Back to school – dangerous threats, creative opportunities

Licensed by Adobe Stock (image by G. Lombardo)

The new school year is upon us. Shops in high streets display ‘Back to school’ notices as though nothing has changed. Under normal circumstances, this would not be significant. But these are not normal circumstances.

While the news cycle is dominated by Afghanistan, new Covid infections in excess of 30,000 per day and a daily death toll above 100 are largely being ignored because the government is determined to signal the end of the pandemic to the public. Reopening schools serves that purpose even though teachers and children look likely to become the subjects of an experiment with herd immunity for political expediency.

Gung-ho government

Department for Education (DfE) guidance stresses that “there is now an imperative to reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education with a priority for schools to “deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils.” Government puts responsibility squarely on schools to carry out health and safety procedures in compliance with the law, and develop contingency plans should covid outbreaks occur.

The requirement to wear masks has been removed and procedures for responding to infection relaxed. The concept of bubbles has been abandoned. A letter from Dr Jenny Harries, CEO of the UK Health Security Agency and head of NHS Test and Trace, even states that clinically vulnerable children who had previously been shielded, would be expected to return to school along with everyone else.

This gung-ho attitude has alarmed those taking the scientific evidence more seriously than the politicians. They are concerned that the government’s approach is at odds with the best information available to limit the spread of covid. Christina Pagel, Clinical Operational Research Unit director at University College London says schools provide the perfect environment for covid to spread rapidly.

Missing measures

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) identifies factors not present in schools but crucial to controlling the spread. Professor Alice Roberts points out those aged 12-15 are only now under consideration for inclusion in the vaccination programme, while those under 12 have no vaccination plan at all. Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary’s College University of London and clinical epidemiologist has accused the government of “a deliberate mass infection policy for children.”

The government seems blasé, even indifferent, to these risks. Recent reports suggest Boris Johnson would accept 1000 deaths a week before he got concerned. Ministers have been warned to expect a huge surge in infections by the end of September. It took a determined campaign by teacher unions just to persuade the DfE to issue carbon dioxide monitors to schools, to help check fresh air levels. Now some parents are alarmed enough to go public with their concerns, risking prosecution by threatening to keep their children out of school.

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Potential u-turn

This threatens to become chaotic. No one in education disputes that children’s learning has been severely disrupted over the last 18 months and many government supporters, especially in sections of the press and media will nod along with the government line without a second thought.

People want a return to the predictability offered by the familiar school day. But it’s worth recalling what happened in January of this year. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to u-turn within 24 hours or so of insisting the Spring Term would resume as usual because infections rocketed. With growing numbers of reports showing that children do get seriously ill with covid and with long Covid another u-turn cannot be ruled out.

Schools could take back control

Interestingly this dire situation also gives schools an unexpected opportunity. They are no longer managed by local – let alone central – government and can innovate in management and teaching to create better opportunities for pupils. They have done this already as a matter of necessity. Why not do it deliberately?

Many things are in their favour. Working patterns have been significantly disrupted by Covid. People have adjusted to the idea and the advantages of working from home. Schools have had to develop remote learning and working with small groups in focused activities. Teacher assessment has been given a considerable boost. Schools could take control of this situation to change how they work permanently.

Why continue opening at 9 and finishing mid afternoon, with all children arriving and departing together? Why teach in groups of 30 when small group teaching is so much more effective? Why not emulate the Open University, with online content provided remotely and a mix of contact between teachers and learners in small groups on site at different times of the day. It wouldn’t necessarily work at primary level but it certainly could at Key Stage 3 and above.

If it’s true that we must ‘learn to live with Covid’, the next 12 months present a perfect chance to embed these enforced changes and create a new way of working fit for the 21st century, finally abandoning a system tied to the agricultural needs of the economy rather than the educational outcomes for pupils and bequeathed to us 150 years ago.

There is opportunity here. Are there any headteachers and governors with the imagination and vision to seize it?

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