The journal of Campaign for State Education

COVID19 – KEEPING SCHOOLS OPEN

By Tom Mann, Head of Inclusion at Kingsbury High School, Brent

Having been a teacher for just over 30 years, I cannot recall a more difficult and confusing time for the profession.  The re-opening of schools was a particularly stressful event for Headteachers and senior colleagues.  Central government excused itself from giving anything but the vaguest of leads on the grounds that individual contexts required individual responses.  This abdication of responsibility obliged school leaders to make difficult decisions about public health without providing them with the necessary training or guidance. This has led to schools, often in similar circumstances, adopting different approaches to such issues as the wearing of masks, the size and maintenance of “bubbles” and the adoption of hygiene measures, the costs of which have been an additional problem because of falling income from lettings and other sources of finance.

Some schools have made the use of masks compulsory outside of the classroom since September; some are only just implementing this policy; there have been different policies for the use of laptops by staff; staggered starts and finishes have been introduced in some schools but not in others, and different schools have implemented different policies for the deployment of support staff.  These are just a few examples of the inconsistencies that have resulted from lack of any central guidance.  

Although it is clear by now that limiting contacts with others and upholding high levels of hygiene are key to minimising infection, neither of these are in real evidence in schools at the moment. Class sizes remain high, masks are not worn in class and, although hand-washing stations are plentiful and their use is enjoined, it is not clear that children are washing their hands often enough.  Between lessons and during breaks corridors remain busy and there are no checks on what students do immediately on leaving school.

Ministers have often said that young people are much less vulnerable to this virus than adults. This certainly seems to be true of children of primary school age, among whom hospitalisation is very rare.  However, there is increasing evidence of older students becoming ill more often and more severely.  Most research has been carried out in the primary age group and there appears to be no clear idea of how the virus affects secondary students, with one study claiming that adolescents are just as contagious as adults.  In the present state of knowledge, schools clearly should err on the side of caution because young people can pass the virus on to those more vulnerable to the illness, especially in multi-generational households or more crowded accommodation.  How do we then limit these risks? The current lack of national leadership is deafening, as if the less it is talked about the less it is an issue.

As well as a lack of leadership there is also a serious lack of money.  The government has made it clear that it intends schools to remain open even if everything else has been shut down but it has not put in place the necessary additional finance.  The government's original promise to equip schools with large numbers of laptops to enable deprived children to receive online teaching has never been properly delivered and schools have now been informed that the numbers originally promised have been cut by 80%.  The money allocated to enable pupils who have fallen behind to catch up through additional teaching has not been allocated to schools but to private tutoring organisations, who will charge fees to deliver to schools and who are not required to employ qualified teachers.  The new money announced before the pandemic will largely be spent on increases in teachers' salaries: very welcome but not going to recompense schools and colleges for the work needed to make them safe during the pandemic.  As Geoff Barton of ASCL succinctly puts it: ‘It is a moral duty of the government to support schools’.

Vulnerable staff have rightly been instructed to work from home and this, along with the absence of staff who are self-isolating or ill, is creating a crisis of cover. Keeping “bubbles” secure means that staff need to be brought in to teach rather than bubbles mixed to enable all students to receive lessons. This cost is borne by schools out of their current budgets.

In spite of government pronouncements, exams may again be impossible to enact safely this summer but there does not seem to be any “plan B”.  As a result, schools appear to be deciding the issue themselves with 'more important' mock exams around Christmas (without the necessary catch-up it could be argued) and assessments in class being taken more seriously to enable better predictions of potential qualifications.  This means that, although teachers are now being trusted more to assess student progress and to predict outcomes, this trust is being given by default, rather than by design, and is not being backed up by any programme of professional training. Our students may well again be left with a poorly thought through second option that does not treat everyone equally but leaves some young people disadvantaged.

My suggestions for improving upon this situation would include the following:

  1. More funding for schools so that staffing levels can be kept up, “bubble” sizes reduced and better hygiene measures introduced.
  2. The development of a centralised education task-force, with regional representation,  to advise and support school leaders and staff as to the best protections they can put in place, both within schools and during journeys to and from schools.  This task force could also assist in deciding and supporting the best way to spend the money made available to schools.  If this is not possible, there needs to be at the very least an easily accessible and properly resourced advice centre for school leaders.
  3. The development of a programme of teacher assessed grades and assessments that are moderated and supported by exam boards so that schools can more effectively predict academic outcomes if examinations cannot be sat.
  4. The allocation from central government of ring-fenced “catch-up” money.     

Conference Report: “Education – Things must change!

Our guest speakers were Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union and Melissa Benn: Journalist, campaigner and author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service (August 2020).

A full report can be seen here.

IN THIS ISSUE

* AGM/ Conference report

* Covid19 - Keeping Schools Open