Clarity, communication and flexibility: Preparations ahead of June 15

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As things stand, June 15 will see more students returning to secondary schools. Headteacher Phil Denton is preparing to welcome his year 10s back. He discusses his reflections, practical considerations and the preparations that his team is putting in place

The breadth and burdens of the headteacher’s role have never been more starkly laid bare than in the last two months. The logistical challenges that have arisen during the coronavirus crisis have required crisis leadership rather than management.

With teachers, parents, students and the wider community looking for reliable information, a hugely reformed delivery of learning, and in some cases supporting families with things like food and wellbeing, we have taken on even more roles than usual.

Never before has showing leadership been so important.

The prospect of more children and teachers returning to school from June 15 will hinge on one key, underpinning aspect of leadership – trust. It is trust and trust alone that will encourage our schools and school community to wilfully begin the complex and uncertain recovery from the damaging impact of Covid-19.

This article outlines the reflections and considerations we have had at St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk – and the steps we have taken and are taking in order to establish this trust.

Step 1: Constant communication

Communication with all stakeholders has never been more important. We are sending weekly emails to staff and a separate but similar email to all parents. This contact has allowed us to keep everyone updated as to the actions we have taken and are planning to take.

In addition, the students have had direct contact from their teachers, teaching assistants, and from the SENCO for our SEND young people.

We have found it very useful to gauge the thoughts of parents, students and staff by using questionnaires sent out electronically. This allows for plans and communications to be based on national guidance but to also respond to and take into account the thoughts (and fears) of our community.

Step 2: Assessing risks

In developing a risk assessment, the first step is to look for a format which can help guide your approach. We have used our local authority model as well as the School Bus model (see online), combining the two and then inputting our own priorities. We considered the following issues.

Social distancing

In order to give this the best chance possible of being successful, we will be adjusting our classrooms to seat just eight students.

The Department for Education guidance (DfE, 2020) recommends half-groups of 15, but when taking into account movement during lessons and the requirement for IT facilities, we would need more space to achieve groups of 15 – space we do not have.

I know there are some schools that are large enough for students to move around and not come into contact too much with their peers. However, we have narrow corridors and a small site which are not conducive to this. This makes our task all the more challenging.

We have markings on the floor and signage around the school. After June 15, we will have one form per day coming in initially, alongside the children of key workers and our vulnerable students.

This will ensure we meet the government’s directive that only one quarter of the year 10 cohort is in school at any one time.

Break times will also be staggered and we are likely to either have no lunch or set seating at lunch with sandwich bags delivered to students to avoid queueing and unnecessary interactions. Indeed, we have yet to decide whether students will go home before lunchtime or not.

Finally, we will be asking students in groups of eight to form social bubbles during their outside time. This time will be limited to only 15 minutes to avoid too much mixing. Ultimately, these steps are limited by the behaviours of our students. Once again, communication is and will remain crucial, ensuring parents, students and staff fully understand the requirements.

Cleaning

Our cleaning team is thorough and very professional. We will be keeping students in a certain area of the school so that we can keep the spaces that require a regular “deep clean” to a minimum.

As stated above, we will only have one form in per day initially, which will help us to cope with the deep cleaning burden.

Each group of students will be working in just one room when in school, with teachers moving when necessary. Furthermore, the students will work at one work station throughout the day.

Our school business manager and site manager update me regularly as to the cleaning processes in order that my communication to all stakeholders can be up-to-date and accurate. Once again, communicating and showing that you value the cleaning team is really important – they are doing an absolutely crucial job.

Reduced staffing

In order to get an initial sense of staffing capacity, we found it useful to send a questionnaire to staff to see who was shielding, self-isolating or if anyone had any other issues that may prevent them from returning to the school.

Once you have an accurate view of the staffing that is available you can make plans based on the staffing levels you have at your disposal. We used two of our middle leaders along with a senior leader to plot a staff rota that will limit staffing to just three to six teachers per day. This will allow for teachers to support students, but also to have some time during the day to prep resources for home learning.

I believe that communication with key stage 3 students at this time is really important so that they do not feel forgotten while we work hard to reintroduce the year 10 students.

Student activities

Once in school, students will be working in IT rooms initially and will be continuing with their home learning, which will be facilitated by a teacher in the room.

As I have mentioned earlier, the initial purpose of year 10 students returning will be to help support their home learning. We will also be helping them to organise their GCSE studies. We will use the time to check in on their wellbeing and take action where appropriate, as well.

Gradually, “teaching” could begin again. However, we are entering into a “new normal”, which we must face with adaptability and a flexible structure of teaching and learning. We must consider what we can and cannot deliver safely – everything from singing in music (which cannot be delivered) to PE (which could be delivered to an extent in a socially distanced way outdoors). No firm decisions have been made – one step at a time!

School day

Our school day will start at the same time but we are yet to decide whether we will end it at the same time.

It is likely that students will leave before lunch. Again, this reduces the chance of students coming into contact with each other. But we have not taken a final decision on this.

We will be working closely with other local high schools to ensure that we are coordinated so that the bus companies can cope with the changing start and finish times.

The bus companies are also key to maintaining socially distancing on the students’ journeys to and from school. Again, communication is the key.

First aid

We will be using our first aid room for any students who show Covid symptoms while on site. Other students feeling ill will be placed in a dedicated classroom – this is the best we can do. Communication with all concerned if a student does show symptoms will be key and must be quick and effective.

PPE

We are looking to source some optional PPE. The local authority has provided none and it is difficult to source. We will be asking all students to wear some mouth covering or masks during the time they are in the room.

While the evidence is limited as to the effectiveness of this measure, it does serve as a reminder to all students that they must remain vigilant, and may prevent them from touching their mouths and noses.

We will provide plastic gloves. For teachers attending every couple of weeks, we believe this will be some comfort. However, there may well be teachers and students struggling to deal with the increased numbers in school. I am sure all headteachers will be mindful and considerate of this.

Visitors to the site

Visitors to the site will be expected to wear PPE and follow all of the guidance in the same way that our students and staff will.

Step 3: Working with union reps or staff reps

Best laid plans can sometimes fail due to poor commination. In my view, it is very important to be proactive and invite review and constructive challenge from school union representatives and others.

This communication has helped to allay fears and offer a channel of communication should staff not wish to voice their concerns directly to myself. This supports effective communication and reflects the transparency we must see throughout the process.

At a time like this, it is important to understand that school leaders are asking for discretionary effort. If staff and unions decide that it is not safe to return, headteachers will be faced with a very difficult situation.

I have heard of some headteachers “ordering” teachers back. While they may get compliance from some, they will not garner trust or any type of quality in the classroom. They will also sow the seeds of discontent for the future.

Step 4: Action plans for an ambiguous future

Throughout all of this, with the future more unclear than ever, all plans must be flexible, adjustable and ready for change. The flexibility of any approach is fundamentally important and any rigidity could lead to mistakes being made that could have a significant impact upon the heathy and safety of our school communities.

What has been challenging is the division between the government and union advice. As a headteacher, I have felt stuck in the middle. We have also been criticised by the national media and leading figures on social media. The mass of speculation in the national media does not help either.

And when you throw into the mix the unknowns about how examinations will pan out and Ofsted intermittently throwing in its thoughts, it is a highly pressurised time.

I have been trying to cope with this by dealing with the “knowns” in order to keep our focus on facts and to keep our school community feeling cared for. My focus is on open leadership with compassion and empathy.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Lancashire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at https://bit.ly/2AhZTLW

Further information

DfE: Preparing for the wider opening of schools from 1 June. Primary guidance (May 14); secondary guidance (May 25): https://bit.ly/2TBSPAW


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