Three Government actions to remove deadlock

Hamid Patel CBE, Chief Executive of Star Academies

Prolonged absence from school is hurting our children and widening inequalities. With every day that goes by in lockdown, the situation worsens and the eventual reintegration of pupils becomes more daunting for everyone.

The school landscape for September is unclear. There are three possible scenarios: schools remain shut because they are considered unsafe environments; schools are partially open with a juggling act of part time attendance and home learning; or schools are fully open. Only the latter is tenable if we are to offset educational catastrophe.

We need a National Education Plan whose principal objective is the full reopening of all schools to all pupils, full time. Our children need the structure, security and continuity that schools offer. We have to ensure their safety, wellbeing and education and this cannot be done within the vagaries of a system that operates remotely.

Urgent, open and honest discussions are required with the sector to develop workable solutions.

The model of commissioning community buildings to accommodate classes may be attractive in some individual cases but is an impracticable basis for a national strategy. Putting aside potential issues of IT infrastructure, furniture, equipment, travel, health and safety, simply dispersing pupils over wider spaces would not overcome the requirement for a huge increase in staffing. Furthermore, pursuing the suggestion of utilising non-school buildings in this way will be a distraction that consumes time and money while the clock ticks inexorably onwards to the start of the new term.

The Government can immediately take three actions to ensure all schools safely reopen to all pupils in September. 

  1. Reduce the 2 metre rule to 1 metre

The main barrier to the full reopening of secondary schools is the 2 metre social distancing rule.

In devising the reopening schools toolkit, the research team considered various scenarios and models to see how many pupils can be accommodated in different sized rooms and spaces using different social distancing measures. The 2-metre measure creates a number of difficulties as it leads to the creation of very small classes, with limited viability; typically, only 30%-40% of the pupil population can be accommodated at any one time. If the distance is reduced slightly to 1.5m, potential occupancy increases to over 50%. A distancing measure of 1 metre would enable 80-100% of pupils to be accommodated at one time in most schools.

The World Health Organisation has recommended 1 metre social distancing and this measure has been successfully adopted in many European countries.

Reducing the measure to 1 metre would allow all pupils to return to the classroom simultaneously in most schools; however, there would still be some logistical challenges, including pupil movement around the building, dining arrangements, use of sports areas and so on. Plans could be put in place to mitigate these issues. Pre-COVID, many schools operated within constrained environments and found ways of managing by taking pragmatic steps including using one-way systems and staggered timings.

Reopening of schools whilst retaining any social distancing measure in place will require modifications. Some schools will need to operate adapted timetables. Some classes may need to be combined and taught in halls or other large spaces. Some groups may need to be reduced in size to be placed in smaller classrooms. These considerations would affect the deployment of staff and the number of teachers required. School estates are configured very differently and will require bespoke solutions.

These matters take time to think through but they are not insurmountable challenges.

We know that 2 metre social distancing is a ‘gold standard’ rather than an absolute scientific rule. It was a sensible starting point and has had a positive impact, amongst other measures, on reducing infection rates. Striking the right balance between infection control and education is complex but at present the scales are weighted heavily against pupils’ long-term health and learning. It is only by reducing the social distancing rule to 1 metre that we can achieve equilibrium.

A timely decision, informed by science, on the feasibility of reducing social distancing to 1 metre, or removing it altogether, would give school leaders what they need most: clarity of message and sufficient time to develop their plans.

Social distancing is one measure amongst a set of controls to reduce the transmission of coronavirus. Rigorous hygiene will need to be maintained and monitored.  If scientific evidence indicates at some point that the R rate is increasing, Government could mandate the wearing of face coverings for secondary school pupils. 

  1. Extend size of bubbles from 15 to 30 in primary schools if science allows

Social distancing has already been deemed by Government as a non-starter in primary schools.

Primary school classes are being taught in ‘bubbles’ each comprising consistent groups of no more than 15 pupils. To enable schools to fully reopen, these bubbles would need to be increased from their current size to a maximum of 30.

If scientific evidence does not allow the size of bubbles to be extended, then primary schools will need to operate on a rota basis with a maximum of 50% of children in school at any one time.

  1. Continue to improve and enhance the efficacy of the testing, tracking and tracing system

Good progress has been made in recent weeks on developing a national test and trace system to isolate and contain coronavirus. Further work needs to be done to extend swab tests to close and direct contacts who are asymptomatic as soon as the science allows so that they do not need to stay at home for a full 14 days. We need to improve the reliability and roll out of the anti-body tests so students and staff who unwittingly had COVID-19 have the confidence of knowing that they may have some immunity. Above all, we need to increase the systematic background random testing of hundreds of thousands of people every day so that we breed confidence within communities and can make more informed decisions about when and where a local lock down may be needed.

We should also bear in mind the scientific evidence children are less likely than adults to develop or transmit COVID-19, and so schools are not inherently ‘unsafe.’

We need to avoid distractions and marshal our collective creativity, rigour, energy to reopen schools fully in September.