Coronavirus and education: Making the most of in-school learning (part one)

This post was written on Monday 23 March. It is the first of two blogs offering advice on staffing schools during the partial closure and on making the most of in-school learning for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children in society.  

Before we begin, I think it’s worth reviewing the latest government guidance on how schools are affected by the coronavirus…

What does the government say about the partial closure of schools?

On Friday 20 March schools closed their doors to a majority of their pupils. Those doors are unlikely to reopen again for several months. Indeed, I would not anticipate schools returning to normal until September.

The government’s decision to order this partial closure was taken on the advice of scientists who said that, if children can stay at home safely, they should do so in order to limit the chance of the coronavirus spreading.

The rational is simple: the fewer children making the journey to school, the lower the risk that the coronavirus can spread and infect vulnerable people in society.

Schools are therefore asked to continue to provide care for a limited number of children – children who are vulnerable, and children whose parents are critical to the Covid-19 response and cannot be safely cared for at home.

Vulnerable children include pupils who are supported by social care, those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including child in need plans, on child protection plans, ‘looked after’ children, young carers, disabled children and those with education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Parents whose work is critical to the Covid-19 response include those who work in one of the following key sectors:

• Health and social care
• Education and childcare
• Key public services
• Food and other necessary goods
• Public safety and national security
• Transport
• Utilities, communication and financial services

For further details on the specific job roles that fall within each of the above categories, see http://www.gov.uk.

The government has made it clear that even if one or both parents are a key worker but that they can, nevertheless, ensure their child is kept at home, then they should do so.

Whilst the children of key workers should only attend school if absolutely necessary, the latest government advice, issued on Sunday 22 March, said that there’s an expectation that vulnerable children who have a social worker will attend school, so long as it is safe for them to do so.

Where a parent/carer of a vulnerable child does not want to bring them to school, the social worker and schools should explore the reasons for this, directly with the parent, and help to resolve any concerns or difficulties wherever possible.

Where a parent/carer of a vulnerable child is concerned about the risk of their child contracting the virus, the school should talk through these anxieties with the parent following the advice set out by Public Health England which you can find here.

On the matter of pupils with EHCPs attending school, the latest guidance has this to say:

“Those with an EHCP should be risk-assessed by their school in consultation with the local authority and parents, to decide whether they need to continue to be offered a school place in order to meet their needs, or whether they can safely have their needs met at home. Many children and young people with EHCPs can safely remain at home.”

It’s worth noting here that, whilst trying to minimise the number of pupils who attend school, headteachers can still be flexible. It is reasonable for schools and local authorities, the government says, to take a judgment on including pupils who have been referred to children’s social care but not yet appointed a social worker, although they should take care to balance this with overall numbers of pupils going to school in their local area.”

However, the government cautions that “eligibility for free school meals should not, in and of itself, be a determining factor in assessing vulnerability.”

These, by way of summary, are the key principles that schools and parents have been asked to follow:

1. If it is at all possible for children to be at home, then they should be.
2. If a child needs specialist support, is vulnerable or has a parent who is a critical worker, then educational provision will be available for them.
3. Parents should not rely for childcare upon those who are advised to be in the stringent social distancing category such as grandparents, friends, or family members with underlying conditions.
4. Parents should also do everything they can to ensure children are not mixing socially in a way which can continue to spread the virus. They should observe the same social distancing principles as adults.
5. Residential special schools, boarding schools and special settings continue to care for children wherever possible.

Before we consider what education should look like for those pupils who continue to attend school, it’s important to take heed of the above. Some schools have, with the very best of motives, signalled their intention to offer places to any child whose parents want them to continue attending. This runs counter to the guidance and runs the risk of spreading the virus and endangering lives. Now is not the time for well-intentioned gestures which could expedite the spread of the coronavirus. Schools need to take a firm line and only open their doors for the pupils who have no absolutely alternative or for whom staying at home could put them in harm’s way.

Let me underline this point and it may sound dramatic, but we are in dramatic times: any child – or staff member – who attends school when there is a viable alternative is a wholly avoidable danger to life.

Does this mean all schools will remain open and fully staffed?

No. The government has made clear that schools are being asked to remain open only where they can.

The government understands that some may be unable to do so, especially if they are experiencing severe staff shortages.

The government says it will work with local authorities and regional schools’ commissioners to use neighbouring schools to continue to support vulnerable children and children of critical workers. In the latest guidance issued on Sunday 22 March, academy schools – who are ordinarily free of local authority control – are specifically directed to work with local authorities to coordinate local provision.

In the coming weeks, I think it’s likely we’ll see an increasing number of schools close in a coordinated effort to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, and that there will be ‘hubs’ open to pupils from several neighbouring schools, staffed by colleagues from different schools on a rota. Rules will be relaxed to ensure staff can work in different settings and that staff in schools which close can support those schools with high demand.

What else has the government said about school closures?

Exams

The government has also announced that primary assessments, including SATs, and exams including GCSEs, AS levels and A levels will not go ahead this summer.

The exam regulator, Ofqual, and exam boards will work with teachers to provide ‘calculated grades’ to pupils whose exams have been cancelled this summer.

The calculated grade process will take into account a range of evidence including, for example, non-exam assessment and mock results, and the approach will be standardised between schools.

Pupils who do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance will have the opportunity to sit an exam, as soon as is reasonably possible after schools and colleges open again.

I note the situation regarding exams because schools should not consider it their priority to continue teaching to a test. That ship has sailed.

Of course, we want to continue to provide a valuable and meaningful learning experience for all pupils, whether they are in school or at home, and we want to help pupils who are due to progress in September to be prepared for the next stage of their education, but we are limited in terms of what this will look like and how effective it will be. And right now, no one needs to feel guilty about not following a robust curriculum.

Nor do we want to perpetuate an achievement gap between those pupils who remain in school and those who will be home-schooled, and between the most disadvantaged, who will find working remotely more difficult, and the least disadvantaged, who will have access to better resources and support at home.

Free school meals

The government has also announced that pupils who receive a free school meal will be provided with an alternative to ensure they continue to get access to a free meal whilst at home.

Headteachers can decide which of the available options will be best for families in their area. The options are as follows:

• Schools can provide food on site
• Schools can arrange deliveries, or
• Schools can purchase a voucher to be given to the family.

Again, I mention this here because it may be a consideration when thinking of how we staff our schools in the weeks and months ahead. Do we continue to use our catering teams to provide meals for pupils in school and to be delivered to FSM pupils at home? Or do we close our kitchens to reduce staffing levels and improve hygiene, and therefore lower the risk of spreading the virus, and use external food suppliers for all pupils who we have a duty to feed?

In the second part of this blog we will turn to the question of what education will look like for pupils to continue to attend school…

Matt

@mj_bromley

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