Cllr Shona Haslam is the Leader of the Scottish Borders Council
It’s back to school in Scotland and for thousands of pupils (and parents) it has been a looooong summer…
Local councils have been planning for two different scenarios. The first: “blended learning” with a combination of in-school and home learning, using technology. The second: a full return with Covid measures in place. The Scottish Government told us that they would announce which model we were to go for, and Covid containment measures, on 30th of July. The Government also announced that pupils were to return to school on 11th August, which was a week before we had planned to bring our pupils back in my local authority.
This gave us 12 days in which to put everything in place that was required. It was a mammoth task.
In the Borders we have 16,000 pupils, 68 schools, and 2,500 staff. All of our schools had to be risk assessed, one way systems put in place, additional cleaners and cleaning measures implemented, additional cleaning materials purchased (including wipes for every classroom and pupil), extra ventilation measures etc etc.
The Scottish Borders is a rural authority, almost half of our pupils travel by bus to school; this was a major headache for our school transport teams. Again the guidance from the Government came out on 30 July: buses were to be viewed as an extension of the school estate and therefore users would not need to wear masks or socially distance. However, we also have children who use normal service buses for transport to school. We have had to commandeer these buses for schools transport and take them out of service. Windows have to be open all the time, fine in August but what happens in January in Scotland? We had to turn around bus passes for all the children in record quick time with staff working solidly for 12 days in order to get everyone the information that they needed.
Our poor children who were going into their first years of primary and secondary had missed out on any transition and were obviously worried – and the poor parents were only getting information days (and in some cases hours) before the kids were returning to school.
And none of this is cheap: our antibacterial wipes bill for next year is £2.5 million and we are a relatively small authority. The strain on local council budgets as a result of Covid cannot be underestimated. Just to put this into context: in the Borders, a one per cent Council Tax rise generates £500,000 of income. So the wipes bill alone would require a five per cent Council Tax hike. Governments must step up and help local authorities cover the full cost of our Covid responsibilities, so that we are not forced to push the costs onto taxpayers.
But, we did it. All of our kids returned successfully on Tuesday morning at 8.45 and in the words of the first year in my house, “secondary school is awesome”. We do have to remember that our kids are resilient and will get through this and often it is the parents who are more anxious than the children.
So here is my advice for our English neighbours as they return to school. Make sure you get more than 12 days notice of what measures are required. Get information out to parents as quickly and as simply as possible. Five emails on five topics are better than one long email with lots of information. Work with all of your staff, teachers, cleaners, support staff they are all important. In Scotland our support staff felt ignored as the Government only spoke to teachers unions and not our support staff. Reassure parents as much as possible but don’t make false promises. There will be Covid outbreaks, be clear how you will handle them when they do happen. And finally show your working. Be clear how you came to decisions that you have come to and be as transparent as possible.