Boris Johnson’s reputation is riding on getting schools back next week. So can he do it?
Boris Johnson has described the return of schools as a national mission. (PA)
The Government’s entire coronavirus strategy rest on getting schools back open next week after months of remote learning. Eleanor Langford speaks to teachers, their unions and the chair of the Commons Education Committee to find out whether the crucial September 1 push can work.
On Friday 20 March, schools across England did something they’d never done before — they shut their gates to the vast majority of pupils, with no idea when they would reopen.
As the coronavirus crisis worsened, only the children of essential workers or those considered vulnerable were to be taught in classrooms. The rest would have to make do with remote teaching if they chose to be taught at all.
Now, six months after they left, children across England are preparing to return full-time, but to a school system very different from the one they left behind. In preparing for that return, the Government has been faced with an unenviable balancing act: weighing public health against the education of an entire generation of young people who risk being left behind.
Ministers are adamant that this balance has been struck, and that schools are “Covid-secure” provided they follow official guidance. But some teachers and their unions have a very different view of the Government’s messaging, while senior MPs believe the Government faces a major challenge in helping children who have seen half a year’s schooling disrupted catch up.
Although the teachers PoliticsHome spoke to — whose names have been changed to protect their identity — share the desire to bring all children back, they don’t yet share the Government’s confidence.
“It just feels a little bit vague,” Elizabeth, head of history at a large comprehensive, says, just days before the September 1 reopening deadline. “The school still hasn’t finalised any details. And, obviously, I know a lot of teachers from other schools in the area and further away, and most schools haven’t finalised anything yet because they’re still waiting on more guidance which I feel is a bit too late.”
Chemistry teacher Joseph says: “They seem to have given us a lot of recommendations, but not a lot of rules to follow... It almost leaves it up to us and it makes it very difficult to know if we're in the right or not.”
Alice, a history teacher and head of Year 12, tells PoliticsHome: “It feels a bit like the Emperor's New Clothes, like everyone's kind of going along with it, despite the fact that we all know that it's BS, quite frankly.”
Under the Government's plans, schools will be split into ‘bubbles’, usually comprising single year groups, which are kept apart to minimise spread. Official guidance does allow for some flexibility in this, with officials stressing that there is not an “all-or-nothing” approach to keeping these bubbles separate.
But Alice is among those lacking confidence in the plans, amid concern they will fall apart outside the school gates. “They've got brothers and sisters in other year groups, they’re going to go home and socialise,” she says of her pupils. “We've gone to such extraordinary measures to get the school day functioning, with different staggered start times, lunchtimes, staggered finish times. And, knowing what teenagers are like, as soon as they're outside of school they will start mixing together.”
Elizabeth fears the bubbles won’t “really work because you don’t have the staffing to facilitate that”. And she asks: “Say a student tests positive. What if the teacher has been teaching that student and they've then gone and taught another year group, what happens with that?”
"My current classroom, right at the very start when we had this two-metre rule, I worked out that I could fit a maximum of eight students in my room" - Joseph, chemistry teacher
Trying to set timetables with these bubbles in mind has also been a major headache for headteachers across the country. The Government advice is to stagger start times for different years to minimise mixing. But in many schools, that is easier said than done.
“If you're in an area of the country where children are travelling on public transport to get to schools you can't stagger them because they're all coming in on the same transport or there's not enough transport to do anything else,” says Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU).
Segregated lunch breaks also mean more time on break duty for teachers, says Elizabeth, who fears staff will face “a very heavy workload”. “Normally, I work six days a week and I can easily work 12-15 hours a day,” she says. “I don't know how that's going workf if there’s any more.”
Some schools were already struggling with capacity before coronavirus hit — a situation that only will be exacerbated by the social distancing requirements. “My current classroom, right at the very start when we had this two-metre rule, I worked out that I could fit a maximum of eight students in my room,” says Joseph, the chemistry teacher. “I've got quite a nice lab, it's a decent size. I can usually fit 35 kids in there.”
The Government has now adopted a ‘one-metre plus rule’, but even this reduced distance could present a challenge, Joseph says. “Some of our spaces, like our main corridor right through the centre of the school, I'm fairly certain I could touch both walls. So trying to keep children apart in that space is going to be incredibly difficult.”
'WE NEED SOME CLARIFICATION'
The NEU believes many of the issues highlighted by teachers could have been avoided. Courtney, the union’s general secretary, says: “They should have been preparing for this by finding extra teachers and extra teaching spaces so the class sizes could be smaller, because our country does have class sizes that are bigger than the average in European countries and that makes the possibility of spread more likely.”
One solution that some schools are considering is teaching only core subjects. But Joseph fears that even teaching just science, maths and English could be difficult.
He explains how Bunsen burners, used in chemistry experiments, can only be used in laboratories with gas taps. Chemicals can’t be used in any room that is carpeted and can be difficult to safely transport around a school. And, equipment used in physics experiments needs to be infected after each use, limiting the number of groups that can use it each day.
“There's a lot of content to cover. [The curriculum] is very content-heavy, unfortunately,” Joseph adds, “and we've already had to make decisions on what's going to be a practical, what we can learn by discovery, and what’s going to have to be a bit more prescriptive.”
One solution, he explains, is to have “some of our lab techs potentially record their demonstrations” to show them in class as videos.
But, even if teachers navigate the issues of bubbles and timetabling, some still face uncertainty about what localised lockdowns will mean for their pupils.
"I cannot see how there won't be a real significant spike after about five weeks of being back. I mean, I really hope that I'm wrong" - Alice, head of year 12
Ministers have said schools will be the last to shut in such circumstances, and they are mandating the wearing of masks at school in affected areas as an extra precaution. But, again, some teachers fear the Government is overlooking key practicalities.
“We do have some staff and some students, probably only about 10% of them, but they are currently in lockdown,” Elizabeth explains. “So we're not quite sure, if they say schools in that area are shut, well, is that the schools that are shut or is it that the students from other areas can't come in?"
She warns: “We've not been told that whatsoever. We need some clarification on that because a lot of students must have to travel between areas.”
Alice, the year 12 head, meanwhile fears that these perceived flaws will not just pile work on teachers and risk the health of students, but could take a significant toll on the wider community.
“Our school has got high proportions of ethnic minority students and I know that many live in multi- generational households,” she explains. “They're going to go home with coronavirus that their friends caught, and they're going to transmit that straight away to their grandparents or aunts and uncles. I cannot see how there won't be a real significant spike after about five weeks of being back. I mean, I really hope that I'm wrong.”
Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, and a critic of the way the Government handled this year’s A-level and GCSE grading row, believes the Department for Education is so far providing the support schools will need to reopen next week. “I’ve looked at the guidance on the Department for Education website and it seems pretty extensive in terms of what schools should be doing,” he tells PoliticsHome.
“And schools have, as far as I understand it, a hotline to the officials at DfE to guide them. They’ve got local authorities and Public Health England to guide them. So I do think there is a lot of information out there.”
“Lots of the questions that we're talking about now should have been resolved" - Kevin Courtney, the National Education Union
But he says: “I think what’s needed is reassurance. There needs to be more clarity and more people saying what’s on the website, and then we know that people are aware that there are lots — pages and pages — of guidance on the DfE website.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education told PoliticsHome that the full-time return of children to the classroom was “a national priority”, describing schools as “the best place for their education, development and wellbeing”.
“This will be particularly important for disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs,” they said.
“We have always been clear in our guidance about the protective measures that schools should implement to reduce risks for staff and pupils as far as possible.”
And the DfE added: “Parents are becoming increasingly confident in their children returning to school, which is testament to the work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.”
The NEU argues, however, that the guidance has fallen flat because the Government’s wider management of the coronavirus crisis has been “wrong over the whole time period”.
“The messaging has been not good enough, especially throughout the Dominic Cummings affair. It damages the Government's credibility,” he says. “Lots of the questions that we're talking about now should have been resolved.”
There is one area where teachers, unions and the government all largely agree. Once the public health aspect is managed, schools must next work out how to teach children who’ve been out of education for an unprecedented half a year.
“I actually think the biggest challenge is going to be looking after those children who've not been learning in the lockdown and helping them catch up,” Halfon says. “And I think that is going to be very tough.”
The Harlow MP says: “We don't know the effects on children coming back to school not just in terms of academic learning, but their mental health and what stresses they could have had, any safeguarding crises at home.”
“I actually think the biggest challenge is going to be looking after those children who've not been learning in the lockdown and helping them catch up" - Conservative MP and education committee chair Rob Halfon
Four weeks into school closures, just 0.9% of children were attending school, according to government data. As for the remaining 99.1%, one study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) suggested that four in 10 pupils had done little or no work since schools shut. Another, by University College London, put that figure at around one in five.
Joseph says: “Even within one class all the students are going to have very, very different experiences of lockdown. So I think we're going to need to spend some time getting back into school and back into the routine of things,
“We've spoken quite a lot in my school about not examining the students as soon as we get back in. Our focus is finding that love of learning again and enjoying being back at school. So a lot of what we're going to do is going to be sort of formative assessment rather than summative.”
At Alice’s school, there is much more confidence that the pupils can catch up. “Our head teacher pointed out that students have lost only 3% of their time in school across their whole school career,” she says. “So, their message is, you haven't lost that much time.”
Her students’ mental health, however, still comes first. Alice and her team plan to meet individually with all of her 300-strong year group. “Their academic qualification is massively important, but we have a duty of safeguarding,” she explains.
Joseph fears that the impact of lockdown on young people is already beginning to show in his school. “When we had our Year 10s back in we had something like 99% attendance,” he says. “Nearly every student was in. I do worry that some of them will have missed out on that social interaction and social development. That's going to be massive.”
'SO BE IT'
At some point, Halfon suggests, it will also be necessary for the Government to understand exactly how the pandemic has affected the children living through it.
The Education Committee chairman (pictured above) says: “There’ll need to be some kind of analysis — whether it’s testing or other means, I'm pretty open minded about that — on how pupils and students have been affected by this, by what’s happened to their learning. Because unless you know that you don’t know how to proceed.”
The Government will be hoping that next week’s return to the classroom can restore its battered reputation after weeks of negative headlines over the A-levels grading U-turn, and a late-stage decision to alter the advice on mask-wearing.
But for some teachers, Alice says, it may already be too late.
“This is one time I've really seen teachers who are always saying 'we're not getting political' just become very, very political," the history teacher says.
"And [the headteacher] is basically saying, 'I'm rebelling, I'm going to do what's best for my teachers myself and the kids at this school. And if that's not in line, exactly, with government measures, then so be it.'”