JACK McConnell has warned the failure to provide full-time schooling after the Covid lockdown could be the biggest disaster in modern Scottish education.

The former First Minister said the part-time “blended learning” envisaged by ministers could cause deeper damage and distrust than the Scottish Qualification Authority fiasco 20 years ago.

He said many of the problems in the exams scandal then, such as delay, denial and passing the buck, were now being seen in the mess and confusion over plans for blended learning. 

READ MORE: Jackson Carlaw hits out at "lack of ambition" over Scottish schools reopening 

Lord McConnell was the Labour education minister who had to overhaul the SQA after thousands of pupils got the wrong Higher results.

Writing in The Herald on Sunday, he said: “Twenty years on we face an educational crisis that could damage another generation even more deeply.

“This is a crisis every bit as serious as the threat to health in March and the threat to jobs from lockdown. The UK and Scottish governments mobilised on a scale never seen before to save lives and protect jobs. They must do the same now for full-time education.”

Referring to Nicola Sturgeon, he adds: “Sometimes good leaders have to admit something is wrong and just fix it.”

One of the pupils who suffered in the SQA disaster and spoke out to raise awareness at the time also said the two situations were similar, with families initially told to “just accept it”. 

Caitlin Smart, who is part of the UsforThem network of parents pressing for full-time education, said: “John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy lies on this. 
“This will be the thing that people talk about in 20 years’ time.”

Under blended learning, pupils in Scotland will return to school from August 11 to a mixture of classroom teaching, with pupils kept two metres apart, and home-schooling.

Education Secretary John Swinney last week said it might take a year for schools to return to normality and he hoped they would start with 50% class time.

However, some councils have offered pupils as little as one day a week in class.

After a backlash from parents worried about their ability to return to work and their children’s education suffering, Sturgeon intervened, saying she considered 50% a minimum. She also downplayed blended learning as a “contingency”. 

But on Friday, the council umbrella group Cosla told MSPs the Scottish Government’s rule on two metres meant blended learning remained the plan and made a full-time return “impossible”. It prompted one of the SNP’s own MSPs, former Cabinet secretary Alex Neil, to describe the Government’s plan as wholly unacceptable. 

“It’s not blending education, it’s bleeding education,” he said at Holyrood’s education committee.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Friday that pupils in England would return full-time in September, although he wrongly forecast a limited restart for schools in June. 

The UK Government yesterday said a review of the two-metre rule in England would conclude “within days”, while Northern Ireland has already announced a one-metre rule in its schools when they restart.

The Scottish Conservatives last night said the contingency claim amounted to “deceit”, citing letters from councils to parents showing plans for blended learning already in place.

Dumfries and Galloway said pupils would only go back “two or three days each week”, and Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire said twice a week.
While South Ayrshire acknowledged a “sense of frustration and unfairness”, adding: “A number of complaints have been received.”

Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw said: “These letters show Nicola Sturgeon’s plan is anything but contingent. Proposals for children to go back as little as once or twice a week are already being set in stone.

“It’s no wonder parents right across the country are furious at this deceit. The SNP is simply not showing the ambition or imagination required to avert a crisis in education.

“Parents all over the country are worried sick about their child’s education, and can’t see how they will return to work if there’s no school to go to. Instead of shrugging her shoulders, the First Minister should be working flat out for a solution.”

Smart, 37, a former biology teacher whose three primary age children face as little five half-days a fortnight in Aberdeenshire, said it reminded her of the SQA fiasco, when she was at Edinburgh’s Boroughmuir High School and some of her results went missing. 

She said: “Twenty years ago I was a 17-year-old feeling absolutely distraught that my whole future was about to be destroyed because of the exam crisis. It was a fiasco.

READ MORE: Former FM Jack McConnell: 'We need a second chamber to police Holyrood' 

“I shouted for myself and my friends at that time. I felt really strongly because so many were affected by it. Now, I look at kids who haven’t even had the chance to sit those exams. I can’t even imagine how they feel, because that’s their entire future. And it’s not just those sitting exams. My children are in primary school. You can’t believe how quickly they can learn. If you take three months away from that it’s a huge thing.”

She said she was sceptical about the two-metre rule, and thought teachers should get all the support they needed to do their job.

She went on: “Education is the key to everything. Countries are built on their education system. If we fail children, the effects will last for years and years. 
“It feels like they [ministers] haven’t seen this coming. Education has a huge ripple effect into all aspects of society but I feel like it’s been on the backburner.

“For me, I feel like John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy lies on this. This will be the thing that people talk about in 20 years time. Do they want to have that on them?

“It’s how we deal with these situations that shapes us a country.

“I don’t feel it was being taken seriously. I feel there’s been a turnaround, they do seem to be understanding now, but they have to get kids back into school. There is no other way to do it. 

“Move mountains – but just get them into school. The buck stops with John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon and they need to take full control.”

“Everyone knows how hard teachers are working. Most of them are parents too. I just want them to have the support they need. If they want it, they should get it, the same way as NHS staff. When there wasn’t enough PPE they got it in there. That’s how teachers should be. 

“They should be so respected just now because they’re such a valuable asset.”
“Initially with the SQA fiasco was like, ‘Oh this will be. Then as more noise was made, people realised it wasn’t fine. This was kids’ futures.  

“And when blended learning came out, it was very similar. With this 2m rule you can only have a small percentage of schooling, this is how has to be, so accept it. 
“But we haven’t accepted it and I don’t think parents will accept it.” 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “When schools reopen on August 11, we expect councils to have made arrangements that maximise the time that pupils spend having face-to-face learning safely.

“We don’t want blended learning to be in place a moment longer than is necessary, so we will be working with councils to return schools to normality as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director, said on Friday that the 2m rule would stay in Scotland for several weeks at least.  

He also told the BBC it was “too early to say for sure” if schools would be back full time by August, but it was “unlikely”.

The First Minister’s office was contacted for comment.