Covid-19 and schools: Taking stock and the challenges ahead

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As half-term approaches, Geoff Barton takes stock on the first five weeks of full re-opening and the challenges still facing schools. He covers Ofsted, examinations, remote education, budgets, accountability and life after the pandemic...


With the staging post of half-term now in tantalising reach, it is a good opportunity to take stock of how full re-opening has worked out in practice and the challenges that lie ahead.

Department for Education statistics tell us that on October 1, 99.8 per cent of schools were open, down from 99.9 per cent on September 17 (DfE, 2020a). Of the small proportion (0.2 per cent) of schools that were closed, this was mostly due to Covid-19-related reasons.

These statistics suggest a very positive picture with all but a handful of schools open; better than many of us might have imagined in the circumstances.

However, delve deeper into the statistics and a more worrying reality emerges. This relates to the number of schools that are not “fully” open because groups of pupils have had to be sent home to self-isolate due to coronavirus cases.

On October 1, approximately 82 per cent of state-funded secondary schools were fully open, down from 84 per cent on September 24 and 92 per cent on September 17. It is a big drop which must be fuelled by the spiralling rate of infections in the community.

Rising transmission inevitably means that more pupils and staff contract the virus out of school, and each time this happens it triggers the Covid protocols in school which require groups to self-isolate.

If the infection rate rises exponentially over the coming weeks and months, it is likely that we will end up with very large numbers of children self-isolating at any one time. It will begin to look like a lockdown by default.

We are not there yet and we must not catastrophise the situation. It is already very serious and does not require an extra dollop of doom and gloom. However, the warning signs are there and we must prepare for the worst.


Remote education

Schools are expected to provide remote education for individuals or groups of self-isolating pupils.

Government guidance (DfE, 2020b) sets out more detail about what is required, including high-quality online and offline resources, a means of gauging how well pupils are progressing, and “a programme that is of equivalent length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school, ideally including daily contact with teachers”.

These are significant expectations for schools that are also delivering classroom teaching and, as we have seen, are likely to be experiencing high levels of turbulence.

And the experience of remote education will be variable, not because of what the school is or is not doing but because of the circumstances of the child. Pupils who do not have access to laptops or tablets, or who have to share that access with others, or do not have a stable internet connection, or do not have a quiet space in which to work, will face very significant challenges in remote education.

There needs to be more research into how many children are affected by these sort of factors so that more support can be provided to them.


Exams

This connects to the unresolved subject of next summer’s GCSEs, A levels, and other qualifications. At the time of writing, we still do not have clarity from the government about what exactly will happen in the summer of 2021.

Ofqual has published some fairly minor adaptations to exam content, there is talk of delaying the start of exams by a few weeks to allow more teaching time, and a suggestion of an additional set of papers for pupils who miss exams.

But all of this feels increasingly like a spectacularly inadequate response to the scale of disruption that is taking place. For the reasons stated above, remote education cannot be relied upon for those who are out of school. Many of the factors which make it problematic relate to disadvantaged young people in particular. The danger of them being further disadvantaged is massive.

A robust contingency plan for pupils who are unable to take exams, or whose preparation is heavily disrupted, has to be a priority. This could take the form of staged assessments in what remains of this term and the spring term, to provide an awarded grade if necessary. The government has to provide clear direction and it has to do this very soon.


Finances

It must also recognise the financial impact on schools of the Covid crisis. Safety measures do not come cheap. Enhanced cleaning schedules, industrial quantities of hand sanitiser, adaptations to school sites to keep apart bubbles, and numerous other costs, are heaping pressure on budgets which are in no position to cope.

ASCL analysis indicates that these costs could wipe out the £650m pupil catch-up funding allocated to schools by the government (SecEd, 2020). This parlous position is made even more serious by the mounting costs involved in providing supply cover when teachers have to self-isolate.

There has to be some form of reimbursement. If not, where does the money come from?


Accountability

Attention has focused on Ofsted’s plan to stage visits to a sample of schools during the autumn term, which it says will be collaborative conversations rather than inspections, but which will nevertheless result in a published letter about the school. To us, this seems an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction.

But beyond that are other issues. Ofsted plans to resume routine inspections in January, a plan which seems ever more unrealistic as infection rates rise and turbulence in the school system appears likely to worsen, particularly so over the winter months.

There is also the unresolved question of whether school performance tables will be published in 2021. It is a thought that seems utterly nonsensical in such a disrupted educational landscape, and yet the government has still not made up its mind.

At a time when the pressure on schools is so intense and unrelenting, it would provide some welcome relief if Ofsted inspections were postponed, and performance tables ruled out. It would also give schools the sense that the government understands and recognises the circumstances under which they are operating. This reassurance is badly needed.


Beyond Covid

The priorities set out here are aimed at getting us through the next few months. They are all about the current crisis. On the other side, some way in the distance, is life after Covid.

We must not lose sight of this. We must make the time to think about what we have learned from Covid and more deeply about our education system. Of how we improve social equity, and close the long-standing educational gaps that have proved so obdurate. Of how we equip our young people with the skills and knowledge they will need in a world which is undergoing rapid and far-reaching technological and societal change. Of how we restore hope to blighted communities, through the enriching power of education, and give every child a future.

ASCL will be embarking on this work over the next few months and we are aiming to launch a blueprint for a fairer education system next March. We hope it will start a discussion about how we can create some sort of positive legacy from the Covid crisis.


  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via https://bit.ly/2Z2ySVD


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Week 40: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, October 6, 2020a: https://bit.ly/3nr6KXt
  • DfE: Guidance for full opening: Schools, last updated September 17, 2020b: https://bit.ly/2HNh0cs
  • SecEd: Secondary schools report bills of as much as £39K a term for Covid safety measures, September 30, 2020: https://bit.ly/33h9COK


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