NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman
It is great to see so many young people back in the classroom in England and Wales, with their teachers and friends. If lockdown has taught us anything, it is that school is the best place for young people to get their education, guided and directed by expert teachers who know them well.
Young people have missed out on too much school already and as any parent or carer will tell you, juggling home learning with home working is not sustainable for either children or adults in the long term. Keeping schools open, so long as it is safe, has to be the aim. This is the best way to make sure that pupils don't face any more disruption to their education, which has to be a priority.
From this week, school leaders are leaning into a new set of challenges to ensure that now schools are open, they stay open. With the number of cases rising, the challenge of school closures, in full or in part, is entirely foreseeable. In suspected covid-19 cases, pupils and staff need to be able to get tested and get their results quickly. Without this, we risk seeing pupils and teachers missing days of school unnecessarily.
We were told that the test-and-trace system would enable those exhibiting symptoms to be tested rapidly, and if they don't test positive that they could return to school swiftly. Instead, there are numerous cases of families unable to get a testing appointment, and when they finally get access to the online system, they are being directed to testing centres that are miles and miles away from where they live. There have been months to prepare for this and the government assured us that the system would be ready for September, but at the first sign of stress, it seems to be falling apart.
This will put at risk all of the hard work of the summer months, and it will cause uncertainty in school communities where people will understandably want to know very quickly if a suspected case is confirmed as covid-19. School leaders will be left in limbo, knowing that someone has developed covid-19 symptoms but without the clarity that a test result provides.
In the case of any outbreak, schools will work under the direction of local public health teams, who will assess the situation and advise the school on the right course of action. In most cases, the advice will be that pupils and possibly adults who have come into contact with the person with the virus should isolate. Keeping children and adults in bubbles vastly reduces the likelihood that the whole school will be impacted by limited outbreaks, hopefully meaning the isolation of a section rather than an entire school.
It is vital that we remember that if a school closes, it will be doing so at the direction of the local health team and it would be entirely wrong to criticise them for this or allege that there had been some sort of failure on the school's behalf. The failures in the system so far have been largely the responsibility of the government. School leaders will not need to be reminded of the woefully inadequate school meal voucher scheme or the delays to the supply of laptops. No one needs reminding about the 11th-hour U-turns on face coverings, GCSEs and A level results.
It is clear that we can ill afford any more last-minute changes or further muddled thinking from the government. And yet there are gaping holes in the strategy for the coming year. For instance, no one can say for certain whether exams and assessments will be conducted as usual but we have begun the year without any contingencies in place. The hard thinking necessary to come up with a contingency has barely begun, when in fact guidance ought to have been published weeks ago.
Just because exams aren't in the calendar until next summer, it would be a terrible mistake to think that we have until then to prepare. If we end up needing to use teacher evaluations of pupil performance to help generate grades again, schools and colleges will have to have suitable arrangements in their timetables from this term onwards.
The government is also stalling on fully funding all the covid-secure measures it expects schools to take. Having mandated a complex series of arrangements, which require extra cleaning and other measures, school leaders are astonished that these requirements are not being funded in full by the government. I suspect parents would be astonished too.
Instead, schools are having to raid already threadbare budgets. Schools will not cut corners where safety is concerned, but they may have to pull back on other areas to make sure they have enough to spend on covid-secure measures. The government could do a lot of good here by taking that uncertainty off the table, but instead, it is obfuscating and using incorrect data to claim that schools already have plenty in their coffers.
In key areas, the government is well behind where it needs to be in terms of its thinking, planning and delivery. Having made robust arrangements of their own, the very least that school leaders should expect is that the provisions put in place by local and national government are equally robust and will stand up to the inevitable stress test that the autumn term will present.
This blog was first published on The Guardian's website.
First published 10 September 2020