John Swinney has spent much of the past few weeks in TV studios foretelling the blood-curdling horrors to come if schools returned full-time in August.
Yesterday, he bobbed up at Holyrood to inform us that schools would be returning full-time in August. Imagine if Roy Scheider had announced halfway through Jaws that there had never been a shark then popped in the ocean for a quick dip. You would’ve demanded your money back.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the debating chamber, the Education Secretary pounced with a hastily arranged statement, and there was no chance of a refund here.
The Deputy First Minister had assured the country that the future was ‘blended learning’, which sounds like a hipster coffee brand favoured by student unions but is educationalist-speak for ‘one day a week in the classroom, four days a week on the PS4’.
But, in a dramatic twist, Swinney decided to redraw his policy, coincidentally after half the nation’s parents had vented their fury on social media. The parliamentary schedule was rejigged to allow him to explain this abrupt deus ex Mumsnet.
What was the best excuse he could muster? Shoulders hunched, tie slanted, eyes fixed to the script, a schoolboy called before the headmaster mumbled something about having expected the virus to be much worse. ‘Now, thankfully, the picture looks more positive,’ he strained.
On the opposition benches, they were doing some muttering of their own.
This was it? An entire civil service, special adviser and party spin operation at his disposal and he was going with ‘I didnae ken’? The dog hadn’t eaten his homework. From the sounds of it, the dog had written his homework.
There were some encouraging advances, such as the news that ministers would work with councils to find posts for qualified teachers, but the rest was disingenuous dreck. ‘The sharpness of the decline [of Covid-19] that has taken place… has surprised us,’ he burbled, standing on the very spot where his boss had been touting said decline for weeks.
Jamie Greene, the toothy Tory education chap, sunk his gnashers into this slop as though into an underdone slab of beef.
‘Parents have been scunnered by all this,’ he rasped. ‘Why did it take so much anger from parents’ to prompt this shameless volte-face? There was, he tore away, ‘a complete vacuum of leadership’.
When he’s been caught out, Swinney adopts the tone of a Victorian matron who has been falsely accused of dipping the collection plate. It was ‘a disgraceful slur’ to imply he was lax in his duty to appear before parliament, something no one had actually implied.
His dudgeon only grew higher as he seethed at the ‘fallacy’ that this statement was ‘a surprise appearance from me’. It had been announced by email exactly four hours earlier.
Labour’s Iain Gray proclaimed ‘the mother and father of all ministerial climbdowns’, adding for good measure: ‘We asked for a route map to schools reopening. It turns out we’ve been on a mystery tour.’
From the former teacher, it was the equivalent of one thousand lines and an afternoon in the dunce cap.
A succession of opposition spokespeople tried and failed to pin the minister down on the scientific advice supporting his new approach.
Where Greene and Gray had failed, ginger persevered. Ross Greer, appearing via video link from home and threatening the faintest hint of stubble, pushed the Deputy First Minister further to share with the parliament the expert advice that had informed this blackboard backtrack. Swinney undertook to continue publishing expert input, before pivoting back to our galloping advancements on coronavirus.
Oh, and in case you’re worried all that planning for ‘blended learning’ was for naught, it was in fact ‘essential preparation’ in case our lightning progress went into reverse at similarly short notice. I suppose that’s always a risk with a virus so eerily attuned to the demands of a government message grid.