Usually at this point in November, we’re wondering whether it’s too early to wish someone happy Christmas. This year, instead, we’re left wondering whether Christmas will happen.
Hence today’s bellicose, rabble-rousing Daily Express headline: “Boris Johnson battles experts to save Christmas."
What all this means is: how do we ensure that families are able to gather together, despite the onslaught of the coronavirus? And at least some of the implications of that question rest with our schools and colleges.
There have already this week been calls for the Christmas term to be shortened and for the holiday to be brought forward.
Coronavirus: Bring the holiday forward?
This, the argument goes, would help to suppress transmission and allow periods of isolation to end before family gatherings take place. It would provide a much-needed respite for pupils, parents, teachers, and a weary population.
But weighed against this is the pressing need to provide children with as much time in formal education as possible after nine months of disruption.
If we are worried about educational gaps widening and students being ill-prepared for next summer’s exams, it is surely difficult to support the idea of yet more time out of school. And, politically, it seems extremely unlikely to happen, given that the government has nailed its colours firmly to the mast of keeping schools open at all costs.
One of the few changes it has announced so far to next summer’s exams is to delay them by three weeks to give more learning time. It would be awkward then for government to agree in effect to take one week back by shortening the Christmas term.
Of course, beneath all this lurks the possibility of a catastrophic deterioration in the Covid infection rates. That would force a rapid rethink. But, barring that, it is hard to see the government changing tack.
A rota system by chaotic default
What has made this all the more fraught is the disastrous school-attendance statistics released this week by the Department for Education.
These show that the number of secondary schools having to send children home to self-isolate has increased from roughly one third to two-thirds over the past couple of weeks, and that the number of primary schools doing so has doubled from 11 per cent to 22 per cent.
This widespread disruption is also reflected in the increasingly bleak feedback we are receiving from school leaders. Many schools are now having to deal with a situation in which pupils are rotating between school and home in a random manner, which is impossible to plan for or manage. It is a rota system by chaotic default. And on top of this is the added pressure of staff having to self-isolate.
The situation is clearly unsustainable, and, in this context, the calls for an early end to the Christmas term will grow in volume from many quarters, and become ever-more compelling.
So what is to be done?
Trusting school and college leaders
The government could head off these troubles by the simple expediency of trusting in school and college leaders. It could legitimise heads, principals and CEOs to decide, with governors and trustees, to implement more flexible, nuanced systems if they are experiencing significant disruption to learning.
Based on local knowledge, such plans would allow leaders to act strategically in the interests of their children and young people, to do their utmost to maintain continuity of education, and to maintain standards. It would allow them to feel they were empowered to move from the back to the front foot.
Indeed, the government itself proposed a secondary rota system in its long-awaited contingency guidance back in July. And, in reality, we are starting to see something akin to this happening now in response to the impossibility of maintaining staffing levels. So giving the flexibility for it to be implemented in a proactive, managed way is not really such a huge leap.
Instead, it would show some sense of government no longer in denial about the reality of what’s happening in our schools and colleges.
The danger, as ever, is that they will see allowing local leaders to make the best decisions in their communities as some sort of climbdown, rather than a matter of political pragmatism or – dare I say it – trust in the profession.
We would urge ministers not to entrench themselves in such a position. There has been a familiar pattern during the Covid emergency of the government dogmatically endeavouring to bulldoze ahead with unravelling policies, only to then have to perform a handbrake turn.
It would surely be better to avoid a stand-off and do the sensible thing. Allowing leaders and their governors a sense of trust and flexibility in their own specific circumstances would help to reduce the risk of Covid transmission, provide some relief to communities under huge pressure, and show that the government finally understands and supports them in this crisis.
Such a step would keep children in education in a manageable way for the remainder of the term, while helping to keep infection rates down and making the prospect of a family Christmas more likely.
This, in turn, amid these dark uncertain times, would give us all something to celebrate.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders