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The government mustn't ruin schools' fragile success

Paul Whiteman 1 website.jpg
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman
Schools' arrangements for this term appear to be robust. Now it's up to the government to provide the right support, says NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman


Undeniably, the return to mainstream schooling for the majority of pupils has been successfully achieved. But it is early days yet, and we should be wary of the obvious forces that could jeopardise this.

Almost all – 99.7% – of school leaders said that they were open for business at the start of term, when we asked them to complete a short survey last Friday.

Of these schools, 92% of leaders reported pupil attendance of 81 per cent or higher.

Despite the government’s U-turns and last-minute changes, school leaders and their teams have stuck to their task, and their efforts have clearly given confidence to parents and families.

It is great to see so many young people back in the classroom, with their teachers and with their friends. It’s a remarkable achievement. But, having scaled this first mountain, we can see the peaks and troughs of the landscape ahead of us. 

Prepared for closures and disruption

In England, at least, we have the advantage of seeing what’s happening in Scotland, where they are a couple of weeks ahead. We already know that what happens in Scotland can come to pass in England. Just look at how the Westminster government handled the U-turns on face coverings and GCSE and A-level results.

The rise in covid cases in Scotland since schools reopened is a flare signal that we can’t ignore. We should be prepared for closures and disruption in the rest of the UK in the coming weeks.

If this happens, we need to remember that the big calls – about closing entire schools or towns – will not be made by school leaders, but local health officials.

We have also seen that the test and trace scheme in Scotland is under extreme pressure. It already seems that this is the case in England. Tests need to be readily available for everyone so that pupils and staff who test negative can get back into school quickly.

Rock-solid judgements, on shifting ground

School leaders have a heavy burden of responsibility this term. They are working with guidance that is often not definitive, trying to find the right balance between compassion and the regulations, and having to exercise rock-solid judgement, when the ground under their feet could shift at any moment.

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.

In broad terms, schools need two other essentials. Firstly, schools must be given all the provisions and resources they need to maintain safety and support pupils and staff. 

We must have a cast-iron government guarantee that all covid-related costs incurred by schools this term will be met in full. And this should be given without further delay.

They should not try to dodge this responsibility by falsely claiming that schools have huge surpluses to draw on. Back in 2018, more than a fifth of respondents to our annual Breaking Point survey said that their budget was in deficit. Fast forward two years, and it is clear that any rainy-day money the government might think exists has long since been exhausted.

Inspection by the back door

Secondly, the government should clear out the way anything that might put the brakes on the recovery mission.

Falling squarely into this category at the moment is Ofsted. There is a very obvious and genuinely useful role that Ofsted could play this term, but sadly it has ignored the advice from the sector and chosen a different path. 

Ofsted could spend the autumn term collecting real-time information about how schools are coping with covid, and then feed this back rapidly to ministers, so that they get the most accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground. School leaders would be very happy if they did that. So would parents, I suspect.

Instead, this term there will be official visits from inspectors, using the same legal powers as a normal inspection, to gain access to a school in order to compile a public report about its performance. This is little more than inspection by the back door.

Full inspections are planned to recommence from January. This is the wrong approach.

Governing bodies and local authorities will be holding schools to account for this work. Another layer of scrutiny from Ofsted, is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it could be one of those jeopardy factors that I mentioned at the beginning.

We have a clear sight of some of the major risks to a successful term for pupils and staff. It appears that the entire education community is in agreement on what they are and what needs to happen.

While schools and colleges are playing their part, the authorities must provide the right support, and clear a path for the professionals to get the job done. 

 

This blog first appeared on the TES website.

First published 08 September 2020