The EIS trade union - representing teachers - is stepping up its campaign against Comhairle nan Eilean Siar plans to teach a wider range of subjects at Western Isles secondary schools by sharing classes using the nationally-acclaimed E-Sgoil system.
Under E-sgoil, experienced locally-based teachers have for years been giving classes that are accessed remotely in schools across Scotland and this became of even greater significance during the pandemic years.
E-sgoil is an initiative created by the education department in Stornoway and run from the Western Isles with a base in Francis Street, Stornoway in a former building of The Nicolson Institute. It is organised as a virtual school with a designated Head teacher and has been nationally recognised for its pioneering work in this field.
EIS refers to E-sgoil simply as "an online learning platform."
EIS says that using this way of teaching and learning is causing great concern over "the health and safety of pupils, learning and teaching practices, child protection, and staff terms and conditions."
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar says: "The matter of establishing timetable harmonisation for secondary schools in the Western Isles, particularly within the Senior Phase, was presented to Council on several occasions in 2019 and were agreed unanimously by members each time.
"The changes proposed in these reports to Council were established as part of an independent review that already took place, with a focus on reviewing our delivery of the secondary curriculum to ensure the best outcomes for learners.
"The aspiration for the harmonisation of timetables and maximisation of efficient learning through both face-to-face and digital teaching is to provide the broadest and most equitable choices for our young people, wherever they happen to live in the islands."
The aim is to make a greater range of subjects available to secondary pupils in the smaller secondary schools by enabling them to share classes taught in other schools - and it also enables teachers to stay living in smaller communities and allowing their classes to be reach a far wider audience of pupils.
CnES says: "We also have a duty to equip young people to learn effectively in the connected and digital world of the 21st century and this includes supporting them to access and participate in learning through digital and remote means.
"This aspiration for equity of availability of subjects also encompasses access to more applied learning and Gaelic-related courses that help to meet our own local economic priorities and support our young people to live, learn and work locally. It also provides significantly greater opportunity to work with partner providers such as UHI or SDS to support delivery of courses.
"Remaining wedded to heavily restrictive systems that limit choice and stifle opportunities for independent and collaborative learning fail to equip our young people in our most rural communities and creates a financially unsustainable structure for the delivery of education that also risks poorer outcomes for our learners."
To make this work between schools, timetables have to be co-ordinated in order that pupils can attend the classes in different locations at the same time.
EIS is demanding that CNES "consults with staff via their trade unions, parent councils, pupils and communities over proposed changes to secondary school timetables. The ‘harmonisation’ of timetables across the four secondary schools would also see e-Sgoil, an online learning platform, introduced in every subject choice column."
CnES says: "Since the decision to proceed with curriculum redesign and timetable harmonisation was taken in late 2019, the staff of the ES&CS department and the HTs of our schools have been working to deliver on that vision.
"This has involved discussion and consultation with staff, learners, parents and Parent Councils in the intervening period and this latest element of the process forms part of that agreed delivery approach."
In an earlier media release EIS said: "Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is trying to use the pre-election period to implement sweeping changes to the learning and teaching practices in the authority’s secondary schools without consulting staff, parents or pupils."
CnES say: "It is not new and is not being rapidly pushed through during the election period; it is, rather, the culmination of nearly three years work and the next step in the gradual movement towards full implementation. The timing of the current exercise is dictated by the typical secondary subject choice process that runs between February and May annually."
The EIS repeats this week that none of this is true. It is calling "on the Comhairle to use the appropriate consultation and negotiation forums in order that we get the best outcome for our learners – not the cheapest. We want transparency over decision-making with effective consultation processes used, a guarantee that face-to-face teaching will be the primary method of teaching and that a GTCS registered teacher will be in any classroom. It is unacceptable that the Comhairle have sent the subject choices on to pupils without clear subject provision being provided and without consulting with staff.”
CnES says: "It has also been asserted that this approach is driven by an intention to cut or reduce staffing in rural schools. The truth of the work already undertaken on this in the last three years is that our overall staffing complement has grown through the ability for staff to live locally but teach efficiently to both face-to-face and remote classes.
"Without this approach, these jobs would not exist and the work of the individuals and contribution to our local economy would have been lost. Rather than cutting teacher posts, this initiative is intended to create capacity to meet learner needs and to timetable efficiently to allow us to retain teachers, not lose them, whilst responsibly managing public funds and allocated budgets.
"In terms of comments relating to remote delivery and supervision of learners, it must be clarified that all learning is delivered by properly registered and qualified subject-specialist teachers, be that face-to-face or remotely, as is already common practice in delivery of digital learning nationally. Where a lesson is being taught remotely by a teacher, an appropriate adult will be available to provide supervision."
And CnES adds: "Teachers working between face-to-face and online delivery is also not new or representative of a major shift in practice or terms and conditions of employment. Many of our staff and that of other authorities already work in this way and these approaches are becoming increasingly commonplace across Scotland. The inclusion of training for remote and online delivery forming part of Initial Teacher Education nationally is indicative of this growing practice.
"An important element of our own work over the last three years has been in the provision of training and support for teachers to equip them to deliver lessons confidently online, which many now do."
But EIS Local Association Secretary, Karen Graham, said, “We are asking members of the community to read our statement of concerns on the EIS website and to sign this petition ‘Public Support face-to-face teaching from professionally registered teachers’ calling on the Comhairle to use the appropriate consultation and negotiation forums in order that we get the best outcome for our learners – not the cheapest.
"We want transparency over decision-making with effective consultation processes used, a guarantee that face-to-face teaching will be the primary method of teaching and that a GTCS registered teacher will be in any classroom. It is unacceptable that the Comhairle have sent the subject choices on to pupils without clear subject provision being provided and without consulting with staff.”