ASCL general secretary Q&A on school closures

Following the announcements on school closures and the cancellation of this year’s exam series, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has written to members of the association

Why are schools and colleges across the UK closing?

In truth, this was always inevitable. Many commentators and media pundits have been clamouring for schools to close as they have done in, say, Italy and Ireland and France. But the UK government’s scientific advice was that children and young people are most resilient to the virus, and keeping them in school keeps them safe. However, that couldn’t last for too long once teachers and other staff began to have to self-isolate.

At our meeting with the education secretary this Monday, I told him of the messages I had received from heads and trust leaders who were dealing with 20 or more teaching staff who were having to stay at home. As one ASCL member said to me on Monday: “Today was the turning-point – 20% of staff off, and not a single supply teacher available across our city.”

Thus closure became inevitable.

So what are schools expected to do now?

I think we should view the coming weeks and months in three phases.

Phase 1:

First, we need to get ourselves to Easter. The idea here is to provide some semblance of education for two groups of pupils: the children of key workers and ‘vulnerable’ pupils. Both of these definitions are a bit fuzzy at the moment.

The government is updating its definition of key workers. These are people who – in these unprecedented times – are needed on the frontline. So, of course that means those working in the NHS, in care homes, in the police and fire service – and teachers. But it will also include people who are involved in retail delivery and those suddenly manufacturing equipment such as ventilators. I think we’ll get a tighter definition pretty soon, but I’d suggest that if you can you take as broad a view as possible of who your key worker parents may be – in order to try to help keep the country at least partially open.

‘Vulnerable’ children includes those with education, health and care plans, those on free school meals, those with special needs, and those who – frankly – you would worry about leaving in their homes for days and weeks on end. It’s going to vary from one school to another. It’s going to be somewhat messy to define who this cohort is. But this early stage is probably going to be your core team of pastoral staff/SENCO identifying the pupils who should stay in school next week, and then communicating with their parents.

Phase 2:

There is talk of trying to keep provision going for some young people over Easter. This is wholly uncharted territory, and all of us – not least those children – are going to need some respite, so let’s come back to this next week.

Phase 3:

Beyond Easter the idea will be to build a more joined-up form of provision, with collaboration across schools and colleges, strategically deploying teachers, teaching assistants and other staff with a programme of learning that we’ve had more time to plan. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. But my guess is that local headteacher groups, or their existing locality partnerships, will try to work together to create a sustainable service for children and young people.

There will be criticism from some, of course, that what we are doing here is merely babysitting other people’s children. All I would say, having heard some of the alarming details of the scale of the virus’s potential impact is that we have to do what’s necessary to allow key workers to work and to keep our most vulnerable children safe amid the social turbulence.

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What about children at home?

The BBC is going to help coordinate resources. You may already have been producing packs of resources, links to online materials, or other approaches to try to keep young people engaged in learning if they have online access at home. A group of edtech experts have begun to coordinate resources.

But these are early days. Most important, I would suggest, would be to try to establish a link with your parents and students – such as a twice-weekly email newsletter in which you explain what’s happening, suggest activities for pupils, build a sense that your school or college remains committed to helping children to remain engaged in learning. This is something we’ll come back to next week.

Why were all exams cancelled?

This was the bombshell in yesterday’s announcement, and it will have left many of you dealing today with students who are disappointed, angry, demob-happy, or even more anxious.

Once it became clear that the epicentre of the virus was in the middle of the exam season, the prospect of running a full suite of exams became unfeasible. The decision therefore was whether to run a partial season – say, just A-levels and perhaps English and maths GCSE. However, the problem with this is that we would end up with three groups of students – some who had sat all of their exams; some who had sat some; and some who were too sick to sit any. Trying to regulate fairness across such diverse groups would be impossible for the awarding bodies and regulator. So – unpalatable as it may seem – it’s actually easier to treat all young people the same by having none of them sit exams.

This means we have some time to demonstrate that we, as leaders and teachers, have amazing expertise in knowing our students, using various forms of assessment, practice papers, and other insights to make a moderated assessment for each Year 11 and Year 13 child.

We will need to demonstrate our professional strength as educators and assessors. And then we will need to proceed with a generosity of spirit, with students awarded grades based on these assessments, proceeding into sixth forms, colleges and universities without having done the usual battery of tests.

None of which, you might think, feels satisfactory. But then these are unprecedented times. We are in a national emergency when so much of what we saw, even last week, as normal has now faded away.

So what next?

You have a lot to think about. My proud predecessor Sir John Dunford taught me that leadership is 10% doing things and 90% explaining why you’ve done them. This is a time for maximum focus on communication – explaining to staff, pupils and your community of parents and governors (a) what’s happening now and (b) what may happen next.

You’ll be involved in planning provision for next week’s in-school cohort. You’ll be thinking about resources for those pupils who will be at home, probably for the next few months. You’ll be trying to make plans around which staff you may or may not have.

And you’ll have dozens of questions.

There’s an aim of setting up some kind of national task group to work through some of the details, to address questions, to target extra resources, to give you a sense that you are not working alone in these strange times.

So, as you think of those questions, email them to me and I will do all I can to get answers from people who know much more about all of this than I do.

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