Government owes our pupils a plan - so where is it?

Children and young people are looking to us, says ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton. We owe it to them to act jointly and decisively
12th June 2020, 7:16pm


Government owes our pupils a plan - so where is it?
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This was the week when the mood music on bringing more pupils back to school changed decisively.

It already seems like a lifetime ago that the airwaves were full of people warning that the government was going too far, too fast, that its plans were risky.

Then, on Tuesday, sneaked out to selected media overnight, and later announced by education secretary Gavin Williamson in the House of Commons, came the news that the government had abandoned its plans for the full reopening of primaries for a month before summer.

Cue a chorus of disapproval, from such luminaries as Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, Education Commons Select Committee chair Robert Halfon, and a volley of media commentators.

Rather than being too far, too fast, the government had, they declared, not gone fast enough, or far, enough.

In the middle of all this sound and fury, many teachers will have felt like piggy-in-the-middle, one week being told that caution is the watchword, and the next that we are being too timid.

What should we make of this?

A game of numbers

The root cause of the problem is that the proudly proclaimed plan to fully reopen primary schools before the end of the summer term was undeliverable by the rules set by the government itself - that is with class sizes of no more than 15 and no use of daily or weekly rotas.

That was obvious to everybody within education from the moment that it was announced. So, in truth, there was always bound to be a climbdown, and thus it came to pass.

And that climbdown has left a gaping hole without any sign of a plan B. This is really a reflection of the absence of a comprehensive strategy for the recovery of education, of the lack of a national ambition for children and young people.

The search for solutions

As various commentators have said, if the problem is one of capacity, what about the idea of commandeering church halls, community centres, and so on?

What about encouraging back qualified teachers who have left the profession to help out?

How can it be, they say, that we can reopen zoos, but we cannot reopen schools? Surely, some creative solutions, some ideas, some determination, some national gusto are all that is needed here.

Pulling together

This is obviously not in the power of schools working on their own. It needs a joined-up plan with national government and local authorities too.

And what this week has really exposed is the fact that this just hasn’t happened. No such joint approach exists, no such plan exists. There is a vacuum at the heart of government policy.

But, frankly, we are really not in the business of a blame game. Plenty of other people are doing that already. These are extraordinary times and what is done is done.

Recovery plan

What is now important is that we put together such a joint approach, and develop a national plan for the recovery of education, and that we do that right now.

Time is very short if we are to have any chance of extending the provision this term beyond the eligible age groups which have already been identified, even if that is no more than a check-in session with a teacher for each pupil to assess their wellbeing, review their learning, and to turbo-charge curriculum plans.

Opening up other community facilities, and bringing in former teachers to help out is a huge logistical exercise. I don’t know if it is even possible in the next few weeks, to be honest, given the need for safeguarding checks and risk assessments.

But one thing is for sure, if we don’t try, and we don’t do that immediately, it certainly won’t happen at all.

And then there is the question of what happens in the longer term.

Plans need goals

This isn’t an issue for another day, it is one for right now. Because we need to be able to plan what timetables look like in September, what is safe and what is not safe.

We need to know what next year’s exams and assessment will look like, so that we are able to support our pupils accordingly - the very Year 10 and 12 pupils who may begin to re-engage in person with their teachers next week.

We need to know what exactly is the much-discussed idea of a summer catch-up programme - who would provide this, how it would be funded and resourced, and, most importantly, how it would reach the children who most need that support?

We need to have some sense of what a further, structured catch-up plan might look like from September. For example, extra funding through the pupil premium to facilitate more targeted support where it is needed.

Then there is the issue of free school meals for struggling families through the summer holidays. Surely, as others have pointed out, it is a no-brainer.  We may not provide free school meals to deserving children in normal times, but these times are anything but normal.

The time to do all this is with us now. It needs to start next week.

Time to initiate a national mission

But it is only the government that can convene this joint approach. It is its responsibility to marshal its resources, agencies, and the goodwill of all of us, via the education secretary, to initiate a national mission on behalf of the nation’s children. We mustn’t look back and lament that we lacked ambition on their behalf.

ASCL’s mission statement is to “speak on behalf of members and act on behalf of children and young people”. Those children and young people, plus their parents, look to us now.

They need to see us act.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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