'It's not just when we reopen schools – it's how'

Other countries have set out plans for reopening schools - teachers in the UK deserve this clarity, says Julian Drinkall

Julian Drinkall

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There are, we were told in the Sunday papers, three options on the table when it comes to ministers’ thoughts on schools returning as part of an easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions: all primary children and those in Years 10 and 12 to return on 11 May; slightly later on 1 June after the half-term break; or hold until September. 

Then, at Sunday’s press conference, education secretary Gavin Williamson indicated that “currently” there are no plans for schools to be open in the summer holidays. Nonetheless, it’s clear that all options are being – and should be – considered. 

Meanwhile, parents are split on whether they would feel comfortable sending their child back to school to crowded classrooms – 48 per cent said no, while 52 per cent said yes in a Mumsnet poll just before the weekend. Clearly, parents, carers, staff and children all need information and support, whichever option becomes preferable. 

France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Japan – the list goes on – all have plans in place for schools returning. A rare few – most notably, Sweden – never closed their schools at all. At home, the Department for Education is studiously sticking to the line that schools will reopen “when the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to do so”.

Coronavirus: How will we reopen schools?

And while the question of "when" has been the focus of most political debate, the question of "how" is what has been most exercising me and my colleagues across the sector.

In discussions I have had with other academy trusts and organisations like the Association of School and College Leaders, the Queen Street Group and the Confederation of School Trusts, a number of guiding principles and themes have emerged.

First, the overall aim and hope must be that all schools are fully open by 1 September. And second, the months from May through to August should be about starting small and building up physical reopenings. This should be a universal approach that fully considers both medical risks and the future wellbeing and education of our children. With careful planning, we should be able to start with widespread but limited openings and build volumes gradually and flexibly. 

The science will determine precise quantum, but a starter for 10 on the route map back to normality would see schools reopening with, say, around 25 per cent of their pupils – with the priority years being Years 5 and 6 in primary, and Years 10, 11 and sixth form in secondary. These and other year groups could be split up and on a rota; for example, with two weeks on and two weeks off. 

This would enable a more natural social distancing which would be much more difficult – if not impossible – in schools that are 100 per cent full. 

From July through to August we might look to increase to 50 per cent utilisation, with perhaps three weeks on, one week off. The second half of August could potentially allow for a two-week holiday – good for families, staff and the children – prior to a full return for all year groups across all schools in September. 

At first glance, some might be concerned that this reaches too far into the summer holidays and that staff will be expected to work at a time when they would normally be recharging. However, this partial return to normality is based on a rota approach which means in all likelihood staff would be spending less time in school than in a normal year. The two-week break in August would, therefore, be supplemented by breaks in the rota.  

There are four non-negotiables in such an approach. Firstly, schools must be equipped with appropriate PPE – the health and safety of staff must come front and centre. We are asking our staff to take huge, unquantifiable risks by going into school, and those risks only grow the more children return. These staff are the front line and we have to ensure they are protected. 

Second, there has to be equity between staff and the expectations on them, with an appropriate amount of work and downtime. It would, for instance, be wholly wrong to expect primary teachers back in school and not secondary teachers. 

Third, staff who are vulnerable themselves must continue to shield themselves, and if they are well, only deliver lessons remotely.

Which leads on to the fourth non-negotiable: any phased return must be blended with high-quality, challenging and engaging distance learning. Done well, this blend will mean we are able to educate 100 per cent of our children throughout this period of uncertainty and worry. 

And as well as learning, there must also be fun and socialising, too. We can never replicate face-to face relationships but assemblies, celebratory events and motivational activities are all possible and create an empowering, positive sense of community and togetherness.

Many trusts, including my own, have developed their own virtual schools, and more and more brilliant resources are coming online, including both through the BBC and from the Oak National Academy. Good schools will – and are – able to tailor their own offering, but will be grateful for these supplementary resources.

And, of course, the government announcement that it will fund laptops, devices and broadband access for disadvantaged pupils helps to support this model further. Two weeks ago we took the decision to purchase an additional 9,000 Chromebooks for children on free school meals or those who had an education, health and care plan – the difference this is already making is worth well over the £2 million we have invested.

Schools are second to none at dealing with uncertainty and, on a daily basis, we are all seeing genuine acts of heroism from the profession, inspirational leadership and real creativity and innovation in how to grapple with the challenges we are confronted with.  

I have no doubt that will continue. But we do need an overall vision and plan, and it was encouraging to hear the education secretary commit to giving schools plenty of notice. What we need now from our politicians are some decisions not just on when, but how. 

Julian Drinkall is chief executive of the Academies Enterprise Trust

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