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Education must be top priority as lockdown eases, warns Lord McConnell

Jack McConnell
Jack McConnell

Scotland’s schools are facing a major crisis as a result of coronavirus and education must be given the same priority as health and the economy as the country emerges from lockdown, former first minister Lord McConnell has said.

He warned children from disadvantaged backgrounds will have fallen further behind in the three months since schools closed, and he called for a national plan of action to be drawn up.

Without such efforts, he said he fears there will be another generation of lost youngsters similar to the situation in the 1980s when Scotland struggled following the collapse of the traditional manufacturing sector.

Lord McConnell told the PA news agency: “There was a generation created in the 1980s, failed by the economy and education, and ultimately by government, most of whom found it hard to keep down a proper job, many became addicts.

“Their problems were passed on to the next generation, and the next generation, and their families. It had a massive impact on our society and on their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

“We must not allow this to happen again.”

The former Labour leader, who spent 10 years working as a high school teacher before entering full-time politics, recalled: “I taught mathematics in the 1980s when a whole generation was written off as Scotland’s industry collapsed and the economy changed. And we are still living with the consequences of that today.

“And we are in danger of creating the same impact again. There is going to be a massive economic crisis, people are going to lose their jobs, and we have already got the situation in health changing our lives, possibly forever.

“On top of that to just leave this generation without anything like a similar effort in education is just not acceptable.”

On action he would take if he was first minister today, he said: “I would make education absolutely central, at least as an equal priority to the economy in coming out of the lockdown.

“I would have a national plan of action that put the 32 local authorities and the Scottish Government in the same place and that mobilised new people to help, new facilities to help, new equipment to help.

“Then I would identify and target those kids that have fallen behind and have an action plan in every school that wasn’t just an action plan to keep teaching going but was an action plan with resources to close the gap that had been created.”

The Labour peer, who is chancellor of Stirling University, said he also fears lockdown, will have an “impact on the mental health of even kids from quite advantaged backgrounds”, as youngsters have been cut off from their friends and usual activities.

But he said for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who have problems at home, this will be “even more severe”.

He said: “The educational gaps that were in place have been exacerbated and expanded by the lockdown and the pandemic.

“I don’t in any way diminish the amount of work that has been done by teachers and head teachers to deal with this, and I have spoken to dozens of them about this in recent weeks, but the gap has increased and current plans do nothing to address that gap.

“Unless action is taken right now, through the summer, mobilising resources in the same way that they were mobilised for health and mobilised to save jobs, then these kids will come back to school further behind than they ever were, they will find it harder to reintegrate, and they will slip even further behind in the new arrangements.

“We need a national plan of action on this, that matches the effort and ambition and resources that have been put into health and jobs over the last three months.

“Education needs to move up the agenda, it needs the same leadership, resources and effort that has been given to health and jobs.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We recognise that the disruption and challenges caused by the pandemic are hitting children from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly hard and we have been encouraging schools to target support where it is most needed.

“We are providing local authorities and schools with flexibility to redirect resources aimed at closing the attainment gap.

“This includes the announcement of £250 million for Pupil Equity Funding over the next two years.”

She added: “In addition, the Scottish Government is investing £9 million for 25,000 laptops – with internet access provided – for disadvantaged children to support learning outside school.

“This is the first phase of our £30 million commitment to support digital inclusion.

“Learning hubs for vulnerable children and key workers will stay open over the summer and meeting the learning needs of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to be a priority as we plan for the safe reopening of schools.”