School reopenings: '1 June looms but questions abound'

Bernard Trafford runs through the issues still casting doubt on the reopening of schools. There are a few, to put it mildly

Questions remain about the reopening of schools

As I write this, the government remains committed to reopening primary schools for some year groups in England on 1 June.

Now, though, it’s softening that message, recognising that it won’t happen in some areas as it seeks to de-escalate its standoff with the teacher unions, while councils and mayors jump both ways.

Although, by the time you read this, things will probably have changed again, right now we have school leaders caught planning to reopen (while pointing out they never actually closed) but begging for guidance on how to do it (which children, how many?) and safely (what about protecting staff? To PPE or not to PPE? Can children socially distance in school?).

Teachers want to get back to teaching but rightly demand safety, on which medics (“we’re all following the science”) remain split. Meanwhile, Boris’ promise of “world-beating” test-and-trace system sometime soon is less than convincing.

There are so many more issues still to be resolved – probably at the school (or local) level while largely ignoring the government’s airy blandishments.

The needs of children

Children are missing out too – on the whole experience of school, even where they’re receiving a lot of online teaching.

All accept the urgent need to pull back into school the children who most need it: the vulnerable, disadvantaged, neglected, looked-after; those at risk of abuse or of being drawn into crime.

Alas, the latter groups frequently fall into the category of being “hard to reach”: the ones who, even in normal times, struggle to attend school regularly.

During lockdown, figures suggest that few of those for whom schools were kept open took advantage of this fact.

It’s naive to assume that will change when, during partial reopening with many parents unwilling to send their children in, school attendance will not be enforceable.

Rearranging rooms

Next, there’s the whole question of the socially distanced classroom: children two metres apart, no sharing of equipment, books or indeed anything.

Michael Gove, former education secretary, suggested it will require a “traditional” approach. I might substitute more negative adjectives.

How will schools organise 15 children to a class, when the norm is 30? Presumably, with only some year groups in school, one class can be taught in two classrooms.

But who teaches the other half? Won’t the teachers whose classes aren’t in school be busy teaching them remotely, as at present? Schools don’t have spare staff to double up.

Or will half the class be in school and the other half receiving the lesson online? That calls for a big step up in tech provision.

Should pupils come into school in shifts? Tough for a class teacher teaching the same programme twice in a day. Moreover, for working parents fitting childcare around their jobs, late starts or early finishes are maddening at the best of times. And this isn’t the best of times.

And what about deep cleaning between teaching sessions?

Those left at home

Beyond all that, this isn’t really about whole schools. Next year’s exam groups may cling to the PM’s promise of some kind of face-to-face contact with their teachers before the end of the summer term.

Otherwise, the majority of the nation’s schoolchildren will remain at home for a while yet, coping with remote teaching that is variously reported as ranging (according to the level of resource that schools and parents enjoy) from five hours a day on Zoom or Microsoft Teams (pretty intense for teachers and students alike) to the desultory provision of worksheets.

Are teachers still meant to be delivering these lessons as normal, or will the workforce split in two between in-school and remote staff?

Will work be graded the same between the two groups or require new expectations and allowances for the circumstances of each learning environment?

A simple plea

Above all, the reopening of schools, whatever form it takes, must be done properly, something in which schools, school leaders, teachers and their unions can all rejoice and take pride.  

It must constitute real education that offers children valuable learning: not a quick fix, not a fudge to get parents back to work, not an economic convenience for policymakers to notch up as a success in blatant contradiction of the reality on the ground.

So much to resolve.

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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