Tim Clark was a Head for 18 years, firstly of a Lincolnshire grammar school which he led from “good” to “outstanding” and latterly of an inner-city academy which he “transformed” (Ofsted). He is now an educational consultant and trainer, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.
Much has appeared recently in the media about the reopening of schools with commentators sharply divided and, at times, acrimonious. The issue is, however, not a simple one and, should we get it wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic.
The first priority must be pupil and staff safety – nothing else compares. Everyone involved with education, from government to classroom practitioners, has a moral duty to ensure the safety of all who attend school, children and adults.
Of course, no school can be completely risk free, but it is incumbent on all involved to ensure that as many risks as possible are thoroughly assessed and removed before there is a move towards large scale reopening.
Schools are generally extremely safe places, devoid of many of the dangers and problems that exist in the outside world, but they are clearly not designed to encourage social distancing. Indeed, the exact opposite is true – children are encouraged to work and eat together, up to a dozen different pupils could use the same computer or other piece of equipment within a single day, and not all school buildings can physically cope with a one way system. These are very real issues which must be resolved in advance.
Whilst I do not agree with the stance taken by some of the unions towards the current crisis, Paul Goodman in his article yesterday is quite right to dismiss union bashing. The teaching unions, whatever the political views of some of their leaders, are there to protect teachers, and that role is crucial – staff must feel safe if pupils and parents are to be reassured.
During my thirty-two years as a teacher there have been a couple of occasions when I have had to turn to my union for help and its support has been invaluable. Likewise, as a head, I have always encouraged teachers to belong to a union for their own protection. The dozens of teachers and heads to whom I have spoken over the past few weeks, both socially and in a professional capacity, genuinely want to get back to work, yet are clearly very nervous about reopening, as indeed, are many parents.
I should also add, from a purely Machiavellian political point of view, that it will only take one pupil, teacher or teaching assistant to contract the virus as a result of reopening, or worse still, for there to be a fatality, and the opprobrium levelled at the Government will make “Thatcher the milk snatcher” pale into insignificance.However, I do also feel that we should do everything possible to enable schools to reopen. Indeed, I should go further than current plans and argue that, ideally, we should aim to get all pupils back to school before the summer, even if only on a part-time basis.
If we fail to do this, some youngsters will have been out of their school context, routines and discipline for five months: the difficulties of trying to return to normality in September will be massively increased.
Much has been said about the impact of lockdown on people’s mental health and there is no doubt that returning to school can do much to improve the mental wellbeing both of children and of their families. My second headship was of an inner city academy based on one of the largest council estates in the country; domestic violence and mental health issues were already above the London average before the current crisis, and the area was blighted by one of the worst gang and knife crime cultures in the capital. The consequences of being stuck in a small flat on a large, difficult estate, without the luxury of being able to go for a walk or bike ride, must be unbearable.
It was these youngsters, more than any, who benefited most from the highly disciplined and ordered, safe, and genuinely caring ethos, that we built in the academy. One of the saddest comments I ever heard as a teacher was when the academy’s counsellor told me that she was always busiest just before a school holiday. For most, a holiday is a time of freedom and release; for some pupils, it is a prospect to fear.
The aim, therefore, is simple: get schools to reopen as soon as possible, but only when preparations make it as safe as possible to do so.
But if the aim is simple and obvious, the actual answer less so! One suggestion I have made to the DfE is that school rolls might be to split in half, either vertically (better for timetabling and staff deployment) or horizontally, and each half attend for one two-day block. Half would attend on Monday and Tuesday, the school be closed for cleaning on Wednesday, and then the other half attend on Thursday and Friday, with another clean over the weekend. Year 12 could attend on one of the two-day blocks.
This approach would allow for half classes and enable all pupils to get some teaching before the summer. Canteens should perhaps remain closed, although for some, a school lunch is the most nutritious meal of the day. There is also a historical precedent for such a model: during the War, when city schools were evacuated to rural/market town schools, very often the host school had the facilities in the morning and then the visitors in the afternoon, or vice versa.
The suggestion is clearly only one of several possibilities and is certainly not perfect (it would not, for example, free up parents to return to work if they still have to child mind for three days per week). It would, however, prove to parents and the teaching profession that decisions were being made cautiously and sensibly, with safety the priority. A public commitment to providing all classrooms with sanitisers, and all adults in schools with masks, would also be a clear and welcomed message of support, as would giving them priority for accessing antibody tests.
Schools need clarity, guidance and practical support, and as soon as possible. So far, Gavin Williamson and his team have, quite rightly, tried to listen to all voices. They should continue with a “cautiously robust” approach of aiming to get all pupils back to school, as soon as, but only when, it is safe and practical to do so.