Overview: A year in education
On 20 March, 2020, education in Scotland was turned on its head.
Schools and nurseries closed their doors for an indefinite period of time, with parents suddenly thrust into the realms of homeschooling.
SQA exams were cancelled for the first time in their history, while college and university students moved to online teaching and examinations.
Nobody knew how long it would go on for or the lasting impact it would have on young people.
Announcing the decision to close schools back in March, Nicola Sturgeon described it as “one of the hardest decisions we have faced so far as we tackle the coronavirus”.
“At this stage I cannot promise schools and nurseries will reopen after the Easter break,” she said, as a nation of dumbstruck parents and pupils listened to the unprecedented measures.
“We will, of course, only keep them closed for as long as we absolutely have to, but at this stage I cannot promise they will reopen before the summer holidays.”
And, as it turned out, Sturgeon was wise not to make that promise, as the spread of the virus forced the closures to remain in place until August.
Up until the outbreak of COVID-19, some of the biggest issues facing Scottish education included the impact of Brexit on universities, hurdles in the early learning and childcare expansion rollout, narrowing subject choice in secondary schools and the ongoing challenge of closing the attainment gap.
While the effective stalling of education across the country has overshadowed everything, it has also heightened existing problems and challenges.
The double whammy of Brexit and COVID-19 has left the university sector facing a bleak future, with some institutions facing the threat of insolvency.
Universities across the UK are in crisis with forecasts of a catastrophic fall in the number of international students
A study by London Economics for the University and College Union (UCU) found that around 9,500 fewer international students – the key source of income – were expected to study in Scotland this autumn, compared to previous years, representing a fall of nearly 50 per cent.
Furthermore, Quacquarelli Symonds, a company providing analytics about higher education, found that 62 per cent of international students interested in studying in the UK have had their plans disrupted by the worldwide pandemic.
On top of this, there are growing fears that tuition fees will need to be reintroduced for Scottish students.
A report from Reform Scotland also argued that the COVID-19 crisis and the forecast reduction in international students could mean the reintroduction of the graduate endowment scheme.
UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: “As well as it being morally wrong to charge students for tuition, we can also now say with confidence that it makes no economic sense. Bringing back tuition fees - either upfront or after graduation - would damage Scottish universities’ finances.
“Universities across the UK are in crisis with forecasts of a catastrophic fall in the number of international students.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had enormous consequences for the early years and childcare sector.
While government guidelines permitted the children of key workers to attend nurseries, many private nurseries struggled financially to stay open for so few children.
A major blow was delivered to the sector – and to parents – when the Scottish Government told councils they no longer had to meet the August 2020 deadline for increasing the amount of funded childcare hours.
Before the pandemic, all local authorities had a statutory duty to increase provision from 600 hours of free pre-school education per year to 1140 for all three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds.
In a joint statement, Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, and COSLA spokesperson for Children and Young People, Councillor Stephen McCabe explained that before the pandemic, they had been “on track” to deliver the extra funding from August.
“However, in these exceptional circumstances it is not realistic or reasonable to expect that local authorities can deliver their original expansion plans to secure high quality experience for all children in time for August this year,” they continued.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to continue with the planned recruitment and infrastructure projects required to support expansion.”
In July, Education Secretary John Swinney finally announced support for the sector in the shape of £11.2m of funding made available to support childcare providers with the cost of safely reopening.
The new Transitional Support Fund will help childcare providers in the private and third sectors, including out-of-school care providers, meet extra costs incurred to comply with the new public health guidance, such as increased cleaning, adaptations to support the physical distancing of adults and to develop outdoor space to enable more outdoor learning.
Pupils from poorest backgrounds were hardest hit, with results being downgraded based on a school’s past performance rather than a pupil’s individual ability
School closures have also had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable children and those from deprived communities.
A University of Glasgow report which surveyed 704 teachers on the impact of COVID-19 on learning found that 38.9 per cent of the teachers expected many more of their pupils to be labelled at risk or have interventions from social services by the end of lockdown.
This figure rose to 68.4 per cent amongst teachers working in deprived areas.
The survey also found that while 498 teachers said their high attaining pupils were engaging well with virtual learning, just 25 agreed that their low attaining students were doing the same.
During one of her daily coronavirus briefing, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she recognised the “disproportionate impact on young people who are living in more difficult, vulnerable or deprived circumstances” and said the government will “leave no stone unturned in trying to ensure any impact you suffer is not greater as a result.”
However, when she made that promise, Sturgeon had no way of knowing about the SQA exam results fiasco awaiting her, and the angry backlash her government would receive.
Thanks to the moderation system produced by the SQA and approved by the Scottish Government, 26.2 per cent of grades were changed.
Around 134,000 teacher estimates were adjusted by the SQA, with just under 76,000 pupils having one or more results lowered.
Pupils from poorest backgrounds were hardest hit, with results being downgraded based on a school’s past performance rather than a pupil’s individual ability. While both Sturgeon and Swinney at first defended the results process, a week later the Education Secretary announced a major U-turn with all pupils who had their exam results downgraded by the SQA to be reissued with grades based on teacher or lecturer judgement.
While this decision marked a brighter future for many pupils, Swinney's political future has been marred by the fiasco.