Back to school: The 6 key changes in DfE guidance

The new DfE guidance for schools is much the same as in the autumn term – but here Tes looks at the main changes
22nd February 2021, 6:39pm
Dan Worth


Back to school: The 6 key changes in DfE guidance
Schools Reopening: How To Focus On Wellbeing To Help Pupils Settle Back Into School Life

The Department for Education has unveiled new guidance for schools as part of the plan to reopen all settings on 8 March.

Much of this is the same as how schools were operating during the autumn term, before the current lockdown, and applies across primary schools; secondary schools (including sixth forms); special schools; special post-16 providers and alternative provision; 16 to 19 academies; infant, junior, middle and upper schools; and boarding schools.

There are no new legal obligations created by the guidance.

However, there are six areas highlighted by the DfE in its guidance as having changed. They are as follows:

  • The use of face coverings in classrooms for secondary-age students and staff.
  • Mandatory attendance expectations in different school phases.
  • Current expectations for clinically extremely vulnerable pupils and staff.
  • Curriculum expectations.
  • Elective home education.
  •  Exams

Here we provide a summary of the details for each of these areas in the guidance 

1. All secondary-age students and staff must wear masks in classrooms

Perhaps the most notable change is that secondary students and teachers must now wear masks in classrooms.

The guidance also says they should be worn "during activities unless social distancing can be maintained" - without specifying what those activities are.

However, one area where masks do not need to be worn is PE lessons, as the guidance states face masks do not need to be worn if they "would impact on the ability to take part in exercise or strenuous activity, for example in PE lessons".

The government says this measure will be in place until Easter so will realistically only be in place at first for around three weeks. "As with all measures, we will keep it under review and update guidance at that point."

There are exemptions to the new requirement for students and staff who:

  • "Cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical impairment or disability, illness or mental health difficulties
  • Speak to or provide help to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate  
  • Rely on visual signals for communication, or communicate with or provide support to such individuals."

Transparent face coverings, "which may assist communication with someone who relies on lip-reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate", are allowed, with the government noting that while there is limited evidence on their effectiveness, they would be better than no mask.

However, face visors or shields should not be worn as an alternative to face coverings, the guidance says.

For primary schools, the guidance says it is "recommend that face coverings should be worn by staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible (for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas)."

Children in primary school do not need to wear face coverings.

2, Mandatory attendance 

Attendance back in school is now mandatory across all phases - and the usual rules on school attendance apply, including:

  • Parents' duty to secure their child's regular attendance at school (where the child is a registered pupil at school and they are of compulsory school age).
  • The ability to issue sanctions, including fixed penalty notices in line with local authorities' codes of conduct.

However, pupils who are classified as extremely vulnerable and therefore shielding are still exempt, but schools can request a copy of the shielding letter sent to these at-risk pupils to confirm they are not required in school.

The guidance also notes that many pupils and/or families may be wary about returning due to risks to family members, but the DfE insists this not a legitimate reason not to attend.

"Discuss any concerns with parents and provide reassurance on the measures you are putting in place to reduce any risks. Remind parents that pupils of compulsory school age must be in school unless a statutory reason applies," the guidance states.

Alternative provision settings - including AP academies, PRUs, AP free schools and independent AP schools - must also have full attendance in line with usual health and safety requirements.

3. Current expectations for clinically extremely vulnerable pupils and staff

As noted above, vulnerable pupils are not required to attend school and can shield at home until further notice.

Schools are still required to provide remote education to pupils who are unable to attend school and their absence from school will not be penalised.

For staff who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV), they do not have to attend work and should have a letter from the NHS or the GP confirming this - with no new letter required to prove this if one is already held on file.

Schools should continue to pay CEV staff and discuss how best to support them, including working from home where possible, too.

Even if CEV staff have received a vaccination, they should continue to shield as in line with government policy until further information is provided.

4. Curriculum expectations

The guidance makes two overarching points on curriculum delivery - cited in full as follows:

  • "Education is not optional. All pupils receive a high-quality education that promotes their development and equips them with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.
  • The curriculum remains broad and ambitious. All pupils continue to be taught a wide range of subjects, maintaining their choices for further study and employment."

For each stage this includes:

EYFS: The guidance acknowledges that some delivery may be affected by coronavirus restrictions but otherwise says settings can consider focusing on communication and language; personal, social and emotional development; and physical development.

Reception: Teachers are urged to address gaps in "language, early reading and mathematics" and ensure a focus on "acquisition of phonic knowledge and extending their vocabulary". Outdoor education opportunities should also be given a focus.

Key stage 1 and 2: Schools must "prioritise identifying gaps and re-establishing good progress in the essentials (phonics and reading, increasing vocabulary, writing and mathematics), identifying opportunities across the curriculum so they read widely, and developing their knowledge and vocabulary."

The guidance also says the curriculum must be broad, too, so that "the majority of pupils are taught a full range of subjects over the year, including sciences, humanities, music and the arts, physical education and sport, religious education and, at key stage 2, languages".

Key stage 3: For those starting secondary school, there is a requirement to "consider whether any modification to your curriculum offer is needed to address the most significant gaps in English and mathematics".

Beyond that, schools are also urged to ensure a full range of subjects over the year, including sciences, languages, humanities, music and the arts, physical education and sport, religious education and citizenship.

Key stage 4 and 5: The guidance says students in Years 10 and 11 are "expected to continue to study mandatory non-examination subjects like PE, alongside their examination (teacher-assessment) subjects

It suggests that while students in Years 12 and 13 are more likely to undertake self-directed study, they should be supported throughout and that removing subject options to study should be used rarely: "Discontinuing a subject is likely to significantly limit choices for further study and employment, so is expected to be rare."

Relationships, sex and health education (RSHE)

Schools are also reminded of their obligations to teach "some relationships, sex and health education [RSHE] to all secondary-age pupils in the academic year 2020 to 2021, and to provide some relationships and health education to all primary-age pupils".

However, the guidance acknowledges that schools may wish to amend how they deliver this in light of the shortened school year: "You may choose to focus this year's RSHE teaching on the immediate needs of your pupils, such as health education, introducing a more comprehensive RSHE programme in September 2021."

Furthermore, consultation with parents on relationships and sex education (RSE) teaching specifically can be carried out online and does not require any in-person meetings.

Music, dance, drama and sport

Schools are told they "should continue teaching music, dance and drama as part of your school curriculum, especially as this builds pupils' confidence and supports their wellbeing", although there are numerous caveats around this, such as ideally holding events outdoors and socially distant and reducing the use of shared items.

Sporting activities can also take place but they should ideally be held "outdoors where possible, and large indoor spaces used where it is not, maximising natural ventilation flows (through opening windows and doors or using air-conditioning systems wherever possible), distancing between pupils, and paying scrupulous attention to cleaning and hygiene".

Team sports matches against other schools cannot take place until grassroots sports are permitted to return.

5. Elective home education

Schools are told they should "encourage parents to send their children to school, particularly those who are vulnerable" but also remember that elective home education does not necessarily put children at greater risk of harm to being in school.

The guidance reminds schools that any concerns over a parent homeschooling their pupils should be followed up via the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), who can consider making a referral to the local authority in line with existing procedures.

"This should happen as soon as you become aware of a parent's intention, or decision, to home-educate."

6.  Exams

The guidance notes that exams will not be taking place this summer and instead students will receive teacher-assessed grades.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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