At a time when mass gathering is banned while colleges and schools largely remain open, when people are worried about their families and themselves while continuing to go to work to look after and teach their students, society extends its heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the hardworking, courageous and insufficiently-acknowledged teaching and support staff professions. Millions do recognise what they are doing, even if the national media and policy messages don’t often draw attention to it. Thank you.
The government’s strategy of keeping colleges and schools open a little while longer is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. As private sector companies and high-profile sports associations take the lead and close down, and as the isolation advice becomes more rigorous, the government’s approach is likely to be overrun by practicalities on the ground soon. There is a momentum building that will take the agenda out of the government’s hands.
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Colleges and schools will close when they reach the tipping point, when their high staff absence rates critically downgrade their safeguarding capabilities. Unilateral decisions are already being taken: university, college and school closures are being announced. As when dealing with industrial action, principals and headteachers are empowered to identify when the risks associated with student supervision and safeguarding are too great and they are increasingly deploying that power to decide. The government has little alternative but to keep a watching brief and continue to make the case for providers to remain open at this time as part of its "flattening the curve" strategy.
And, of course, when colleges do eventually close, there are new challenges to address, particularly those associated with taking online learning to scale, revision and the exam season and maintaining momentum, and remote pastoral care.
Regarding scheduled activities (school visits, enrichment activities and so on), schools and colleges are having to be fleet-footed and agile in response to the developing situation. Some future trips have already been cancelled, others remain under consideration, with that "who-cancelled-whom-and-who-is-liable?" dynamic coming into play. The pre-eminent factor will continue to be the health and safety of everyone working in colleges and their family and friends.
Ofsted has now changed its position: it has put a hold on all this week’s routine inspections, unless the inspection team has identified concerns about safeguarding arrangements at the provider being inspected. Even then Ofsted will decide whether or not to progress with the inspection.
Ofqual is conscious of the urgent need for clarity about the exam season but is faced with an extraordinarily complex situation. In our high-stakes accountability model, with assessment outcomes as the number one performance indicator for schools and colleges, "what next for this summer’s exams?" is the burning question for the profession, and for young people whose future will be mapped out by what happens. But Ofqual is still considering all the scenarios in front of it. And there is not much time left.
Department for Education officials are discussing the issues of compliance and safeguarding, as more and more teachers and support staff have to self-isolate. They are quite rightly focussing on the immediate coronavirus-related issues, which has seen a shift of attention away from what were, until recently, the big issues of the day: funding, qualifications, SEND, the skills gap and more.
It is right that the government’s and society’s primary focus is on young people, but it is important that we don’t overlook and take for granted the extraordinary work being done by support staff, teachers and leaders at this difficult time. We’ll continue to make this case to policymakers whilst helping our members to continue operating – even when the college gates have closed.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association