Fully opening schools: planning for success

Hamid Patel CBE is chief executive officer of Star Academies

The cautious reopening of schools to more children during recent weeks has restored a measure of national confidence.

Pupils have been mature and responsive when faced with remodelled classrooms and new routines. Teachers have provided a warm welcome and a gradual return to familiar ways of learning.

Government’s avowed intention is for all pupils to return to school in September and we must plan tenaciously to make this happen if we are to safeguard our children’s long-term education and reverse widening gulfs in attainment.

The seven pragmatic steps to be taken are challenging but- with concerted effort, flexibility and forethought- no barriers are insurmountable.

  1. Develop contingency plans

Leaders’ planning must be focused on opening school full time to all pupils, taking into account social distancing mandates. Pre-empting the range of situations that may arise is crucial as leaders consider how to scale up the numbers of pupils and staff on site from the current position to full school occupancy. Primary school re-opening can be fully enabled by extending ‘bubble’ arrangements to full classes and maintaining 1 metre distancing outside classrooms. In secondary schools, science permitting, a reduction in distancing to 1 metre would enable many full classes to convene, with some possible adjustments of pupil numbers. If 1 metre distancing does not enable full classes, seating pupils side-by-side in forward-facing rows, with the teacher maintaining at least 1 metre from the class would be the safest option. Distancing of 1 metre could be applied outside classrooms. Pupils and staff could wear face-coverings as a further protective measure.

Leaders will need back-up plans for partial reopening and full closure in the event that a resurgence of infection entails disruption at local level. A tapestry of flexible rotas and blended learning may be required to support continuous and coherent learning at home or in school. Two separate timetables will be required to cover lessons on site and online; agile switching between the two will be required in the case of a sudden closure.

  1. Enhance online learning infrastructure and remote teaching capacity

Effective teacher training, reliable access to broadband and devices for disadvantaged pupils, and investment in secure learning platforms must be aligned for remote teaching to have equitable impact. 

Online learning will be routine for pupils who are shielding and will be an intermittent feature for wider groups in the event of a partial or full closure due to local lockdown: we need to maintain improvements in remote teaching and capitalise on its potential. 

  1. Rebuild confidence and resilience

A ‘can-do’ attitude, combined with clear, consistent, regular communication in positive language will go a long way to alleviating anxiety across the school community. Frequent evaluations of risks will be needed, honestly balanced with the injurious impact of prolonged absence. Schools will require abundant hygiene stocks, robust behaviour management policies and considered processes, including adherence to the NHS test and trace regime, to maintain confidence.

  1. Prioritise pastoral support

After six months away from school, pupils’ reintegration and restored mental health depend on strong, supportive relationships and effective routines. The pastoral programme should provide a chance to renew and rebuild as well as dealing with induction into school expectations. Pupils will need the time and space to discuss upheavals, frustration and sadness they may have experienced. 

  1. Adapt the curriculum

Tough decisions may be required to establish content hierarchy. Additional teaching time may be needed especially in English, mathematics and science, alongside an adjustment of schemes of work to deliver more in less time. Teachers may need to consider which topics can be studied independently over the summer holidays and outside school hours, and which cannot be taught remotely.

  1. Plan and deliver a year-long catch up programme

Schools are experts in intervention and will get on with the job of gap-closing. Covid catch-up planning does not need to be made overly complex by relying on community buildings and widespread use of summer holiday time, strategies which are fraught with difficulties.

Effective intervention is not a quick fix but a co-ordinated strategy whose starting point is teachers’ analysis of pupils’ learning deficits.

The welcome announcement of substantial funding to help pupils overcome lost learning time is a powerful indication that the voices of the sector have been heard. The National Tutoring Programme offers a solution focused on secure evidence of success: it needs careful management by schools to achieve value for money.

One-to-one tuition will need to take place outside the normal school day, not least if distancing constraints remain.

It will be necessary to introduce activities after school, over weekends and during holidays particularly for disadvantaged pupils disenfranchised by the ed-tech revolution. Pupils approaching key examinations next summer will also require high-quality intervention alongside booster packs to make maximum impact. Consideration could be given to starting the autumn term a week early for Year 11 pupils or running a summer school; however, this must be done with due regard to the importance of school staff taking a hard-earned break.

  1. Develop hubs to regenerate communities

Many of our schools have become community hubs during lockdown, providing food, resources, friendship and hope to families and neighbours. A depressingly high level of social need will remain long after a vaccine is created, presenting schools with a significant challenge and an opportunity to change lives for the better.  Sustainable hubs and transformative outreach work could be a permanent and positive legacy of the pandemic.

Prioritising a brighter future for our children and communities is essential as we emerge from lockdown: we can only achieve this with united voices and comprehensive planning.