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Wednesday, 18 November 2020 00:04

'Needless' School Closures and Coronavirus

 Written 18th November,  closures update 11th December:   A full list of school closures I know about below, latest in blue. 

Matt Dunkley, Corporate Director, Education and Young People's Services for Kent County Council, has managed to upset a wide range of Kent headteachers, with a comment as politically insensitive as Boris Johnson’s recent crass remark on Scottish devolution.

He has told headteachers in a lengthy and somewhat patronising letter to make sure they understand coronavirus guidelines so pupils and staff are not sent home "needlessly".  "While it remains the case that decision making on the running for your schools is for you to take with your governing bodies and Trusts, it is becoming clear that there are considerable differences in decision making at a locality level, and that does cause some problems at community level, and for some families. Quite simply, it is perceived that some schools are closing when other local schools facing similar or the same challenges are not."

It is an unfortunate coincidence that whilst part of his focus appeared aimed at Fulston Manor School, as reported in Kent Online, the school is in Swale which last evening was named as third most infected areas in England, and I am informed that other local schools may shortly follow suit in closing. I doubt this letter will discourage them. Other secondary schools which closed for fourteen days, but many of which will now have re-opened include: Dartford Science and Technology College; Greenacre; Howard, Hundred of Hoo, Rainham Girls, Robert Napier; Sandwich Technology School; St George's CofE Comprehensive, Gravesend; Sir Roger Manwood's School, Sandwich; and Strood Academy; along with Special Schools - Bower Grove, Maidstone; Meadowfield Special School; and Orchard, Canterbury; together with primary schools - Cobham Primary, Hampton Primary; Iwade Primary, Meopham Community Academy, Queenborough School, Sholden CofE Primary, Temple Hill Primary; Thistle Hill Academy; Kings School, Rochester (private). New closures: Gravesend Grammar, Herne Bay High.  The multiple Year Group closures are too many to list.

Whilst Mr Dunkley acknowledges in his letter the extreme pressure headteachers are being placed in, he appears not to have grasped the point that every school is facing different challenges. Whilst decisions will relate to the level of coronavirus in their area other key factors include the number of pupils infected or needing to be isolated, the number of teachers and support staff infected or required to stay away from school having been associated with other isolaters, the physical limitations of their premises, the varied advice descending from authorities including but not exclusively Public Health England, the Department for Education, and KCC or the Regional Schools Commissioner depending on whether the school is an academy or not. Even transport arrangements that have seen a number of issues because of multiple schools sharing the same buses can come into the mix.  

The recent article in the Kent Messenger places Mr Dunkley in head-on conflict with probably the most influential headteacher in the county, the highly respected Alan Brookes, who is chairman of the Kent Association of Headteachers and who has recently closed his school Fulston Manor because ‘There are now nearly 30 confirmed cases amongst staff and students and over 40 teachers unable to attend work either because of positive tests or because they have been contacted and required to self isolate’. Before he made the decision Mr Brookes 'sought advice at every juncture from the Department for Education, the Local Authority, the Regional Schools Commissioner and Public Health England, who confirmed on Sunday that a full closure was a justifiable decision'. I have no doubt that Mr Brookes will have explored every other avenue fully before being forced to make the closure decision, as with the other five secondary headteachers and those primary schools also forced to make such decisions. 

Mr Dunkley's intervention, which is now in the public domain,  fractures what I understood was a common approach by education leaders in Kent, with school leaders working tirelessly to overcome the problems thrown up by the pandemic, and so many teachers juggling between lessons for part classes in school and online education for the increasing number of children not able to attend.  Yes, teachers are an easy target and whipping boys of criticism by the media and government, as they do their best to keep schools open, but the Local Authority needs to be standing up for them, not producing such facile advice.

There is, however, one valuable pointed raised by Mr Dunkley, and that is the virtue of schools liaising with each other. One school closing without reference to its neighbours can set off a chain reaction with other schools being caught out, and there may be an argument for all acting in a coordinated way. Parents with children in different schools can perceive different policies being applied, and schools need to be ready to explain their own reasons for their decisions.  

Some excerpts from the letter, reproduced in full here.   
'Quite simply, it is perceived that some schools are closing when other local schools facing similar or the same challenges are not'. Who is it perceiving this that understands the issues?

'Can I ask you to ensure that you are clear on the requirements and what is meant by close contact so that individuals and bubbles are not sent home to isolate needlessly?' What on earth does KCC think headteachers have been doing if not having this at the forefront of their decision making, especially as the letter does confirm that all schools are working closely with Public Health England, the experts on the issues.  If I were a current headteacher, I would find this trite advice quite insulting. 

'In many cases a number of the parents in schools where a decision has been taken to move to remote learning are teachers and teaching assistants in other local schools, or work for the N.H.S or in another health or vital community role and the knock-on effect in that community is considerable'. Just in case schools haven't thought of this! 

'I am sure you will have gone through the many stages of decision making prior to taking a decision to move to full remote learning for your pupils and students – engaging supply, re-timetabling lessons and restructuring staffing, zooming lessons into classes managed by TAs and many other alternatives that you would not have believed possible in better times'. Just in case schools haven't thought of these!

Final Thoughts
I could go on, but instead share my own limited glimpse of the reality. I am in touch with a number of headteachers across the county and am amazed how many reply to my enquiries or pick up on a comment on a Sunday evening. I know that for many there was no summer holiday as they worked tirelessly to set up arrangements for September, only to be blown off course by infections and isolations amongst students and staff. There has been a growing shortage in good people coming forward to take up leadership positions in schools, and it is likely that many current heads will retire after this is over, leading to a crisis at the top. Yes, I have criticised some schools and the people running them on this website, but I take nothing away from any in my praise of their determination to work through this crisis in education.   
It is good to learn that more people are coming forward to become teachers at the present time, perhaps because of lack of other opportunities. One thing they will soon learn, however, is that this country has the most negative view of the teaching profession of any I know of in Europe. This needs to change for the sake of all our children, for whose education they are responsible. Teachers should be able to be proud to belong to their profession, as I once was, and remain proud my daughter is a teacher.  












Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2020 17:15


  • Comment Link Tuesday, 24 November 2020 15:38 posted by Secondary Head Three

    I can comment from experience being head of one of the schools that Peter has fried in the past. However, on this occasion, I have no complaint. Spot on, Peter, I can disagree with you but have come to know you tell it as it is, without fear or favour.

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 23:19 posted by Secondary Head Two

    Peter - fantastic piece regarding Dunkley!! I think you found the tone of all headteachers at present.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 November 2020 04:32 posted by Chair of Governors

    This is a wonderful tour de force Peter, I support everything you have written in this article, keep up your great work

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 22:45 posted by Leo Jones

    I am working my socks off in one school hit by the virus but my child’s school, no worse hit, has shut for two weeks. How am I meant to teach and childcare for two weeks? How was that school allowed to completely shut when most staff could still work? Why not a rota system instead? Makes no sense. PETER: I'm not sure anything makes sense. However, I am curious. Please send me confidentially the names of the two schools and I may be able to comment. I can't however see how two non-aligned rota systems in the two schools helps.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 20:31 posted by Andrew P

    I am told by a teacher friend that Strood Academy is about to close for 14 days. PETER thanks for that, Andrew. Can anyone directly connected with the school confirm this? PETER: Now confirmed and updated in article.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 20:28 posted by Secondary Head One

    Wow. Peter, you don't mince your words, but still manage to write what many of us think but can't afford to say.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 16:15 posted by PRimary Head Two

    Thank you

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 14:42 posted by Primary Headteacher

    I am a primary school headteacher who has spent the past few days agonising over whether I can keep my school open. Then I received Mr Dunkley's cautionary letter and blew my top. Has he any idea what stress we are under, balancing the conflicting issues coming at us from all directions, and knowing that whatever the decision we shall be blamed by someone. Thank you Peter for standing up for us. You also right in that when this is over many of my colleagues will be tempted to simply walk away. What a tragedy for the children of Kent.

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