Open All Hours

‘Oi, Williamson, NAOH! I respect your journey from Chief Whip to Education Secretary, but…’

Like Frank Doberman, the grotesquely funny creation of Harry Enfield, there is always a danger in offering pub-discussion solutions to complicated matters, but what the hell, here we go.

Here are my thoughts on a post-Covid19 full school opening for primary schools, hopefully a helpful contribution to what is sure to be a fierce debate:-

  1. Firstly, it’s impossible to be completely safe. We will need to get used to working in a state of managed risk. It’s unthinkable to remain closed indefinitely, waiting for the elixir of a vaccine. Headteachers will need to be pragmatic, but also deeply sympathetic when dealing with worried staff whose families surely come first. It will be a test of leadership for even the most experienced headteachers.
  2. Secondly, any re-opening cannot be a wholesale return to how things were at the beginning of March. I suspect the government will insist that we have some sort of re-opening before July. We will be working with PPE (hopefully) and social distancing will be practised wherever possible. This is an important distinction to make for all teachers – it will not be normal for some considerable time.
  3. As a result, I think a hybrid of continued childcare, coupled with a skeletal educational offer, will be the correct model. A sort of ‘twin-track’ approach. Let me explain:-
  • Year groups should be phased in, possibly two at a time and maybe on a rota. For example, there could be a two-week period with only Years 1 and 4 at school. They could be split into small groups with more teaching staff deployed to them. This will help with social and emotional support, plus giving space and time to re-assess pupils’ needs individually. It would also help with social distancing.
  • This team-teaching approach could also be tremendously beneficial to teachers at a time of such change and worry.  
  • At the end of this period, those year groups can be set work to complete at home for the next two weeks, whilst the next two/three year groups can be brought in.
  • This arrangement could go on for some months.
  • Ofsted inspectors, consultants, school advisors, regional school commissioners etc. could be redeployed to schools to support those that have particularly difficult staffing issues – maternity leaves, teachers ill etc etc.
  • So if children will be at home more often than standard holidays, some form of childcare, similar to what we have now, could be arranged for parents who cannot keep their children at home. Like now, it would be a ‘last resort’. But it would not be ‘school’. It would run parallel with the school offer.
  • A platoon of support staff could be deployed to provide extra social, emotional and practical support to families where the need is greatest. Working with Children’s Centres (yes, remember them!), this would enable the continuation of the innovative responses of many schools (my mind turns to the ex-army assistant head in Grimsby).
  • It is possible to continue this through the summer holidays (assuming we open at that time) but you would need the buy-in from teachers on a voluntary basis. Some may volunteer to do two weeks in August and then have two weeks off in September, for example. With reduced numbers attending school, this should be eminently possible to organise. Not all schools will be able to do this and this is where partnerships between local schools will be crucial.
  • Indeed, the rota approach would mean that there would be ample chance to give teachers and support staff regular breaks, something that the standard autumn term normally deprives us of. Two weeks on, one week off, should be possible to organise.
  • This arrangement could continue until Christmas and maybe beyond.

Gove and Cummings, and their ideological urges at the DfE, led to the smashing up of our educational system, so that headteachers/MAT CEOs are now allegedly ‘freed up’ to make their own decisions for the diverse communities that they serve. This will be a test for the government now – can they allow us to come up with our own solutions, as I have begun to sketch out here?

It would be the ultimate irony should they revert to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, which will only exacerbate growing levels of inequality and poverty, leading to unprecedented levels of outrage.  It won’t work, mark my words.

In conclusion, it is possible to ‘open all hours’, but it needs the buy-in of the school staff and a demonstration of very collegiate, ethical leadership. It needs the wider educational community to rally round and support headteachers.

And crucially, most crucially, any decisions need a lot of time and thought; nothing should be rushed. Once a date has been announced for schools to open more generally, a two or three-week lead in time should be built in.

There we go.

I look forward to being in the pub at Christmas to be verbally assaulted by Frank Doberman.

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