More than 150 people have signed a petition amid mounting anger over plans for remote learning at high schools in the Western Isles.

The scheme - which union leaders claim is being rolled out without proper consultation - is aimed at giving S4-6 pupils the opportunity to engage in digital and hybrid lessons via the e-Sgoil platform.

However, it is feared this would not necessarily be under the supervision of a registered teacher.

The plan was set out in a letter sent to parents and carers on March 28. Education bosses have suggested it will help boost the subject options available and tackle the issue of provision in learning establishments where small class sizes typically create course viability challenges. 

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It is envisaged the arrangement will be achieved through harmonisation of subject choice forms and timetables across all four Western Isles secondary schools.

But the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) local association has voiced a range of worries, particularly over a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document that claims pupils will “benefit from digital and hybrid models of learning” with “an adult” present in the room during online classes.

A statement reads: “As a local association we have always insisted that a registered teacher must be responsible in the receiving school for any online learning. 

“This document suggests that ‘an adult’ (any adult?) will be responsible for junior classes and senior pupils can be completely unsupervised.

“We have significant health and safety and child protection concerns about this aspect of the proposal. There is an absolute disregard for statutory responsibilities and duties towards pupils as well as a serious undermining of the role of professional, registered teachers.”

The statement also criticises the suggestion that “small groups of learners should be permanently online for certain classes”. It adds: “Online learning can be set up as appropriate collaboration and according to the professional judgement of teachers of small classes without it having to be the de facto arrangement. 

“Pedagogical approaches should be determined by teaching staff, not by staffing calculations.”

Signatures have been flooding in after an online EIS members petition was published to protest against the plans. At the time of going to press yesterday, 152 individuals had added their names.

Local association members said they wanted continuation of the status quo until further clarity on the proposals is provided and agreement reached.

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The row has erupted as evidence grows that remote and hybrid learning approaches are becoming more firmly embedded in the wake of Covid.

In one recent example, a review of Scotland’s regional improvement collaboratives (RICs) found online Advanced Higher opportunities were being expanded in a number of local authority areas.

Its authors noted that the Tayside RIC, which covers Angus, Dundee City and Perth & Kinross councils, had set up a virtual campus offering a range of courses via digital technology. The development meant that, during 2021/22, all senior pupils could access Advanced Highers in computing, French and Spanish “using entirely remote learning”. The offer included occasional live sessions and some group or one-to-one tutorials.

The review found that online Advanced Highers were also being trialled by the South West Education Improvement Collaborative, which takes in Dumfries & Galloway council and the local authorities for East, North and South Ayrshire. 

Western Isles Council has strongly rejected EIS criticisms of its plan. 

A spokesman said: "The matter of establishing timetable harmonisation for secondary schools in the Western Isles, particularly within the senior phase, was presented to council on several occasions in 2019 and agreed unanimously by members each time. 

"The aspiration for the harmonisation of timetables and maximisation of efficient learning through both face-to-face and digital teaching is to provide the broadest and most equitable choices for our young people, wherever they happen to live in the islands. We also have a duty to equip young people to learn effectively in the connected and digital world of the 21st century and this includes supporting them to access and participate in learning through digital and remote means."

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The spokesman also rejected the accusation that education bosses had failed to carry out proper consultation. He insisted there had been discussion with staff, learners, parents and parent councils in the period since the decision was taken to proceed with the change.

"This latest element of the process forms part of that agreed delivery approach," he added. "It is not new and is not being rapidly pushed through during the [council] election period; it is, rather, the culmination of nearly three years work and the next step in the gradual movement towards full implementation. The timing of the current exercise is dictated by the typical secondary subject choice process that runs between February and May annually.

"It has also been asserted that this approach is driven by an intention to cut or reduce staffing in rural schools. The truth of the work already undertaken on this in the last three years is that our overall staffing complement has grown through the ability for staff to live locally but teach efficiently to both face-to-face and remote classes. 

"In terms of comments relating to remote delivery and supervision of learners, it must be clarified that all learning is delivered by properly registered and qualified subject-specialist teachers, be that face-to-face or remotely, as is already common practice in delivery of digital learning nationally. Where a lesson is being taught remotely by a teacher, an appropriate adult will be available to provide supervision."