Why the September plans hinder learning in primary

There are contradictions at the heart of the government plans for the reopening of schools to all pupils after the coronavirus pandemic, says Megan Dixon

Megan Dixon

september reopening

I do not envy those whose job it was to write the recently published guidance for schools on the full reopening of schools in September.

I fully appreciate the challenge of communicating the next steps for schools as they navigate the choppy and uncharted territory of the pandemic.

I have no doubt that there have been many ready to offer their advice and wisdom and it must have been a complicated task assimilating the views presented and then presenting a unified picture.


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And it is fantastic to see explicit reference to the special school community and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), a nod to the early years sector and alternative provision. These things help.

But the pace of the past four months of the coronavirus pandemic is evident. The guidance is breathless in its intensity, and exhausting in its wide-ranging attempts to cover ground. It seeks to present with brevity and clarity a set of principles to help schools and leaders respond swiftly to the demand that schools must open for all at the beginning of September. And there lies the challenge.

September reopening guidance

It is not an easy read. It veers chaotically from wide-sweeping guidelines, full of exceptions, to tight prescription lacking in explanation and full of inherent contradictions. 

It is missing the careful and reasoned explanations (and research) that will enable me to make effective decisions as a leader when the guidance doesn’t have the exact answers – or there is a confusing chain of contradictions.

One aspect I am puzzling over is how we might organise the classrooms, especially for younger children.

Social distancing?

At first, the guidance discusses the necessary requirements for measures within the classroom – we teachers should stay two metres away from other adults and children, except when they are in the early years or have complex needs when “educational and care support should be provided as normal”, as long as you keep the pupils in their “smaller, class-sized groups”.

And then some prescription – children’s desk should face the front of the classroom “rather than face to face or side on” but not two metres apart.

Looking further at the section on the curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support, we are informed that education is not optional and all pupils must receive a high-quality education – there we agree. 

In the section describing specific points for early years foundation stage, the guidance suggests teachers should focus on language, early reading and early maths, with a focus on phonics and vocabulary.

The latter is a fundamental contradiction to the former.

Getting language learning right

One of the important features of language development is that children must use language – not only with their teacher but with their peers.

The evidence is clear – language development relies on the serve and return of conversation and dialogue. Early reading demands discussion to help children explore the meaning of texts and extend their use of the vocabulary of text. Children need to see each other, to connect with each other, to talk to each other.

Language development is intricately linked with behaviour and self-regulation. One of the fundamentals of language development is learning to listen.

It is important we teach children in the early years and key stage 1 how to listen: facing the speaker, paying attention to their face, listening and responding to what they are saying.

That is hard when you are sitting side by side, facing the front.

Teachers and leaders are extremely skilled in constructing learning environments to enhance and enable learning. It’s what we do. Teachers and leaders are very skilled at keeping children safe – it’s what we do.

The stated aim of the guidance is to provide a set of principles, as it cannot be one size fits all.  

So, perhaps the attempts at prescription hinder? It certainly hasn’t made the task any easier, and there are only two weeks left of the term to get this right. Let us fill in the details – we are used to that.

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Megan Dixon

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