I don’t want to speak out of line and I know that teachers are doing a magnificent job to hold things together but the truth is that schools are descending into chaos within weeks of a much trumpeted return which was underpinned by some of the most absurd gobbledygook ever written by civil servants at the DFE – and there’s some strong competition for that prize.
The worst impact has been to disempower head teachers who find themselves implementing guidelines which make no sense. If ever something needed locally devised solutions and workarounds it is Covid-19!
Anyway, let’s look at the recipe for chaos devised by HM government. It started with the political rhetoric about children needing to be in school and that’s okay – although the self-righteous bleating of some tame DFE acolytes about the sacredness of pedagogy hasn’t helped anyone!
After the words, schools were then subjected to daft provisions about keeping groups of children apart which might have sounded quite worthy but overlooked the fact that the teachers circulate from class to class and everyone goes home on the same buses. Then, there was dafter advice about wearing masks which has been self-contradictory throughout the summer. It’s good sense to wear masks because wearing one limits the opportunity to pass the virus to other people. However, the situation in different classes and the activity being undertaken can both quite sensibly influence whether or not masking up makes sense. Somehow, this decision has been taken away from teachers.
Just as an aside, how clever it is of some schools to decide that masks should be of uniform quality and appearance and limited in colours. Hurray, the pupils will still look appropriately dressed but unfortunately isn’t it just possible that some masks might get mixed up so that they add to the risk of infection rather than limiting it. Does anyone ever think about things like this? When the lockdown started, people wore masks because they were doing their bit to prevent the spread of the virus and they felt good about it. It’s quite an achievement to have turned them, in only three months, into an arena for argument and a way to make political or eccentric statements. In schools, this pitches them into the area of low-level disruption and there’s enough opportunity for that already.
It gets worse and things fall apart when no one has thought through what happens when a child or a teacher falls ill and you have to isolate them and their contacts and then you don’t have enough tests to determine if anyone can come back to school. How do you decide how far the isolation should go especially when a lack of testing means it’s going to be two weeks? Then, when you get to the stage where seven or eight teachers are unwell – and let’s not even think about overcrowded staff rooms in schools – you probably have to close the school but for how long – who knows?
This is bad but there are other factors. I wonder if anyone knows how many children are picked up from school my grandparents or looked after post school by their grandparents? There are families where generations live in close proximity and people who have protected themselves including all the other vulnerable adults as well as the elderly are now being forced to take a risk. There again, imagine growing up having the vague feeling that you killed granny! It’s not a nice thought.
There are good reasons for children to be back in school but the risks have to be minimised not in some daft cosmetic, fudged, off-the-cuff way but structurally. Imagine what could have happened if three months ago if the government, instead of fumbling along trying to do everything itself, had set up an expert committee drawn from head teachers, teachers, unions, local authorities to work out an emergency plan for opening schools from September. Could they have come up with something better?
Well it wouldn’t take anybody with an inkling of understanding about social distancing to realise that stage one would involve having fewer pupils in the school. A model where every child gets three days of school a week reduces the risk of cross infection and means that anticipating teacher absence can be part of a managed response. Lower numbers means quieter corridors and canteens, spacing on buses, smaller classes if required and so on.
Once our expert group is at this stage, let’s hope that it could work out how to deliver an online education properly. There are people who know how to do this and the expertise has not disappeared. Suppose every teacher got a crash course in blended learning and that was backed up with courses that exist in full, and in detail, online and off-line so that each week of learning was not just ‘signposted’ but available for pupils to access in school or at home. If you think about it, all kinds of education courses are structured in this way so you don’t have the teacher popping up on a Zoom screen and describing today’s lesson as if it is a rabbit coming out of a hat and then worrying because half the class ‘missed the introduction’. Parents who have complained all year about being in the dark and confused about their children’s learning should be able to see it as well. It isn’t rocket science to separate the delivery and exposition in subjects from the activities which lead to the acquisition of learning. It’s been done and it works in many contexts.
Of course, OFSTED is to blame for some of this and the idea that inspectors should be thinking about visiting schools this term is so absurd as to be laughable in a situation where risk is being minimised. Our expert group could have dispensed with them long ago.
The next bit in a strategic plan is how to manage outbreaks and infections. In most schools, there are teachers on duty when children arrive. In the best schools, they interact, talk to them, welcome them and get the day off to a good start. With digital thermometers they can screen everyone who comes in and keep an eye on the use of hand sanitiser. It’s a good chance to stress the basic messages without turning them into disciplinary practices. Remember that there are fewer pupils than normal.
Our expert group would probably have realised a long time ago that it needed test packs or, better still, a visiting test team coming to the school each day. That wouldn’t be difficult for a local authority to organise in conjunction with the NHS and it might even be achievable with the bunch of cowboys, and everyone in education will know exactly who I mean, who run Track and Trace. On a particular day, if there are no referrals one group could be swabbed randomly to check there was nothing lurking beneath the surface.
Working like that, schools will be doing what they’ve always done really well and that is keeping children safer than they sometimes are in the outside world instead of apparently exposing them to additional risk. It can reassure anxious parents and keep the phone lines quieter.
Our experts might also look to the future. It beggars belief that people are just starting to think about what to do if the virus cocks up the examination system again in 2021. Postponing exams and praying is not a strategic solution so what can help? Maybe without mentioning the word coursework it will be possible to introduce periodic, evidenced, standardised teacher assessment with perhaps a termly assessment over a two-year course. When you have got over spluttering about how this can never be done, teachers cannot be trusted blah blah blah it would be helpful to remember that it is the dominant form of assessment used in a number of countries which achieve much better results from national testing and better pupil outcomes than we do. There are still people alive who remember how this used to work very effectively and the examination boards have reams of development tucked away in their files. By all means, cling onto the possibility of a terminal test but make other arrangements which are practicable, deliverable and fair. And, do it in a timely way!
All of this isn’t a panacea for a nasty virus and a pandemic but perhaps it does suggest that there are other ways forward than the current chaos. The final thing to say is that, at the sharp end, everyone has to put their trust in school leaders and school leadership teams and give them the space to think their way through the issues on a day-to-day basis rather than sending them volumes of confused and often contradictory interventions from government. Things may be bad but they really could be better for everyone!