'A defining moment' for schools: Praise for phenomenal coronavirus response

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The first week under coronavirus lockdown has gone relatively smoothly for schools, although there have been reports of headteachers having to challenge some parents over the definition of “key worker”.

A snapshot survey of schools by SecEd has found that, on the whole, fewer pupils than expected turned up on Monday morning. However, there are examples of schools that have been forced to turn parents away who did not meet the government’s definition of key worker.

In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, the government acted last Friday (March 20) to close UK schools to all pupils except for the children of key workers, vulnerable children and those with Education, Health and Care Plans.

However, the government also urged all key workers and parents of children with SEN to keep their children at home if at all possible in a bid to ease the pressure on schools.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said on Monday that the early signs were of a positive reaction from families.

General secretary Geoff Barton said: “Initial feedback indicates that parents have heeded calls to use the emergency provision in schools only in the event that they are key workers who have no option available to keep their children at home.

“Schools are reporting that the number of pupils arriving is manageable. We are grateful to parents for their understanding.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson had said that schools should have no more than 10 per cent of their intake attending – a figure echoed in comments by Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

However, this week schools reported to SecEd attendance much below this level. Many schools we spoke with saw between one and five per cent attendance on Monday (March 23).

The National Association of Head Teachers conducted a snapshot survey of members. More than 3,350 responses revealed that 94 per cent of schools have been providing emergency cover and that overwhelmingly they had fewer than 20 per cent of their usual children attending.

SecEd also heard of schools which saw up to 20 per cent attendance on Monday, although this often fell to around 10 per cent on Tuesday and further as the week progressed. Indeed, attendance levels fell for most schools during the week, with some schools closing completely as local provision was rationalised.

However, there were some difficult conversations with parents on Monday morning. One headteacher told SecEd: “Almost all of the parents seemed to believe they were key workers! From shop workers to rail engineers, carer for people in their own home to hairdresser, solicitor to antiques dealer.

“I had to be quite brutal and play with the guidance somewhat. To begin with I had more than 10 per cent attending I soon got it down to two per cent.

“Parents felt they did not need to take the guidance seriously, saying they had to work and then we found out they are at home. This was incredibly disappointing when we believed they would have more respect for the staff than that.”

The list of key workers was published alongside guidance to schools and colleges from the Cabinet Office. It is somewhat open to interpretation, including as it does broad categories such as health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food sector, public safety and national security, transport, and utilities, communication and financial services (Cabinet Office/DfE, 2020).

Another school leader told us: “Some parents were difficult with regards to understanding the key work criteria and managing expectations – we had to help parents to realise that it isn’t the job of a school to keep their local business afloat.”

Elsewhere, the schools were positive about the reaction of their staff to working from home and collaborating to support home learning. Many schools had introduced a rota system for on-site working.

One headteacher said: “Staff have been awesome in rising to the challenges in a very difficult to judge situation.”

Another added: “The staff collaboration remotely has been superb.”

A third said: “The coordination between home and school has been great. Our middle leaders mobilised and designed a fair rota and an agreed approach to setting and assessing work.”

Online learning was also going well, the schools told us, with the main challenges being slow network connections: “The online platforms are creaking as all children in the UK try to access materials.”

Another head added: “We are all now learning online. The children are in their virtual classrooms, working, chatting, having fun and games. Making videos and recordings. I am so proud of all the children so keen to be ‘in school’ and all the staff constantly communicating with them, if anything, making their relationships stronger than ever.”

Among other issues of concern was FSM provision, which seems to have been patchy this week as schools and local authorities rush to put in place new systems of working and to get information about the government voucher system.

The schools we spoke to said they were overcoming the problems, but that government guidance has been “sketchy” or that the quality of FSM provision by local authorities has been poor.

The government plan is for the 1.3 million children in England who are eligible for free school meals to be offered vouchers, food or meals.

In guidance published on Thursday (March 19), the DfE says headteachers should decide on the most appropriate approach. The vouchers or e-vouchers will be for supermarkets or local shops and can be sent directly to families. The guidance states “Effective immediately, schools will be able to order vouchers directly from supermarkets or shops in their communities to be emailed or printed and posted to families, and they will have their costs covered by the Department for Education. A national approach to providing these supermarket and shop vouchers is being developed.”

Pushed on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (March 25), Boris Johnson said the voucher scheme was a priority and was urgently being developed.

Thanking schools, Mr Barton added: “We would like to pay tribute to schools for their amazing work in organising this provision so quickly. They have calmly gone about the business of identifying children who need places, arranging staffing cover, and providing learning resources for children who are at home. It has been an exemplary exercise in superb leadership.

“Our biggest concern is the health and wellbeing of staff and pupils who are attending schools. Schools are actively managing this situation by ensuring social distancing, reinforcing messages about washing hands regularly, and ensuring that areas which are being used are regularly cleaned.”

The last word, perhaps, should go to the headteacher of one of the schools SecEd surveyed: “Schools have set work, upskilled staff and parents, got work online, arranged duty rotas, supported the delivery of free school meals, arranged the logistics of deliveries and back office support, kept parents and students informed through an effective communication plan and looked after staff to ensure those that need support at this time get it. It has been an incredible response and shows the genuine leadership across education.

"I think this has been a defining moment.”

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers, March 20, 2020: https://bit.ly/2vACqUj
  • DfE: COVID-19: Free school meals guidance, March 20, 2020: https://bit.ly/2U48ARF
  • Cabinet Office/DfE: Guidance for schools, colleges and local authorities on maintaining educational provision (including key workers list), March 19, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UnaqMl
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Home education resources for schools, teachers and parents, March 24, 2020: https://bit.ly/3dmVyXb
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Provision and teaching in school during the crisis, March 23, 2020: https://bit.ly/2y5nXkp
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Key messages from latest DfE guidance for schools. March 23, 2020: https://bit.ly/2y42Mz5
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Supporting families and pupils learning from home, March 21, 2020: https://bit.ly/39eBJho


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