Relief as Government’s Step 4 plans to remove bubbles in schools

9th July 2021

The Secretary of State for Education has announced the removal of bubbles in schools as part of their step 4 plan which is intended to begin on 19th July. It looks likely that this will be sustained for the new school year as the narrative of “no going back” is being pushed from the Prime Minister and the new Health Secretary.

This announcement comes following the release of figures showing increases in the number of pupils absent due to Covid.

Schools across England are enduring massive and increasing disruption caused by Covid-related absences. Official statistics show that the main reason for this is self-isolation due to contact with a potential case of coronavirus inside the school. On 1 July, 6.3% of pupils were absent for this reason, up from 3.8% on 24 June.

Last week, we surveyed schools in the North East, and while the majority of schools had above 90% pupil attendance, over 40% of schools had attendance below this, and a quarter were below 80%. Over a third of schools reported staffing levels as below 90%. This disruption is negatively impacting on education for our region’s young people, and also increasing staff workload as schools manage bubble closures and cover for staff absences.

The relaxing of rules in schools as part of Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown is welcome as a means to reduce continued disruption caused by the pandemic to children and young people’s education. Additionally, staff workload will be reduced with responsibility for contact tracing moving from schools to NHS test and trace. Flexibility has also been included to ensure that where necessary, restrictions can be brought back in to deal with local outbreaks.

We heard from school leaders in the North East this week and their reactions to this announcement:

“I have just been to tell the children doing sport in the hall that they are bubble free when they come back in September, they whooped and had pure joy on their faces’ that says it all.” Dame Nicola Stephenson, CEO, Valour Multi Academy Trust

“Welcome the scrapping of bubbles. This enables the children to have a full and settled education, parents to be able to work and generally get some semblance of normality.” Kate Chisholm, Head Teacher, Skerne Park Academy

“The overwhelming feeling is one of relief – children will be able to work in table groups again, play outside with friends from other classes, work with children of different ages from across school. However, to avoid transmission of the virus in school, I think everyone is going to have to change their mindset. In the past we as parents might have sent our child to school to ‘see how you get on’ if they were feeling under the weather in the morning, whereas in future we are going to have to say: let’s stay home today and see how this develops. This will require schools to be able to offer remote learning quickly on first day of absence and for employers to enable parents to work from home if children are unwell, to avoid the spread in school.” John Hardy OBE, Head Teacher, St John Vianney RC Primary School (Hartlepool)

“I think the new proposals were inevitable given the extremely high number of children self-isolating and the negative impact on schools, staffing levels and working parents. The high levels of student absence from school has had an adverse effect on educational continuity and stability just at a time when students have sorely needed that. Whilst I am pleased that we have some firm proposals in place there is still much that is required in terms of additional detail, which will be required to convince colleagues and parents that this is appropriate and considered action.” Kieran McGrane, Head Teacher, Ponteland High School

While these new measures are encouraging, it is frustrating that this guidance and clarity has come so late in the academic year. This follows a promise from the DfE to give schools more notice when making major announcements, which would allow for schools to have sufficient time to put plans into place.

The Department for Education has also announced that all secondary school pupils should receive 2 on-site lateral flow device tests, 3 to 5 days apart, on their return in the autumn term. School staff, especially school leaders, have struggled to have a real break from work throughout most of the pandemic. As such, it is concerning that schools will be expected to take on this major logistical challenge immediately after the summer holidays. This may mean that once again school staff will not be able to have the much needed break over the summer which they have not had since the winter holidays in 2019.

In November, Schools North East had written to the Secretary of State, calling on him to prioritise school staff in the vaccination programme, which may have enabled schools to remain more stably operational. The fast tracking of teachers being vaccinated would have taken immense pressure off schools as they went in to the summer holidays.

Schools now need the support and recognition for the hard work they are continuing to do, and while today’s announcements will help ensure greater stability for staff and students, it is disappointing that the Department for Education is not maintaining more effective communication with schools.