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The government’s plan for a full return to schools in September

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

Today the government has published its long-awaited plan for getting all pupils back to school in September.  

This is perhaps the most significant moment for schools since lockdown first began at the end of March.  

At the end of last week, we heard the secretary of state suggesting that the government’s plan would involve an expansion of group or ‘bubble’ sizes. So, it is not a surprise that this is the overarching principle at the heart of the latest guidance (see the guidance for special schools and other specialist settings here and the guidance for early years and childcare providers here) What may come as a surprise is the flexibility to have groups as large as an entire year group.  

Of course, you will now want to read through the document carefully and consider what this will mean in practice for your school. Clearly, the guidance creates a wide range of significant logistical challenges for schools. While many of you will have become used to thinking about things such as staggered starts and more frequent cleaning, doing this with a full school of pupils is a very different proposition.  

Since Gavin Williamson suggested that the approach would be based on an expansion of group sizes, many of you have sent in specific questions about this. We have been putting them to the Department for Education in our conversations with them. While the guidance addresses a number of them, I do not doubt that you will have additional questions. As before, we will endeavour to get answers to these for you as soon as we can.  

We are particularly concerned about the challenge this plan will pose for secondary schools. Staggered start times and lunch breaks, avoiding busy lesson changeovers and the need for increased cleaning routines undoubtedly add layers of logistical complexity. They could also require significant changes to a secondary school’s timetable, which would represent a significant undertaking in the limited time available. We will, therefore, want to hear from our secondary members about your views of the plan shared with us all today.  

It is important to remember that we are still two months away from the start of the autumn term, and we have already seen how quickly things can change. In just the last few days, we have seen the imposition of a new localised lockdown in Leicester. While no one can predict with certainty how the virus will play out (either locally or nationally) over the next few months, we have been clear that the government needs to have a plan B if the public health data suggests that it cannot proceed with its preferred approach, or when the seemingly inevitable localised lockdowns occur.  

Sadly, it is highly likely that in the coming days you will see further headlines suggesting that teaching unions are trying to somehow ‘sabotage’ the government’s plans for September. I want to be clear that NAHT has never sought to be unreasonably obstructive, and we will not hesitate in working to create the best conditions possible for schools to be able to welcome pupils back in the autumn term. However, we also have a duty to point out the inadequacies in the guidance and seek the changes necessary to support you in planning.  

We accept that there is no risk-free approach, but the government must not be reckless.  

All of us recognise the impact that five months out of school will have had on all pupils, and there is not a leader in the land who doesn’t hope to see all their pupils walking back through the school gates in September.  

While our immediate attention will be drawn to the measures that schools must implement for September, towards the end of the document there is quite a bit of additional information relating to a whole range of issues from Ofsted through to remote learning. At first glance, there is some welcome news, for example, no return to formal inspections in the autumn term.  Other aspects cause us concern. These include the expectations around remote learning and precisely what form the ‘informal’ discussions with Ofsted will take. There is also no decision about performance data in 2021, and we will continue to press for performance tables to be frozen again next year. We are particularly concerned about the line suggesting the government has no current plans to reimburse schools for the additional costs they will face next term – we will, of course, challenge this robustly. 

We will continue to discuss all of these issues and others with the government and seek clarity ahead of September.  

In recent days, there has been speculation that the government might tell schools to narrow their curriculum and focus wholly or predominately on English and maths. We have been relentless in making the case to the government that it would be a grave mistake to do so. We are pleased, therefore, to see confirmed that schools can continue to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum from September.  

As you would expect, we will now continue to press for transparency in regards to the scientific data, particularly in relation to our older students, and the information the government is using to underpin these crucial decisions.

First published 02 July 2020