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Wednesday, 16 December 2020 17:15

Coronavirus Jottings

23rd December: I tried to write an article speculating what would happen to schools in January, but have given it up as an impossible task. Happy Christmas and my sincere best wishes for 2021 to all who are responsible for delivering an education to Kent and Medway children.  

The BBC has an excellent description of the chaos that is following the latest government knee jerk reactions to the beginning of a surge in Coronavirus cases. This particular U-Turn totally wipes out any rationale for the threats this week of legal action against schools and Local Authorities for closing schools early, and the issuing of fines to parents for keeping their children at home either through fear or to do their best to keep coronavirus free for Christmas. I cannot imagine what school leaders are going through as they grapple with the consequences over the 'holiday' (18/12).   

 Mass testing updates below (17/12, 18/12).

By the time you read this, it will be out of date, as headteachers and Local Authorities grapple with a rapidly changing situation in wider society and their own schools. Large numbers of staff and pupils are often absent for periods sometimes repeatedly, either with covid itself or self-isolating. Decisions are made in the spotlight with parts of society, including government, very ready to blame schools for decisions at variance with their own ideas, and now controlling media.

The Secretary of State for Education, in spite of his failures during the year, seeks ever tighter control of schools and has introduced new coronavirus related legislation, including the Temporary Continuity Direction. This enables him to force schools to remain open, yet another potential breakdown in relationships and trust and has enabled him to require Greenwich Council to backtrack on its decision to advise all local schools to close for the last four days of term. Islington and Waltham Forest councils have also told schools to move to remote learning and have been sent warning letters from the Department for Education, with the TCD to follow if they do not comply.

Quite understandably the government is concerned about the effect of a fractured attendance pattern on children’s education and mental health, over the past nine months and into the indeterminate future. Unfortunately, it has forgotten three important lessons which should have been learned. Firstly that local situations are usually best delegated to local people, secondly that in a rapidly changing scene, rigid policies can be heavily wrongfooted, and thirdly that the Education Department has a track record of getting it wrong.

The latest attendance figures released by the Department of Education show a frightening decline in attendance figures for last week, with just 55% of secondary aged pupils in Kent and 53% in Medway attending school according to the BBC, with primary attendance around 75%. An increasing number of schools have been forced to close through lack of staff able to attend. Whilst a major part of the absence is likely to be a direct consequence of coronavirus, many families are frightened whilst others are sensibly withdrawing their children from school early to give them a chance of a Covid free Christmas, some of whom have then been threatened with fines for non-attendance. There is nothing like goodwill at Christmas!

All these issues are trumped by what is a sensible government decision to place the whole of Kent and Medway into Tier Three. The latest coronavirus figures show an alarming increase in those parts of the county which previously argued they should be exempt, with the county’s hospitals at the point of saturation.

Let me be clear. I don’t envy any decision-maker in this complex and dangerous time for our population and especially our children, with unpredictable consequences and developing situations quickly blowing decisions off course. Two new factors are the variant of coronavirus, especially prevalent in this part of the country, and early results from the mass testing of local secondary school pupils. These are already revealing a large number of children being tested positive, but who were previously undetected because they were asymptomatic. The consequences of this, combined with a relaxation of rules over Christmas, make any planning for January highly speculative. 

Schools have been given permission to close a day early before the last day of the term, which is on Friday for most Kent children. Contrary to some hostile media claims, this is not to give teachers an early holiday, but to ensure that any late cases identified in school can be followed up before Christmas Eve. Sadly too many commentators with no experience of the realities of the current challenges in schools, are quick to criticise those very teachers, such as the one I heard of today who, whilst teaching a partial class, was simultaneously running two distinct online sessions for absentees. Headteachers are carrying an immense and complex load, planning, revising plans following staff absence, coping with the mass of instructions coming down from government and the Local Authority too often on a daily basis, many having worked a seven day week for months, and some operating all this from home because of self-isolation or having contracted the disease themselves.   

Detailed Attendance Figures for 

 

Mass Testing of Secondary Pupils
You will find an upbeat governmentTeacher Bulletin explaining the principles of the new testing scheme for teachers here, including the comforting news that 'There is no expectation that school and college staff will need to work on this over the Christmas break. Existing staff meetings or inset days can be used for training as appropriate for each individual setting. However, there is no advice to school leaders on how all this is to be put in place without the extensive work necessary to set it up!
It is reported that several of the early mass testing schools, found a high proportion of older pupils testing positive earlier this week with whole year groups being sent home. They won't be the only schools making such discoveries. This underlines the fear that schools are major incubators of coronavirus across the county, which will be spread widely over Christmas, leading to a surge in January. 
Schools have been given a detailed 27 page handbook laying down the rules and procedures for mass testing in January, including the appointment of staff to carry out seven different roles for the scheme to work: quality lead/team leader, test assistant, processor, covid-19 coordinator, registration assistant, results recorder and a cleaner, although they may use existing staff with spare capacity (!) and combine several roles. The content is very detailed in the way that testing is to be conducted and contains a large number of links to other sources of information, advice and requirements. Woe betide anyone who gets it wrong. 

The website Schools Weekly has published a handy seven point guide for this process, which includes details of a government clampdown on release of information or comment to the media, surely another nail in the coffin of trust: schools are asked to let the Department for Health and Social Care mass testing communications team know if they would like to “invite media, distribute press releases or conduct photography and filming on-site for external communications purposes. They should also 'give a minimum of seven days’ notice for media communication about, including press notices or media visits'.

Summer Exams for Students Missing Education due to Covid 19
Many Kent schools unsurprisingly have major concerns about the new proposals for GCSE and A Level testing in the coming summer, given the Education Department’s inadequate arrangements earlier this year. They have lobbied the Kent County Council and as a result, Roger Gough, Leader, and Richard Long, Cabinet Member for Education, have written a powerful letter to the Secretary of State for Education, urging him to make changes to the current proposals. The concluding paragraph of the letter summarises the issues and is as follows:
We request your urgent attention to develop a more flexible range of solutions to exams which can be applied in different ways to different areas of the country, and which reflect and take account of the fact that some children in some areas have suffered significantly greater loss of learning opportunities than others . Without this there is a risk that some young people in areas of high infection and regular school closures will simply give up, not able to see how they have any hope of succeeding in the exams when they have missed so much, especially if they suffer further interruption to study in the spring season.
I have not always seen eye to eye with the current education leadership in the Council, but I strongly applaud this letter, speaking out as it does for some of the many Kent children whose future prospects have been severely damaged by Coronavirus. 
 

There is no doubt that this has been a dreadful year for the education, mental health and future prospects of so many children in Kent and Medway, especially the most disadvantaged, with the New Year boding even worse if the spread of coronavirus amongst young people is as fierce as some anticipate.

Nevertheless, it would be remiss of me if I did not thank on your behalf every teacher and headteacher for what have been superhuman efforts by so many to do the best they could for the children under their care this year. I wish them all and yourselves a very Happy Christmas and a good opportunity to recharge your batteries over the holiday period. 

 
 
 
Last modified on Wednesday, 23 December 2020 14:33

1 comment

  • Comment Link Thursday, 24 December 2020 13:11 posted by Gerry P.

    Peter, My very Best Wishes to you and yours for Christmas. I congratulate you and thank you on this and all your 'jottings' on Kentadvice. As a teacher, I know it is the best and only reliable source of what is really going on in education locally. I have happily made a donation towards your work. Keep it up for 2021. PETER: Gerry, thanks for this and for your donation. If others wish to support me, you can contribute via https://www.kentadvice.co.uk/what-i-offer/donations.html. At present, the site runs at a financial loss, but I consider the outcomes are worth the cost. And a very Happy Christmas to you, thanks for thinking of me.

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