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Monday, 21 September 2020 20:46

Coronavirus Ramblings

Written by
Update (1) 22nd September: Aylesford School is the first to send all pupils home (for three days whilst the school is being deep cleaned)
                   (2) More on Kent Test below  (and see comment)
I have previously refrained from commenting on general education issues relating to Coronavirus on this site, as you will find plenty elsewhere, and I have preferred to stick to matters relating to Kent and Medway. None of this stops me from sounding off here and elsewhere about my two major themes. The first is what a brilliant job the overwhelming majority of schools are doing in managing the consequences of the pandemic, especially headteachers and other leaders who appear to have worked tirelessly over the summer and subsequently to deliver the best they can. The second is the obverse of this, the self-evident incompetence of the Secretary of State for Education and his team as they shower schools with reams of often ill-thought-out instructions dressed up as advice, too often at the last minute, These often come along with attempts to blame their failings on others. 

I am fortunate that I have been given plenty of media time to express my feelings and frustrations, an opportunity not available to many of my followers on this site except by social media, where I do not participate. 

I have collected some of my thoughts below, still relating where possible to Kent and Medway, covering such items as the pressures on schools, Covid testing especially for teachers, bubbles, school transport, inevitably the Kent and Medway Tests, and the future of GCSE and A-Level. No doubt by the time I publish this, the content will be overtaken by events that jostle each other leaving no time for schools to take a breather, but I will be updating.

 Note: Whilst I appreciate that Covid-19 is a particular strain of a Coronavirus, like many people I tend to use the terms interchangeably.
Covid Testing
Aylesford School is the first to send all pupils home (for three days whilst the school is being deep cleaned)
The multiple scandals of Covid Testing have reached the top of the pile at present, summarised neatly in an article featuring the headteacher of Herne Bay High School here, and so I don't feel the need to repeat them. Across the county, there are stories of school classes and Year Groups, along with individual children not in school because of children or teachers waiting for tests and test results, receiving positive readings, or being isolated because a relative is in this position. The two local news websites KentOnline and KentLive appear to publish lists of schools with cases almost daily (the links also updated daily), but still out of date by the time they appear, with a total of 38 on Tuesday, and inevitably rising. 
'A recent national survey conducted by a school leaders’ union, NAHT, which revealed that more than four in five schools in England have children not in class because they cannot get access to a Covid test.'. The situation was described to me by one headteacher as 'having the intensity of an Ofsted inspection with no end point'. At Highsted Grammar School, 'parents said they were threatened with 'unauthorised absence' if they removed their child from school, but the grammar insists they are following 'explicit' instructions from Public Health England'. This follows a positive case with some girls being sent home. 
I have been widely and correctly quoted as saying that bubbles won’t work in secondary schools, even though they appear to be the least worst option available. It is no surprise that there are and will be local flareups of Covid transmitted between children, such as is happening in Sittingbourne now. Take a normal secondary school in a town, with a six form year group of 180 children, who all mix in their bubble, especially in Years 10 and 11, where they all meet up through different GCSE option groups, with something like a quarter travelling to school by public transport, subject to variable social mixing practice, many in different bubbles. If there is one case in the Year Group, quite possible without symptoms, that pupil can spread the infection across the Year Group with each child who succumbs taking it home to a family often with siblings in other schools across the town. Meanwhile, the whole year group is often sent home for a period.

Every headteacher will be on high alert with plans for dealing with such events, the first port of call being Public Health England, who will give hopefully appropriate advice to be followed. One Kent secondary head reported to me of their discussion when the officer at the other end of the phone expressed dismay that whole Year Groups were organised into bubbles in the school. Instead, she proposed, utterly impracticably, that children should be reorganised into class bubbles of 30 completely oblivious of the workings of GCSE option groups. Interpreting the science becomes an art, and it is very easy to get it wrong. No doubt headteachers will be blamed if they do!

This ridiculous advice was addressed to one of those headteachers who have spent much of the summer ‘holiday’ setting up the incredibly complex workings of large schools with social distancing, one way systems, staggered starts and endings to the school day and break and lunchtimes within it, staff welfare and endless cleaning. This is amongst the myriad of other large and small tasks that have arrived on their desks in the meantime, only some of which could be predicted. These included the GCSE and A-Level debacles, where there appears growing professional consensus that cancellation of the examinations could have been avoided if the government had listened to warnings in good time and planned appropriately. Then there is school transport (below).

                 Do not Read Private Eye
This 36 page so-called satirical magazine provides every fortnight a forensic and comprehensive analysis of corruption and the incompetence of government and too many other public and private bodies including those running education, to the extent that it will sap any optimism for the future you may have. 
If you are prone to depression then you should also give it a wide berth.  
If you are weak enough to be at risk of addiction like me, you should absolutely keep clear of it. 
For anyone else, it is a must read in order to understand how our country operates.  

School Transport
The full picture still appears blurred with peaks and troughs across the county. The number of student travel passes fell by more than half by the final date to ensure receipt by the start of term. However, again according to KCC, applications have risen dramatically since then. Some 240 buses have been converted to dedicated school use according to KCC, operating  on average at around 70% capacity because of social distancing, and including 117 new buses where there was the potential for overcrowding. I was on a radio interview with a representative of one of Kent’s largest bus operators who clearly didn’t know the rules which, to be fair, changed several times over the summer as the government appeared to be learning belatedly on the job. Local newspapers have revelled in stories of children mobbing buses and ignoring social distancing rules, but even these appear to have settled as more certainty has settled nerves. There is still no answer to the expectation of Year Group bubbles on dedicated school buses travelling to multiple schools, but I am sure there are more issues to come.  
Kent and Medway Tests
I have written extensively on my concerns over the gross unfairness of these for disadvantaged and ordinary families, most recently here, urging the two Councils to put contingency plans into place with the possibility of a spike in cases in the Autumn . The spike is on its way, the Kent and Medway Test on 15th and 13/14th October respectively are just over three weeks off, I understand that primary headteachers are pressing KCC for information and as yet no indication of any such contingency plan being put into place, although I have suggested one such way through the quagmire. My previous quotation from Mr Dunckley, Corporate Director for Children, Young People and Education at KCC, made clear that KCC sees other more pressing priorities for schools. What a disgrace for the County to let down its children in this way. I have seen nothing from Medway Council to suggest they are even aware of the issues. Update: I have had several messages from primary headteachers informing me they were expecting contingency plans to arrive yesterday (Monday). Also see comment below. Nothing two days later! We have surely reached the point of no return with little to be done that can assist ordinary families in the way of contingency. School closures are mounting so there are very likely to be children unable to take the test on time, and it is unclear if all out of county children are catered for. Too many unanswered questions.  
GCSE and A Level 2021
What follows was prepared for another publication and knowing it may already be dated, but is no longer needed. It is written in the light of last summer’s GCSE and A-Level debacle, brought about by last-minute panic and multiple U-Turns by the government. My heart goes out to all candidates this year as they face another likely Coronavirus wave once again seriously damaging students’ education.

Many students will have lost months of teaching with widely varying remote learning opportunities. Breaks in continuity are still happening, further undermining confidence. It is increasingly accepted that scrapping exams last summer was avoidable, so everything possible should be done to prevent this again.

The government should prioritise learning absolutely, removing any obstacles so schools can focus on being as effective as possible. For example, Ofsted inspections should be postponed unless there are real concerns. The plethora of policy decisions being imposed on schools should be sharply reduced; too often they exist to cover backs in case something goes wrong. The decision by the Health and Safety Executive to carry out snap checks on schools to ensure they are following regulations is hardly constructive. 

The curriculum needs to be trimmed across the board, NOW. This will both enable schools to focus teaching across a narrower range in each subject, but also allow examination boards to make parallel cuts so that students can concentrate preparation on a narrower range of material. Of course, after GCSE the curriculum for subsequent A-level studies would need alteration as a consequence. 

Examinations need to be pushed back as far as possible into July, NOW, to give students time to better prepare and families time to plan for holidays. Contingency plans making arrangements for examinations to be socially distanced, which will need to include premises off-site, appropriate furniture and additional staffing, need to be drawn up NOW. As with the Kent Test, what about students debilitated by the condition?

Sadly I fear that, on past performance, government indecision will put off such proposals to a stage where it damages outcomes further, but I sincerely hope not for the sake of our young people.  

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 September 2020 23:51

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 22 September 2020 23:32 posted by Kent Primary Headteacher

    I was told that primary heads would be informed of contingency plans for the Kent Test on Monday. Tuesday has now passed with nothing. What do you think? PETER: We are surely now past the point of no return for any form of sensible contingency to support ordinary families. KCC has failed 'ordinary' Kent children completely. As for Medway Council, words would fail me except that this is par for the course.

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