SCHOOLS must balance the risk from the coronavirus with the harm caused by poor education, head teachers said this week.
Schools across the country have been making costly preparations to receive children when term starts next week. Measures include temporary classrooms and extra equipment, together with complicated timetabling and new cleaning regimes. Some are expecting to introduce face masks.
The deputy chief education officer for the Church of England, Andy Wolfe, is sure that getting children back to school is the right move. “We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly at primary level, have been set back the most by not being in school, which is one of the reasons we have consistently said that the safest place for all children this term is in school.”
Mr Wolfe acknowledged continuing anxiety about safety. “It will be key for schools to maintain their dialogue with parents to address and resolve any particular concerns. Schools locally are best placed to do this. The situation around GCSE, A-level, and vocational qualification results has been very challenging, and has risked diverting school leaders’ time and attention away from the reopening of schools next week — which must now be our priority to ensure that attainment gaps and risks to student well-being are minimised.”
In an interview at the weekend with Radio 4, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is the lead bishop for education, said that schools needed to make their own choices about keeping people safe, and that it was impossible to do “detailed guidance from the centre” for every school.
The Government faced criticism earlier this month for saying that it might allow parents to be fined if they did not send their children back in September. This week, more than 250 psychiatrists wrote to the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, to say that truancy fines would have a negative impact on pupils feeling anxious about returning to school during the pandemic.
Research released this week by the YMCA suggests that, while 92 per cent of young people have missed face-to-face engagement, 63 per cent worry about maintaining social distancing at school. More than half (56 per cent) are worried about falling behind because of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the row about the algorithm used initially to calculate this summer’s A-level results, with the result that many university applicants lost their places, was followed by the resignation on Tuesday of the chief regulator of Ofqual, Sally Collier.
And the Government abandoned its guidance that children should not wear face coverings in school, in line with advice issued last week by the World Health Organization, which said that children aged 12 and over should wear a mask, particularly if a one-metre distancing could not be guaranteed.
Head teachers in English schools will have discretion over rules on face masks, while the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland have recommended that pupils wear masks in the communal areas of secondary schools. The Welsh government is currently reviewing its advice.
The Diocese of Salisbury Academy Trust oversees 18 primary schools in Wiltshire with 500 pupils. Its chief executive, Mark Lacey, said that staff and pupils were ready to go back in September, but that this had involved a “very thorough and detailed risk assessment”.
“The children will be operating and working in ‘bubbles’, with social mixing kept to a minimum. We have also rearranged the staff rooms in order to protect our staff. We can foresee additional costs if we have to bring in extra teachers if our own staff fall ill and have to isolate. . .
“A major source of anxiety is knowing the state of our finances because of the crisis. There will be additional costs from extra cleaning as well from the use of signage and barriers to manage social distancing, which could run into tens of thousands of pounds.”
He also said, however, that “safety and well-being are paramount. Our teachers are naturally anxious at the moment. They want to help children catch up by adapting and tailoring the curriculum. We really value the support of the whole community, and we have had a real sense of positivity from parents as well.”
Rather than fine families that withhold their children, he said, the schools would be “looking to work with them to give them the confidence to get them back to school. It takes time, and families deserve that space.”
The head teacher of Patterdale C of E Primary School, in Cumbria, Liz Stewart, said that returning pupils would be encouraged to keep social mixing to a minimum. “We have completely moved the nursery to its own bubble; so now we have three instead of two. We have a rather complicated timetable that has been constructed to make sure that all staff get breaks and a place to go for that.
“As yet, we haven’t calculated the total cost of all the work we have done — but it is considerable, the biggest outlay being the purchase of 36 laptops and the cost of configuring them to our network. Alongside this are all the products and cleaning equipment and the staff costs that will be involved in extra cleaning.
“The government view on fining children is a very tricky one; we need to really know each child’s circumstances — their own, and the immediate members of their family. Being a very small school generally means that we do know and can act according to that, but the Government itself states that this is a last resort, and, for us, that will certainly be the case.”
The head teacher of St Peter’s C of E Primary School, Smithills Dean, in Bolton, Matt Harding, said that the school was planning to adhere closely to government guidelines: “This includes keeping children in bubbles that won’t mix; staggered start and end times of the day so parents aren’t gathering, and staggered lunch times and break times to avoid mixing; desks facing forwards where possible; and an enhanced cleaning regime. Children will sanitise regularly, too.
“A huge focus will be on the children’s mental health and well-being, and settling them back into school, as many children will have been away from us for six months. We are not planning to drop subjects, as children will continue to need a broad and balanced curriculum. We will increase interventions in maths and English to plug any gaps, however.”
The head teacher of Highgate School, in London, Adam Pettitt, said: “The main requirement of the Department for Education’s guidance for school reopening is to keep pupils in separate ‘bubbles’, and, especially with older children and adults, maintain social distancing as far as possible.
“There are many other protective measures and risk controls in place, from spacing templates around school, with staff and older pupils wearing masks to and from lessons, and when moving around the school. We will be working together to keep everyone as safe as possible.”
He continued: “What worries me is the effect this may have had on A-level students who were nervous about applying to university in the first place. It’s a big move to apply to university if your older siblings or your parents haven’t been; this results crisis may have dealt a devastating blow to the work in schools and colleges to widen participation in higher education among the most disadvantaged students.”
The chaplain of St Gabriel’s College, Camberwell, in London, the Revd Sebastian Harries, said that pupils at the school would be in “three different learning communities, which they don’t mix outside of. All the existing students will know the people in their community pretty well, and stay in one classroom rather than moving around the building. The idea is that the teachers will go to them, and, if someone falls ill, only one part of the school would need to isolate.”
The school estimates that sanitising the equipment, getting PPE and additional staff, and putting in place enhanced cleaning protocols would eventually represent a one-time cost of £3000, plus another £2500 per month as a recurring expense.
But there were wider questions on pupils’ well-being which needed to be addressed, he said. “How, as a school, do we take care of one another? A lot of the kids in our community in Camberwell are from vulnerable backgrounds. We’re concerned that people won’t be at the levels they might be expected to be; it’s therefore a question of how to get people up to scratch and get them the education they deserve, but also how to make up for the lack of interaction they have had with their peers. Many people have been cooped up and confined for months with no vast green spaces.
“We have pastoral teams that work closely with families; we have very good attendance; but, for schools across south London, it can sometimes be a struggle.”
The principal of St Gabriel’s, Nick Butler, also remarked on the Government’s proposals on truancy fines: “In practice, it is impossible to take legal action against parents for attendance issues without the support of the local authority; so we’ll wait to see what Lambeth’s attitude is.
“The trickier issue is whether we continue to set work online for students who are refusing to attend school. If we do this, then we are being complicit with their unauthorised attendance, and we are giving them no incentive to attend.
“On the other hand, if we don’t set them work online, then their education suffers, and we are getting into a stand-off with their parents. We’ll probably circumvent this by saying that, from now on, all lesson resources should be posted online so students who are absent have access to them, and, also, they will be available for revision purposes. However, teachers will not be required to do any additional work on the resources to accommodate non-attending students.”