83% of heads say inability to implement social distancing would prevent pupils' return

More than four in five headteachers believe the inability to implement “appropriate” social distancing measures in schools would prevent them from opening to more pupils.

A survey of members of the National Association of Head Teachers reveals 83 per cent believe the difficulties associated with social distancing in schools could stand in the way of the return of pupils.

The poll also found that 47 per cent of secondary respondents and 29 per cent of primary respondents believe social distancing is not possible for any phase in their school.

It comes as ministers prepare to announce their plans on how to get pupils back to school. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said this will be done in a “phased” manner.

Of the 7,319 NAHT members who responded to the survey, 83 per cent said they favoured a phased or staggered approach.

However, 64 per cent said they wanted balance in the way in the return of pupils is managed, with “clear expectations from government on which approach to prioritise, but with some flexibility for schools to exercise discretion based on their specific contexts”.

ASCL, England’s other leadership union, has already revealed that its members wanted “strong, evidence-based direction” and not guidance on issues relating to safety.

Among NAHT members, the top five prerequisites for reopening schools were a reasonable notice period (96 per cent), clarity on the number or proportion of pupils allowed in school at any one time (94 per cent), improved guidance on social distancing in schools (87 per cent), clearer guidance on supporting staff and pupils who live in households with high-risk individuals (81 per cent) and a clearer explanation of the scientific evidence underpinning the government’s decision (79 per cent).

Asked about the government’s proposal for a three-week lead-in to reopen schools, 82 per cent of respondents said they could prepare within that timescale, but 11 per cent felt they would need longer.

The survey also revealed big variations in terms of the availability of staff.

Nearly half of respondents said 71 per cent or more staff were currently available to attend school, while 25 per cent said less than half of their staff were available. The main reasons for non-attendance were that staff were in the at-risk category or lived with someone who was (93 per cent) or that staff were shielding or living with someone who was shielding (77 per cent).

Heads were also asked what actions they could “realistically take” to achieve social distancing in their schools.

Seventy-two per cent said the use of rotas to limit pupil numbers could be used, while 66 per cent said staggered lunch and breaktimes. Sixty per cent said rearranging of furniture and seating in classrooms would be needed, and 56 per cent suggested splitting classes or cohorts across multiple classrooms.

However, heads also believe that social distancing will be more possible for some key stages than others.