Full school re-opening: Bitten too many times?

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

Re-opening schools to all pupils on March 8 will mean introducing nearly 10 million pupils and staff into daily circulation. If this is indeed what Boris Johnson announces next week, he must be certain that it is the safest approach, says Geoff Barton

Here we are again in what has become a familiar pattern with government announcements during the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

It goes like this. The government is due to make a big decision on education. The lull before the storm is filled with speculation about what that decision will be, calls for something to happen or not happen, and briefings given to journalists by unnamed sources.

For those on the receiving end – the staff in our schools and colleges, parents and pupils – it is unsettling and worrying to be surrounded by this swirl of uncertainty.

On this occasion, the decision is whether schools will re-open on Monday, March 8, to all pupils, or if there will be a phased approach with groups of pupils brought back in stages. The prime minister is due to reveal all next week.

Reports in the media suggest the government is minded to the first of these options, that is a full re-opening to all pupils on March 8, rather than a phased approach. The prime minister insists no decisions have been made.

Also in the press is the notion that the government is thinking about extending the school day and the summer term to provide extra time for children to catch-up.

Bitten too many times

However, there is concern about all of this. A full re-opening to all pupils at once would be welcome as long as the scientific evidence tells us that this is safe. We have been bitten too many times during the course of the pandemic. What must not happen is a rush to full re-opening which immediately leads to another spike in infection rates and another lockdown.

If the evidence is that the situation is still precarious, then we must proceed with caution and adopt a phased approach, carefully monitoring the impact as more pupils are re-introduced.

Behind this wariness is the fact that everything in this crisis revolves around numbers. And in the case of re-opening schools to all pupils, those numbers are very significant. Such a move involves introducing nearly 10 million pupils and staff into daily circulation. This is close to one fifth of England’s population. Most of these individuals have not received vaccinations. So, a full re-opening to all pupils at the same time is an absolutely huge step in terms of relaxing the lockdown.

This is not necessarily about what happens in schools themselves. We know that they were very good at managing safety processes during the autumn term. In fact, it is remarkable that they managed to remain largely open during a pandemic. However, the re-introduction of so many people into daily circulation means an increased likelihood of interactions.

However good the safety processes are in schools, it is impossible to eliminate the transmission risk of a sub-microscopic virus in the contacts which take place between all these millions of people. Many of these interactions do not even take place on site, but on the way to and from school.

Diminishing returns

Then there is the speculation about what form “catch-up” support will take and the suggestion reported in the media that this could involve extended school days and a longer summer term. These articles, and whoever briefed them, do not tell us much because we don’t know what is meant.

If the intention is to make such measures mandatory, it is grim indeed. Tired children grinding through extra lessons after school and into their summer holidays; the law of diminishing returns; uproar from parents.

However, the more likely scenario is that these ideas will turn into something more benign – the availability of extra classes after-school and summer holiday clubs for groups of children who school leaders judge will benefit from this type of provision.

Rather than a blanket expectation, these ideas are more likely to be among a range of options which schools can choose to use. Nobody is going to have any problem with this approach, as long as it is properly resourced of course.

Which leads us to some more numbers. The catch-up funding so far allocated amounts to £1bn this year – of which £650mn went directly to schools and £350m to the National Tutoring Programme – and the promise of £300m in the next financial year. It is not clear how this latter sum will be allocated.

However, to be clear – £300m equates to about £37 per pupil. This support won’t be needed by every child of course, but even so, that money does not buy a lot. What we really need to be talking about is not policy brainwaves, but how to provide schools with the resources they need.

False trails

What we could also do with is less speculation, and more information from the government. It will always be the case that decisions have to be carefully considered before being announced, and that there is bound to be a lively commentary ahead of those decisions.

However, there is the suspicion that some of this speculation does not arise by accident but is briefed by “government insiders”. At the very least, the government could do more to stop false trails. It could, for example, rule out the idea of a mandatory extension to the summer term if there is no prospect of that happening. It would certainly be a relief to parents, staff and pupils and be one less thing to worry about.

In many ways, it is the speculation which is the most wearisome and worrying aspect of the crisis, the uncertainty of not knowing what is expected next. Once the decisions are announced, schools react pragmatically and turn it into practice. What they need is less talk and a stronger sense of direction from the government – in short, more action.

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


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