Kate Parker and Grainne Hallahan

Back to school: what teachers need to know

With all the talk centring on Covid, staff have likely missed key updates to government guidance on safeguarding and primary reading, as well as proposed changes to exams. So, as the start of term approaches, Kate Parker and Grainne Hallahan have put together this list of everything school leaders need in order to be fully prepared for the new school year

Back to school toolkit: What teachers need to know in terms of updated government guidance

There was a point during the pandemic when announcements and guidance changes were being sent out by the government to schools on an almost weekly basis. Even in the ‘quieter’ times, there seemed to be a rush of modifications and tweaks schools had to accommodate. It would be unsurprising, therefore, if some of the non-Covid changes to policy got lost in the maelstrom or were parked to be looked at later.. But there is a lot of crucial information that all members of staff will need to be on top of as schools return, from a brand-new Keeping children safe in education (KCSIE) document to updates around how reading should be taught at primary, and proposed changes to GCSE and A-level exams.

So, what are the essentials that every teacher needs to know? Ahead of the start of term, we’ve pulled together a toolkit covering the most important things to think about for the 2021-22 academic year.

New primary reading framework

At first glance, The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy appears prescriptive, including specific instructions, such as teaching phonics for an hour a day by the end of Reception, not asking children to put their hands up and ensuring books – not props – are the focus of book corners. Other changes include:

  • Having a poetry list per year group.
  • Ensuring non-fiction books are given more weight.
  • Avoiding using water or paint trays as they “hinder learning”.
  • Delaying the teaching of cursive writing.

However, Emma Train, head of English and specialist leader of education at Hollymount School in Worcester, says that the document actually aligns well with new early years foundation stage guidance and the Ofsted framework. “If you’re an effective school, you’ll be doing most of these things already,” she says.

Schools that will see the biggest change are those currently using the Letters and Sounds resources, says Train, as there is new guidance specifically about this.

“You can still use Letters and Sounds as long as it meets the requirements of an effective programme, as laid out in the framework. This means some teachers will have to do a lot of alterations,” Train explains.

“The guidance talks about fidelity to one programme and not mixing materials from multiple programmes. Schools will either need to choose a new programme or justify the positive impact Letters and Sounds has.”

Ultimately, the focus is on purposeful teaching and giving children time to practise while sitting at a table with a pen and paper, she adds.

“Teaching activities done alongside phonics will need to be really precise and prescriptive. The framework says children are falling behind because they’re not having enough practice time or are doing learning activities which are not effective,” explains Train.

Megan Dixon, director of research at the Holy Catholic Family Multi-Academy Trust, says leaders should also be prepared for the changes to be reflected in any new Ofsted documentation.

“Schools that have phonics screening check scores of lower than 95 per cent should use the framework to revisit their provision across the school,” she says. “Middle leaders should consider a whole-school strategic response to teaching literacy, followed by operational guidelines that support all school leaders.”

In classrooms, teachers will need to be more focused on keeping up rather than catching up, says Train. “Keeping up is about pupils having extra support from the beginning. Teachers should use effective formative assessment to assess these gaps, identify children as being behind and act on it straightaway.”

So, what needs to happen ahead of the start of term? Train says middle leaders should:

  • Ensure every text is high-quality/decodable.
  • Complete a poetry list for each year group
  • undertake a non-fiction audit and then invest in more texts if needed.

Ring-fence specific continuing professional development (CPD) time for practising phonics and sound teaching.

Meanwhile, she says, classroom teachers should ensure lesson plans include plenty of opportunity to practise reading and writing.

Dixon adds that teachers need to ensure they read widely, and have a full and rounded understanding of the most recent research literature: “Teachers must be clear about the metacognitive aspects of reading and writing development, including deeper understanding of phonological awareness.”

If you are in need of any more support, the framework recommends the Department for Education (DfE) English hubs (find your nearest one on the English Hubs website).

Updated safeguarding guidance

The KCSIE document has been updated to give leaders further guidance on how to identify and manage safeguarding concerns. The main updates include:

  • Recommendations for all staff to sign up for the updated Disclosure and Barring Service.
  •  How to deal with “nagging doubt”.
  • More guidance on “peer on peer” abuse.

All staff working in a school or college must read part one of the KCSIE document, which sets out their legal duties for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people under the age of 18 in schools and colleges.

Michael Clack, regional head of schools for Orbital Education and a member of the international taskforce on child protection for the Council of International Schools, says the new update places a big focus on school culture and suggests that this is in direct response to the stories shared on the Everyone’s Invited website, which exposed how young people “experience a normalised culture of misogyny and sexual harassment while growing up in this country”.

“The biggest shift is in the focus on culture, with over 20 references – up from five in the previous year,” Clack explains.

What does this shift in focus mean in practice? Clack recommends that leaders review their current personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education programme, and behaviour policies, and consider how they can better address issues of peer-on-peer abuse. All school leaders need to assume that such abuse is happening in their schools, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said.

For classroom staff, there is now greater responsibility to be aware of and report “low-level” concerns, says Clack: “This goes far beyond the ‘harm threshold’ for referral to the local authority. Staff are encouraged – indeed, required – to report ‘low-level’ concerns to the responsible person for safeguarding.”

The document describes “low-level concern” as “any concern, no matter how small, and even if no more than causing a sense of unease or a ‘nagging doubt’”.

For example, “an adult working in or on behalf of the school or college may have acted in a way that is inconsistent with the staff code of conduct, including inappropriate conduct outside of work, and does not meet the allegations threshold or is otherwise not considered serious enough to consider a referral to the LADO (local authority designated officer),” explains Clack.

To ensure that all staff know how and when to report such concerns, leaders will need to “review their safeguarding policies and procedures, especially their reporting arrangements, before the start of the academic year in September”, he adds.

The best place to start is with the document itself – but be prepared, as there is significantly more in there than there was last year. There is a table of substantive changes, which come into force in September, in annex G.

Changes to relationships and sex education become compulsory

The new curriculum in relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) was originally due to be introduced in 2020. However, the government gave schools leniency with implementation owing to the pressures of the pandemic. From September 2021, however, the new curriculum will be compulsory.

And since Ofsted’s review into sexual harassment in schools, there is a greater sense of urgency in prioritising RSHE, says Sally Martin, a subject specialist at the PSHE Association.

“Among Ofsted’s primary concerns is the lack of sequencing content in many schools – which confirms the necessity of regular curriculum time within a broader programme of PSHE education – as well as the importance of training professionals to deliver this content. RSHE will be a greater focus for inspections going forward,” she explains.

In every school, there should be a middle leader with responsibility for RSHE, Martin says, who can ensure that the following requirements are being met:

  • Updating the relationships education/relationships and sex education policy.
  • Setting firm expectations of what pupils need to know and understand by the end of Years 6 and 11.
  • Ensuring content is age-appropriate throughout the school.
  • Supporting teachers in delivering any new content.
  • Engaging with parents, as part of consultation for policy development and to inform them of curriculum content.

Leaders should ensure that they publish their RSHE or PSHE policy on the school website, alongside an overview of how content is covered, and consult with parents on policy development.

“Parents should understand that they can only withdraw their children from sex education and not other parts of the PSHE education curriculum,” says Martin.

From three terms before a pupil turns 16, they can request to receive sex education, even if their parents have previously asked for them to be withdrawn. “It is important to have a plan in such cases,” says Martin. “It will be impossible to cover the entire sex education programme in one term, so it will be a case of selecting the content that the school feels is most essential to support these students and keep them safe.”

Schools will also need to ensure that they choose high-quality resources. Martin advises that schools should look for the PSHE Association Quality Mark. Where this is not used, teachers should verify that the material contains factually accurate information and avoids “approaches that induce shock, fear or shame”.

Schools must also cover statutory content within a planned, sequenced programme, which revisits key topic areas year on year. “The PSHE Association Programme of Study for key stages 1 to 5 and Programme Builders for key stages 1 to 4 exemplify what this might look like,” says Martin.

It is important to establish and meet pupils’ needs, auditing the curriculum to ensure it is tailored accordingly. Needs can be determined through baseline assessments; student voice activities, such as surveys; and analysing local and national data on children and young people’s health-related behaviour.

Martin adds that “it’s also vital that anyone planning or delivering this content is trained to deliver safe, effective RSHE lessons”.

For more information, The PSHE Association’s website has a wealth of resources to access for free.

Early Career Framework

From September, a new teacher will no longer be classed as a newly qualified teacher (NQT) but an early career teacher (ECT).

“The Early Career Framework (ECF) now provides a consistent curriculum of CPD for teachers in their early career,” says Andy Taylor, senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Worcester. The main differences from NQT induction include:

  • An increase of the induction period from one year to two.
  • 5 per cent additional non-contact time in year two as an ECT.
  • Training for ECTs should be based around the Early Career Framework curriculum.

The new curriculum is carefully sequenced and evidence based, and sees trained mentors supporting and guiding the new teachers.

In terms of what these changes will mean in practice, there will be timetabling implications for heads of department with ECTs in their teams.

“All ECT mentors will need to put aside time to familiarise themselves with the ECF and the provider their school is using,” says Taylor. “Ensure [all mentors] have protected time to spend with their ECT.”

Middle leaders will also have to plan for the new style of observations, which will be more frequent and lower stakes, and will require cover for the observing teacher.

All staff should be made aware of the changes so that they can support new teachers with up-to-date advice, says Taylor. Teachers will need to get used to the new ECF curriculum and observation style for when they come to be observed by (or observe) ECTs.

Folders of evidence are also now a thing of the past, so classroom teachers don’t need to drag out their old folders as exemplars. And don’t forget, some teachers will be entering year two of the ECF. “If you were an NQT last year, speak to your school about access to the ECF materials and also about your entitlement to a 5 per cent reduction in teaching time,” Taylor says. He also suggests leaders do the following:

  • Check all induction materials to ensure “NQT” isn’t referenced anywhere.
  • Revamp the staff handbook to ensure changes are made to non-contact time entitlement for those teachers in their second year of teaching.
  • Get familiar with the new processes you need to follow if your ECT is struggling in their first year.

If you’re looking for further reading, Taylor highlights two documents from the DFE: Induction for early career teachers and Induction appeals procedures.

In Wales, the ECF won’t be used but there have been other changes that teachers should be aware of. You can read them in the document Induction placement for newly qualified teachers: guidance.

Proposed changes to GCSE and A-level exams

Exams are back (yes, we have heard that before), but they’re not quite like they were in 2019, when students last all crammed into the school hall for external public exams. The main changes from this year will be:

  • There will be no teacher-assessed grades.
  • Exams will be more spaced out.
  • Proposals suggest some practical subjects will have adjustments to their exams.

Heads of department will have to prepare for potential changes to their curriculum depending on the outcome of the Ofqual exams consultation. This closed on 1 August and we expect to know the results at some point in the autumn term.

If the proposed changes come into force, leaders in history, ancient history, geography and English should prepare for “optionality”, where there will be an element of choice in the topics, as well as “core units”, which all students must study.

This might mean re-ordering schemes of learning to ensure core units are given sufficient attention and analysing data to make decisions about which units students should opt for.

Science leaders should prepare for the possibility that practical work will be delivered by demonstration rather than student participation. And art and design leaders should prepare for a portfolio-only assessment, as the proposals suggest that the timed task is removed from the exam.

For classroom teachers, the main focus will be communicating to students how these changes apply to their subject.

Teachers will also need to prepare for the eventuality that a student is negatively impacted by the changes, owing to absence in the previous year, when core units were being studied. There needs to be a plan for how these individuals will catch up. It would be a good idea to take time to assess students as soon as the final changes are announced, to ensure gaps in knowledge aren’t discovered too late.

Unfortunately, until the final outcome of the consultation is announced, any action taken now risks making extra work for departments if your predictions turn out to be incorrect. Therefore, it would be sensible to begin the year assuming the changes made for the 2021 exams still stand and limit planning until the official document drops into your inbox.

All the proposals suggested in the consultation can be found in the document Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2022.

Kate Parker is schools and content producer and Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 27 August 2021 issue under the headline “Back to school: your handy teacher toolkit”