Schooling in a time of Covid

Dave Lister on a litany of broken promises, planning failures and continuing safety anxieties

There is a continuing need to balance the urgent requirement to provide education in classrooms for all pupils with the equally urgent requirement to keep staff, pupils and their families safe. Nobody wants children to be out of school any longer than necessary. Many of them have endured six months of lockdown with varied take-up of online learning. They want to be in school, to see their friends again and most parents want this too, as often it enables them to work more easily. Back to the office may have become stay at home but supervision of online learning and general childcare are hardly conducive to effective home-working.

England, where the government has direct control, is the focus here, but some points are also relevant to the other countries that make up the UK.

We have reported that any government would have found the balance between back-to-school and keeping everyone safe difficult to achieve. This government has been sadly lacking, failing to provide an effective track and trace system, failing to provide adequate funding for schools in these exceptional times and failing to plan adequately for a possible range of future outcomes. Even Conservative supporters get this. In a recent survey by Conservative Home, the hapless Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson was rated as 24th out of 24 cabinet members for competence – even worse than Boris Johnson at 23rd.

The ineffectiveness of Test and Trace has led to considerable numbers of school staff (and pupils) remaining at home, waiting to be tested or waiting for the results of tests. The result of this is that schools are facing difficulties in covering lessons. One school even has contingency plans for classes of 60 in the event of absence worsening in the winter months and this may be the shape of things to come. A northern secondary head reported on the Today programme on 7th October that 500 out of 1200 pupils at his school were currently absent. All this has led Keir Starmer to call on the Government to put children at the front of the queue for testing, adding that as a result of the Government’s failure to do this “we are seeing a flood of school closures”.

There is also concern about vulnerable teachers who have been told they must return to their classrooms. The National Education Union says that they should be supported to work from home, especially in areas where cases are particularly high. Then there are special needs children, about one-fifth of whom are absent from school, often because schools do not have the capacity to deal with their complex medical needs in a Covid-safe manner.

There must also be a risk of schools having to close completely as winter approaches. This may be in areas with a high incidence of Covid cases or it may be the result of a more general lockdown.

The issue of funding is another area of concern. Schools have been provided with additional funding but this is far from adequate when costs of additional cover teachers, PPE equipment, extra cleaning and adaptations to their buildings are taken into account. Teachers are already complaining that they and their pupils are feeling the cold from windows and doors being left open. How much worse will this be in the winter months and what will the effect be on heating costs?

Then there are the Government’s planning failures. There have been real concerns over a growing learning gap between the middle-class children whose families are well provided with computers and laptops and more disadvantaged children, some of whose families might lack these things. Laptops were promised but often failed to materialise. Also to be remembered is Boris Johnson’s promise of catch-up tutoring over the summer months. Again, this did not materialise. The promise is now for November or even January but the tutors will either be unemployed teachers or non-specialists with two weeks’ training. As Nick Brook, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, commented: “The cavalry may simply arrive too late to be of any help to many schools”.

A further area of concern is how older students will be assessed in the summer term. They have missed perhaps six months of face-to-face teaching. Surely, if it is still possible for exams to take place, they should be examined on what they have learned, not on what they have been unable to learn. Scotland has now gone further than this and cancelled next year’s GCSE-equivalent examinations altogether.

There has also been considerable criticism of Ofsted’s determination to visit schools this term. School leaders and staff are working flat out to introduce all the required safety measures and to develop online learning and are unlikely to welcome this added pressure.

Ongoing demands on government should be that it:

  • moves rapidly to improve the Test and Trace system (also required more generally of course), transferring it to the public sector;
  • provides adequate funding to support schools in protecting their pupils and staff;
  • plans effectively for all likely contingencies.

School staff generally have responded magnificently to the pressures they have been subjected to. It is a pity that the response of our Tory Government has been so far from magnificent.

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