In BBC Scotland’s campaigning material on the re-opening of Scotland’s schools in August which it issued (21 June) via the ‘Scotland’ page of the BBC News website, we find it again seeking to squeeze a big deal out of terminology as BBC Scotland’s Glenn Campbell attempted on 20 June.
The 21 June article – at the very end – refers to the FM and her recent statements (with my emphasis):
‘On Wednesday the first minister appeared to adjust her stance on the blended learning model – now labelling the idea a “contingency”. Nicola Sturgeon said her government would “move heaven and earth” to get schools “back to normal as quickly as possible”.
Speaking at first minister’s questions, Ms Sturgeon said: “The approach that we have decided that we must have in place as a contingency, with blended learning, is exactly what the United Kingdom government is doing for England and what the Welsh government is doing for Wales”.’
Recall BBC Scotland’s Glenn Campbell ‘cleverly’ writing about contingency and default position on 20 June.
He adds: “Within a few days, the first minister described this “blended learning” approach as a “contingency” and said she’d move heaven and earth to reopen Scotland, especially schools. In effect, the default became the back up plan.”
So, is the FM (just) confirming she has a contingency plan in the event that the default position is the position we actually find ourselves having to deal with? And if so, is that no more or less than we should expect? What am I missing here?
Campbell goes on: “In the middle of a pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon cannot and has not guaranteed schools will be back 100% after the summer holidays and that there will be no remote learning. But it seems to me, that outcome – or something close to it – is now the goal.”
Let’s try and unpick this some more.
Identifying a ‘default position’
This is from The Herald on 23 December 2018:
Headline: ’No-deal Brexit ‘default position’ if no alternative deal works, says Leadsom’
‘The Brexiteer Commons Leader warned politicians lining up to block efforts to take the UK out of the EU in March without an alternative no-deal was the “legal default position”.’
In essence, if nothing else is changed, if nothing more is achieved in the interim, then what happens is the ‘default’ – in this case, a no deal Brexit. It’s a simple statement of fact. It may not be the goal (although for some Tories it could well be!) but absent any change, it is what will occur.
So the Scottish Government having a ‘default position’ described in terms of ‘blended learning’ and part-time attendance in the school building is eminently clear. As things stand, and absent any change in predictions concerning the course of the epidemic, and subject to the actual situation regarding Covid-19 between now and August, the default position for education is as described – albeit with important national and local detail still being worked through.
What other ‘default position’ could there be? It’s hard to credit that any sensible person – even a BBC political journalist – could conceive right at this point in time of the ‘default position’ for Scotland’s schools this August to be the ’normal’! Return to ‘normal’ would require a number of things to happen, to be achieved, all of which are surrounded at present by inevitable uncertainty (as Mr Campbell acknowledges). Holding ‘normal’ to be desirable – to be an objective alongside but dependent upon further suppression of the virus – does not contradict having a ‘default position’ that is different from the ‘normal’. It is inevitable.
Taking a more precautionary stance and being for example pessimistic about general compliance with public health guidance, one could well make the case for the ‘default position’ in August being the continued closure of schools i.e. the status quo. The FM is being more confident in the measures being taken to control the virus: if that confidence grows based on new evidence then the definition the ‘default position’ looking forwards, logically, changes too.
About a contingency
This is from The Herald on 18 December, 2018: ‘A Scottish Conservative MP has said contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit should have started immediately after the vote in 2016.’
So here we have a call from a Tory for a contingency plan specifically for a default position identified by another Tory! For once, Tories are being completely logical and consistent – albeit within their ‘wrongness’ IMHO!
In basic terms a ‘contingency plan’ seeks to answer three questions:
- What could happen?
- What will we do in response?
- What can we do in advance to prepare?
Well, the ‘default position’ might well have to come to pass! So surprise, surprise, the Scottish Government is talking about contingency planning for the default position. Just like the Tory example above, this is completely logical and sensible. There is no contradiction here.
Talking about contingency planning in a given context does not necessarily – not by itself – indicate a shift away from what is deemed to be the ‘default position’. The latter is one, but a very particular one, of various possible scenarios for which sensible organisations develop contingency plans.
However, in the real world that confronts governments, the likelihood of something impactful occurring – whether good or bad – needs to be kept under review as the evidence base evolves over time. The nature of the ‘default position’ – what will occur if nothing else of relevance changes – may evolve too and the set of measures to cope will also need to evolve and keep pace.