Challenges ahead as Moray schools seek to shake off effects of coronavirus pandemic
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A NEW school year brings with it challenges, but as society tentatively inches it way out of pandemic restrictions this will be one like no other seen before.
Two extended lockdowns, cancelled exams, pupils and staff having to self-isolate and a reliance on online learning for much of the last year and a half have taken their toll on education and attainment.
However, education committee chairwoman Councillor Sonya Warren vowed that everyone connected to Moray's education system was determined to "do the best for every child" as schools seek to return to a greater degree of normality.
A major part of this, she said, was tailoring strategies to suit individual schools.
Councillor Warren continued: "We've got extra funding from the Scottish Government and our priority is making sure every school in Moray has got what it needs to help young people move forward.
"One size does not fit all and we've been consulting closely with schools as to how we can best help them as we begin to emerge from the pandemic restrictions. Headteachers and other professionals have been asked to identify what will best fill the gaps to meet the needs of our young people and help aid our recovery from the pandemic, getting us back to where we would usually expect to be.
"These improvement measures are being linked to current performance monitoring and I look forward seeing rising attainment across Moray's schools.
"Hopefully we'll see an end to social distancing and bubbles, with pupils allowed to move round the school in a more normal fashion.
"There are many challenges ahead, one of the biggest ones being simply getting used to a more normal learning environment and having a normal school day.
"It's important to realise that communities and families have been greatly impacted by Covid. People have lost their jobs, some having to move but many not having the normal social interactions and activities as previously. Mental health and well being is of crucial importance. There has also been extra funding for provision of services for counselling and support for young people struggling with many of the issues. Early intervention and prevention is far better than allowing issues to manifest and impact on learning and development.
"There are also non-Covid challenges, such as the extension of free school meals to P4s – we're also looking to get P5s included in that – which means a lot of changes for some schools as they get their canteens ready to cope with the extra demand."
Among the many strategies being employed across Moray are: Re-engaging with students who were most affected by school closures to promote continuity in their learning journey; Designing targeted interventions that meet learners where they are and maximise the impact of resources; Creating whole school approaches to identify gaps in learning and monitor children’s progress; Harnessing out of school skills to boost pupil's confidence and improve learning outcomes; Overcoming barriers to participation and learning.
While the scale of the task facing the teachers, pupils and the council's education team is not to be underestimated, there are many positives to take into account, Councillor Warren stated.
"There are a lot of positives to consider as we start a new school year," she continued.
"In Moray we've got a lot of new teachers coming into post, our teacher numbers are very good in general. There is the odd subject area where we're not quite there yet but overall we're in a very good position.
"Digital learning – a necessity for much of the last year and a half – has been a great success and something we'll be looking at taking forward. It has allowed young people access to a greater range of subjects than they might have otherwise had.
"We've also got the rollout of the national scheme to provide pupils with a digital device so we don't want to lose the momentum we have built up."
The easing of Covid restrictions would also be a boon to nurseries, Councillor Warren noted, allowing them to deliver the 1140 of care promised under the Scottish Government's expansion programme.
She went on to praise staff for their herculean efforts in the face of unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.
"I'd like to take the opportunity to thanks the learning and support staff for all their efforts to provide such an adaptable learning programme as we went through lockdown.
"It was a huge learning curve for everyone including the children and their families. Our education teams went above and beyond trying to engage learners with online and remote learning.
"Looking forward, its great to see how each school has identified their gaps and what would be best to support their young people and help them to flourish.
"At the end of the day, we all want to do the best we can for every child."