Press Pause and await further instructions

Parents will wonder why we haven’t got everything sorted for lockdown schooling as quickly as the Prime Minister suggested in his address to the nation on Monday 4th January (see it here).

He announced at 8:00 pm that all schools would move to remote leaning from the next morning. ‘Schools are closed’ was the message, along with the health protection message, ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. ‘Schools remain closed’ seems to be the message from some quarters.

Schools got background guidance from the DfE three days later – 62 pages of it, available from Gov.uk.

And that was okay – our parents have been pretty fabulous really, much like staff and pupils. They / You have heeded the request to keep your children at home if it is safe to do so i.e. there is someone at home to care for them. Thank you for all that help, patience and understanding - it cannot be easy for any family.

Then two messages came to the fore – that schools were not in fact ‘closed’ but were open only for vulnerable pupils (a wide definition) and children of critical workers (also grown since the first lockdown in March).

Our employer, Sheffield City Council, had had to change tack since the week before. From the position of emphasising how the situation in Sheffield was nowhere near as severe as in other parts of the country, and that it was safe for schools to fully open after the Christmas and New Year break, SCC moved to telling schools that we should look to prioritise places for children with two critical worker parents (one if a single parent) and only where the parent was not able to work at home.

Trade Unions were, quite rightly, on behalf of their members, applying pressure about staff safety in schools. It should be noted that the guidance to schools on a system of controls emphasises that children are safe in schools – ‘The majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness only’ (page 6). This reassures adults in school as professionals, but not as individuals. The guidance talks about the need to reduce contacts – ‘we now need to use every lever at our disposal to reduce all our social contacts wherever possible’.

In the summer term of 2020 this school faced criticism when the time came for ‘wider opening’ as we could not deliver this as advertised and promoted. We did not (and do not) have teaching spaces to house enough groups. We did not (and do not) have enough teaching staff to lead enough groups.

What is new is the ‘direction’ from the Secretary of State to require schools to deliver ‘remote learning’. He has used this power to swiftly increase both its breadth and its length – now four hours a day minimum of learning activities in Key Stage 2.

The new guidance gives dissatisfied parents a direction, to contact Ofsted if remote learning is not as they would like. Enough complaints and Ofsted will visit. Not what I would call the ‘spirit of cooperation’, but very clear as a warning to schools.

This school faces a problem that has three distinct solutions. One will dissatisfy critical worker parents; one will dissatisfy parents of children who cannot attend (and Ofsted); the third will potentially bankrupt the school.

We have around 250 pupils who are the children of critical workers. We have already identified, or had parents ask us to identify, a further 40 children as ‘vulnerable’. Provision that has all 290 attending will not ‘reduce all our social contacts’ if we continue with classes of 30. I do not feel comfortable asking the adults in school to work in an environment with such an elevated risk (the new strain is about 60% for transmissible, so risk of infection is surely higher, and schools have been identified as ‘vectors of transmission’). I will not, therefore, have teachers teaching groups of 30 until we have greater reassurance about their safety.

At 20 pupils per class, we would need 15 classes. This would leave just one teacher spare to lead the remote learning for the 190 pupils, surely the largest class size of any school in the UK. This simply could not be good enough quality and so I am sure we would have Ofsted complaints going in.

We therefore need a means of having either fewer children in school (so more teachers are freed to run remote learning), or of employing more teachers (so we can free more of our regular teachers to run remote learning) or we do not provide remote learning in any great form.

We do the first of these three by NOT making provision for all the vulnerable children and all the children of critical workers. Those who do not get a place for their child will be sorely aggrieved, and may, justly perhaps, complain. Taking in three bubbles in each year group would allow one teacher per year group to lead on remote learning. It would mean putting a limit on numbers of children from the two groups attending, even though DfE guidance says ‘schools should not limit attendance of these groups.’

The second method works by employing Supply staff, at least one per year group (if we can source good staff quickly enough and all the way through), which could allow us to release our own teachers, one per year group. But the financial cost will not be repaid by government, national or local, and would cause a budget overspend. Budget overspends have to be recouped at some point – so it could be spend now and lose staffing in a year’s time. Classes of 40 in September 2021 perhaps? Just through to February half term could cost school in excess of £20,000, and there is no end date yet on this lockdown.

The third option would be making in-school provision for all vulnerable children and all children of critical workers (whether that is one or two parents who are critical workers, and regardless of whether they work part-time or full, at home or in the workplace). It would mean effectively providing so little contact with someone in school for all those children not attending as to make such provision knowingly very poor indeed. We might as well deem it no remote learning in the ways DfE have described it.

I have asked staff and Governors which option they think we should be heading for. Governors are firmly in favour of the first option. Staff would prefer a mix of the first two. No group thinks that making no provision for remote learning is the way to proceed.

On Friday this week, SCC advised schools to ‘press pause’ and take stock, to reflect on guidance, wait for clarification, and not to rush things.

That simple advice is why we do not have full implementation yet.

Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives

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