Returning our children to school

Anthony Denny – Parent to a Year 10 student at Jane Austen College, Norwich

I sit here at home, writing this piece, with my wife working at our dining room table, my eldest daughter working in her bedroom towards her A-levels and my youngest daughter working at the kitchen table towards her GCSEs. I am in the sitting room. On the sofa. No desk.

We have been incredibly lucky on a number of fronts during this unprecedented period. We have become closer, our daughters have both had the self-discipline to keep going with the online schooling, we have had to do very little invigilation of them and they have received excellent support, on a daily basis, from some outstanding and truly dedicated teachers and their schools. I know there are many families who have had nothing close to that sort of luck. Regrettably there are schools that have not shown the commitment to their students that others have done, thereby compromising those students and, possibly, their futures.

While school is about more than just learning – the social and pastoral side of education is a crucial part of a child’s development – it is the physical environment, the proximity of classmates, that indefinable connection between a teacher and the students which ensures that the learning takes place effectively. For those reasons, the universal view is that schooling at school is the best way.

But the debates are swirling about when and how to re-open our schools. We have accepted that it won’t happen fully until September at the earliest, whether or not we are “post-Covid19” by then. And I think we all accept that we will not be “post-Covid19” for some time to come.

As a family, we are absolutely ready to send our girls back to school. If September is the soonest, then let it be September. If schools want to offer Summer courses for those years in most need (years 10 and 12) – or indeed all years, then let them do so. For 2020, the current status is about as good as it’s going to get. As we move back into the cooler, damper months, who knows what will happen, so the sooner we can return our children to physical school, the better.

It goes without saying that there is a strong risk of second wave local lockdowns and a necessary (but hopefully temporary) return to online learning. But while we live surrounded by such uncertainty, it surely must be incumbent on us to make hay while the sun shines.

We recognise the risks and we are prepared to mitigate against them. We are lucky that our daughters understand that it’s important to behave responsibly, too. But, while I would like to give every child the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being responsible, it is prudent to accept that not all of them will be so. With that in mind, do we worry about the risk to our children and ourselves? Yes, but we have to trust in the emerging facts: young people are less effective viral transmitters, are more resilient against the disease and the measures put in place to prevent viral spread do, to a greater extent, work.

So we should push as keenly as possible for a return to school, while accepting that all necessary caution is taken and contingency measures are planned for. If a partial online learning facility is necessary to ensure that education returns as close as possible to normality, then its integration into the physical school needs to be seamless. Furthermore, the online teaching – used from a standing start, with little or no trial period earlier this year – must be continually developed and fit for purpose. As with physically teaching different years in different classes with different abilities, one size does not necessarily fit all. Schools have all had the best part of an academic year to identify best practice and develop accordingly.

And the caution needed extends beyond the individual’s own protective measures. I would hazard that the vast majority of parents and carers are nervous and look to the schools to reassure, to actively demonstrate that they are safe environments for the students. This is where the real challenges lie. Social distancing means that movement within the buildings, spacing of classrooms and other public spaces, and discipline have to be managed meticulously. Will they be able to do this?

From the experience of our daughters at the few single days they have spent back at school in the past three weeks, there is also the question of how to motivate the students. Simply corralling a smaller-than-usual class into one room for all lessons, with only short breaks between long teaching periods may be a robust risk reduction measure, but it does little for a naturally energetic teenager and may even reduce the effective learning back to online levels.

This all suggests that school leadership teams are faced with a game of three-dimensional chess before September: a way to find a balance between timetabling, safety and engagement.

If they can do this and can communicate it clearly and with complete confidence, I believe the schools will earn the trust of a solid core of cautiously optimistic parents, whose example needs to extend quickly through the rest, particularly given the government’s suggestion to fine non-returners from September. To that end, the schools’ communication with all parents and carers must, in some way, appear collaborative (despite the inevitable need to be prescriptive – the school leadership will know the best solutions for the student body and the available space), in order to win over as many as possible. And it needs to be early. Forewarned is forearmed.

The long-term effects of an entire generation of children missing such huge swathes of both education and social opportunities can only be estimated, but without a doubt, those effects will be felt not just by the students themselves, but by the nation and our economy too.