Let’s start with some good news. During a round of media interviews yesterday, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, expressed the government’s intention to give schools a “clear two-week notice period” before full reopening.
Under normal circumstances, that would be such an obvious prerequisite of any sensible plan that it would hardly warrant comment. But because of where we are now, it may have felt to many people like time to hang out some bunting.
Given our collective experience of the Christmas holiday period – when the government changed its plans for the start of the spring term three times, and managed to send children into primary schools for a single day before announcing a lockdown – recent history has taught us not to expect sensible planning.
So the education secretary’s commitment to giving schools advance notice was both noteworthy and welcome.
Coronavirus: a time of anxiety and fear
But the bad news, of course, is that nobody knows when schools will fully reopen or whether this will be a full or phased approach.
The notional target of the week after the February half term – Monday 22 February – is looking increasingly unlikely. Daily coronavirus deaths are increasing and hospitals are under severe pressure.
This grim picture will clearly need to improve significantly before the government risks taking the brakes off and relaxing the lockdown.
The second half of term is only four weeks away. Given the education secretary’s commitment to a two-week notice period, the government would have to announce its plans for full reopening by Monday 8 February (or 1 February if you discount half-term). It is hard to see that happening under the present circumstances.
When the time comes for an announcement, the government needs to be conscious of the great anxiety felt by many people, both within the education sector and among the wider public, over the terrifying number of deaths and the havoc being wrought by the new and more infectious strain of the virus.
It also has to accept the uncomfortable fact that confidence in its decision-making over education policy is extremely low.
If it wants public support for its plans for full reopening, it cannot rely on its usual approach of trying to bludgeon through a policy. It needs a robust and logical plan, which inspires trust rather than demanding compliance.
A plan for reopening schools fully
Here are some thoughts on how it might achieve that objective.
1. Explain themselves
Explain the scientific and public health basis for the decision clearly and in terms everybody can easily understand.
The obvious question is: “Why will that date and that approach be safe?” Too often, we have been in a situation of having to drag the scientific basis for decisions out of the government after they have been announced. It is the wrong way round. The rationale should come up front and the decision should follow logically from the science.
And it needs to be explained in plain English, not just via scientific papers, which are hard to understand. This is essential in rebuilding public confidence.
2. Have a contingency plan
Everybody understands that the circumstances of the pandemic change and that events move quickly. Any government might find itself having to alter course.
What is less excusable is the absence of a back-up plan. If full reopening is announced but then has to be abandoned, it would be a good idea to have already communicated a plan B – perhaps a rota system of some sort – which schools would have had time to prepare, and which could be adopted in a realistic timeframe. We have made this point many times before.
3. Sort out mass Covid testing
Sort out the mess over rapid turnaround lateral flow tests. It is hard to imagine how the government could possibly have made a worse job of implementing a mass testing programme in schools than it has done over the past few weeks, culminating in a policy reversal over daily contact testing.
Nevertheless, lateral flow tests could still be a useful way of further improving safety and providing reassurance if schools are given clarity and sufficient support, and if this is backed up with clear public health information.
When these tests are applied as a way of screening incoming students and regularly testing staff, they should detect a proportion of asymptomatic cases and reduce the risk of transmission. The problem now is there is so much confusion over this issue that the government really needs to review its approach and provide communications that are coordinated with its plans for full reopening.
4. Review safety guidance for schools
Review the safety guidance for schools in light of the increased infectivity of the new variant strain of the virus.
The questions are obvious. Should there be greater use of face coverings? Are some bubbles too large under the current guidelines? If the current guidance is felt to be sufficient, see point one.
5. Clarify the position on teachers’ vaccinations
Provide clarity over vaccinations for education staff. The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, says he is hoping to target key workers, including education staff, in the next phase of the vaccine rollout. And a decision is expected to be made by mid February.
But the first phase rollout – to the groups already identified as a priority – is not expected to have been completed until April. So, education staff will clearly not receive the vaccine in the second half of this term.
The prioritisation of the first phase groups is understandable and will, of course, include many education staff. But we need an early decision and a timetable for vaccinating education staff in general. This will provide some reassurance and a recognition of the circumstances in which these people are being asked to work.
In particular, there should be prioritisation of staff working in specialist settings, whose duties can often be akin to care work.
6. Work with the profession
The final point is that the government needs to develop this planning collaboratively with the profession. Never was there a more important time than now for the government to do its job with us, not to us.
Consultation is not a last-minute briefing or hasty sight of the umpteenth draft of a document that has been ping-ponging its way round government for days. It is a thoughtful, reflective and sometimes frustrating process, in which the profession can actually influence the outcome.
We’ve reached a decisive moment. Government by wishful thinking – a volley of grand intentions, then hastily changed or retracted – hasn’t worked. Public trust in our political leaders is wearing unnervingly thin.
There is no reason why a genuinely collaborative effort should not now become the new norm. And, in truth, there are signs that a change of approach is emerging, from officials who seem increasingly to recognise that the answers to difficult challenges do not lie in sterile Whitehall offices or endlessly inward-looking Zoom calls.
School and college leaders are the people most trusted by parents to run our schools and colleges. It’s what they’ve been doing, quietly and calmly and exhaustingly, throughout this wretched pandemic.
And they’re the people who are ready, willing and able to get us through this final stage of the crisis, back to some kind of normality, on behalf of all our children and young people.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders