The Scottish Government has confirmed plans to launch a National Digital Academy, which will allow learners to access the full Highers curriculum, regardless of age, school or location.

The virtual school, which was first set out in the SNP’s manifesto, promises to “remove barriers to education” by ending the “postcode lottery” of subject choice, and enable people to study for their Highers whilst also being in work, or fulfilling caring commitments.

The new programme for government, unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon last week, said that “scoping work” will be carried out in the coming year to support the academy’s design.

According to a Scottish Government spokesperson, the National Digital Academy will “build on learning from the pandemic, including the National eLearning Offer which built on the Glow and eSgoil programmes”. However, development is “at an early stage”.

The National eLearning Offer, launched in response to the public health crisis and delivered by Education Scotland, Stornoway-based remote learning facility e-Sgoil and online video resource bank West OS, complements the delivery of lessons in schools.

The Scottish Government spokesperson added: “Over the coming year we will engage with young people in particular to understand fully how remote learning has worked for them over the pandemic and how it can support their on-going learning.

“A number of colleges already offer SCQF level 6 courses and qualifications (including Highers) remotely and work will take place to understand how these already support the provision of courses outside traditional education settings.”

The news has been welcomed on social media. Andy McLaughlin, a learning development officer, tweeted: “Currently involved in scoping exercise for local digital school to support equity of opportunity, so I am eager to watch a similar process unfold for a National Digital Academy as outlined in the Programme for Government. Well done @eSgoil/@west_os for starting us off.”

Education expert Keir Bloomer, chairman of the Commission on School Reform, believes the new academy represents an example of “building on the pandemic experience”.

He said: “It would appear to be limited to offering Highers, but this is a perfectly reasonable first step… It is to be hoped that the academy will not simply be a deliverer of online courses but will offer other kinds of support such as face-to-face tutoring.”

But he is frustrated by what he sees as the government’s slow pace of action when it comes to equality of subject choice.

“It is strange that the [SNP’s] manifesto refers to a ‘postcode lottery of subject choice’, given that the government has been in power for 14 years and has presided over the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), including its implementation in S4-6. If there is, indeed, a postcode lottery, responsibility would seem to lie with the flawed implementation of CfE.  

“However, the idea of providing a mechanism that will make it possible for people to study for Highers while also being at work or having caring responsibilities is sound. It could, therefore, remove some of the barriers to accessing education. The establishment of the academy will represent an innovation. It will thus go some way to realising the Commission’s desire for a greater emphasis on innovation and diversity.”