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Covid in Scotland: Talks held over extending Christmas holidays

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media captionSchool holiday Christmas decision will be reached "as soon as we can"

Discussions have been taking place about whether the Christmas school holidays could be extended in Scotland.

It has been suggested that the dates could be standardised across the country, with all schools closing on 18 December and reopening on 11 January.

Holiday dates vary between different council areas, with most schools due to return between the 5 and 7 January.

The proposal is designed to limit the spread of Covid after families get together for Christmas.

The issue was discussed at the Scottish government's education recovery group, but no decisions have yet been made.

The group brings together a number of stakeholders in the education sector, including unions, councils and the government.

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A document from Thursday's meeting was leaked to the Daily Record newspaper.

The memo says the government is considering a national extension to the holidays, with schools either remaining closed or introducing remote learning for a temporary period.

At the daily briefing, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said the Scottish government was very conscious that parents, teachers and pupils wanted to know what was going to happen.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionThe length of Christmas holidays is being discussed by the education recovery group

"We will make sure that we reach a view based on the advice from that expert recovery group, and make sure that we reach a view as soon as we can so that people do have advance notice," she said.

"We want to give people as much notice as possible if there is to be any change at all, but at this point that decision hasn't been reached."

Ms Freeman said it would be wrong to "overly speculate or jump to conclusions" just because they were looking at the issue.

"The deputy first minister (John Swinney) and his colleagues will be working through what they think is the best way for schools to enter the Christmas break and come out of the Christmas break - and that applies to colleges and universities as well," she added.

There are a number of important issues to be discussed about changing the holiday dates.

First of all parents will want clarity - changes to the dates could mean people having to arrange childcare or take time off work.

Secondly, if schools return a few days later than planned in January, some secondary schools may want to change prelim dates.

Thirdly, councils are protective of their role in the education system. They would want to ensure any standardisation of dates in an emergency does not set a precedent.

And there is, of course, also the question of whether an extended school holiday would by itself make any meaningful difference to the efforts to control coronavirus.

The BBC understands councils will discuss the matter again on Friday.

It is expected that the education recovery group will meet on Wednesday to discuss the potential impact on exams, and that a decision could be made on the holiday extension next week.

While many schools are already due to close on 18 December, others are set to remain open until 23 December. The dates for returning to school in January also vary.

The memo says that extending the holidays would act as a break following the relaxation of rules over the festive period.

However, concerns are raised over the time needed to set up the remote learning, and the potential impact caused by the loss of emergency childcare which had previously been provided by school staff.

image copyrightPA Media

School holidays have traditionally varied in different council areas across Scotland, but the start of the autumn term was standardised in August as schools reopened for the first time since March.

Scottish Greens co-leader Alison Johnstone told the BBC's daily briefing programme that parents and pupils needed clarity on extending the Christmas school holidays.

"We have learned about this today through a leak to a newspaper so I think transparency and clarity are key here," she said.

The Scottish Conservatives' education spokesman Jamie Greene said any further "watering down" of pupils' time in class would need to be "properly catered for at home".

He added: "Every child should have access to proper IT equipment and learning materials to ensure they don't fall behind with their studies."

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