'We can prepare to return while questioning the advice'

ACSL general secretary Geoff Barton says highly polarised debate on school reopening will get us nowhere – but teachers have every right to question the decisions being made
15th May 2020, 12:23pm


'We can prepare to return while questioning the advice'

Geoff Barton

Nobody went into teaching expecting to face a dilemma that is literally a matter of life and death.

Yet this is where we find ourselves.

On the one hand, teachers and leaders desperately want to get back into the classroom. They miss the interaction of teaching, the joy and laughter of school and college life. They crave normality. They miss the children.

On the other hand, they are worried about the risk that going back to the classroom poses to pupils, to staff and to families through the danger of infection being brought home.

Last week, I wrote in this column about the need for the government to exercise extreme caution. Already, that feels like a lifetime ago.

Since then, the government has announced that schools will reopen to children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, possibly from 1 June, and some vaguely defined "face-to-face contact" with Year 10 and Year 12 pupils from the same date.

It is fair to say that this is not what I had in mind when I advised extreme caution.

Managing any kind of social distancing, especially among the youngest of children, is going to be enormously challenging.

As the punchline to the old "Can you tell me how to get to Aberdeen?" joke goes: "Well, I wouldn't have started from here."

No easy answers

There were other ways of proceeding: bringing back the most vulnerable children - the nation's "priority pupils" - first, perhaps, or those old enough to understand social distancing, such as Year 5…and various other possibilities.

However, we are where we are. And the question now is: how do we proceed?

Do we fight tooth and nail against the government's decision? Or do we accept the government's assurances and get on with planning for reopening?

You'll have different views on this question. But here's what I think: neither position is right.

We have to avoid the trap of becoming embroiled in a polarised debate in which we are either in full-blown opposition, or being seen to meekly accept a fait accompli.

The first option makes us look as though we are dragging our feet, acting as an impediment to schools reopening; the second would be remiss of us as custodians of the safety of school and college communities.

So, what we must do is to question the scientific basis for the government's decision, and to seek assurances over how that evidence has fed into the detailed guidance it produced late on Monday - while at the same time getting on with the nitty-gritty job of thinking through with governors and trustees what reopening might look like in our own distinctive contexts.

There are many issues to be unpicked on the science.

But perhaps the most pressing is the apparent contradiction between the government's approach to reopening schools and general public health advice about limiting social interactions.

Social bubbles

The government guidance has obviously been formulated with this in mind.

It is built on a principle of having small groups of children with a teacher in "bubbles" - in order to limit the extent to which they mix with other adults and children on site.

But besides this being quite difficult to achieve in practice, we really do need to have confidence that this is sufficient to mitigate the risks.

We would like to see whether that has been modelled and, if so, what that modelling looks like.

None of this is intended to impede the reopening of schools. We would very much like to see children back in classrooms as soon as possible.

But, equally, this is not a time for blind faith. The stakes are too high for that, and it is our responsibility to ask these questions.

It is also our responsibility in the meantime to plan for schools to reopen. That is vital in ensuring that we can safely care for our pupils and staff when they return.

Under pressure

Headteachers across the country are doing that work right now, going through the government guidance and turning it into practice in the context of their classrooms, playgrounds and dining halls.

In fact, they were already doing so before the announcement was made, on the basis of their best assessment of what was coming.

This week, I have heard numerous accounts of how they are going about this most challenging, most fraught of tasks.

The examples of principled leadership, the care that is being put into this process, and the brilliant support they are receiving from many staff, is genuinely humbling.

And it's important that, amid the questions that are rightly being asked about the government's approach and the desire to make sure that all of this is based on solid ground, we don't forget to tell the story about how schools and colleges are also getting on with this job.

They've been doing this throughout the crisis. Turning around, in an incredibly short timeframe, remote learning for millions of children.

Putting on emergency provision for vulnerable and key worker children, in term and holiday periods.

Taking ownership

We need to make sure that this narrative - the one that reflects the actual reality - doesn't get subsumed in the white noise, the sound and fury, of the highly charged debate over school reopening.

So, let's ask the right questions and seek the right assurances, forensically and robustly.

But let's also be proud of the fact that we are doing the detailed planning, collectively as a profession, for the reopening of our schools.

It must be something done by us, not to us.

So, this is not a time for division.

It is a time instead, amid the biggest national crisis since the Second World War, for us to work together on behalf of the children and young people we teach, who are going to need us more than ever when these times one day pass.

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

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