Coronavirus: Government must say why it wants to reopen schools, say heads

The government must explain why it wants to reopen schools in order to build “confidence and agreement” in its plans, headteachers have said.

Leadership union ASCL has published a summary of its members’ responses to questions posed by the Department for Education about the reopening of schools.

The document reveals the government is considering plans that would restrict the number of pupils that initially attend school, either through a rota system or by having certain year groups go back earlier than others.

Here are the main findings.

 

1. Make it clear WHY pupils are returning

Asked whether they would support an announcement about some kind of return for more pupils followed by a three-week lead-in period for them to prepare, most leaders surveyed by ASCL said this would be “appropriate”.

However, they also said it was “imperative that government articulates clearly the aim of gradually re-opening schools”.

“Is this largely for reasons based on education, on safeguarding and wellbeing, or on re-starting the economy? A clear explanation of the reasons behind any decisions taken is essential to building confidence and agreement among school and college staff, pupils, parents and the wider public.”

Many leaders “also made the point that such clarity of purpose is also required when determining which pupils should be prioritised”, the ASCL document states.

 

2. Give heads directions, not guidance, on safety

ASCL members surveyed said they wanted “strong, evidence-based direction” and not guidance on issues relating to safety.

This follows criticism that the government has left too much of the coronavirus response up to heads, resulting in inconsistencies between different schools’ approaches.

ASCL said its members needed directions on issues like the expectations on them to maintain social distancing, how staff and pupils can protect themselves, which staff will be expected in school and what PPE, testing and contract tracing will be provided.

Respondents also said they would need guidance on what new regulations would apply during the re-opening period, and what corresponding risk assessments and training would be needed.

 

3. Concerns about school transport

According to ASCL, many leaders raised concerns about transport to and from schools and colleges.

They want to know whether school buses and taxi services will operate, how social distancing might be achieved by groups travelling by bus or walking, and how staggered starts might work.

 

4. Guidance needed on social distancing

Leaders said they needed “support and guidance” in planning for the return of pupils in terms of changes needed to sites and buildings.

For example, schools are already thinking about things like classroom layouts, cleaning supplies, catering arrangements, visitors and third-party contractors, ASCL said.

“They would appreciate support and guidance with this planning, and clarity on any statutory actions.”

 

5. Call for clarity on staffing ratios

Many respondents to ASCL’s survey warned that up to a quarter of their staff could be in vulnerable capacities, and said ensuring sufficient staff can be on site and guaranteeing the safety of those on-site was a “major concern”.

“Clarity is required on whether staff:pupil ratios will be relaxed during this period (a particular concern in early years and AP settings).”

There are also “significant concerns” over the challenge of teaching more children in school while providing remote teaching to other pupils at home.

According to ASCL, almost all respondents expressed the view that following a “normal” timetable would be “almost impossible”.

 

6. Secondary heads favour staggered return

Asked for their views on whether schools should allow certain year groups back earlier than others or adopt a rota system, heads were split depending on where they worked.

Secondary leaders, for example, expressed a “distinct preference” for specific year groups returning first, with year 10 highlighted as the priority year group, followed by year 12.

However, some secondary heads said they wanted to prioritise the vulnerable, “digitally disadvantaged” pupils and those with SEND, rather than specific year groups.

ASCL said many respondents “felt that this wasn’t, in fact, an ‘either/or’ question, and that rotas would need to be introduced even if only one or two year groups were invited back to school, to comply with likely social distancing requirements”.

Primary leaders were split, with 45 per cent favouring prioritising certain year groups and 55 per cent in favour of a rota system.

Most leaders said they wanted clear government directions, not guidance, on which groups should be prioritised, and why.

 

7. AP heads prefer rotas, special schools divided

Heads in alternative provision said they were mainly in favour of a rota system.

But special schools were divided. Half said they favoured the return of certain year groups at certain times and a quarter favoured rotas.

The other quarter were those already open to large numbers on a case-by-case basis, who want to continue with that approach.

 

8. Heads name their demands

Asked what their pre-requisites needed to be in place before schools can open further, heads said they needed “unequivocal assurances with scientific evidence that it is safe to reopen – for both children and adults”.

Leaders also said the country’s situation must have passed the government’s five tests, and that they needed “strong, reliable, clear safety measures that the government takes responsibility for, including on PPE and testing”.

They also want “unequivocal, clear guidance” on procedures that must be followed, workable social distancing rules and, ideally, clarity on examination expectations for years 10 and 12 to inform timetable planning.