Within the constraints

This has, without doubt, been a testing time for all of us. We have all had to live and work within constraints that, as the new year dawned just over six months ago, would have been unimaginable. Schools are certainly no exception.

Some of the constraints placed on the wider re-opening of secondary schools are:

  • Class sizes of no more than 15
  • No more than a quarter of students in the eligible year groups on site at a time
  • Reduce mixing, so that students stay in the same groups throughout the day in school
  • Split day rotas are not allowed – you cannot have different students in school in the morning and the afternoon
  • Maintaining social distancing
  • Enhanced hygiene and cleaning processes

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of a Headteacher’s time during coronavirus closure is spent reading page after page of detailed guidance from the Department for Education. Much of the remainder is spent unpicking and re-doing plans and risk assessments when that guidance changes or is updated, or a new piece of guidance comes out. And it is vital that we do, because the safety of our students and staff depends on it.

Socially distanced classroom in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

These constraints have implications for the wider re-opening of schools. Let’s take the class size of 15 to start with. If this remains a requirement in September, we will require twice as many rooms and staff to accommodate our students as is normally the case – or, we will only be able to have half as many in school at a time.

It is this issue which caused problems for the government this week. The UK government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, Our Plan to Rebuild, said that “the Government’s ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible.” But the government’s own class-size limit of 15, published alongside the recovery strategy, applies to primary schools too. Either the limit had to change, or the ambition could not be realised. This week, the Secretary of State for Education announced that the latter was the case – it is not safe to increase class size limits yet.

Portable hand-washing station in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

What’s next?

This week, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the House of Commons where he said:

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education: Statement on the wider opening of education settings, 9th June 2020

The English teacher in me always reads such statements critically and with an analytical eye. Gavin Williamson’s statement has been carefully constructed to provide plenty of room for manoeuvre: “we will be working to bring all children back to school in September” does not mean that it will necessarily happen, or that all children will be able to return to school in September on the same days or all at the same time. “Exams will take place next year” does not mean that exams will necessarily look the same next year as they have done previously. The truth is, we do not know what schools will look like in September, and we don’t know what exams will look like next year. Yet.

We have also had the announcement, from the Prime Minister again, of a “massive catch-up operation” for schoolchildren over the summer. This came as a surprise to those of us who work in education; we have been told categorically by the Department for Education that teachers will not be expected to open schools over the summer. So who will deliver this “massive catch-up operation”? And where will they deliver it? Will children come? And will it make a difference? We are promised more details next week. I await with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

Social distancing markers on the floor of the Athene Donald Building

Who’s to blame?

It has been frustrating to see certain parts of the media blaming teachers, or teacher unions, for the fact the schools are still closed. I have had full, frank and regular discussions with the teacher unions at Churchill. They have, of course, been keen to look after the interests of their members and ensure that it is safe for staff to return to work in schools. That is what a union is there to do. But those conversations have been constructive and helpful. They are supportive of the safe wider re-opening of schools. Because of those conversations, our teachers are happier and more confident to return to work during a pandemic than they would have been without them.

As for teachers, I am one and I work with some of the very best. We care deeply about our students – all of them. We want what is best for them. We are desperate to see them again. We want the Academy’s corridors to echo with children’s voices, we want to see them enjoying their learning and social time again. But, above all else, we want them to be safe. And that is why we cannot open more widely than a quarter of Year 10 and Year 12 at at time – yet. Because the government tells us that it is not yet safe to do so.

“It is because the rate of infection is not yet quite low enough, and because we are not able to change our social distancing advice including smaller class sizes in schools, that we are not proceeding with our ambition to bring back all primary pupils at least for some weeks before the summer holidays.”

The Prime Minister, Statement at the coronavirus press conference: 10 June 2020

Our position at Churchill is that we will always aim to open as widely as possible, to as many students as we can, within the guidelines laid out by the government. We will continue with that ambition. But we will not – cannot – risk the safety of our students and staff.

We are all operating within the constraints laid out for us during this crisis – and we will continue to do so, for as long as this crisis lasts.

5 thoughts on “Within the constraints

  1. Thank you for the update as always much appreciated, I am sure parents and pupils will support you and the academy in whatever takes to return to school when it’s safe and realistically possible

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  2. Thanks Mr Hildrew, an excellent summary. Will, Jane and I have found your updates to be so well thought out and balanced, against the backdrop of uncertainty and constant change in advice from the government. I have also read about the government u-turn on Primary schools and the vague messages about catching up in the summer holidays. I expect it is difficult for you to say at this time, but what about Year 10? How is this going to be managed to limit the damage of missing school and face-to-face tuition for potentially a third of the year? Are Year 10 even going back next week? I am trying to read your well thought out, but also measured words, with some degree of analysis: but this is in layman’s terms so at best this is just an attempt to read between the lines. My son is asking me what this current situation means for the rest of Year 10 and his GCSE year and, to be frank, I don’t know what to tell him. But I still want to pass on my kindest regards to you and the staff at Churchill for all your hard work and support of the students through this very difficult period.

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    • Thank you for the comment. I completely understand your confusion. Firstly: Year 10 are definitely returning from Monday 15th June. That is clear and we are looking forward to seeing our students again. Beyond that, we are planning carefully to ensure that we firstly identify any gaps or issues caused by the disruption, and secondly work hard to close them. How we will achieve that – and under what circumstances – we do not yet know. We will need to wait for further guidance from the government, which will in turn depend on how the pandemic progresses nationally and locally. When we have more certainty about the conditions of a September return, our job as teachers and school leaders is to do the best we can for our students within the constraints that are there to ensure their safety. I hope that helps. CH.

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  3. Thank you Mr Hildrew for keeping everyone so well informed and for your calm and honest assessments of the situation. The constant changing of decisions and rulings from the government must be exhausting and frustrating for everyone involved…not to mention expensive and time consuming …I know I would have lost my cool with them long ago!!
    It seems to me the best way of keeping children safe, if they do have to come together, is by conducting lessons if possible outside…as any shared airspace (ie in a room, even with social distancing and screens) is the most likely space for the virus to be passed on. Is this something which has been talked about at all I wonder?
    My son has now finished school but I am still really concerned about the children who have not……
    I think you are doing an excellent job in very difficult circumstances!

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  4. Mr Hildrew what can I say …
    you seem to be the only school that has a tight handle on the situation (I have children at 2 schools and friends with children at other schools) I’m so impressed by you and your teams dedication, hard work and determination to deal with the times we are facing.
    From the beginning in March the school jumped at the new challenge of working from home and the google classrooms were almost instant, the call each week from a form tutor to make sure children were safe and that work was accessible and achievable, Then the updates and sensible approach to being in this for the long haul and not just putting a sticking plaster on the problem and hoping children would return to school in the “couple of weeks” the government originally quoted, meaning there was no further change or disruption to the children’s new routine as one for the long haul was already in place , to the videos and dedicated web pages my daughter received about the transition to Churchill from primary school the personal letter to the children from you inviting them to write back to you with thoughts worries and questions and of course the introduction to her new teaches by video, I echoed this to one of your staff who intern sang your praises and explained there is a daily update email from you with anything that is changing or new guidelines to be put in place I can’t begin to imagine how much more work this has created on top of yours and your teams normal working day and wonder do you ever get chance to sleep let alone have time with your family. You and your team are a credit to your profession and your school, The press has a lot to answer for over the last few months including trying to discredit teachers and there unions.
    Keep doing what you are it is appreciated

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