After nearly two months of schools in Scotland being closed, the Scottish Government have issued a formal direction, providing a legal basis for this state of affairs.
In terms of their powers to do so under Schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, Scottish Ministers have issued an Educational Continuity Direction, which came into force at 2pm on Thursday 21 May 2020.
As required by law, in making the direction Scottish Ministers a) had regard to advice regarding the coronavirus from Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer; and b) were satisfied that the direction was a “necessary and proportionate action” in relation to the continued provision of education.
Educational Continuity Direction
So, what does it do?
The Direction applies across Scotland, and to all thirty-two education authorities. There is no mention of independent or grant-aided schools, although the Act certainly allows for a direction to be issued which covers those schools (as well as further and higher education institutions).
Preparing to Re-open Schools
The direction requires education authorities to plan and prepare “for children to resume attendance at schools” – including nursery classes “at the earliest time it is safe to do so”, having regard to Scottish Government guidance. In doing so, support for children at key transition points should be prioritised.
Staff may access schools from June 2020 for the purposes of planning and preparing (including any necessary alterations to premises) for the provision of:
- learning and teaching on school premises and remotely “from August 2020”; and
- early learning and childcare (i.e. nursery provision).
The direction also requires education authorities to support in-home learning “in accordance with appropriate local arrangements”. This also applies (though perhaps to a lesser extent) to children receiving education at schools under the arrangements for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers.
Education authorities must provide education and childcare “pursuant to appropriate local arrangements” for:
- the children of key workers (including NHS and social care staff); and
- vulnerable children (including those eligible for free school meals, with complex additional support needs and at-risk children).
In doing so, the authority must have regard to relevant Scottish Government guidance.
Where the authority is unable to provide free school meals for children eligible for them, they are required to provide reasonable alternatives (e.g. other food and drink, vouchers, or cash).
In making provision or otherwise acting under this Direction, the authority must have regard to “the objective of preventing the transmission of coronavirus, to the welfare of children and young people and staff, and to the importance of continuity of education.”
The direction requires education authorities to restrict access to their schools and nurseries, except as may be required for any of the above purposes, or for:
- providing pupil estimates and grade rankings to the SQA;
- maintaining the buildings and facilities;
- using the buildings and facilities as part of the local authority’s pandemic response.
One very significant effect of the direction is that it means that any failure to comply with a duty or time limit listed below is to be disregarded “to the extent the failure would be attributable to this Direction” –
- Section 53(2) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 (free school meals – effectively replaced by the requirements outlined above)
- Section 4(1) of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 (provision for additional support needs)
- Any time limits prescribed in or under the 2004 Act (except placing request time limits, which have already been extended) – so CSPs, independent adjudication etc.
- Section 47(1) of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 (early learning and childcare)
A parental duty to comply with the duty to education your child (Section 30(1) of the 1980 Act) will be similarly disregarded.
Not that I am one for cross-border comparisons, but the position in England & Wales (as I understand it) is that the special educational needs (SEN) duties have largely been downgraded to a “reasonable endeavours” duty i.e. the LEA/school has a duty to make reasonable endeavours to make the required provision.
Here, the equivalent duty is to be disregarded entirely – although only to the extent that non-compliance was attributable to the direction itself. This is, in fact, stricter than it sounds. As the guidance note points out “That means that any failures which cannot be attributed to a Direction would continue to be treated as a failure to comply with that duty or time limit.”
Duration and Review
The direction took effect at 2pm on Thursday, 21 May 2020 and remains in force for 21 days (or until revoked – if earlier). Effectively it will be reviewed and probably amended as we go on – every 21 days. As the guidance note states: “It will be reviewed no later than 10 June, and it is expected that a further Direction will be made by 10 June to modify, replace or supplement it as appropriate.”
It does leave open the question – on what legal basis were the schools closed during the last two months, and what is the position re: the legal duties during that period?