Distance learning: Anger grows over Western Isles program

More than 150 people have signed a petition amid growing anger over distance learning plans at high schools in the Western Isles.

The scheme – which union leaders say is being rolled out without real consultation – aims to give S4-6 students the chance to take digital and hybrid lessons through the e-Sgoil platform.

However, there is concern that this may not necessarily be under the supervision of a licensed teacher.

The plan was outlined in a letter sent to parents and guardians on March 28. Education bosses have suggested it will help bolster the subject options available and address the supply problem at educational institutions where small class sizes typically create course sustainability issues.

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It is expected that the arrangement will be achieved through the harmonization of subject choice forms and timetables across the four secondary schools in the Western Isles.

But the local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has expressed a range of concerns, in particular over a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document which claims that pupils “will benefit from learning models digital and hybrid” with “an adult” present in the room during online lessons.

A statement read: “As a local association, we have always insisted that a registered teacher must be responsible in the host school for all online learning.

“This document suggests that ‘an adult’ (any adult?) will be in charge of junior classes and that senior students may be completely unsupervised.

“We have significant health and safety and child protection concerns regarding this aspect of the proposal. There is a complete disregard for statutory responsibilities and duties to students as well as a serious undermining of the role of licensed professional teachers.

The statement also criticizes the suggestion that “small groups of learners should be permanently online for certain classes”. He adds: “Online learning can be implemented in appropriate collaboration and according to the professional judgment of early grade teachers without it having to be the de facto arrangement.

“Instructional approaches should be determined by teaching staff, not staffing calculations.”

Signatures poured in after an online petition by EIS members protesting the plans was published. At press time yesterday, 152 people had added their names.

Members of local associations have said they want the status quo to remain until clarification of the proposals is provided and an agreement is reached.

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The row has erupted as evidence mounts that remote and hybrid learning approaches are becoming more firmly entrenched in the wake of Covid.

In a recent example, a review of Scotland’s Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) found that Advanced Higher’s online opportunities were extensive in a number of local authority areas.

Its authors noted that the Tayside RIC, which covers Angus, Dundee City and Perth & Kinross councils, had set up a virtual campus offering a range of courses via digital technology. The development meant that in 2021/22 all year 12 students could access advanced higher courses in IT, French and Spanish “using fully distance learning”. The offer included occasional live sessions and group or individual tutorials.

The review found the advanced online courses were also being tested by the South West Education Improvement Collaborative, which includes Dumfries & Galloway Council and local authorities in East, North and South Ayrshire.

The Western Isles Council did not respond to a request for comment on the petition from IST members.

Council leader Roddie Mackay said recently that the authority discussed the changes and publicly accepted them. A spokesperson for the council also pointed out that the headteachers and parents’ councils of the four secondary schools had been consulted.

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