The number of pupils undertaking courses on a completely remote basis is set to grow thanks to regional bodies that were created to boost Scottish education.

Experts hope the shift will increase subject choice for those in the upper stages of secondary school.

Change is being driven by the country's Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs). They aim to pool the resources of neighbouring councils, standards agency Education Scotland and other organisations so staff can learn about what works best.

Underpinning their activity was a key goal of the draft reform Bill brought forward by former education secretary John Swinney. However, his plans were scrapped following a failure to secure backing from rival parties at Holyrood.

Mr Swinney also argued at the time that school improvements meant legislation was no longer necessary.

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Now a major review – commissioned jointly by the Scottish Government and council umbrella body Cosla - claims there has been “real progress” since RICs were established in their current form in early 2018.

It underlines a “high level of confidence” in the bodies in terms of “governance, structures and plans”, and adds that they have "become established within the education system”.

The review also emphasises their role in developing online and remote learning tools after schools were closed to combat the spread of Covid-19. Significantly, it highlights signs that this work has continued to expand and is becoming embedded.

HeraldScotland: Former education secretary John Swinney.Former education secretary John Swinney.

In one example, the Tayside RIC, which covers Angus, Dundee City and Perth & Kinross councils, has set up a virtual campus offering a range of courses online. The development means that, during 2021/22, all senior pupils can access Advanced Highers in computing, French and Spanish "using entirely remote learning”. The offer includes occasional live sessions and some group or one-to-one tutorials.

Online Advanced Highers are 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.   

Meanwhile, Edinburgh University students have helped deliver remote learning assistance to senior phase pupils through the TutorEd programme. Twelve schools participated in the first pilot and the South East Improvement Collaborative plans to continue it over the next academic year.

The latest developments come after Maureen McKenna, Glasgow Council’s soon-to-retire executive director of education, said blended and online learning would have a permanent role following the Covid-19 lockdown.

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Speaking to The Herald earlier this year, she underlined the example set by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Advanced Higher Hub, describing it as one service that could be “extended” to include regular digital sessions on a continuing basis.

“I think we could extend the reach of that by having some of their lessons online so they would be able to have more in a class,” Ms McKenna said.

“So, for example, I want to do Advanced Higher Physics but there’s only me in my school who wants to do Advanced Higher Physics, so there’s no chance of the school being able to afford to put on a class just for me. I could go to the school down the road, but they’re not doing it either.

“So a few years ago we set up [the Hub] and they come from all over the city... They’ll go there from three until six [but] it’s been online this year. That I could see changing and becoming, you’re only in twice a week and, once a week, it’s an online lesson.”

HeraldScotland: Maureen McKenna said there would be a long-term role for blended and online learning in the wake of Covid-19.Maureen McKenna said there would be a long-term role for blended and online learning in the wake of Covid-19.

However, Ms McKenna stressed there were limits to the use of remote or blended learning. She also said getting children back into classrooms following pandemic-related closures had been a “critical” priority.

The latest RICs review – which involved interviews with staff from 50 schools – paints a broadly positive picture.

It says there is evidence that the bodies are having an impact in areas such as staff skills, lesson delivery, assessment and moderation, leadership, improvement planning, and inter-council collaboration.

However, the review did point to areas of concern. For example, fewer staff thought the RIC helped them to share data between schools. Some indicated more could be done to build confidence around the use of data, analysis and research across the primary and secondary sectors.

And, while ministers committed around £21 million in additional funding support between 2018/19 and 2021/22, there is a feeling that longer-term financing would allow the RICs to be more strategic and ambitious.

The review adds: “Stakeholders felt that the policy direction around RICs so far had been clear, but it was important to have clarity on the future, including confirmation of how RICs fit into the education system in Scotland as broad changes are being made.”