At the start of this term, we introduced measures at The Premier Academy that received widespread comment, mostly critical. We required all adults, anywhere on the school site, to wear face coverings.
Similarly, it was made clear that it was necessary for all children to wear face coverings on arrival and in communal areas. Additionally, face shields were to be worn at all times in the classroom. The face shield was provided by the school, and then belonged to the individual child.
All were sanitised by staff each evening, ready for the following day. Staff, too, were provided with face shields.
We didn’t apply this to the Reception-aged children, as some of these children were starting school for the first time. Many parents, however, chose to adopt the policy and have never looked back.
It is really important in schools that we don’t underestimate children, and that we don’t project our insecurities on to others. By the end of the first week, we had 90 new starters, all settled and enjoying school.
Coronavirus: Face coverings in schools
Now, the Independent SAGE group of scientists has called for secondary students to wear masks in classrooms, following a proposed circuit-breaker lockdown.
At this point in the term, we are reviewing the impact of our actions and reflecting on the criticism we received. I’m happy to share our experiences so far, but am very aware that things can change.
Firstly, let me describe the culture of planning at the school.
When speaking of leaders, the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes declared that they “ought not to wait for the event, to know what measures to take; but the measures which they have taken ought to produce the event”.
At The Premier Academy, we aim to work as a leadership team. A key part of our approach is to look ahead at the range of possible scenarios that might affect the school. The sharpest focus is on scenarios over which we have little or no control. Typically, these have included finance, staff availability, shifts in population and Ofsted criteria.
We aim to model these at least a year ahead of when there might be an impact. At its simplest, this takes the form of a series of "what if?" questions.
Going into 'what if?' mode
When lockdown occurred in March, we immediately went into "what if?" mode. We stayed in that mode from March to September. What was clear, understandably, was that the behaviour of a novel virus is impossible to predict with any sense of confidence. As the pandemic develops, so understanding of the virus and strategies for reacting to it will emerge.
As the months passed, a number of events occurred. The most shocking was that 10 per cent of our families lost a family member to Covid. Many of our pupils live in multi-generational families, and we have a high proportion of children with black, Asian and/or minority ethnic backgrounds. Over a third are entitled to free school meals.
The scientific advice nationally focused largely on the low likelihood of primary-aged children contracting the virus, on their being unlikely to suffer severe symptoms, and on their having a reduced likelihood of transmitting the virus. All this was tentative.
We surveyed our parents on their thoughts and intentions. Thirty per cent indicated that they were unlikely to send their children back to school, as they thought the risk of their contracting the virus was too high.
In terms of our "what if?" planning, we asked ourselves: “What if the kids are OK, but they transmit the virus to adults, who then self-isolate?"
This was brought into sharp relief when, during the summer break, five members of staff resigned with immediate effect. They were simply unwilling to take the personal risk of working in school.
The absence of evidence on the degree to which children infect adults is no guarantee that they don’t. When the national lockdown occurred, great stress was placed on older relatives not being visited by members of the extended family, particularly young children. Some of our staff are grandparents. We did not want to see children sent home because we didn’t have enough healthy adults to provide them with the education they deserved.
Reducing the likelihood of infection
We didn’t look at the issue from the point of view of “Why?” but instead we asked: “Why not?” Among our governors are two who work in the NHS, and we have an adviser who works as a chief respiratory physiologist. Their direct experiences of the virus fed into our discussions.
So we asked ourselves whether steps that the national advice said were unnecessary would do any harm. It’s a simple equation. If we could take steps that might reduce the likelihood of infection and had no obvious downside, then why wouldn’t we?
When we made our decision to implement our strategy from the start of the autumn term, we contacted all parents and explained what we were planning to do and why we were planning to do it. Staff were very positive about the steps. We had no further resignations.
Parents were fully behind the initiative. One wrote: “Everything is flowing just lovely, and my children haven't moaned about masks or visors at all, and are really happy to be back in school. Thank you for all your effort.”
Not a single objection was received from the parent body, despite negative publicity from the local paper – written by a journalist who was, incidentally, working from home.
So, what of the current situation? We have 820 people on-site daily, and have recorded no cases of Covid-19. We are hopeful that, if or when we do, it will not result in a high number of transmitted infections, and we won’t be forced to close. Our attendance has been 95 per cent since September, and was 96 per cent the week before half-term.
We believe that we have instilled a confidence in the whole community: that we are as safe as anywhere can be. This was reinforced to me last week, when an educational psychologist told me that The Premier Academy was the only school she was willing to visit.
Government – including the Department of Education – seems to have been reacting to events throughout this pandemic, not striving, in the words of Demosthenes, “to produce events”.
From this school’s point of view, we asked ourselves: why not use masks and shields? And we couldn’t think of a single reason.
Warren Harrison is chief executive officer of The Premier Academy in Milton Keynes