
In addition to this, children will not be attending schools full time – attendance will have to be spread out to comply with social distancing and safety measures. And as the Education Minister has noted, the reopening is more for ‘check in’ sessions between pupils and teachers than for ordinary lessons.
She has also indicated that the same level of support and immersive learning of a full school day five days a week within an actual school building will not be the norm for the foreseeable future, although this may change in September if the virus recedes.
As the Education Minister has pointed out, this new school system will be made up only partly of face to face learning where there is proper contact between pupils, their teachers, and their schools.
Added to this, the three months without school attendance will already have had significant effects on the skills, confidence levels, and well-being of children in Wales and will have seen the attainment gap grow wider.
Understandably, motivation from children is dwindling, as I have learnt from the many worried parents who have contacted me lately. The lack of interaction with teachers, minimal feedback and not feeling part of a class working towards the same ends makes it very hard for even a keen student to stay motivated.
It is widely accepted that children from different households, different schools, and different areas will have had vastly different experiences of home learning and levels of contact with their teachers during the lock-down.
A recent study by the Institute of Education at the University College London legitimatized this notion, and provided substantial figures on contact levels between pupils and schools, as well as digital learning across the UK.
Online provision from schools plays a massive role in how successful digital learning will be for pupils and their attainment levels, and interventions which ensure that all pupils have the tools and capability to engage to a high level are crucial.
Differences in circumstances and learning environments amongst pupils, such as whether they have sufficient electronic equipment to engage in digital learning, sufficient connectivity, parental confidence and capabilities in facilitating remote learning, and the availability of appropriate space for learning all need to be taken into account.
The Scottish Government recently committed to a £30 million investment in electronic equipment for those who lack the tools to engage in digital learning. Similar commitments from the Welsh Government are critical to ensuring the attainment gap is not widened further.
The Welsh Government must now focus its attention on education to ensure that the damage done to pupils in Wales does not have long-lasting effects, and further that the suspension of proper schooling does not have disproportionate effects on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is why I am calling on the Education Minister to publish a mitigation plan for education, to ensure that this period does not have long-lasting effects on Welsh pupils, and their futures are not compromised.
Plaid Cymru’s priorities for a mitigation plan include:
- Providing the correct equipment and technology to enable all pupils to get online
- Establishing and maintaining regular, continuous interaction between teacher and pupil (including live-streaming of lessons)
- Setting targets for how much work needs to be submitted and targets for feedback
- Further investment in educational on-line platforms
- The use of attendance targets for each pupil/school
- Investment in schools as well-being hubs – a multi-agency approach centred around the school
- Investment in family liaison work, with priority given to those pupils currently not engaging in any education
- Recruiting extra staff from newly-qualified or recently retired teachers
The Education Minister needs to urgently publish a focused mitigation plan. Clarity is needed on the consequential funding that should come to Wales as a result of the UK Government’s announcement about extra funding for education.
The current situation will have a lasting impact on today’s young people in terms of both their education and mental health. Government needs to work with the Children’s Commissioner and children’s charities and others to map out effective interventions that can be put in place in September.
The whole situation is unprecedented and has put schools under huge strain. However, if children will not be at school full time in September, there must be a plan to provide more structured education, with regular online teaching, better feedback on work, more interaction with teachers, and active support for families with priority given to those pupils who have not been engaging in their education to date.
We have to ensure that Welsh children are not left behind. We have to make sure this period doesn’t leave long-lasting wounds in the educational attainment and well-being of our pupils.