Everyone will be back at school – or will they?

So, the Scottish Government has spoken, and it looks like it will be everyone back in our schools from 11th August.  I have a question that has been nagging at me all during the lockdown and consequent school closures.  Will everyone, in fact, be back in the secondaries?   I ask this question after many years of experience as a secondary Head Teacher but more particularly because of the role that I discharged for 5 years up till last May in Newlands Junior College(NJC).

NJC was set up to cater for a niche group; a clientele that was drawn from the young people in the Southside of Glasgow who had disengaged, or were disengaging, from local authority secondary schools.  NJC took a different approach based on building positive relationships, developing skills, a significant vocational input and business partnerships.  It was extremely successful, over the 5 years of its existence, with 100% of graduates going into positive destinations in jobs or FE places.  We built up significant expertise in working with our client group.

Our young people were a disparate group of individuals with individual needs, aspirations and challenges.  They had one thing in common though.  While local authority secondary schooling suits the vast majority of young people, our client group found that its inflexibility did not suit them.  They did not like it, so they stopped attending regularly or completely.

I am concerned that many young people who were actively disengaging, or heading that way, will not return in a couple of weeks.  Even if they had sporadic attendance at school, that habit will be broken and, not going to school, reinforced by almost 5 months absence.  They will have found other things to do with their time; things that they find more entertaining than school.  Likely, they will be short on the concept of deferred gratification; in other words, apply yourself at school now to set up a positive future at some seemingly distant time.  It is also likely that already they will have been losers in a Post Code Lottery where disengagement is infinitely more likely in young people coming from areas in SIMD 1.   That’s where the majority of NJC students lived.

I feel for my colleagues in schools who will be faced with huge health, safety and wellbeing concerns.  They will have the additional stress of innumerable plates to spin as schools return.  The cry will be for catch up and to concentrate on the content required for SQA 21; to re-establish that which has been lost during the Covid-19 close down and over the summer; to emotionally support young people whose families and friends have been struck by the virus and those who are anxious about time lost at school.  All of this is quite understandable.

However, somewhere in there should come the question, “What about John in S2 that we didn’t used to see much but who hasn’t attended at all since the return.”  Where will that come in the list of priorities for people who will be stressed and stretched beyond belief?  What price narrowing the attainment gap as far as these young people are concerned?

I worry that I know the answers to these questions …

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