Consider ‘combining classes’ to keep pupils in school, DfE tells leaders

New guidance urges 'flexible' use of all staff to 'ensure settings remain open' amid Omicron disruption

New guidance urges 'flexible' use of all staff to 'ensure settings remain open' amid Omicron disruption

Schools have been told to use staff “more flexibly” and consider “combining classes” to ensure pupils continue learning in the classroom amid expected Omicron disruption next term.

The Department for Education has announced new measures today including the reintroduction of its recommendation that masks be worn in secondary school classrooms.

A total of 7,000 air cleaning units will also be made available as schools prepare to reopen next week amid a surge of the Omicron Covid variant.

An email to headteachers, sent today and seen by Schools Week, states high rates of Covid absence may also “cause difficulties”.

Staff absences crept up to 2.4 per cent last term, while more recent figures for NHS staff show absence doubled in a fortnight over the festive period.

The DfE guidance states: “Where workforce issues arise, you may wish to use existing teaching, temporary and support staff more flexibly where required to ensure your setting remains open, whilst ensuring that you continue to have appropriate support in place for pupils with SEND.

“As pupils do not need to be kept in consistent groups, you may wish to consider combining classes.”

Government officials are working with school leaders to share case studies on “developing and adopting flexible learning approaches”, which will be published “over the coming days”.

The one case study currently available states there is “no reason why hybrid lessons – teaching simultaneously to the classroom and to those accessing remotely – cannot be the norm in every classroom, should it be required”.

The government guidance states that live streaming of lessons to pupils at home is the “preferred method” where remote education is required.

Schools were told last term to prepare contingency measures in case of expected disruption in the spring term.

‘Do everything in your power to protect face-to-face learning’

In an open letter today, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi asked leaders to “do everything in your power to protect face to face learning for our children and young people”, adding he was “confident that you will of course make every endeavour to do so”.

But where “operational challenges caused by workforce shortages…make delivery of face-to-face teaching impossible”, he “encouraged” schools to “consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning”.

He said this involved “utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils”.

“This should only be on a short-term measure and settings should return to full-time in-person attendance for all pupils as soon as practicable,” Zahawi added.

“We have worked with leaders across the sector to share case studies that may help you to develop and adopt flexible learning approaches in your own setting and you can continue to access free bespoke support from the EdTech Demonstrator network.”

The government told schools that Ofsted won’t ask serving leaders to carry out inspections as part of the new measures to limit Omicron disruption.

Ofsted will also “encourage” schools “significantly impacted” by Covid to ask for inspections to be deferred.

A quarter of deferral requests last term were rejected by the inspectorate. And leaders have questioned why inspections are not simply being paused again in the face of disruption.

Just one air cleaning unit per every 3 schools

Meanwhile, staff have criticised the number of air units being offered to schools. The 7,000 units for mainstream schools now brings the total number funded by government to 8,000 – which averages just over one unit per every three schools.

The Liberal Democrats have called for Covid air filters in all English school classrooms, saying the £140 million cost would be half the price of the new royal yacht.

Schools will also only be able to access cleaning units when they have “sustained high” CO2 readings, which equates to recording 1,500 parts per million. This level of CO2 is classed as an “indicator of poor ventilation”.

Less than 800ppm implies a space is well ventilated – but some schools recorded CO2 levels up to three times as high as this.

Schools will also only be able to access the free units if “lengthy” building works that can not be completed by the end of February is required to address the poor ventilation.

Units, which will not start to be rolled out until February, will only be for teaching spaces, not staff rooms, halls, corridors or dining rooms.

The government says it will “prioritise spaces with the poorest ventilation to receive units based on criteria such as CO2 readings and occupation density”.

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  1. Peter Endersby

    It’s good to know we have such creative thinkers at the DfE, willing to share their innovative solution focused approach. Combining classes, of course, why didn’t we think of that!