June 15: I will not be re-opening my school until I believe it is safe to do so

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The request that secondary schools lay on ‘face-to-face’ provision for year 10 and 12 students has caused confusion amid unclear and delayed guidance and shambolic government communication. Ben Solly will not be re-opening his school until he believes it is safe to do so

It has been a turbulent week in education. Teachers have been given a hard time from certain corners of the media – apparently, we do not care about the wellbeing of children anymore, especially vulnerable children.

We know that this could not be further from the truth, but nevertheless it still hurts to read those headlines. It worries me that, once again, education is being used as a political football.

However, I have been guided and reassured by the wise words of Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), who quoted the following proverb in one of his daily updates: “A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.”

We are certainly sailing in challenging and unknown waters, but these experiences will make us stronger, both collectively and as individuals, and we will emerge from it a more resilient, optimistic and reinvigorated profession.

I also take confidence and strength from the fantastic culture we have established in my school, which is underpinned by our values of kindness, honesty and respect. We will always base everything we do on these values and this ensures our decisions and actions have a strong moral foundation. When we are bombarded with a barrage of unhelpful and untrue headlines in the national press, it is important to maintain our dignity, professionalism and to continue focusing on what is most important.

Throughout this madness, headteachers have had to wade through a huge range of guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), often published in the evening when school staff are finally getting the opportunity to rest after a full-on day of remote teaching and online meetings.

The frustration felt by school leaders is completely understandable, given that the guidance has often been contradictory and incredibly ambiguous.

One DfE document, published on May 15 – purporting to give us “the science” behind the decision to send some pupils back to school – was littered with basic errors.

Information from unrelated documents was erroneously copied and pasted and there were contradictions regarding the isolation period for staff who have contact with anyone testing Covid-19 positive.

If government ministers cannot publish accurate documentation without having mastered “control c” and “control v”, it does not inspire you with the confidence to follow their guidance.

Since then, we have seen the publication of the advice by SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), which was finally made available on Friday (May 22). The burning question we all had was exactly what scientific evidence has underpinned the government decision for the wider re-opening of schools?

Quite shockingly, the government adopted none of seven scenarios modelled by SAGE. Instead, the DfE appears to have arrived at an alternative hybrid model all by itself – seemingly ignoring the scientific advice when, throughout the pandemic, we have been assured that “the science” is being followed.

In the models, SAGE estimated the potential impact on the R number – the infection rate – and on transmission within and beyond schools of each scenario. Does the hybrid model being used by the DfE contain such modelling? This question needs to be answered.

Since the prime minister’s announcement on May 10 that schools would re-open to more students on June 1, leaders have been hastily constructing plans to welcome back certain year groups.

However, I know many primary colleagues who were deeply frustrated that days of planning were wasted when, on May 14, four days after the re-opening announcement, primary guidance was published which stated that rotas should not be used.

This left many in the primary sector scratching their heads, wondering how it is possible to bring back so many pupils and keep everyone safe.

And then in the hastily re-arranged daily briefing on Sunday (May 24), the prime minister seemed to use the wider re-opening of schools as a distraction tactic to take the heat off the debacle of his lockdown-breaking advisor.

Secondary schools were then treated to an arbitrary date of June 15 for having “face-to-face” provision in place for year 10 and 12 students. This after being told it was to be from June 1.

As ever, the detail was depressingly absent. Indeed, we have had to wait until this week for the publication of secondary guidance, which appeared on Monday (May 25), more than two weeks since the year 10 and 12 plans were announced.

Releasing the guidance at 3pm on Bank Holiday Monday is indicative of the poor timing that has riddled the government’s handling of this crisis. I know that many schools will now be ripping up their plans and starting again and I question the DfE’s level of planning and preparedness.

Having read the guidance, I am questioning why such a delay was even necessary. Did this really take two weeks to produce? The document is generic, light on detail, and very much open to interpretation. While some might perceive this level of flexibility for schools to be helpful, when we are dealing with life and death situations and a public health crisis, I believe school leaders should be given a very clear steer on what is expected.

Much of the emphasis has been on the importance of year 10 and 12 returning to school because of their examinations next summer. I know that parents, students and teachers would greatly appreciate some clarity on how these examinations will be administered next summer – this would certainly reduce stress levels.

We can work to establish some face-to-face provision for these year groups before the summer break, but we will not be able to answer the questions our students and their parents will have. Will exams assess the full specification of a qualification or will this be modified? Will grade boundaries be amended to compensate for lost weeks of learning in school? How will subjects with non-examined assessments be affected? Will schools still be judged against the main accountability measures for these cohorts?

Providing schools with information directly pertaining to these year groups would significantly help in our planning for these students as they return to school. Schools have now been closed to most students for more than three months – I do not think it is unreasonable for us to expect some greater detail by this point.

It is for all these reasons that I am extremely disappointed with the manner in which the wider re-opening of schools has been handled by the government.

What is worse, the long delays between the announcements in press conferences and the subsequent publication of guidance documents has meant that plans have had to be re-adjusted and rewritten in an atmosphere of stress and uncertainty.

It has been nothing short of shambolic.

From my own perspective, I have taken a step back, waited and reflected on what we might do for year 10, rather than rushing into a specific plan and then having to change everything.

I have approached everything with a “safety first” attitude. I know that this is my number one priority; if I cannot be assured that my staff, our students and everyone’s family can be safe, then we will not re-open our school to larger numbers of students beyond our key worker/vulnerable student provision.

Communicating this approach to our staff and parents has been key – getting the tone of messages just right is essential if we are to give everyone reassurance that we are taking the right course of action.

In really simple terms, I have just been brutally honest with parents. I have not been provided with any form of assurance from our government that it is safe to welcome back greater numbers of students – and every proposal about how wider re-opening might happen carries risk levels that I am not willing to accept.

I saw a quote from a headteacher recently that was quite morbid, but it struck a chord with me as it reflected the unusual times we are living in. When he was first appointed to a headship position, the out-going head said to him: “Always ask yourself, what would the coroner think of your decision-making.”

It is a startling thought, but one most heads would do well to consider. We have a huge responsibility to keep everyone in our school communities safe and we are currently facing our greatest ever challenge as a profession. Considering this, I think it is essential that we do not rush and we plan methodically to ensure we get this right.

Ultimately, I am deeply concerned at the lack of thought, planning and detail with the guidance documents. It is worth repeating: we have been assured throughout this pandemic that “the science” will be followed and yet the chosen approach of the government does not align with the best scenarios modelled by SAGE.

As school leaders, we need confidence that what we are being asked to do has a robust level of scientific evidence underpinning it. We are responsible for the wellbeing of our school communities and therefore it is critical for us to have faith in the approaches that are being recommended.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no faith whatsoever. Consequently, I will not be re-opening my school until I believe it is safe to do so.

  • Ben Solly is the headteacher of Uppingham Community College in Rutland.

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Preparing for the wider opening of schools from 1 June. Primary guidance (May 14); secondary guidance (May 25): https://bit.ly/2TBSPAW
  • DfE: Overview of scientific information on coronavirus, May 15, 2020: https://bit.ly/2X9QMVA
  • SAGE: Modelling and behavioural science responses to scenarios for relaxing school closures, meeting on April 30, 2020 (published May 2020): https://bit.ly/3d275dE


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