Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans for all students to return in September a week after plans were leaked to the press, with key aspects being no social distancing and the introduction of accountability measures for next academic year.
The guidance asks that the return be on a full time basis and that schools should not use rotas. In order to facilitate a full time return for all students the Department for Education have advised schools to create ‘bubbles’ of groups which should not mix. It is suggested that schools use class sized bubbles in primary and year group bubbles in secondary. The guidance advises ‘social distancing where possible’ but recognises that this will not be possible for younger children.
On a positive note this recognises the need for flexibility and allows a certain amount of discretion for school leaders to do what is right for their school. However, school leaders and unions are concerned that this poses significant logistical challenges, particularly for secondary schools who will need to stagger arrivals and the end of the school day, and break and lunch times, as well as create systems for lesson changeovers. Without the freedom to offer any kind of rota, supplemented by home learning, Head Teachers are concerned that this will be incredibly difficult to implement.
The guidance recognises that the curriculum will need to be revised to cover missed content and advises prioritisation of content within subjects up to and including Key Stage 3. The guidance suggests that ‘curriculum planning should be informed by an assessment of pupils’ starting points’. It goes on to set the expectation that schools should return to their normal curriculum by summer term 2021. After media reports that the Government were going to focus on English and Maths in this guidance it is positive to see that they are encouraging a broad and balanced curriculum.
Many school leaders feel that it is too soon to dictate that the curriculum return to normal as of the summer. Different schools will have very different situations, and many are initially focusing on supporting pupil’s wellbeing through a time that has been very challenging. In Schools North East’s survey in response to the tutoring ‘catch up’ plans, almost 40% of school leaders said that they felt ‘catch up’ could take a whole academic year, while 45% believed it would take more than a year. This indicates that returning to a normal curriculum after two terms may be too soon.
Finally the guidance also advises schools to continue to build up their remote learning offering for any instances where pupils may need to be educated at home. While this is positive in theory, many North East schools have been dealing with a range of barriers to this, first and foremost being a lack of digital access. This is an underlying perennial issue which needs to be addressed to help ensure that these students have the same access and ability to learn as their peers, not only in the event of a local lockdown, but as we return to ‘normal’.
There have also been widespread national reports around lack of engagement with home learning, particularly amongst disadvantaged students. This raises the concern that school staff will be putting extra work into remote learning, alongside the strain of the return to full time teaching, with potentially little engagement and benefit from students.
Ofsted inspections will continue to be suspended through the autumn term, and are expected to be reintroduced in January 2021. For those schools due inspections, the reintroduction of high stakes accountability measures so soon will place extra burden on already strained staff, and detract from the real focus which should be the health and wellbeing of pupils and their learning.
In addition the plans to continue with standardised testing from Summer 2021 places further burden and worry on staff. While it is suggested that this will help to understand the impact of coronavirus, it is another high stakes accountability measure which will place pressure on schools to achieve rather than focusing on their students.
Head Teacher at the Federation of Mowden Schools Pete King said ‘The government doesn’t understand the implication of reintroducing school accountability measures too soon and this worries me greatly.
‘In my school every teacher has maintained good physical and mental health. We were able to reopen on June 1st and today have 190 (80% of) Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children attending as well as a further 40 key worker youngsters from other year groups. Other children are sent a daily, bespoke homework. Parents have been universally appreciative. What is the origin of this success? The relaxation of the testing regime has enabled me to focus on what is really important – maintaining the health and wellbeing of our school community.
‘By only asking staff to teach a daily English, maths and an outdoor lesson, with no performance checking, it has minimised their anxiety and helped to reassure parents of our safe provision. Reintroducing testing will adversely change the tone in schools immediately and be so counterproductive. The government must rethink its timescale on this and please, just trust us.’
Mental Health and wellbeing
It has become apparent in recent weeks that the biggest concern with a wider return to school will be the potential exacerbation of mental health and wellbeing issues that schools face. Just last week it was reported that at a school in Middlesbrough 40 students had experienced bereavements so far – well above what the school would normally deal with in a given year. In addition to this, there have been reports that students will be feeling increased stress and anxiety, that relationships may have broken down and some may have experienced trauma due to the rise in financial instability and a rise in domestic abuse.
Following Schools North East’s Healthy MindED 2020 Conference, which was attended by 1,200 North East school practitioners, it has become increasingly clear for the need to address these issues proactively, and implement a ‘recovery curriculum’ which focuses on ensuring children feel safe and are ready to learn before or alongside any intensive learning or catch up begins.
While the guidance released does acknowledge the possible mental health and behavioural issues that may arise, for many school leaders it fails to reflect the importance of addressing these. By focusing heavily on curriculum and accountability measures the guidance runs a risk of promoting a return to normal too soon, before schools, or students are ready for this.
Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East, said ‘The guidance released for September has come just over two weeks from the end of term, leaving little time for school leaders to plan the significant logistical changes that will need to take place to bring pupils back safely, alongside revising their curriculum and planning for the ‘catch up’. This increased burden on school staff who have worked tirelessly since lockdown began, will significantly impact staff wellbeing and put them at risk of burnout.
‘Furthermore the confirmation that the Department for Education will go ahead with phonics testing and SATs, as well as a full suite of GCSE and A Level assessments in the summer, puts further undue pressure on our school leaders and teaching staff. This is at a time when they need to focus first and foremost on ensuring that school is a physically and mentally safe place and helping students get to a place where they are ready to learn again.
The North East has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic as existing high levels of deprivation have been exacerbated. With many of our families facing increased financial hardship and bereavements the focus needs to be on recovery rather than testing and inspections.’