Government needs to wake up to the reality in schools

Schools need help to mitigate staff absence and learning loss – and fast, argues Jon Severs
14th January 2022, 3:42pm

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Government needs to wake up to the reality in schools

https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/general/government-needs-wake-reality-schools
Strain
Jon Severs

"We're just trying to keep things going," one head of early years told me this week, as she juggled the management of 45 four- and five-year-olds queuing in the playground. "But the thing is, there aren't many of us left to keep it going."

As the country has remained focussed on Downing Street's party-gate and the ins and outs of Novak Djokovic's attempts to play tennis in Australia, schools have slowly been taken to the brink of collapse. It has been a long two years of trying to maintain educational provision with very little government support and too many challenges. Post-Christmas, things were supposed to be better, but Omicron determined another bleak midwinter.

It's possible to see schools as the victims of circumstance - that the issues they face are unavoidable. In some regard, the path of Covid has been difficult to predict and, particularly at the start, possible "right" answers were multiple and "wrong" answers were largely unknown.

But we're coming up to the point where we have been doing this for 24 months: when it comes to education, the challenges and the natural solutions are out in the open.

Access to Covid tests

Testing is a good example. A Sutton Trust report published on Friday shows just how little the situation in schools seems to be understood by the government. Heads and teachers are reporting soaring levels of staff absence, but a huge part of the problem appears to be access to testing. One in 12 (8 per cent) of the teachers surveyed said that colleagues had been unable to go into school last week because of a lack of Covid tests. 

Why do schools not have the tests they need? The government may point to attempts to mitigate staff absence as a defence.

For example, they launched a campaign to draft in teacher reservists (ie, retired teachers). This looked doomed to fail from the start: the older you are, the more vulnerable to Covid you become, and so the retired population of teachers likely eyed the poorly ventilated classrooms and unmasked masses of pupils and thought better of it. Certainly, an "influx" of just 485 teachers so far suggests that is the case.

The government's guidance on coping with staff absence, including combining classes, was also a little patronising and unlikely to have a significant impact. As one head of Year 11 told me last week: "Do they not think necessity has meant that we have been doing all this for quite some time already? We're doing all that yet we're still sending year groups home."

Mitigation that may work - and that has been called for - is better ventilation. The government claims its 8,000 air purifiers and hundreds of thousands of CO2 monitors are doing the job. Schools who have yet to see either, and those schools who are lucky enough to have both of these elusive tools, seem in agreement they are not enough to make a difference.

Misunderstanding schools

These are just a few examples of how detached the government has become. It is all very well prioritising face-to-face education, but you only achieve that if you prioritise the mechanisms, tools and resources to make that possible. That's been the case since March 2019 and it is still the case now. Yet, this is either being willingly ignored or completely misunderstood.

What's even more concerning is that these problems won't disappear when cases decrease. The government has shown a huge lack of awareness around the catch-up needs of schools. The data we have - and more was added again this week from the government itself - demonstrates that we do have a problem with the gap between those attaining at expected levels and those not being wider than it was pre-pandemic. There is also clearly a substantial increase in pastoral concerns.

The sector has consistently said that tutoring - at least in the guise the government has rolled it out - is not helping with these problems. The take-up figures - just 15 per cent of the expected target for the year - tell their own story. And yet, this is the only real help on offer.

The result of all this is that the profession is being left with unattainable targets in delivering education and closing the covid gap, and a feeling of abandonment - it's clear this is all being left to heads and teachers to sort out, but their hands are tied behind their backs. That's simply not sustainable.

"It's so sad, Jon," the head of early years said to me, as she led children through the broken door of the school building. "I'm not sure how much longer we can keep this up."

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