THERE’S no doubt that the pandemic and home learning have been a huge challenge for young people, teachers and parents. Trying to balance the social and educational needs of pupils with the overriding need to keep them, school staff and the wider community safe during a pandemic isn’t easy.

Some parents and carers have even given up their job to concentrate on home-schooling their children, a choice no-one should have to make.

Meanwhile, the pressures placed on an already short-staffed and overworked teaching profession have been immense, forcing many to their breaking point.

Scottish Greens have been clear throughout the pandemic that the safety of pupils and school staff has to come first. I’m confident this is a position most people agree with. We saw the consequences of adequate safety measures not being taken when schools returned last August. The impossibility of social-distancing in a full classroom resulted in tens of thousands of pupils and staff having to self-isolate on a weekly basis. Some missed as many as eight weeks of the August-December term.

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Green proposals for safer schools were agreed by Parliament in November and we’ve since seen movement from the Government to deliver at least some of what we put forward – ie, £45 million to hire additional teachers or support staff and as of this month, the introduction of regular voluntary testing for staff and senior pupils.

The First Minister has made clear that a full return of schools is her top priority. We agree.

To do that whilst avoiding the disruption we saw last term requires not only additional safety measures in schools, it also needs some clear decisions on the next phase of vaccine roll-out. The guidance is clear that once the clinically prioritised – ie, older people and vulnerable groups, have been vaccinated, prioritisation should take occupations into account.

If the Government (rightly) wants to prioritise schools, vaccinating the staff who allow those schools to function must also be prioritised.

This past year has shone a light on the strengths and weaknesses of Scottish education. But as the lines between home and school life blur, it’s clear than closing the attainment gap between those from the most and least privileged background cannot be done through education alone.

The Scottish Government was already on track to miss its own child poverty targets before Covid-19 arrived. Now the situation is even more desperate. Child poverty is eradicated through better paying jobs, warmer and more affordable homes and a strong safety net.

That’s why the Scottish Greens are pushing the Government in the budget process to do more to protect household incomes and stop more children falling into poverty. For example, the SNP have announced extending free school meals as their major election promise, but families cannot wait. We need to expand free school meals now. There is more we can do within the education system itself, of course.

I agree with the Mental Health Foundation, which says now is not the time to pile more academic pressure on young people. But, despite our curriculum supposedly placing the wellbeing of young people front and centre, academic pressure is still the name of the game when it comes to our qualifications system. Not only is this unhealthy and unhelpful for young people, it restricts teachers’ ability to use their own professional judgement or tailor their teaching to meet individual pupil needs.

When last year’s exams were cancelled and instead a system of teacher judgements was introduced, those judgements were undermined by an SQA moderation system which actually marked pupils down based on what school they went to. This directly discriminated against working-class young people.

I warned this was going to happen for months, and fortunately, due to the SNP minority government’s reliance on Green votes, we forced a reversal and restoration of all 124,565 lowered grades.

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The idea that our young people’s achievements were to be reduced to a statistical average reveals a problem at the heart of Scottish education though. No wonder confidence in the SQA, our exams body, is at rock bottom.

It’s quite clear that exams bosses don’t trust teachers or respect Parliament, feelings which are most certainly mutual. Their “we know best” attitude and lack of basic transparency during last year’s fiasco demonstrated this.

The lack of any meaningful oversight from the SQA management board has forced me to write to the Education Secretary to seek their resignations and replacement.

Only two of 11 board members are registered teachers. At present, there are more management consultants than educators.

What I’ve proposed instead is a board led by those qualified in and directly impacted by education. For a start, a majority of board members should be qualified teachers or lecturers. Spaces should also be reserved for those representing young people, parents/carers and others.

This change is vital but it would be just a first step in building back a better education system from this crisis, one that secures a healthy and happy future for all of Scotland’s young people.