The Government is quite rightly trying to get children back to school as soon as possible. All children need an education, vulnerable children need the safety of school, and the economy needs the childcare that schools provide.
When and how schools can reopen is a difficult judgment to make, and all parents will want to make their own decisions about when their children should return to school. But ministers have to make plans on behalf of the education system. They have set an ambition for primary schools to open for three year groups in the week of 1 June. The current plan is for these pupils to return on a permanent basis (i.e. without ‘rotas’ of different groups attending school on different days) and for them to be taught in ‘bubbles’ of 15 children each i.e. half the usual primary school class size of 30.
While I support the ambition for reopening schools to these pupils on 1 June, I have some serious concerns about how it will be achieved. I am even more concerned whether and how further cohorts of children will be admitted to school in the weeks to come. The current intention is that all primary school children will have a month with their teachers before the end of term, which means schools could be fully back in action by late June.
I spoke this week to a group of headteachers from across the constituency. All confirmed the extreme pressure that they and their staff are under. They are teaching vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers on school premises; providing online learning for the majority of their pupils who are at home; and preparing for 1 June.
All the heads confirmed that they ‘will make 1 June work’, but expressed serious anxiety about more year groups arriving in the weeks that follow. Quite simply, the guidance on social distancing - the ‘bubbles’ of 15, the requirement to keep two metres apart, and the expectation that the same adult stays with each ‘bubble’ all day (including during breaks) - is going to make teaching very hard for the three year groups coming back first. It seems simply impossible to deliver education in this format for the whole school.
Issues include the challenge for small school sites to find space to teach more groups; the shortage of teachers, Teaching Assistants and other adults to teach and monitor the small groups (including when some classes have job-share teachers, which will not be allowed); and the need to support remotely the children from year groups who are expected to return but whose parents choose to keep them back.
Heads are also concerned about the lack of notice they receive for changes to guidance. This reflects the fact that we are in a fast-paced situation. Because we all want to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so, government is having to plan in the context of data, and therefore scientific advice, that keeps changing. This makes it very hard for schools to plan, but is a necessary feature of the crisis.
Government is closely monitoring what schools are saying about the return policy, and I am confident that the guidance schools are expected to follow when children return will reflect what is possible. I am glad that Wiltshire Council has confirmed they will support any headteacher’s decision on how and when to open their schools.
A way needs to be found through the various pressures. It strikes me that we can have all children back at the same time or we can have social distancing; we can’t have both. The way to maintain social distancing is to have children back on rotas i.e. only half the pupils back at one time. Alternatively, we need to accept that social distancing on school grounds - especially for the youngest children - is next to impossible anyway, and relax these rules. We should of course be guided by scientific advice whether this is sensible or not.
To conclude, I fully support the Government’s efforts to get schools back up and running, but I share heads’ anxieties about the practicalities. I have written to the Education Secretary with these concerns, and I hope we can all work together to find a way through.