THE teacher had four pupils yesterday. Just four pupils out of a class of 33 took part in virtual online lockdown lessons.

Those four pupils, though, marked a decline on last week – when the average number who attended the teacher’s online lessons was six per day from the same class of 33.

In these virtual classrooms teachers set their pupils work online. Children engage throughout the day with their teachers – messaging, video chatting. They submit work, the work is marked, feedback is given. Lockdown lessons, to all intents and purposes, are like being at school … that’s if children attend, of course.

It seems, however, that the Scottish Government, councils and some parents are failing when it comes to the duty of care society must take to ensure our children get a decent education during this time of pandemic.

The one set of people who can’t be blamed for the truancy crisis in our virtual classrooms is teachers. They want to teach. They set up their online classrooms, they prepare lessons, and then they wait to see how many, or rather, how few children turn up. It’s the authorities and parents who have the responsibility to get children to teachers’ virtual classrooms so our educators can do their job.

We knew things would be tough when it came to making education work during lockdown, but the devastation being wrought on the learning of our young is nothing short of scandalous. If I was still the parent of school-age children I’d be furious at the failure, and frightened for their future.

A survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, before Easter, found that less than half of children are engaging with teachers. Just one per cent of teachers reported 100 per cent engagement. Fourteen per cent said there was 75 per cent engagement, and 25 per cent reported 50 per cent engagement. Five per cent said children were not engaging at all.

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‘Engagement’ means a pupil logs in to their virtual classroom and takes part in online lessons with their teacher.

Primary schools may be fairing even worse. One teacher I spoke to told me they usually had half a dozen pupils who fully engage. They teach at an inner city Scottish primary. Many children are poor and vulnerable. Before lockdown the class was at maximum capacity: 33 children.

Apart from the six who fully engage with lessons every day, there are six to eight other pupils who “pop in and out”. They come online, look at resources, maybe try something and then go.

Then there are around 12-15 pupils who are “visible” to the teacher – in other words, they can see these children have read messages left for them or looked at resources – but they don’t engage at all.

And finally, there’s the biggest worry – at least six children are completely “off radar”. They haven’t logged on, they haven’t been seen to read messages. In effect, the school doesn’t know where they are or what is happening to them. Senior management are, of course, trying to get in touch – they’re calling and emailing parents. But teachers need help keeping our children safe. As in ordinary times, during lockdown teachers need social workers and truancy officers and family support teams to assist them day to day.

The teacher said that what was true of their class was “pretty much the same for the rest of the school”. They also said it was “pretty much the same” when it came to the cluster of schools in their local area. And across the rest of Scotland? “Anecdotally, it’s also pretty much the same,” they said.

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Teachers are happy to be flexible. They don’t mind teaching some kids at eight in the morning and others at tea-time if that’s what works for families. But they need parents and central and local government to back them and get children to 'virtual' school.

What makes all this worse is the response from the Scottish Government. Last week, I contacted the Government asking if officials knew how many children were attending lockdown lessons in Scotland.

This was the comment I got from a Scottish Government spokesperson: “We do not collect a figure on how many children across Scotland are taking part in online virtual classes with schools. We believe that it would be a significant burden to ask teachers to report this centrally at a time when they are, rightly, focussing their efforts on teaching their pupils.

“However, we are aware that considerable positive work has already been undertaken by teachers and education professionals across Scotland to support continuity in learning while most schools remain shut. This includes various arrangements using different services such as those available through the Glow platform.”

It’s the sort of typical jargon-speak which means nothing. However, teachers I’ve spoken to say it would be no burden at all to ask them to report how many children are attending lessons. They’re taking a virtual register every morning anyway, so passing it on to the authorities wouldn’t be an imposition.

Teachers told me that what needs to be done is this: during lockdown the class register should be used by local and central government for monitoring attendance just as in normal times. If a child is absent from virtual lessons without reason, or repeatedly, then call in the virtual truancy officer. Children cannot be left to stagnate educationally during lockdown.

Teachers are often a convenient whipping boy for governments and society at large. Today, amid this pandemic, they’re doing their best to prepare our children for adulthood but they are the ones being failed.

Of course, it’s hard for parents to cope during lockdown but nobody said being a parent was easy. The lockdown is stressful, frightening, but children need to get up in the morning, brush their teeth, eat their breakfast, and go to their virtual school.

Equally, some parents may be too poor to afford the technology needed for their child to participate in online lessons. In that case, the Government should set up an emergency fund, distributed by councils, which provides families in need with computers to educate their children.

Coronavirus is killing a lot of things. It cannot be allowed to claim the future of our children – particularly our most vulnerable children. Scotland cannot afford a lost generation.

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