Coronavirus: School leaders face up to 'enormous task' as schools close to majority of students

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Schools across the UK are getting to grips with the “enormous task” now facing them as they shut their doors, plan for continuation of learning, and meet government demands to support key workers and vulnerable learners.

Yesterday (Wednesday, March 18), in the face of the continuing spread of coronavirus, governments across the UK confirmed the official closure of schools and colleges to the majority of pupils from Friday afternoon (March 20).

Education secretary Gavin Williamson gave a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, telling MPs that the scientific advice had now changed after there had been a “faster than anticipated” spike in the spread of the virus.

He added that schools were also finding it more and more difficult to remain open because of staff illness and self-isolation.

The spike has seen the number of UK cases jump to more than 2,600, although the government’s experts estimate that the actual number of cases could be 50,000. There have been 104 confirmed deaths as of Wednesday evening.

As such, Mr Williamson told the House of Commons: “After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon (March 20), they will remain closed until further notice. This will be for all children except to those of key workers and (for) children who are most vulnerable.”

He described vulnerable children as those requiring an Education, Health and Care Plan (ECHP) and those who have a social worker. Key workers include NHS staff, emergency service workers and delivery drivers.

Speaking on Thursday morning (March 19), Mr Williamson reiterated that the key workers category covers all those working in the NHS and all those working in schools.

Mr Williamson is also asking schools to remain open during Easter, if possible, in order to look after these children.

He told MPs in the House of Commons: “By asking schools and other settings to look after the children of key workers and the most vulnerable we will be directly saving people’s lives.”

During the prime minister’s daily coronavirus briefing yesterday, Boris Johnson said that rationalisation measures would be put in place soon so that not all schools in an area will need to open for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

However, he said that for now these children should attend their normal schools from Monday morning next week.

Mr Johnson could not say how long the closures would last, although in Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that we should expect schools to remain closed until the summer holidays at least.

And on Thursday morning, Mr Williamson confirmed that the closure would likely be long-term. He told Sky News: “It’s best to assume that children will be out of school for quite a considerable time. We will obviously work to bring children back into schools at the earliest possible moment.”

The announcement covers nurseries/early years, primary and secondary schools and sixth form and further education colleges. Mr Williamson has also urged independent and boarding schools to follow suit.

The Department for Education (DfE) has acknowledged that “special schools and residential settings will need to continue to look after their pupils”. There is also a question mark over what will happen with pupil referral units and other alternative provision, which have mainly vulnerable students on their rolls.

Elsewhere, the government has said it will put in place a national voucher system to ensure children on free school meals still receive the funding. Schools will be able to purchase meals or vouchers for supermarkets or local shops, the DfE said.

A DfE statement added: “The government has confirmed that the total value of vouchers offered to each eligible child per week will exceed the rate it pays to schools for free school meals, recognising that families will not be buying food in bulk and may therefore incur higher costs. The final amounts will be confirmed shortly.

“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 DfE. Guidance for schools will be published shortly.”

On the key question of examinations, the DfE has confirmed that we will not go ahead with primary school assessments or secondary exams this summer and that performance tables will not be published. The DfE statement added: “We will work with sector and Ofqual to ensure children get the qualifications they need.”

On Thursday morning, Mr Williamson reiterated that pupils “will be getting their grades” and that the DfE “will be sharing more details on this tomorrow (Friday, March 20)”.

He confirmed that the DfE is anticipating young people going on to further and higher education later this year without having gone through a formal examination process. He added: “We do recognise that we need to give young people the confidence and there will have to be an appeals process.”

Devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales also acted yesterday to close their schools.

In Wales, education minister Kirstie Williams said she was “bringing forward the Easter break for schools in Wales”. It means they will “close for statutory provision of education at the latest on March 20”.

She added: “From next week, schools will have a new purpose. They will help support those most in need, including people involved in the immediate response to the coronavirus outbreak. I am working with my colleagues in the cabinet, with government officials and our partners in local government to develop and finalise these plans.

“The key areas we are looking at are supporting and safeguarding the vulnerable and ensuring continuity of learning. We are looking in detail at how we can support and safeguard all those who benefit from free school meals and children with additional learning needs.”

In Scotland, closure on Friday was also confirmed. Education minister John Swinney is expected to set out more details today (Thursday, March 19). Speaking yesterday before the UK government announcement, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The clearest guidance I can give is that schools and nurseries will not reopen after the Easter break. At this stage I cannot promise that they will reopen before the summer holidays."

In Northern Ireland, first minister Arlene Foster also confirmed closures. She said: "We have agreed that all schools will close to pupils from Monday, March 23. The societal and economic impact of this measure will be enormous as parents have to adjust their routine to deal with this unplanned long-term closure."

School leaders said last night that there are now a number of complicated issues to work through for schools. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “School leaders have been making difficult choices already in response to a fast-moving situation. This decision is a vote of confidence in how schools have responded so far. Now, they should also be entitled to expect the necessary support from other organisations with civic responsibilities.

“The situation is moving very quickly, and we have more questions than answers at the moment. While NAHT and its school leader members stand ready to assist with this response, there are many complicated issues to address immediately as a result of the government’s announcement today.

“This will be our focus in the next few days, to assist our members with this enormous task and to work alongside the DfE to make this work on the ground. It will not be easy, but the scale of the crisis means that many solutions will have to be tried even though they are less than perfect.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gave his support to the decision to close schools and to cancel examinations this summer.

He added: “The priority is now to focus on maintaining provision for vulnerable children and those of key workers. We know that many schools have already drawn up plans to do exactly that and are well ahead of the curve. However, this is an exceptionally demanding situation and they will need support. We will be working closely with our members and the DfE to this end.

“We would reassure the public that schools have already prepared learning resources for pupils who are sent home and will communicate with families through the normal channels.”

Mr Williamson also confirmed that the DfE would be working with the BBC and others to support the creation of resources for use by students at home.

Mr Barton added: “This unprecedented situation clearly raises an enormous number of questions, which will need to be tackled over the coming days, weeks and months.”

The closures come as an emergency Coronavirus Bill is being rushed through Parliament giving government sweeping powers which will be limited in time for two years. For schools, the Bill details powers to allow the government to “require educational institutions or childcare providers to stay open”.

Further information

  • Department for Education: Schools, colleges and early years settings to close, March 2020: http://bit.ly/2U0GMO5
  • Department of Education: COVID-19 guidance for educational settings (last updated March 16, 2020): http://bit.ly/2Qsxs3a
  • Department of Health and Social Care: Corona Virus Bill: What it will do, March 2020: http://bit.ly/3d9R0mP


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