Best laid plans

How many plans have been laid this week, only to be relaid?

Last Sunday, the Prime Minister announced that primary schools may welcome back Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils from as early as the 1st June. He also stated his ‘ambition’ that Year 10 and 12 students would get ‘some time with their teachers’ before the summer. The next day, five relevant pieces of government guidance were released. This guidance went further (some would say contradicted) Mr Johnson’s announcement the previous day by stating that secondary schools would commence ‘face-to-face support’ with students from the week beginning 1st June. The parental guidance went furthest, creating a strong impression that this is what secondary schools had been asked to do.

Can my child return to school?

From the week commencing 1 June, we are asking:

  • secondary schools, sixth form, and further education colleges to begin some face to face support with year 10 and 12 pupils, although we do not expect these pupils to return on a full-time basis at this stage

Within twenty-four hours, the message to secondary schools had shifted from an ambition that Year 10 and 12 may get some time with their teachers before the summer, to an assurance to parents that schools had been asked to provide face to face support from after half term. The message in other guidance documents is more nuanced; couched in cautious language with some assurances about only doing so if it is safe to open. But the public message was clear – prepare to extend your offer. This is your three week’s warning.

The wording is, of course, ambiguous. What is meant by ‘some face to face support’? The phrasing implies that secondary pupils will be returning on a part-time basis after half term. Why else would the author deem it necessary to emphasise that there is not an expectation for pupils to return full-time at this stage?

The detail in the guidance made the intention even less clear for secondary schools. Failing to distinguish clearly between what guidance was aimed at primary schools (clearly due to start teaching some year groups quite soon) and secondary schools (who were getting mixed messages about when and what they were expected to do) created an impression that secondary schools should start planning for whole classes to come back to school. From a secondary perspective, much of the advice given is unachievable and ridiculous. Take this for example:

Keep cohorts together where possible and:

  • ensure that children and young people are in the same small groups at all times each day, and different groups are not mixed during the day, or on subsequent days
  • ensure that the same teacher(s) and other staff are assigned to each group and, as far as possible, these stay the same during the day and on subsequent days, recognising for secondary and college settings there will be some subject specialist rotation of staff

Given the mixed messages about a return date for secondary schools, and a lack of clarity over what would be expected, this guidance creates a strong impression that secondary schools are expected to start planning grouping, timetabling and staffing. The second bullet point even specifically mentions secondary schools, acknowledging that it is not possible to follow the guidance. After all, how can you teach option subjects at GCSE and A Level courses without different groupings and staff moving between classes? Many secondary headteachers took to Twitter to express their incredulity at the confused and impractical advice being offered. One wondered whether anyone at the DfE had set foot in a secondary school recently.

Now, headteachers are a pretty compliant bunch. If we are told to prepare for more students coming back into schools, this is what we will do. There has therefore been a huge amount of effort expended by a lot of people this week to come up with creative ways of delivering what we think we are being asked to do.

On Wednesday, after three days of frantic activity, we find out what the government mean by ‘some face to face support’. In the Commons, following a direct question on what this phrase means, Gavin Williamson explained that this might mean a face to face meeting between a student and their teacher to inform what work should be set for the remainder of the term. ASCL’s Geoff Barton, on the same day, also suggested that this might be akin to some sort of academic tutoring day.

If this were the intent, why on earth not say that? Why not release guidance for secondary schools explaining how this might look, and what to consider in planning such an activity?

To make matters worse, on Thursday evening further guidance for primary schools was released which advised against ‘staff rotas’ for supervision of pupils, the basis of what any primary schools had spent the week planning. Again, fury and despair.

So many of us plan and re-plan; draft and redraft; think and think again. It is an enormous waste of time and energy, all of which is completely avoidable. I am tolerant of uncertainty, but not incompetence.

The effect of this ineptitude is that I am less likely to take government pronouncements at face value, less likely to read the guidance carefully, more likely to pause in the knowledge that I would be better off waiting for the clarification, corrections, u-turns and drip feed of information to abate before paying any attention. Like many of my colleagues, we’ll make our our own plans and avoid being sidetracked by an administration who know far less than we do about what is right for our schools. They might have done us a favour by reminding us that no-one really knows what the best way forward is. The next piece of guidance probably won’t make this any clearer.



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