Ministers have failed to grasp the opportunity to drive education recovery in the wake of Covid-19, according to union bosses.

The criticisms come after the Government published a strategy document that sets out measures it will be taking to assist learning.

These include recruiting 3,500 additional teachers and 500 support staff over the current parliamentary term, expanding free early years education to all 1 and 2-year-olds, and provision of £15 million in 2021/22 to underpin community-based mental health and wellbeing services.

As well as confirming that £1 billion will be committed to tackling the poverty-related attainment gap, the report, which is called Education Recovery: Key Actions and Next Steps, outlines plans for an overhaul of the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC).

READ MORE: CBI Scotland policy chief in call for assessment overhaul

The SAC aims to improve learning outcomes for pupils living in deprived areas. However, an Audit Scotland report published earlier this year warned that national progress towards closing the equity gap was not consistent, with indicators at some councils deteriorating.

The Government report states: “Taking account of evidence from the national Equity Audit and other sources which clearly highlight the particularly significant impact of Covid-19 on those living in poverty, the programme will remain focused on delivering additional targeted support to these learners.

“To support a greater focus on local approaches and address aspects of unacceptable variation we will introduce a more streamlined accountability framework across all local authorities, with clear links to the National Improvement Framework to support accelerated progress in closing the poverty related attainment gap. We aim to launch this new iteration of the SAC in Autumn 2021 to allow schools and local authorities to prepare for implementation from Spring 2022."

Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville welcomed the new document and said: “Other initiatives will play a crucial role, such as the provision of free school breakfasts and lunches all year round for all children in P1-7, digital devices for every child, abolition of fees for instrumental music tuition, removal of core curriculum charges, and our extended early learning and childcare offer.

“Pupils sitting exams in spring 2022 will be offered a package of support, which will include online revision classes and targeted help for those who need it most. At the heart of all of this is our children and young people, who we will ensure have the opportunities they need to fulfil their potential in school and beyond.”

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville welcomed the Covid recovery plan.Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville welcomed the Covid recovery plan.

However, EIS leaders said the plan appeared mostly to be a restatement of existing commitments. They added that it failed to promote a “single big initiative” that could bring "immediate" improvement.

Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, insisted Scotland should be “bolder” in charting the way forward.

“Clearly, there are significant elements within the plan to be welcomed – not least the commitment to increasing teacher numbers, the creation of more permanent posts to tackle the scandal of 10 per cent of current teaching posts being temporary, and the reduction in class contact time to 21 hours,” he said.

“Overall, however, the plan largely restates existing workstreams and fails to promote a single big initiative such as a reduction in class sizes, which would catalyse an education recovery programme and bring immediate benefits to Scotland’s children and young people.”

He added: “Smaller class sizes, even on a limited basis as a starting point, such as P2 and P3 or S1 and S2, would mean more teacher time per pupil and assist with targeted interventions where the pandemic has impacted disproportionately on children’s lives.

“As a country, we need to be bolder in our ambitions for our youth.”

READ MORE: Scottish councils’ education record under fire

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said: “The education recovery strategy largely restates existing plans and policies. While there are some potentially helpful additional programmes and ideas, these seem at best to be bolt-ons to a pre-pandemic policy framework."

He added: “Recovery needs to be understood as a long-term process given the pandemic’s far-reaching effects, but this strategy fails to set out a holistic post-pandemic vision which would support children in all aspects of their lives, not just within formal education.”  

The union criticisms were echoed by Scottish Conservative Shadow Education Secretary Oliver Mundell, who said: “A plan hurriedly cobbled together of failed promises ahead of the Cabinet Secretary’s delayed appearance in front of the Education Committee... will fool no one.

“By trying to blame the effects of the pandemic, the SNP are in denial of reality.  While the pandemic has created added pressure for our schools, our wider education system has been in decline for years under the SNP’s watch."

HeraldScotland: Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT's general secretary, said the new recovery plan fell short. Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT's general secretary, said the new recovery plan fell short.

Willie Rennie, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “This is the same old, same old plans reheated by an SNP government that has lost its way on education. The poverty related attainment gap is as wide as ever and the SNP have run out of ideas on how to close it.  

“The pandemic hit young people hard so you would expect the government to step up the support rather than just repackaging the same policies in a shiny new document.”

Release of the Government’s learning recovery plan comes after two major education reports were published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The first – entitled Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future – led to an announcement that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) would be replaced, with standards body Education Scotland set to lose its inspection role. The second, by Professor Gordon Stobart, describes alternative approaches that could help diversify and modernise upper secondary school assessment.   

The Government intends to outline this month how it will take forward a "whole system response" to the OECD's recommendations and the Stobart paper.