BACK in the mists of time, in early March, many still expected the coronavirus shutdown to be a temporary interruption to normal life, like suspending a board game for dinner or shutting up an office over Christmas.

It won’t be anything like that; we can see that now. Normal life will not simply resume. The virus is a problem factory, churning out troubles, tribulations and full-blown crises almost as quickly as it churns out copies of itself. When the emergency is over, we’ll be dealing with those problems for years, just ask a doctor – or a teacher.

No one wanting to narrow the attainment gap between children from well-off and disadvantaged backgrounds would ever advocate mass home schooling, but suddenly, of necessity, that’s the entire basis of Scottish education. Closing the gap has been a key driver of education policy for decades and the First Minister has staked her reputation on it, though progress has so far been slow.

Now teachers are worried that progress could go into reverse.

Home schooling removes a great social leveller from children in a community: going to the same school.

That’s not to say it’s all bad news. In some respects, it might actually be a good thing. It’s already generating enormous energy, creativity and engagement.

Many people’s kitchens and lounges have been turned into part-time schoolrooms. Walls that were once unadorned are now crowded with crayon drawings, times tables charts and dirty finger marks. The recycling bin has become a resource, as cereal boxes become castle keeps and kitchen-roll tubes become homemade periscopes. Social media has exploded with endless such ideas from parents, as well as some diploma-level showing-off.

Some parents are getting involved in their children’s education to an unprecedented degree (and learning in the process greater respect for the professionals who usually do the job). Some children who usually share a teacher with 25 or 30 other pupils now have one-to-one time with a live-in tutor. These parent-tutors may not have much time to teach or plan lessons (many have more than one child to cater for and are still trying to do their other job at the same time), but they are highly committed to their “class” and are gaining deep insights into their children’s educational needs, especially where the children are young.

Obviously there are challenges, such as the specialist nature of some teaching, but the well-connected and highly-educated can get round that. Got a chemistry degree? Great, you’re perfectly placed to teach science. Got a mate who devours literature like it’s chocolate? You can set up a Zoom tutorial on the war poets.

But this is where the inequality really starts to show. Of course it’s not wrong for parents to pursue these options – it’s resourceful and beneficial and a good idea – but the inevitable question left hanging in the air is, what happens to kids whose parents, for a variety of reasons, aren’t in a position to give them such learning support? Or what if the child has caring responsibilities, for younger siblings or a sick relative? Answer: you end up with striking variation in children’s educational experiences.

Schools are doing their level best. This has been obvious from day one. As soon as the plan for hub schools was announced (schools in a community providing day care for the children of essential workers) it was quickly added that those hubs would also provide care for various groups of vulnerable children and certain children with additional support needs. This was a good decision. These hubs will provide a haven for children in a range of circumstances, including some who might be at risk of harm.

Schools have also been quick to hand out mobile devices like tablets to children who do not have access to them (though schools can’t legislate for reliable wifi). Stationery packs and food parcels are being distributed by teachers, in recognition of the financial stress many parents are under. Those who qualify for free school meals or clothing grants will also continue to receive support, through payments or vouchers.

Meanwhile, pupils and parents have access to class forums on platforms like Microsoft Teams or Online Learning Journals where their teachers can give them activities and support.

But as one teacher told me, there is only so much you can do once your pupils are all at home. There will be “massive” variations in their learning environments and that is where the differences will show. She mentioned one young secondary school pupil, a quiet boy who gets extra support with literacy, who showed enthusiasm for learning online when she last saw him nearly two weeks ago, but she hasn’t heard a peep from him since.

It’s early days. The “holidays” are about to start (eerily static though they will be) and it’s not just children facing challenges who are less than fully engaged; some of the usual high performers are too. But teachers worry that, over time, children getting encouragement to learn at home will make progress while those who don’t will not.

This means that, when the disruption ends (which could be many months from now), the variations could be stark. Teachers will have to do assessments of their pupils all over again, to see where they now stand.

Much like the exhausted nurses and medics who will emerge from the coronavirus emergency with a neverending backlog of other work to catch up on, many teachers will be very busy, not just in catching up their pupils but in levelling them up with each other. It’s a daunting prospect.

Scottish state schools get a bum rap in the media sometimes. Their shortcomings are often exaggerated, their achievements downplayed, but if anyone truly doubted that they play an important role in promoting fairness, then this crisis should provide some perspective.

Schools have not caused the attainment gap, our unequal society has done that, but schools are still expected to solve it largely on their own. Progress may have been slow to date, but without children of different backgrounds coming together at school, sharing teachers and classrooms and social activities, it will be hard to prevent it getting worse again.

Another reason to hope this crisis ends sooner rather than later.

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