Schools leaders believe half of parents will keep their children at home, face opening with 25 per cent fewer staff and would have preferred welcoming pupils on a rota basis.
A phased reopening of some primary school to pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 has begun today, with secondary schools expected to offer some face-to-face contact with Year 10 and Year 12 students from June 15.
A study of 1,233 senior leaders of mainstream schools, conducted by the National Foundation for Education Research between May 7 and 17 and published today, looked at how prepared schools are.
Here’s the key findings
1. 2 in 5 primaries say it’s ‘not feasible’ to open
Just 18 per cent of school leaders surveyed thought it would be “very/entirely feasible” to open to priority year groups from June while maintaining remote learning.
A much larger proportion thought the proposals would be “somewhat feasible” – 41 per cent of primary and 46 per cent of secondary leaders.
But 41 per cent of primaries said it was not at all or not very feasible. This figure was 17 per cent for secondary leaders.
The biggest obstacles school leaders feel least prepared for include managing pupil movement around school – 66 per cent – and organising school space to enable social distancing – 65 per cent.
Government guidance has admitted it’s not possible for young children to social distance in the classroom, instead youngsters should be kept in separate “bubbles” to ensure if there is an outbreak it can be contained.
A poll of nearly 3,000 members of the NAHT school leaders’ union last week found just 12 per cent will increase their pupils numbers “completely in line with the government’s proposals” over the next two weeks.
Three-quarters said they will bring back more pupils, but do so in a more phased approach, while one in ten said they wouldn’t reopen at all in the next fortnight.
2. Schools coping with 25% fewer staff
In May, school leaders were operating with 75 per cent of their normal teaching capacity on average because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Plus, over a fifth – 29 per cent – of teachers could only work at home.
Senior leaders said they will need extra staff to teach and supervise pupils at school, while also providing distance learning for pupils at home or to cover for absent staff.
More than half of leaders – 53 per cent – said they were ‘somewhat prepared’ for staffing lessons and staffing the school site. However, this dropped to 14 per cent and 19 per cent respectively when asked if they were ‘very prepared’.
The report does point out that the research was conducted in mid-May and perspective may have shifted over the last two weeks in response to new information and guidance.
The government has admitted that home learning may suffer as schools welcome back more pupils.
3. Nearly half of children may stay at home
Senior leaders predict that when schools do open to more pupils, 46 per cent of families on average will keep their children at home.
NFER says this may be because these are families who need to self-isolate or they have concerns about sending their children back to school.
However, schools with the highest proportion of pupils on free school meals estimate that more of their children will be kept at home – 50 per cent – compared with 42 per cent from schools with the lowest proportion.
There are also some regional differences. Half of children were estimated to stay at home if in north west schools, compared with 41 per cent in the south west.
The north west on Thursday had a rate of 347.5 cases per 100,000 compared to the 135.4 in the south west.
4. Schools thought rotas were more feasible
Government guidance for primary schools warns against using rotas for pupils either daily or weekly.
However, use of rotas – to have different year groups or classes in school on different days – seemed popular with schools: it was seen as somewhat or entirely feasible by 65 per cent of primary leaders surveyed.
This is compared to 59 per cent saying opening to priority year groups could be somewhat feasibly or very/entirely feasible.
NFER say this may be an area that the government needs to look at again at their advice for primary schools, in line with the options explored by SAGE.
Schools minister Nick Gibb has said this week that the government were looking at considering rotas to get all primary pupils back.
5. What school leaders wanted
NFER said at the time of being surveyed, school leaders want clear instruction underpinned by scientific advice, coupled with details guidance on specific challenges.
They also said they will need additional funding for staffing and essential supplies.
Several school leaders said that they wanted rules, rather than guidance or advice, because schools want parents to be aware what is expected of schools and parents themselves.
NFER added while the pandemic continues “it will be important for the government, local authorities, academy trusts and schools themselves to ensure appropriate messaging to parents, given the extent to which senior leaders expect parents to keep their children at home”.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the return of pupils would be “phased and cautious” adding that he was “enormously grateful for all the planning and preparation the sector has done in the lead up to welcoming these first pupils back”.