Where's the government's plan B for schools?

In planning to open schools, the government should hope for the best but prepare for the worst, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Where is the government's plan B for opening schools, asks Geoff Barton

There have been times during the coronavirus crisis when it has been easy to imagine the discussions that have been taking place around the Cabinet conference table – for example, around the decision about the reopening of schools and colleges.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to visualise ministers harrumphing that it must be business as normal, with no more screeching U-turns, no more half-measures, an end to all the excuses.

Hence we see the insistence that every child must be back in school from the start of September, with fines to enforce mandatory attendance, and a full set of key stage 2 tests, GCSEs and A levels next summer.

We don’t know quite what Ofsted’s proposed autumn “visits” might look like. But from January onwards there’s some feeling that, in school inspections, too, it could be business as usual.

Coronavirus: Business as normal for schools?

So far, the government hasn’t pronounced on whether school performance tables will resume. But you sense the delay reflects a dilemma between a desire to run them and the absolute madness of doing so in a turbulent landscape, where it is obviously impossible to compare one school with another. But watch this space. Madder things have happened.

However, the business-as-normal mindset, which now appears to be playing out in Whitehall, may seem at odds with warnings from scientists earlier this week that the UK could see about 120,000 new coronavirus deaths in a second wave of infections this winter.

There is a high degree of uncertainty about these figures. But it is clear that winter will bring with it a new challenge, as people spend more time indoors, and the risk of transmission grows. In non-scientific terms, we are not out of the woods.

So it is unlikely to be business as normal, or anything like it. Barring a breakthrough on a vaccine, and a very fast turnaround in distributing it, the likelihood is that there will be, at any one time, many people self-isolating, and possibly more local lockdowns.

Be flexible over fines for parents

The government clearly hopes to avoid a second national lockdown – an ambition that we all share – but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that this will happen.

Why then the headlong rush to resume the full mechanics of the education system. And, most importantly, why is there is no Plan B? Is the discussion round that Cabinet table more focused on avoiding any sign of perceived weakness, rather than on being prudent and pragmatic?

Here’s an alternative way of doing things.

Let’s certainly set the expectation that every child will be back in school in September. But the government could recognise the anxiety among some parents by simply saying that there will be a period of grace before fines are imposed for non-attendance. This would reflect the need to build confidence among families, who will be scared and uncertain.

Recognise now that it won’t be possible for all students to cover all the content in A levels and GCSEs in the depth required after so much disruption, and with the possibility of ongoing disruption. We have suggested some approaches, which would help to make next year’s exams fairer in this context.

National contingency plan

Have a Plan B. Prepare a national contingency plan if the coronavirus infection rate is too high for schools to open to all pupils: one that might be based on a model of blended learning, with pupils rotating between school and remote education. 

And develop a parallel centre-assessed grading process, similar to that used in 2020, which could be used to inform a student’s grades in the event of them not being able to sit an exam as planned. This might involve staged assessment opportunities, so that students could “bank” a proportion of their grade over the course of the year. 

Reconsider the Ofsted plan for visits in the autumn term. There is nothing wrong with the idea of having a look at how a sample of schools are handling the impact of the crisis, and in publishing a national report that shares insights and lessons learned. 

But publishing a “letter” about these schools after each visit seems to have no useful purpose, and may feel like an inspection report. Is this muddled process really the right priority at the moment?

Don’t be too hasty about resuming full Ofsted inspections in January. How would inspections be meaningful in a partially closed school, or where the leadership team is coping with an outbreak? How welcome would they be while schools are absorbed in the task of managing safety measures, helping children to catch up, and preparing disrupted pupils for exams?

Rule out performance tables. It would be very unhelpful and unfair to compare the performance of schools in tests and exams against a background of so much turbulence and disruption. It cannot possibly be a level playing field. 

Prepare for the worst

None of these suggestions seems to us to be defeatist or lacking in ambition. We think the public would regard them simply as a commonsense recognition of the challenges that lie ahead. 

Our fear is that the government is once again in danger of tying itself to a set of policies that leave it with little room for manoeuvre if things go wrong. 

It might get away with this, it might not. But, as we keep seeing, events have an awkward habit of getting in the way. 

That is surely not good planning. There is a much better and more sensible mantra than business as normal. It is one of hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst. The prime minister used that very phrase this morning. Now it needs to be applied to education.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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