The coronavirus crisis and schools – part one

This blog was written on Tuesday 17 March, two days before the government announced it was ordering the closure of schools in England – except for the children of key workers and for vulnerable learners – on Friday 20 March and for the foreseeable future.

We are in the grip of a global crisis. Not since the Second World War have nations been compelled to take such drastic action to protect their peoples.

You need only look at the government’s Emergency Coronavirus Bill to see that we’ve been put on a war-footing. It represents an extraordinary power-grab for the executive.

The Bill has this to say about education: The government will “provide powers to require educational institutions … to stay open or relax some requirements around education legislation in order to help institutions run effectively during the event of an emergency”.

In practice this could include reducing teacher ratios, adapting school meal standards and relaxing provisions for those with special educational needs.

But, at the time of writing, the Bill is yet to be passed into law and the government is being slow to make decisions to help schools cope with the coronavirus crisis.

There’s an old saying, ‘Advisors advise, ministers decide’. But ministers are yet to take any firm action to help educators and, in lieu of national policy, it’s become beholden on individual schools to make crucial decisions. This is not a coordinated effort and the inconsistencies in schools’ approaches are leading to criticisms from worried parents and others.

To be clear, there is no right and wrong here, only our best guesses. And context really does matter. Schools are doing all they can to help their staff and students and to support their communities. Now is not the time to criticise their actions, or indeed inaction; we need to stand together and help each other through this.

The government has not, at the time of writing and of course this is a fast-moving situation, taken any firm action to support schools except to suspend Ofsted inspections – a decision taken only after an ill-judged announcement from the inspectorate that they would be continuing with ‘business as usual’.

The government’s only commitment at the time of writing is to keep schools open.

It seems to me that they wish to do this for a variety of reasons: to ensure students’ education is not disrupted; to provide childcare for the children of essential public servants such as healthcare workers; to avoid students socialising outside of school in public places and/or being looked after by elderly grandparents who are at greater risk of serious illness; to protect the economy; and to ensure the most vulnerable children in society are supported, not least through the provision of a free school meal.

All these reasons are valid and, indeed, understandable. However, there are two problems with this current plan:

Firstly, the advice for schools to stay open runs counter to other government advice urging people to avoid social gatherings and to self-isolate for 14 days as soon as they or a family member displays symptoms of Covid-19.

As people take heed of this advice to stay home and self-isolate, student and staff absences have continued to rise, forcing many schools to take tough unilateral decisions to close or partially close – in defiance of government policy – because they simply do not have the staff to safely look after students.

Secondly, the advice neglects to take account of the fact that we are not operating in normal times. The government’s Chief Medical Officer has said that Covid-19 is not akin to the seasonable flu, as previously suggested, and as such the pandemic is unlikely to subside in the spring and summer months. No, we are in this for the long-haul. Schools will be disrupted for months and possibly longer.

As such, even if we can stave off full-scale school closures for the time being, which I doubt, it’s highly unlikely schools will survive this crisis until the end of the academic year.

Decisions therefore need to be taken now to help struggling school staff cope with the current pressures and to start planning for what happens next.

For example, Key Stage 2 SATs could be cancelled immediately. Pre-emptive action could also be taken now about whether to postpone or cancel GCSE and A Level exams.

Even if schools can remain open for their exam classes, there are already too many young people – and indeed teachers – self-isolating and so exam outcomes will be affected.

Some headteachers have suggested exams be postponed until the next academic year, perhaps even with a full year’s deferment. But, personally, I cannot see how this will work because our school system simply does not have the capacity to house an extra cohort of students. Where, I ask, will the EYFS cohort go?

Nor can I see how we can fairly delay students’ progression to the next stage. They must be allowed to move on in September as planned, be that into secondary education, post-16 studies or onto university and/or employment with training.

The only solution I can see working right now is to substitute exam results for teacher assessments and allow progression in September as normal. This suggestion is certainly not without its problems, but it is, I think, the least disruptive path to take.

But all this speculation brings us back to the key point: it is unfair that individual schools and headteachers are having to make such life-changing and potentially life-saving decisions alone and without a coordinated response. Not least, working in isolation takes an enormous amount of time and resource, all of which could be better directed elsewhere.

How are headteachers responding?

The current crisis is forcing headteachers into an impossible position. On the one hand, they are hard-wired to keep their schools open come what may. But they are also pre-programmed to protect their staff and students from harm.

The trouble is, these two driving forces are not compatible with one another…

In keeping schools open, headteachers run the risk of spreading the virus and putting lives in danger.

By closing, heads risk damaging their students’ education and future life chances, and, in the case of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable, children’s health and wellbeing.

Many schools have already taken unilateral decisions to close to all but their exam classes, the most vulnerable, and the children of essential public servants. Some have done so to try to protect their students from infection; others have had no choice but to cancel classes because staff absences have left them without the requisite number of adults to supervise students safely.

Most schools have worked night and day to ensure that some form of education can continue when students are at home, building online learning platforms.

A lot of schools, again to fill a vacuum in Whitehall, have taken extraordinary steps to ensure students who are eligible for free school meals are fed when they’re not in school. Some schools have begun transferring money directly into parents’ accounts; others have purchased supermarket vouchers to send home.

What does all this teach us?

This is, let me be clear, an unprecedented crisis and, by definition, there is little schools could have done to better prepare for it. We are all navigating the darkness on this one.

In the second part of this blog, in which I will provide some advice on how to continue to manage this current crisis, what I say does not imply any criticism and is certainly not to be read as granny’s guide to sucking eggs. Call it the wisdom of crowds, perhaps; a means of drawing together some good practice and well-intentioned advice.

 

Matt

@mj_bromley

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