'Where's Plan B in the government's reopening plans?'

Geoff Barton appreciates it's hard to cover every issue when reopening schools during a pandemic – but fines for parents and a lack of Plan B if lockdowns return are worrisome

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

And so, with few fanfares but a small volley of newspaper leaks, the long-awaited guidance on autumn’s reopening of schools and colleges has finally been published.

And when I say published, I mean a large quantity of information was released on the Department for Education website on Thursday morning at around the same time as Ofqual published its consultation on next summer’s exams.

Typical. You wait ages for various much-needed documents, and they all arrive at once.

Reality check

So in the education sector, what should we make then of this guidance, after such a turbulent period of government U-turns, media finger-pointing, gratuitous union-bashing and general confusion?

In short, we need a reality check.

Because this guidance is not like other guidance. It won’t be possible to embroider it seamlessly into the working practices of schools and colleges as leadership teams routinely do in normal times.

These times, as we all know far too wearyingly well, are anything but normal.

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with how schools and colleges operate knows how difficult it will be to keep apart bubble groups of children separated into classes and years all of the time.

We are talking about millions of children across the country arriving via a variety of modes of transport, many of them siblings and friends in different classes and year groups, inhabiting schools and classrooms which date from a variety of eras, and comprise different spaces and designs.

And while it may be possible, through an exercise akin to planning military manoeuvres, to devise timetables and classroom plans which keep the bubbles roughly apart, for at least some of the time, young people will inevitably mix as soon as they leave school.

It’s what young people do.

Shared ambition

But none of that, of course, means it’s a hopeless cause. It just means that schools and colleges will do the best they can, as they always do.

They’ll try to keep the bubbles apart as much as possible and implement all the other safety measures.

It won’t, however, be perfect. Let’s hope that this is recognised by the commentariat.

And let’s hope that everybody unites in supporting schools and colleges in the difficult and complex task of bringing back all their pupils while minimising the risks of coronavirus as effectively as possible.

We recognise that is what the government guidance is aimed at achieving, that it is an incredibly hard balance to strike, and that the civil servants have done their best in very difficult circumstances.

And, of course, we share and support their ambition.

Our point is simply that the best intentions of the guidance will soon have to meet the reality of the world as it actually is, and we all need to be prepared for this not always to go entirely smoothly.

Buck passing

Meanwhile, what on earth the government thinks it is doing by then raising in this febrile climate the madcap idea of fines for parents whose children miss school is anybody’s guess.

Troubling too is the wording in the guidance about ‘the availability to issue sanctions, including fixed penalty notices’. This presumably means that it is up to headteachers whether or not to fine parents.

While that may be strictly correct, it is an exercise in buck-passing that puts heads in an incredibly difficult position. Should they enforce attendance or not, what constitutes "exceptional circumstances" in unprecedented times, what are the consequences if they get it wrong?

The government could have simply recognised that this needs to be an exercise in building confidence over time and established that there will be a period of grace without any expectation of fines being issued.

Then, everybody would know where they stand, rather than the idea of sanctions being left hanging in a cloud of uncertainty.

And, even with all the safety measures in place both in schools and more widely, a full return to education is likely to be further complicated, as we have seen in Leicester this week, by the likelihood of further localised infection outbreaks which will result in either partial or full closures.

Schools are told in the government guidance to have in place contingency plans for that eventuality, in the form of high-quality remote education.

They will be doing that planning already, of course.

No Plan B

But the enormous hole in the guidance is what happens if we arrive at September and the infection rate nationally is too precarious for a full reopening, but it might allow a partial reopening using a blend of rotas and remote learning.

Or if there is a second wave of the pandemic during the winter which necessitates a similar approach.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the government to work with public health experts on such a plan now, and provide it to schools and colleges so they can prepare for an alternate scenario if necessary?

It would be better than starting from scratch again if things go badly. And it does not end there.

The plans for next year’s GCSEs and A levels are based on the assumption that it will be possible to go ahead with a full series of exams, regardless of whether large numbers of pupils are disrupted by local lockdowns, periods of self-isolation, or a second national shutdown between now and then.

In other words, where is the Plan B? The government has put all its eggs in one precarious basket.

Goodness knows, we dearly hope its optimism is justified.

But recent experience has surely told us to prepare for the worst.

It is just a matter of common sense to have a back-up plan – one perhaps, as the prime minister is tiresomely fond of saying, that is oven-ready.

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

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