Now that UK schools have opened up for pupils to physically attend and concerns regarding infection rates are back on the agenda, it’s an important time for all of those involved with education to take stock of the situation. If you have any thoughts or critical reflections on where we currently find ourselves, we would love to hear from you, and we would also encourage you to consider writing a post for our blog.
Dr Alpesh Maisuria, a BESA executive committee member and our research funding lead, is currently involved with the Emergency Advisory Group for Learning and Education (EAGLE) and work conducted here with academic colleagues provides a starting point to thinking about how the return to school has been managed.
The group was initially established in May 2020 in response to medical scientists from independent SAGE requesting assistance from education specialists; and has now grown from the initial 4 members to a total of 20 members from policy, research & practitioner backgrounds. The main aim of the group is to provide knowledgeable advice that is independent from political parties and based on secure evidence.
Their first report was publicly published in July, and the executive summary highlights the need to provide adequate funding for smaller class sizes within primary schools; a combination of on-site and distance learning education within secondary; the need to adequately consider the well-being of pupils during a rush to “catch up”; and a proposed return to coursework for GCSEs, to make assessment more resilient to further outbreak.
The 25 page report provides a number of further detailed recommendations for a range of stakeholders within education. We would suggest that this may provide a good opportunity to think and reflect on how the return to physical schooling has gone for your own professional or research context. If you would then like to get in touch with us regarding the report and your experiences, please feel free to contact Alpesh directly.
As a summary, a selection of the extended recommendations that can be found within the report can be found below, organised into three broad categories:
Government, Decision-Making Bodies & School Leadership
- Government, and decision-making bodies such as school governors, local authorities and academy trusts, should make it clear that health and safety is paramount over the desire to provide for full-time school attendance for all students.
- Further exploration is needed of forms of blended learning in the school context, involving a suitable mix of on-site and home learning, for those schools which are unable to provide for full-time attendance safely. There is a need to learn from what schools have been doing over the last few months and publicise case studies of best practice.
- Professional trust: remove judgmental monitoring and performance management; use Ofsted to gather evidence to monitor national patterns and support progress and to develop best practice case studies; encourage school-based responsibility and accountability; involve teachers in decision making.
- Because teachers and heads are in a better position to analyse needs, schools should be given direct access to funding and resources, for example to ensure equitable access to appropriate technology for home learning.
- Increase funding for individual and small group tuition for students with additional needs.
- A reliable Test-Track-Trace system with full involvement of public health departments is essential for schools to operate safely. The system for data sharing about local outbreaks to schools must be clarified, as well as the channels for schools to obtain help from public health bodies.
- Schools should be encouraged to prioritise the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children, and consider the full implications of providing a ‘recovery curriculum’.
- Provide guidance and training to school staff on how to support students who have suffered bereavement, stress or challenging situations at home.
- Fund creative programmes and projects inside and out of school that address wellbeing and build relationships in positive and enjoyable ways.
- Reduce the size of classes in primary school to around 15, by encouraging qualified teachers back into schools.
- Reduce the pressures created by public examinations and primary school tests, including reduced content for GCSEs, greater use of coursework and portfolios, and cancelling universal national testing in primary schools.
- Safe working environment: teachers should not be asked to work in unsafe conditions, should be given clear health and safety advice for self, colleagues and classes, and should be involved in action planning for a second wave or a local lockdown.
- Clear focus: fund improved support for social, emotional, mental and physical health, particularly in disadvantaged communities, so that teachers can concentrate on curriculum and pedagogy.
- Training and development: convene a national panel for teachers to contribute ideas on what professional learning would be most useful to them in the short, medium and long term, and to discuss how this might best be provided given financial constraints.
Schools – Delivery of Learning & Day-to-Day Operation
Points for Primary and Secondary Education
- Ensure that all disadvantaged students, not only those in examination years, and those vulnerable through health conditions, have access to computers and internet at home.
- Remove the threat of fines and prosecution (if learners do not return to school).
- Targeted support: provide individual support and respite for teachers who have individual needs as a legacy of the pandemic (bereavement, mental health struggles, anxiety about safety of the workplace, extra caring responsibilities).
- A proper holiday: teachers need time to recharge, refresh and re-engage before preparing for a period of further uncertainty.
Points for Secondary Education
- The layout of many schools means that students in different ‘bubbles’ would have to pass close to each other through narrow corridors or stairs on the way to specialist accommodation (science, arts, PE etc). This problem could be avoided by timetabling subjects in half-day sessions rather than 40 or 60 minutes.
- Many schools will not be able to accommodate students safely at lunch time, with cleansing as recommended in the DfE statement of 2 July. A longer break between morning and afternoon sessions would allow those living nearby to eat at home, if that is a possibility.
- Pressure [on physical school space] could be relieved by agreeing to home-based distance learning for some half-days each week. Those students needing additional learning support, including many with SEND or students who have been unable to study at home, could be provided with tutorials or small group learning support at school during these half days.
- Devise alternative forms of curricular organisation for secondary schools which reduce movement whilst providing a high quality of education, including a mixture between on-site and home learning where necessary.
- Many schools have a carousel arrangement for some subjects in KS3, for example in creative arts each class is taught music, art and drama in different school terms. This has certain educational advantages and would make schools safer by reducing movement.
- Redistributing classes into ability sets for different subjects adds to the amount of movement. Where this cannot be avoided, these subjects should be taught in blocks on particular half days.
- The DfE document recommends that KS4 and KS5 students should generally study the normal range of GCSE or A-level subjects. Movement between subject options creates particular difficulties, but these can also be avoided by using half-day blocks in conjunction with distance learning.
Schools, Learners and the Wider Community
- Policy makers, school professionals and workers, and students should work with education researchers to make a thorough assessment of the differential effects of school closures, and the complex impact on students who were already indicated as disadvantaged.
- Better planning is needed to build a more resilient society and environment if new outbreaks of Covid-19 or other infections occur, including safe physical spaces and social activities for families in overcrowded conditions or without gardens.
- Ensure a ‘broad and challenging’ curriculum, as advised by the DfE, paying attention to the need to engage young people’s interests and concerns and develop more independence and initiative.
- Work with employers and further and higher education to ensure this year’s school leavers are not disadvantaged in relation to entry requirements and communicate this clearly into schools to reduce anxiety.
- Support parents and guardians in looking after students’ mental wellbeing, including recognising and responding to stress / trauma and building resilience.
- Encourage stronger links between schools and communities, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
- Support staff development which improves understanding of families and neighbourhoods under the stress of poverty.
- Fund community / university /school partnerships for investigating and responding to local issues and leading change.